The Sick Man of South Asia

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The city of Lahore was once the seat of an enviable Muslim civilization. Ravaged now by the twin poxes of Pakistan’s civic meltdown and a virulent, seemingly ineradicable Islamism, it was witness March 3 to the first terrorist attack on sportsmen—athletes—since the Munich Olympics in 1972.

The targets were a team of cricket players from Sri Lanka. They were in Pakistan to play a series of matches that had been hastily arranged after the Indian cricket team (which had been scheduled to tour the country) canceled its plans late last year in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. The Indian government (rightly and presciently) deemed a tour to Pakistan by its finest sportsmen to be too dangerous. The Sri Lankans, whose cricketing finances do not allow them to be overly choosy about travel—and whose own experience of Tamil terrorism has hardened them to risk—stepped into the breach. How they must regret doing so.

Although no cricket player died in the attack—carried out by the same breed of AK-47-wielding, backpack-toting young jihadists who marauded in November through Mumbai—six police officers in their bus convoy were killed. We mourn their deaths in the line of duty. Seven of the players and an assistant coach were injured, none severely. For that, we must give thanks to the divine forces that stand guard over cricket players. And give thanks, too, that those cricket players were not Indian, for an assault of this kind on Indian cricketers, so soon after Mumbai, would have reduced to rubble, if not something worse, relations between India and Pakistan.

What are we to make of this terrorist atrocity? First, that Pakistan has operating within its borders terrorist groups that are beyond the control of the Pakistani state and its instruments of law and order. As the invasion of Mumbai demonstrated only too well, those groups use Pakistan as a base for attacks on India. But as the attacks on the Sri Lankan sportsmen have just shown, those groups have no love, no respect for Pakistan or, put another way, no love for the idea of Pakistan as a Muslim democracy capable of cohabiting with a wider world.

Those groups seek not merely the destruction of India, the death of infidels (be they Hindus, Jews, or Christians), and the forcible departure from Afghanistan of Western troops but also the destruction of Pakistan and its reconstitution as an Islamist state. In that state the steel of sharia comes down hard on the necks of unbelievers, secular practice is anathema, women are subjugated to an extent even greater than their present unhappy state, and nuclear weapons are—finally, by the grace of god—in the hands of true believers.

The terrorists have no love, no respect for Pakistan—or, put another way, no love for the idea of Pakistan as a Muslim democracy capable of cohabiting with a wider world.

Mohsin Hamid, Pakistan’s finest novelist, recently wrote a book called The Reluctant Fundamentalist (nice phrase, that—catchy and poignant). But Pakistan today is a land where fundamentalism is not reluctant. The men who murdered in Mumbai, who sprayed innocent sportsmen with gunfire, who mowed down police cadets in Lahore in a similar brazen attack on March 30, are ardent fundamentalists. Blazing fundamentalists. Vehement fundamentalists; fundamentalists now beyond the reach of reason.

Pakistan still has a decent, humane core. Its civilization, as originally conceived by the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, still survives in the minds of enough men and women to give us some brittle, nerve-wracked heart. Pakistan, make no mistake, is at a tipping point. It stands, precarious, on the edge of infinite darkness.

It can still step back, and it must be helped to do so. If Pakistan goes down into darkness—if it becomes some grotesque version of Somaliawith- nukes—the world will face a challenge for which it is utterly unprepared.

There is no simple solution. (Only those who would destroy the country have simple solutions.) But we could start by seeking ways to bolster the forces of good in that country, the forces of civilization, the forces of civil society, of non-madrassa education, the forces that would—with our support—resist the onward march of Islamist barbarism.

If Pakistan goes down into darkness—if it becomes some grotesque version of Somalia-with-nukes—the world will face a challenge for which it is utterly unprepared.

We cannot ignore the ongoing collapse of Pakistan. The country isn’t only in India’s backyard, it’s in America’s too—and this is not the geography of a panicked imagination. It’s the geography, in truth, of survival.