Pakistan, A Diasporic History- VIII

Muhammad Najm Akbar

Gordji and I had limited positions in the interstate universe. Diaspora worldwide, Iranian, and others,  had a wider and more elaborate role to play.  Would these diaspora princes and princesses fail to be the mediators and interpreters between the great civilizations they have always been?  Or, we have failed generationally to suggest ways in which they must use the power of knowledge and communication they possess? Terror has a narrative. How come our princes and princesses do not have one?  Have we failed to share their stories with them and enable them to continue with their legends instead of getting lost in a suburban jungle or a maze of fanaticism?   They are leaders who live, adapt, and absorb change at a pace faster than the generations before them ever did. Why do they fail to find in their lives a narrative far more powerful than the terror symbols of the world? This a worrisome question for younger generations of diaspora parents in an ever-changing world.  

The world had changed between my first and third tours of duty in France. So had France and the Pakistani community there. By my third tour, EU rules had enabled more Pakistanis to reach France. I noticed a major change in their demographics as the youth dominated the scene. This is where I met Tahir-ul-Qadri’s organization for the first time. Tahir-ul-Qadri had reached there and had a huge establishment.  He had been marketing his audiovisual and print products as well as religious services to his audience in France. His new customers had a lot of change to spare. He knew how to reach out and dip into their pockets. Who taught him how to strategize the aggressive export of obscurantism? A younger relative of Tahir-ul-Qadri was his CEO in France. Pakistani immigrants had found in him a spiritual master of their own. North Africans had built Muslim places of worship. Tahir-ul-Qadri offered Pakistanis their own religious home. During my second term in Paris, Ambassador Naik funded a school for Pakistani children.  By the time I returned, Pakistanis had access to more ethnic, educational, and training facilities in a neighborhood of their choice. Nothing but matched the Qadri machine. Who guided him? Qadri’s answers were uniquely effervescent.

In his videos, Qadri answered questions about himself, invoking invisible, spiritual, and metaphysical factors I had little ability to understand. There were other leads. A military dictator ruled Pakistan then. Like two out of his three predecessors, Ayub Khan and Haq, General Musharraf opted for an easy-to-rig referendum in search of legitimacy. Unlike his predecessors, however, Musharraf knew that the Pakistani diaspora had increased abroad. Ever-ballooning numbers of remittances had made him wiser and he decided to use them in the referendum exercise as well. For the first and so far, the last time, Musharraf allowed the Pakistani diaspora to vote one and the only time for the referendum. They could walk into any Pakistani Embassy or Consulate abroad with any little proof of identity and vote in the referendum that would elect him as President of Pakistan like his predecessor Generals, Khan and Haq. I was in charge in Paris. The intelligence setup ran the show and received a sizable number of postal ballots which overwhelmingly turned out to be yes votes. Who were these voters? I had no idea. Like a few others, I had voted no. The intelligence officials knew about the naysayers. Votes in favor overwhelmed the ballot. Some organizations had helped the military leader. All possible indicators kept pointing to Qadri’s organization in the traditional Mullah-Military alliance but I had no evidence to substantiate it.

Qadri machine expanded his business beyond all his expectations. Musharraf would stay in power for another six years on the strength of that phony exercise of a referendum that he exploited in multiple ways. Qadri would find the Pakistani diaspora the most fertile ground for obscurantism. He stood on a far more lucrative and comfortable ground than his rivals within Pakistan. Musharraf progressed from a despised military dictator to a darling of the West. Pakistan’s military leaders can always find ways to be useful to the West. Ayub Khan had SEATO and CENTO to boost. Yahya Khan kept secrets of Kissinger’s first flight to China from a Pakistani airbase.  Haq led the American Jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Musharraf became the frontman for an anti-Jihadi, just, and holy war following 9/11. I had welcomed him in Beirut before 9/11. A senior colleague told me later that the late Hariri, then Prime Minister of Lebanon and an influential businessman, might have tried to use his contacts with President Chirac to get him an invitation to France. It did not work.

Following 9/11, the French attitude changed like everyone else’s.  Sitting late for some office work, I took an unusual, late-night call from the embassy switchboard for a huge surprise.  A senior Elysée official was on the line conveying an invitation from President Chirac to Musharraf. Islamabad swooned with joy. I welcomed him again. It was also a rare and unique look at my beloved city from Musharraf’s security escort car through the busy streets of Paris that the agencies had emptied and cordoned off along the route for safety reasons. Following 9/11, France joined other western powers to warn Pakistan that it must choose its camp carefully. A top military commander personally conveyed to the embassy that French collaboration with Pakistan would not continue if Pakistani and French paths diverged at this crucial cross-section of world history. Jean Marie Colombani of Le Monde had summed all this up in four words: Nous sommes tous Américains, we are all Americans. Musharraf chose the right way for Pakistan. The West opened its arms to him. Soon after, the Paris Club, an informal cartel of major donors and lenders, offered the best terms of debt repayment and debt forgiveness to Musharraf’s Pakistan. Musharraf angered the religious lobby as he launched a Madrasah reform and also clamped down on cross-border terrorism following incidents like the attack on the Indian Parliament. In retaliation, terror made three attempts on his life in addition to other army officials in obvious cracks in the Mullah-Military alliance while the tentacles of terror spread.

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Najm Akbar

I have remained focused on the interface of history and policymaking while pursuing graduate studies in history at Fresno State, developing on three years of my education at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (MA 1995, MALD 2011). While teaching Urdu between 2005-2018, or holding diplomatic assignments between 1981-2002, the intersection between these two processes has been the mainspring of my personal, professional and intellectual pursuits. This platform would continue that endeavor.

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