October issue 2010
Waiting for Ayatollah Godot
Even in the intensely divided and zero-tolerance society of Pakistan, we do have a consensus on something. If you ask a man in the street what the cure to Pakistan’s problems is, the invariable answer is: a messiah. We need a Pakistani Ayatollah Khomeini who can rid us of the immoral, the corrupt, the inept and the unpatriotic leaders who have destroyed this country. In the past 20 years, I have visited and lived in a number of countries where I have encountered Pakistani expatriates. They too have the same solution to Pakistan’s problems.
A popular formulation — and possibly based on hype — is this: After taking over in Iran 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini would start his day by having hundreds of corrupt Iranians killed. He would repeat the activity before lunch, and before he went to bed, he would have a few hundred more shot by firing squads.
The level of violence in Pakistan created by a paranoid and vengeful discourse in the media and national curricula have convinced the people that it is only through a reign of terror that Pakistan’s Augean stables can be cleansed. Hence, if this ‘Pakistani Ayatollah’ fills our dams, drains, and dreams with blood, so be it.
Who qualifies to be Pakistan’s Ayatollah Khomeini? Would a Sindhi Khomeini be acceptable? Or a Baloch, Pathan, or Mohajir? Would the rest of the smaller provinces accept a Punjabi Khomeini? Will a Shia Khomeini be acceptable to Pakistan’s Sunni Ummah? How about a Barelvi or an Aga Khani? Since the disposal of the bad guys is the goal, would a non-Muslim Ayatollah be acceptable?
We have seen the products of the army — self-proclaimed saviours from General Zia, the deenwalah (divine), to General Musharraf, the duniawalah (worldly). Even if popular in some quarters to begin with, they soon proved bogus. Given its business interests and power politics, the army as an institution of the status quo cannot produce an Ayatollah. Civil society has so far thrown up nobody remotely having Ayatollah-like potential. After Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto were assassinated no civilian seems to be able to muster the courage to challenge Pakistan’s holy cows — institutions like the army and the judiciary. As for the judiciary, just a glance at the obiter dicta expressed in the courts and the populist rhetoric enunciated in legal and semi-legal forums will demonstrate quite vividly how our society will need at least five hundred years of solitude before a judicial Ayatollah can explode on the scene.
In our unending quest for our Ayatollah — a generic term for a saviour in this context — we have not been averse to transcending national boundaries. As a child, I remember people falling in love with Colonel Nasser of Egypt. I remember going to the mall with my siblings and friends where a huge crowd was moving towards Gol Bagh (later significantly rechristened “Nasser Bagh”) chanting “Lailaha Illallah/Nasser ul Habiballah! (There is no God, but Allah, and Nasser is His friend!)”
Colonel Nasser disappointed us. He could not provide Pakistan any panacea. So we discovered Colonel Qaddafi, ‘the Iron Man of Islam.’ He too did not deliver. We started to look for our saviour closer to home. For a short time we celebrated Generals Zia and Musharraf. We even looked at Mullah Omar — the self-styled Amirul Momineen (the leader of the faithful) as a possible benefactor. Now we are nervously wondering: is there to be an Ayatollah General Kiyani?
The truth is, our Ayatollah will never materialise. Because what we yearn for is a Grand Inquisitor who can magically transform the country without doing anything ourselves. We Pakistanis are essentially tamashbeen, spectacle-loving people — and we will cheer on with gusto anyone who does our dirty work, while we sit and watch. It is in this perspective that we can understand why Pakistanis, especially the Punjabis, went all out in favour of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. For it was in him that we saw a possible Ayatollah, a giant-slayer satisfying our lust for fori insaaf (speedy justice), saray aam phaansi (public hangings) and ibratnak saza (exemplary punishments). Alas, he has not delivered — to date. Thus we continue on our downhill path to ignominy and annihilation.
So where do we go from here? What we need is not an Ayatollah. What we need is a system in which the rule of law prevails at all costs, even if the heavens fall. This takes time, but we are not willing to wait. We are only too happy to give a decade to a general who destroys all the good he has inherited. But we get impatient with a democratic government (which inherits the country left in ruin by the dictator) within six months and once again, goaded by a highly partisan media, begin our Sisyphean quest for the Ayatollah.
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