A fresh take on patriotism

Dr Johnson’s definition of patriotism – “the last refuge of a scoundrel”—although worked to death by being cited so often, has not lost the power to amuse.



By Ayaz Amir (Pakistan)

Published: Sat 28 Aug 2010, 10:32 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 8:41 AM

Read out the words and they still make you laugh. And it is this definition, which comes irresistibly to mind when the MQM fuehrer (the description is apt), Altaf Hussain calls upon patriotic generals to save the nation and strike a blow against feudalism.

The trouble with this formulation is that the army when it moves does so as a pack, as a unified whole. There is no distinction between patriotic and less-than-patriotic generals. They are all on the same page, obedient to a single script. The distinction thus becomes irrelevant. Stripped off obfuscation, what the MQM leader is asking for is army intervention to topple the present system.

Among the chattering classes—mercifully, irrelevant politically – there have been voices calling for regime change. But the drumbeat sounded by Altaf Hussain is the loudest and most unambiguous clarions call for Pakistan’s fifth military coup. MQM spokesmen, masters of the shrill and loud word and who have little to learn from Goebbels, are bending over backwards trying to explain what Altaf meant. But the meaning is clear. Wading in where others would have feared to enter, he has raised the first welcoming flag for the army to march into the political arena, all in the name of patriotism.

Altaf is a master of impeccable political timing. Most of his formulations are well calculated. So a question arises regarding the purpose behind this bold invitation to Gen Ashfaq Kayani to step into the ring and take charge of matters? Has the MQM arrived at the conclusion that the Zardari party is over and its interests would be best served by correctly foretelling the future and aligning itself with what is coming?

Even if there is some truth to this assumption the army command would have to be out of its mind to fall for this ploy and heed the MQM’s call. It takes little genius to figure out what the army distrusts the most. India, Zardari and the MQM top its list of suspicions, friend Hussain Haqqani and friend Rehman Malik coming a distant (very distant) fourth and fifth.

True, Gen Ziaul Haq godfathered the MQM (as he did so many other chickens coming home to roost). But that was for the limited aim of containing or counter-balancing the Benazir Bhutto-led PPP in Sindh. Altaf Hussain is his own man and it would be grossly unfair to deny his leadership qualities. He has galvanised or, to use the currently fashionable word, empowered his community, making it the dominant force in Karachi and Hyderabad. His astute power play has also turned the MQM into a powerful force in federal politics.

But it is equally true that the MQM has never been able to dispel the impression that the army and its ubiquitous intelligence agencies had a major hand in its birth and formation. Like most laboratory Frankensteins, however, it outgrew its makers, its growing power in Karachi setting it on a collision course with the army. But after October 1999 it was lucky in having a protector in Pakistan’s new strongman, later the country’s most outstanding contribution to the art of tin pot production, Gen Pervez Musharraf.

When Musharraf was a senior staff officer in General Headquarters, the then army chief, Gen Waheed Kakar, used to call him ‘my MQM general’, because of his perceived sympathies in that direction. Musharraf lived up to this description when soon after his coup he cracked down on Altaf’s nemesis, Afaq Ahmed and his MQM-Haqiqi, and virtually handed over the keys of Karachi to Altaf Hussain.

Altaf repaid the favour by becoming Musharraf’s staunchest ally. For Musharraf’s principal adviser, Tariq Aziz, MQM headquarters in London used to be a regular port of call. May 12, 2007, when the MQM, at Musharraf’s behest paralysed Karachi, setting off an upsurge of violence, which left scores killed and injured, just to prevent Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry from touring the city, was a telling sign of the nexus between Musharraf and the MQM.

But when Musharraf’s time was up the MQM quickly adjusted its sights and positioned itself for the new turn of events. Becoming a coalition partner of the PPP’s, it not only held on to its position as a key player in Sindh and at the centre but pushed constantly to acquire more advantage and expand its sphere of influence, in the process giving an entirely new meaning to the concept of extracting one’s pound of flesh. Shylock could have learned a thing or two from this virtuosity.

The MQM’s outrage or rather bombast against feudalism is also a bit surprising. Feudalism is alive in interior Sindh and southern Punjab. It is a waning if not an extinct force in the rest of Punjab and most of Pakhtoonkhwa. But in Karachi and Hyderabad a new kind of feudalism has taken root, with the MQM protecting its turf and preserving its influence in a ruthless manner now lost to the dying force of feudalism elsewhere in the country.

Even as the country is drowning in the worst floods in Pakistan’s history, target killings continue in Karachi, their victims mostly the poor and the worst off along the social scale. Once called the City of Lights—how distant that time seems—Karachi now is transfixed by the evil eye, organised and systematic violence at the service of politics, violence an integral part of the city’s increasingly disordered skyline. Traditional feudalism, a curse in every other sense, was positively benign compared to this new feudalism empowered or rather entrenched in Pakistan’s southern reaches.

To get a measure of this feudalism’s reach, and the aura it commands, we can look at another indicator. The media is free in all of Pakistan. It is less than free, its freedom tempered, in the afore-mentioned southern reaches.

This was always an inadequate government and its weaknesses stand further exposed in the present crisis. But to extend an invitation to the army to step in and take over is an exercise in cynicism unrivalled in our recent history. It amounts to playing politics with the consequences of the floodwaters spreading destruction across Pakistan.Even the best masters of political timing can sometimes miscalculate and get things seriously wrong.

Ayaz Amir is a distinguished Pakistani commentator and Member of National Assembly (parliament). For comments, write to opinion@khaleejtimes.com


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