Disembarking at Karachi airport in early August, one got a clear reminder of the changes wrought on Pakistan during the last twenty years. Pakistan was a 'normal' part of the international community during the last century. In fact, under the Cold War era's Reagan Doctrine (which called for the United States to support Islamic fundamentalist ideologies and Taliban style religious warriors with large amounts of cash) Pakistan was a veritable hero of the Free World. Pakistan's role as a 'front line state' in the war against communism gave the country prestige which has long since disappeared.
Today, most international flights from Karachi airport service the Gulf countries. Pakistan may have several airlines – versus just the one in the 1980s – but the list of international destinations directly served from Pakistan has fallen dramatically. Most of the world can be accessed only via connecting flights at airports like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, a phenomenon which fairly represents Pakistan's steady isolation from the capitalist democracies of Western Europe and the America's.
|The reconstruction of the Swat Valley benefits tremendously from the generosity of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE flag is a frequent sight in the Swat Valley|
Instead, Pakistan's fate has been inexorably tied to the Arab world and, to a large measure, with 'Arab' Islam.
Pakistanis are not Arab but their extensive interaction with the Gulf Arab states, especially the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has rendered that distinction less meaningful since Prime Minister ZA Bhutto actively cultivated relations with the Islamic world from the 1970s as a matter of state policy. Economically, the footprint of the Gulf Arab states in Pakistan is visible in virtually every sector of the domestic economy, from telecommunications, banking, energy, and even to hotels.
Linkages with India in the East, which fed Hindu and other polytheist philosophies, have eroded due to the onslaught of Wahabi Islam nurtured by Arab petrodollars. This 'non-Islamic, Indian' aspect of Pakistan's heritage acted as a natural 'moderator' to the more austere elements of Sunni Islam.
Nevertheless, just as India cannot legislate away centuries of practicing the caste system, neither can Pakistan's 'Indus People' shed their pre-Islamic customs so easily. The magnetism of 'ambidextrous' Sufi saints, i.e. venerated by Hindus and Muslims, remains strong. Almost every district has a story associated with a local 'Holy Man.' Often times these Holy Men may have been Hindus but given their saintly virtues, Muslims conveniently overlooked that fact as they flocked to the Pirs for protection and blessings.
|Oil burning vessels at the grave of a Sufi Pir in Islamabad. The practice of burning oil lanterns at Sufi shrines is reminiscent of Hindu rituals, particularly at a festival like Diwali|
For the Indus People, perhaps the pendulum is shifting away from its Western, Arab Islamic neighbours towards the Indian East again? Relations between Pakistan and India took a huge leap forward in November 2011 with the granting of Most Favoured Nation status to India by Pakistan. Subsequently, much of Lahore's business community is busy preparing for partnerships with an economically empowered India. Additionally, as NATO winds down its operations in Afghanistan, many logistics operators are getting ready for an active Pakistani role in facilitating India – Afghanistan trade by using Pakistan's road and rail links.
Like many post-colonial national constructs, Pakistan still searches for its identity. Undoubtedly, most Pakistanis associate Islam as a central part of Pakistan's national identity. However, Pakistan's history began a few millennia before Islam with the Indus Valley Civilization (e.g. Moenjodaro), not with the eighth century invasion of Sindh by Mohammad Bin Qasim. Unfortunately, the process of blending Pakistan's historical, cultural and religious characteristics into a seamless identity is proving anything but easy.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at email@example.com.