One Myth, Many Pakistans

For many Pakistanis, the deaths of more than 80 members of the Ahmadi religious sect in mosque attacks two weeks ago raised questions of the nation’s future. For me, it recalled a command from my schoolboy past: “Write a Note on the Two-Nation Theory.”

It was a way of scoring easy points on the history exam, and of using new emotions and impressive-sounding words. I began my answer like this:

The Two-Nation Theory is the Theory that holds that the Hindus and Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent are Two Distinct and Separate Nations. It is a Theory that is supported by Numerous Facts and Figures. During the War of Independence of 1857 the Muslim rulers of India were defeated by the British. Suddenly the Hindus, who had always held a grudge against the Muslims for conquering them, began to collaborate with the new British rulers. They joined British schools, worked in British offices and began to make large amounts of money, while the Muslims, who were Discriminated Against, became poorer and poorer. It was now Undisputable that the Hindus and the Muslims were Two Distinct and Separate Nations, and it was becoming necessary for the Muslims to demand a Distinct and Separate Homeland for themselves in the Indian Subcontinent.

To that point, my “note” had only built up the atmosphere of mistrust and hostility between Hindus and Muslims. It had yet to give examples of the Distinctness and Separateness of the two communities (such as that Hindus worshipped the cow but Muslims ate it), of Hindu betrayals and conspiracies (they wanted Hindi, not Urdu, to be the national language). And it had still to name and praise the saddened Muslim clerics, reformers and poets who had first noted these “undisputable” differences.

I got points for every mini-note that I stretched into a full page, which was valid if it gave one important date and one important name, each highlighted for the benefit of the teacher. This was because the teacher couldn’t really read English, and could award points only to answers that carefully showcased their Facts and Figures.

After the exam I would go home. Here the Two-Nation Theory fell apart. I was part-Shiite (my mother’s family), part-Sunni (my father’s family) and part-nothing (neither of my parents was sectarian). There were other things: the dark-skinned man who swabbed the floors of the house was a Christian; the jovial, foul-mouthed, red-haired old woman who visited my grandmother every few months was rumored to be an Ahmadi. (It was a small group, I had been told, that considered itself Muslim but had been outlawed by the government.)

But even more than these visible religious variations, I was more aware of things like caste and money: my mother’s family was upper caste, claiming a magical blood bond with the Prophet Muhammad, and owned large tracts of land in the countryside. My father’s relatives, however, were undisguised converts from Hinduism who had fled their villages long ago and now lived in the city, where they were always running out of money, working in government offices and selling homemade furniture and gambling (and losing) on the stock market.

The Two-Nation Theory allowed only for the simple categories of Hindu and Muslim, one for India and the other for Pakistan; it had no room for inner complications like Shiite and Sunni and Christian and Ahmadi. (I had yet to learn that more than a million Hindus still lived in Pakistan.) It also required the abolition of magical blood claims and landholdings and stock markets, so that our personalities and situations could be determined purely by our religious beliefs.

But I knew that things weren’t really like that. And this was something I knew from the beginning, and lived with quite comfortably: the history in my textbook was Distinct and Separate from the histories of real people.

Some years later, in a secluded college library in Massachusetts, I read a very different account of the Two-Nation Theory. Here I learned that it was devised in the 1930s by a group of desperate Muslim politicians who wanted to extract some constitutional concessions from the British before they left India.

The Muslims of India, these politicians were saying in their political way, were a “distinct group” with their own “history and culture.” But really, the book told me, all they wanted was special protection for the poor Muslim minorities in soon-to-be-independent, mostly Hindu India.

But the politicians’ gamble failed; they were taken up on their bluff and were given a separate country, abruptly and violently cut-up, two far-apart chunks of Muslim-majority areas (but what about the poor Muslim minorities that were still stuck in Hindu-majority areas!) that its founders (but it was a mistake!) now had to justify with the subtleties of their theory.

It was like a punishment.

One by one, the founders died — the most important, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, just a year after Pakistan’s birth. Their theory could have died with them. What was the use now of the idea of Muslim specialness — the distinctiveness and separateness of Indian Muslims — in an independent, Muslim-majority country?

But the idea was kept alive and made useful: first by a set of unelected bureaucrats, then by generals, then by landowners, and then by generals again. And, always, to blackmail the people (still indistinct and unspecial). An Islamic dance was danced: sovereignty rested with “Allah alone”; the country would be called an Islamic republic; alcohol and gambling were banned; the Ahmadi sect was outlawed (to please the fringe mullahs) for violating, with their beliefs and practices, Muhammad’s position in “the principle of the finality of [Muhammad’s] prophethood.”

It peaked with the government takeover in 1977 by Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who announced that his great wish in life was to “Islamize” the people of Pakistan. The Two-Nation Theory, confined so far to political slogans and clauses in the Constitution, now went everywhere: it was injected into textbook passages (the ones I would reproduce, with new words and emotions, in my exam) and radio shows and programs on the one state-run TV channel. And it branched out, becoming anti-Communist (to attract American money), anti-Shiite (to attract Arab money, given for cutting Iran’s influence in the continent), anti-woman (to please the mullahs) and still more anti-Ahmadi (to enhance the pleasure and power of the mullahs).

The Two-Nation Theory was dynamic, useful, lucrative.

And it still is lucrative. Its best rewards are nowadays found in the high ratings (and correspondingly high advertising revenue) of Pakistan’s newly independent TV channels. Dozens of them are competing to sell the fastest-burning conspiracy theories (India and Israel and America are behind the latest suicide bombings) and the most punishing religious advice (don’t wear nail polish, don’t celebrate birthdays, kill blasphemers wherever you find them), that a semi-urban, semi-Islamized population, raised on years of government textbooks and radio shows and TV sermons (themselves confirmed and elucidated by the sermons of mullahs in neighborhood mosques) finds hard to shut out.

So the coordinated gun and bomb attacks during services at two Ahmadi mosques here on May 28 surprised no one. Some were saddened. But most took it as a matter of course. On the TV channels news of the assaults was reported and displayed (all those eyeballs, all those ads) but not explained. And in Lahore’s Main Market, near rickshaw stands and fruit stalls — the rickshaw drivers and fruit sellers standing in the heat outside the window display of an electronics shop, watching the muted carnage on an imported flat-screen TV — the incident was mulled over and attributed in the end to the larger madness that was overtaking the country.

IT was, they agreed, in some ways like the burning last year of a Christian village outside Lahore, and in other ways like the sporadic killings of Shiites in the years before that. But they also likened it to the televised killings of armed clerics in Islamabad’s Red Mosque — carried out three years ago by the military itself — and the unadmitted, unexplained attacks by American drones still falling on the people in the western mountains.

In the drawing rooms of Lahore, among the children of bureaucrats, landlords and military men (amazingly practical and un-Islamic in their drawing rooms), it was said that the Ahmadi attacks, though tragic, were not a sign of doom. After all, the Punjabi Taliban, who had claimed responsibility, were just another network — easily disrupted (when the time came) by a combination of on-the-ground raids and abductions, long and unexplained detentions, and perhaps strikes on mountainside training centers by the Predator drones that we don’t admit to knowing anything about.

That was their idea of the war on terrorism: the physical removal of a nuisance, something rare and extreme and isolatable.

A few days later, I read in the newspaper that the police had made an arrest in the Ahmadi attacks. The suspect’s name was Abdullah and he was 17 years old. When asked for his motives, he said that he had learned that Ahmadis were drawing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, “so their bloodshed was a great service to Islam.”

It was a simple enough statement. But I wondered about his ideas. Had he taken them from the Constitution? Or was he inspired by the court order days earlier banning Facebook for holding a contest of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad?

Did he hear it in a mosque, or see it on a TV screen in the window display of an electronics shop? Did he read about blasphemy and its punishments in a textbook? Or was he one of those boys (Twenty million? Thirty million?) who don’t go to school and can’t read textbooks?

Was he taught about the Ahmadis in the mountains of Waziristan, where the police say he trained for his mission? Did he witness an American drone attack there? Did he think it was carried out by Ahmadis? Was it confirmed for him by a popular talk show host that the Ahmadis were America’s agents in Pakistan? And, in Waziristan, was he trained by the good Taliban, the ones the Pakistani military is trying to protect, or the bad Taliban, the ones it is trying to kill?

Or was he told about the Ahmadis after he had come all the way to the vast, grassy compound on the outskirts of Lahore where doctors and professors and businessmen — and even, it is said, some bureaucrats and landowners and military men — converge now and then to hang out with the masses and talk about the ways and woes of Islam?

Several theories now, with several competing culprits. It’s hard to pick just one.

Ali Sethi, the author of the novel The Wish Maker.