In Review

Blanket condemnation

Published Mar 17, 2015 07:21pm

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Playing with Fire:Pakistan at War with Itself

Pamela Constable

Random House

New York, 2011

Price: 1,495 rupees

There is a view of Pakistan in which the country is on a relentless decline, with few systems in place to make life bearable for the vast majority of its citizens. And the daily news cycle delivers plenty of justification for this view, providing endless examples of human rights violations, rising poverty, the callousness and corruption of state institutions, and religious extremism that is taking lives and deepening schisms across the country.

It is a picture of regression, violence, and human misery, and it is the portrait Washington Post foreign correspondent Pamela Constable sets out to paint in Playing with Fire:Pakistan at War with Itself. In doing so she has spoken for the vast majority of Pakistanis for whom life in this country is a daily struggle. That is a valuable service to them but it has come at the cost of a lack of complexity and offers an almost superficial view of how Pakistan works.

Partly this is a function of the subject and structure of the book. Unlike other recent works on the country that have focused on al-Qaeda, the Taliban, the army or US-Pakistan relations, Constable’s tries to provide a broad overview of the current state of the nation. Militancy, terrorism, the military and America are included, but so are chapters on women, minorities, economic inequality and the justice system. The end result is Pakistan 101, and its most appropriate audience is the foreign layperson who is interested enough to want a basic primer on some of the major issues the country faces and a summary of significant recent developments.

That in itself is a useful objective but in this case it has come at the cost of a lack of analysis that can sometimes mislead even as it tries to inform. An example of this is a portion on Barelvi Sunnis, described as a moderate counterweight against the Deobandi and Wahhabi sects. Barelvi support for the murder of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer is portrayed almost as a one-off instance of extremist views but without the explanation that when it comes to perceived or real insults to the Prophet of Islam or the question of his finality, the Barelvi sect can be just as violent as Sunni sects normally associated with terrorism. In another instance a passage seems to conflate the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban in describing the state’s approach to them, not doing enough to draw distinctions between Pakistan’s various strategies for dealing with “these Islamist Pashtun fighters from both sides of the border”.

A more overarching simplicity lies, though, in the blanket criticism of various arms of the state. It is difficult not to compare Constable’s book to Pakistan: A Hard Country, another recently published Pakistan overview written by another foreign correspondent, Anatol Lievin. Like Playing with Fire, it tries to cover broad ground in painting a picture of life in Pakistan today. The risk Lievin is willing to take on, though, is to examine how the same forces that exploit and divide Pakistanis also keep this country together.

It is this paradox that makes Pakistan’s problems so difficult to grapple with: the systems and institutions of, for example, kinship and patronage, rural conservatism, military defence and even corruption that hold the average Pakistani (and especially women) back, are in some ways preventing the country from sliding into widespread extremism and its citizens from sliding into life-threatening poverty. Condemning the existing systems outright, as Playing with Fire does, may make for a passionate defence of the human rights of Pakistani citizens, but it does not do as much as it could to advance understanding about the major hurdles Pakistan faces in the way of progress.