Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination

Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination


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ISBN-13: 9781935982210
Publisher: Just World Books
Publication date: 09/06/2011
Pages: 281
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Manan Ahmed is a prominent Pakistani-American historian of South Asia. He is currently an assistant professor of history at Columbia University where he teaches courses on South Asia. Ahmed has been blogging at Chapati Mystery since 2004. His essays have appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, The National (UAE), and many online media sites.

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Where the Wild Frontiers Are

Pakistan and the American imagination

By Manan Ahmed, Daisy Rockwell

Just World Publishing, LLC

Copyright © 2011 Manan Ahmed
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-935982-13-5


Terra In/cognito

The first post on Chapati Mystery (CM), of course, is the point of entry, but the purpose of this chapter is to begin with a sample of the main concerns of the blog: commentaries on U.S. foreign policy, critiques of the narratives prevalent in mainstream media, and attempts to offer historical context for political happenings. The happenings inside the social, cultural, and political landscapes of the United States and South Asia remain the focus, and the entries in this chapter lay out that terrain. "God's Rule" and "Lawless in Pakistan" reveal the twin impulses behind CM, whereas "Objects in the Mirror" is a more reflective piece on my own stance and agency. "Strangers in the Night" is a summary of a talk I gave at a forum held at the University of Chicago in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks.

* * *

Basmati Rice1

April 8, 2004

I had no idea Pakistan was important before September 11, 2001.

Listen to Condoleezza Rice's testimony before the Senate: "America's al-Qaida policy wasn't working because our Afghanistan policy wasn't working, and our Afghanistan policy wasn't working because our Pakistan policy wasn't working."

In fact, Pakistan was mentioned 27 times by Rice, while Iraq only got 26 shout-outs. So there. The World Trade Center in '93, the Kenya embassy bombings, the Cole attack in the Persian Gulf, and the Khartoum fiasco did not result in a comprehensive al-Qaida strategy. America had shoved Pakistan under the rug since 1989.


I am becoming a big fan of the various domino scenarios the administration brings out. Pakistan/Afghanistan/Taliban or Iraq/Syria/Iran/RestOfTheMiddleEast. States capitulate and change course, because the comprehensive game plan of the administration leaves them no recourse. Since when does Iraq invite Syria and Iran for democracy sleepovers?

More later.

Oh, and welcome to Chapati Mystery.

* * *

God's Rule2

July 26, 2004

There is a line uttered by a Texan candidate in the 2002 primary filmed in the PBS documentary Last Man Standing: Politics — Texas Style. Here is what the documentary shows him saying:

Our God is not their God. First of all, the God of the Bible is a God of love and redemption, who sent His Son into the world to die for our sins. Allah tells people to die for him in order to get salvation. That is not our God.

The quote was summarized from Pat Robertson's rumination on Allah on CBN 700. As I watched him say it, I was reminded that, George W. Bush's rhetoric notwithstanding, the idea that the war on terror is a war between gods has taken root in the minds of most red-state Americans. I am not talking anything as sophisticated (ha!) as Sam Huntington's Clash of Civilizations but a simple dichotomous understanding of Us v. Them, where Us = Jesus, and Them = Allah.

My own rumination was sparked by Moacir's post on watching CNN's presentation on Flight 93 from The 9/11 Commission Report:

Popularly, terrorism is connected (still) to the belief of Islam and the cultural identity/position of Arab/Middle-Easterner. In this case, the war on terror is no longer a posthistoricist war against a tactic (as conflict no longer exists). It is, instead, a cover for a good, old-fashioned kind of war against states (that have Arabs/Middle-Easterners) and based on beliefs (Islam, or, in the case of Iraq, a sort of perverted socialism).

The conservative argument, paraphrased by Dennis Miller nightly, is that we know these people attacked us. Why can't we call a spade a spade? They exclaim Allah-o Akbar and wage Jihad on us. Yet we are insisting on waging a secular, statist war on them. It makes no sense.

Is he right? Conventional wisdom (CW) is starting to tilt that way. And, in my opinion, nothing will shape CW on this topic more than The 9/11 Commission Report. Every pundit/politico is reading that to get the lowdown. Let us start there. In the "Why They Hate Us" section (written by B. Lewis, I am sure, because no one else is reading H. Pirenne anymore), they explain thusly the Islamic conception of "state":

Islam is both a faith and a code of conduct for all aspects of life. For many Muslims, a good government would be one guided by the moral principles of their faith. This does not necessarily translate into a desire for clerical rule and the abolition of a secular state. It does mean that some Muslims tend to be uncomfortable with distinctions between religion and state, though Muslim rulers throughout history have readily separated the two.

To extremists, however, such divisions, as well as the existence of parliaments and legislation, only prove these rulers to be false Muslims usurping God's authority over all aspects of life. Periodically, the Islamic world has seen surges of what, for want of a better term, is often labeled "fundamentalism."

Denouncing waywardness among the faithful, some clerics have appealed for a return to observance of the literal teachings of the Qur'an and Hadith. One scholar from the fourteenth century from whom Bin Ladin selectively quotes, Ibn Taimiyyah, condemned both corrupt rulers and the clerics who failed to criticize them. He urged Muslims to read the Qur'an and the Hadith for themselves, not to depend solely on learned interpreters like himself but to hold one another to account for the quality of their observance.

The extreme Islamist version of history blames the decline from Islam's golden age on the rulers and people who turned away from the true path of their religion, thereby leaving Islam vulnerable to encroaching foreign powers eager to steal their land, wealth, and even their souls.

Muslims have no separation of Minbar and Throne. And parliaments/legislations somehow piss God off. Even this deeply informed panel cannot distinguish between Muslims or get a clear-headed picture of Islamic past. The reason is simple: Their job is to explain 9/11. Fourteen centuries of Islamic history have slowly and steadily built up to that exclamation point. The debates on Statehood, Role of Community, Pious Leadership, and Rights of Minorities that were fostered and cultivated over hundreds of years have only one question to answer: Why did 9/11 happen? And when you look at it this way, then all roads will indeed lead to Rome.

The intellectual origin of al-Qaida (Ibn Taymiyya and Sayyid Qutb) reflects a basic theme of the failure of an Islamic state and the intervention of a colonial empire. Yet the report avoids going into any of that. They hate us because the liberal-democratic state is un-Islamic. Can't get any more Clash of Civ than that, can you? Instead of being a war among states, this is a war on the conception of the state itself.

The blanket language of authority and knowing pervades the report. All Muslims have one idea — that the state should be God's Rule. There is still no way to avoid the Jesus vs. Allah scenario. Perhaps B. Lewis should have briefed the panel that such an Islamic state never existed. That there was no Golden Age. That rule and religion have been separate throughout the political history of Islam in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. That all ancient and premodern kings and sultans proclaimed divine guidance — whether in Christian Europe, heathen Asia, or Kafir Africa. That Kingship and Godhead cannot part company. Our own president talks to God, for God's sake. That Muslims have sought legitimacy of rule in just as many diverse sources as Christians: mystics, custom, geography, and text. There is no recognition of that knowledge — or even how that complicates the debate on authority in Islam. Tragedy, they suppose, demands a straightforward answer from Islam. Yet no one simply asks what the conception of a Christian state had to do with the Jewish Holocaust caused by Catholic or Lutheran Germans.

* * *

Lawless in Pakistan

March 21, 2007

The headlines everywhere in the United States are filled with the scandal of district attorneys fired for political reasons. The White House, the Justice Department, Congress, and pundits are immersed in pondering the consequences of such gross politicization of the law. Gone unnoticed, outside of a few reports, is another crisis involving the executive and the judicial branches that is tearing a nation apart. This one, though, has consequences far graver than Karl Rove's testimony before some committee. Two weeks ago, General Pervez Musharraf suspended the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, on vague corruption charges. Since then, daily riots and protests have broken out in major cities; the government has tried to shut down TV stations that reported on these riots; the police have repeatedly assaulted the lawyers who are leading the process. Musharraf claims that this is much ado about nothing. But this crisis could bring down the government of General Musharraf of Pakistan.

I said government, but, of course, a more honest description of the state in Pakistan would be praetorianism, authoritarianism, or dictatorship. And no, I will not be crying if it does fall apart. The truth is, though, that with the support of freedom growers like Condi Rice and the White House, Musharraf is secure in doing what he can to stay in power. If that means turning Pakistan into a police state (if a sustainable argument can even be made that it is not already one) and imprisoning or vanishing his opponents, then he will do it. This is a pivotal year for him — 2007. He has promised elections. He has promised to return democracy. He has promised to run in elections. But, like his earlier promises of shedding the military uniform or stepping down, he would have found a way — with the support of the White House — to keep himself in power as a military and civil commander while allowing some rudimentary nods toward electoral politics. How would he have managed that? The same way that every single military regime in Pakistan has done it since 1958: with the support of an "independent judiciary," which would legitimize his actions as mere counterbalances to a "corrupt or runaway" legislature.

From Mohammad Ayub Khan to Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq to Musharraf, Pakistan's warrior-kings have made one fundamental claim to the public: that their particular act of suspension of democracy in Pakistan was ultimately constitutional and, hence, for the benefit of the nation. And they have had the support of the Supreme Court in making this claim — a support that gave them the necessary legitimacy to stay in power. To understand the current crisis in Pakistan — and to recognize the ultimate blunder of Musharraf — we have to look at the history and role of the Constitution in Pakistan, the historical involvement of the judiciary in the dismissal of democratic institutions, and the tensions between the three centers of power in Pakistani society that undergird this whole enterprise. Feel up to it?

It is all about the mythic Constitution.

It took nine years after independence, in 1956, for the Constitutional Assembly to come up with the first Constitution of Pakistan. That remarkable document survived a mere two years, as General Ayub Khan installed martial law in 1958. Another Constitution was drafted in 1962, suspended in 1969, and abrogated in 1972. Finally, the Constitution drafted in 1973 has held up to this day, albeit with this checkered past, summarized aptly by the CIA Factbook: suspended July 5, 1977; restored with amendments December 30, 1985; suspended October 15, 1999; restored in stages in 2002; amended December 31, 2003. It was Zia-ul-Haq who issued a dozen or so presidential ordinances, which were grafted as amendments to the Constitution in 1985. Among other things, they cemented the power of the executive to dismantle the legislative branch within the Constitution. Ask Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif about that.

It may appear counterintuitive from the teleology I give above, but the Constitution became an almost totemic document in the Pakistani political psyche. It may be that the very public and near-constant assaults increased its importance as a political document. Or, I can conjecture that it was one of the sole documents that sought to "define" Pakistan as a postindependent reality as opposed to a "once-future" promise of 1940. (Is it an Islamic state? a democratic republic? whose laws for whom? were all questions that had to be answered in that document. Of course they remain questions, still.) The keepers of this tattered almost-narrative — the Supreme Court of Pakistan — have built their own prestige on the back of this document by honing a unique relationship to Pakistan's self-identification.

The first blow was struck in 1954, when Governor General Ghulam Muhammad dissolved the Constituent Assembly. Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan, the president of the assembly, appealed to the Supreme Court, asking it rule on the legitimacy of such an action — was the legislative branch a legitimate member of the government? Chief Justice (CJ) Muhammad Munir sided with the executive and declared that the legislative served only at the pleasure of the executive, because Pakistan was a dominion state and the British Raj still applied. Four years later, in October 1958, President Iskander Mirza killed off the 1956 Constitution and declared martial law with General Ayub Khan as the martial law administrator. The case State vs. Dosso came before CJ Munir again. Using Hans Kelsen's Grundnorm thesis, the Supreme Court upheld the coup. The very next day, General Ayub Khan exiled the president, and the template was fixed for futures to come.

In 1977, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld martial law under General Zia-ul-Haq. In 1981, he instituted the Provisional Constitutional Order and asked all justices to retake their oaths. Those who refused were fired or retired. This was to ensure future accommodation of any wishes of the chief military officer of the country. The Supreme Court, for example, rejected all challenges and upheld the 1988 dissolution of the National Assembly by General Zia. In 2000, Musharraf stuck to the playbook by sacking any judge who refused to take his oath to his regime.

The basis of this symbiotic relationship between the general and the court lies in the structure of power and influence in Pakistani society. The tiers in this pyramid are the military, which is the largest employer, the largest landholder, and has the longest duration in power; the civil bureaucracy, which traces back to the Raj, though much weakened during Musharraf's tenure; and the largely land-based elite. Functioning between these tiers are functional classes, like the lawyers who have parlayed their unique access to military, civil, and landed elite into their necessary role as brokers. The court is apex of such brokerage. It has relied especially on the hagiography of the Constitution to bolster its power. The generals, eager to have any official stamps on their chests, have in turn portrayed the court as the last bastion of truly apolitical and patriotic actors in Pakistan — meaning that when scandal does erupt around the court, it has far greater reverberations.

To return to CJ Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and Pervez Musharraf's blunder. A letter was circulated via emails and blogs that accused the CJ of corruption, cronyism, and abuse of public trust. There was nothing terribly unique in any of the assertions. In fact, upon first reading it, I was convinced that it was a satirical piece, because it perfectly described the behavior of every person of power in Pakistan. Surprisingly, the state seized this letter and filed a complaint against the CJ and, before any investigation was launched, removed him from office. The state, in fact, agreed that the CJ of Pakistan was corrupt and abused the public trust.

I can assume that CJ Chaudhry could not be fully trusted to toe the line in this crucial year and had to go in any case — the letter providing a handy excuse. The problem is that after years of building the judiciary as the last bastion of honesty, the state pulled the rug out under its own feet. It undermined its own claims and attacked the public trust in the Supreme Court. The reaction was swift and massive — with public protests and demonstrations and speeches. The state still could have contained the damage; instead it made all the wrong moves in the initial stages of the scandal. It made unsubstantiated charges, changed its own story, and attacked the press and the lawyers. In a very short period of time, it managed to delegitimize itself in the eyes of the public, create a sharp division with the judiciary and alienate, perhaps irrevocably, itself from the section of the population that has helped it maintain law and order — the brokering legal community.

This is perhaps the endgame for the general. However he survives this, he cannot rely on the legitimating authority of the Supreme Court. The street unrest will trigger other interests out as well — the Islamist parties, the dormant political opposition, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), and, maybe, attention from the Democratic Congress of United States.

While in the United States, Alberto Gonzales wrote memos justifying torture and suspension of the Geneva Convention and habeas corpus and ... nothing, there were no consequences. But when he fired eight lawyers, all voices proclaimed that he should be ex–attorney general in about 3 days. The general in Pakistan should have known: Do whatever, but don't fuck with the lawyers.


Excerpted from Where the Wild Frontiers Are by Manan Ahmed, Daisy Rockwell. Copyright © 2011 Manan Ahmed. Excerpted by permission of Just World Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword, by Amitava Kumar,
1 Terra In/cognito,
2 Observe,
3 Resist,
4 Debate,
5 Support,
6 Deny,
7 Ignore,
8 Friend,
9 Wrong,
10 Closers,

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