Category Archives: Pakistan

Pakistan: From Haven to Citadel

From Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas (Henry Holt, 2020), Kindle pp. 112-113:

Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a homeland for Muslims on the Indian subcontinent, born out of the partition of India, but it was also a home for many minorities. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the father of the nation, was a secular Shia who nominated other Shias and an Ahmadi Muslim to his cabinet. His first law minister was a Hindu, to make clear that laws were to be written by secular jurists, not clerics and theologians. In his first presidential address marking the birth of the nation, at midnight on August 11, 1947, Jinnah told his new compatriots “you are free to go to your temples, free to go to your mosques, or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or case or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state.” Jinnah had spelled out a vision for religious pluralism in a secular Muslim-majority democracy, where Muslims and non-Muslims were equal citizens. He did not speak of an Islamic state, not even of an Islamic republic. But his vision for tolerant diversity was never fulfilled. He died a year later, and though his successors tried to uphold this nuanced narrative, they soon fell back on the more straightforward raison d’être of the country: Islam.

Pakistan was born amid horrendous violence and indescribable dislocation—around 6.5 million Muslims moved from India to Pakistan, while 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs left for India. Activist, revivalist Islam had grown in British India in part as a reaction to colonial rule, but also in opposition to Hindus, the majority. The name Pakistan was an acronym combining the first letters of the different provinces that made up the new country. But in Urdu, the language of the new nation, it also means “the land of the pure,” and there were many who wanted to purify it further. In 1956, Pakistan’s constitution declared the country an Islamic republic and prohibited non-Muslims from holding the office of head of state. In the 1960s, military dictators used religion as a rallying cry against India, feeding further intolerance against Hindus and appeasing Islamists. Social and cultural life continued unperturbed, but some now brandished Pakistan as a citadel of Islam.

The architect of that citadel would be Abu A’la al-Mawdudi, the man who had inspired Qutb in Egypt and Khomeini in Iran. Mawdudi had not always been a religious fundamentalist. Born in 1903 in British India, he was a journalist, a poet, and newspaper editor whose intellectual, mystical, theological journey made him the twentieth century’s greatest revivalist Islamic thinker.

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Rising Intolerance Since 1979

From Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas (Henry Holt, 2020), Kindle pp. 2-3:

The year 1979 and the four decades that followed are the story at the heart of this book. The Saudi-Iran rivalry went beyond geopolitics, descending into an ever-greater competition for Islamic legitimacy through religious and cultural domination, changing societies from within—not only in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but throughout the region. While many books explore the Iranian Revolution, few look at how it rippled out, how the Arab and Sunni world reacted and interacted with the momentous event. All the way to Pakistan, the ripples of the rivalry reengineered vibrant, pluralistic countries and unleashed sectarian identities and killings that had never defined us in the past. While Pakistan is geographically located on the Indian subcontinent, its modern history is closely linked to the trends that unfolded in the Middle East, and the country features prominently in this narrative. Across this Greater Middle East, the rise of militancy and the rise of cultural intolerance happened in parallel and often fed into each other.

Everywhere I went to conduct interviews for this book, from Cairo to Baghdad, from Tehran to Islamabad, I was met with a flood of emotions when I asked people about the impact the year 1979 had on their lives. I felt I was conducting national or regional therapy, sitting in people’s living rooms and studies: everyone had a story about how 1979 had wrecked their lives, their marriage, their education, including those born after that year. Although this is neither a work of historical scholarship nor an academic study, it is more than a reported narrative: I dug deep into archives, pored over thousands of newspapers, interviewed dozens of people, and built a virtual library of the history of those four decades. The result is a new reading of known events, some forgotten, some overlooked, most heretofore seen in isolation. Brought together, spanning four decades of history and seven countries, they shatter many accepted truths about the region and shed an unprecedented light on how the Saudi-Iran rivalry evolved and mutated over time, with consequences no one could have foreseen in 1979.

Although geopolitical events provide the backdrop and stage for Black Wave, this is not a book about terrorism or al-Qaeda or even ISIS, nor is it about the Sunni-Shia split or the dangers that violent fundamentalists pose for the West. This has been the almost obsessive focus of the headlines in the West. Instead, these pages bring the untold story of those—and they are many—who fought and continue to fight against the intellectual and cultural darkness that slowly engulfed their countries in the decades following the fateful year of 1979. Intellectuals, poets, lawyers, television anchors, young clerics, novelists; men and women; Arab, Iranian, and Pakistani; Sunni and Shia; most devout, some secular, but all progressive thinkers who represent the vibrant, pluralistic world that persists beneath the black wave. They are the silenced majority, who have suffered immensely at the hands of those who are relentlessly intolerant of others, whether wielding political power or a gun.

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1857: The Sepoy Jihad

From The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple (Knopf Doubleday, 2006), Kindle pp. 22-23:

For many the appeal of the Mughal Emperor was as much religious as political. As far as the Indian participants were concerned, the Uprising was overwhelmingly expressed as a war of religion, and looked upon as a defensive action against the rapid inroads missionaries and Christianity were making in India, as well as a more generalised fight for freedom from foreign domination. The Great Mutiny has usually been presented by the Marxist historians of the 1960s and 1970s primarily as a rising against British social and economic policies, as both urban revolution and a peasants’ revolt sparked off by loss of land rights and employment opportunities as much as anything else. All this certainly played a part. Yet when the Indian participants of the Uprising articulate the reason for their revolt—as they do with great frequency and at some length in the Mutiny Papers—they invariably state that they were above all resisting a move by the Company to impose Christianity and Christian laws on India—something many Evangelical Englishmen were indeed contemplating.

As the sepoys told Zafar on 11 May 1857, “we have joined hands to protect our religion and our faith.” Later they stood in the Chandni Chowk, the main street of Delhi, and asked people: “Brothers: are you with those of the faith?” British men and women who had converted to Islam—and there were a surprising number of those in Delhi—were not hurt; but Indians who had converted to Christianity were cut down immediately. As late as 6 September, when calling the people of Delhi to rally against the coming assault by the British, a proclamation issued in the name of Zafar spelled out very plainly “that this is a religious war, and is being prosecuted on account of the faith, and it behoves all Hindus and Musalman residents of the imperial city, or of the villages in the country…to continue true to their faith and creeds.” Even if one accepts that the word “religion” (for Muslims din) is often being used in the very general and non-sectarian sense of dharma (or duty, righteousness)—so that when the sepoys say they are rising to defend their dharma, they mean as much their way of life as their sectarian religious identity—it is still highly significant that the Urdu sources usually refer to the British not as angrez (the English) or as goras (whites) or even firangis, but instead almost always as kafirs (infidels) and nasrani (Christians).

Although the great majority of the sepoys were Hindus, in Delhi a flag of jihad was raised in the principal mosque, and many of the insurgents described themselves as mujahedin, ghazis and jihadis. Indeed, by the end of the siege, after a significant proportion of the sepoys had melted away, unpaid, hungry and dispirited, the proportion of jihadis in Delhi grew to be about a quarter of the total fighting force, and included a regiment of “suicide ghazis” from Gwalior who had vowed never to eat again and to fight until they met death at the hands of the kafirs, “for those who have come to die have no need for food.” One of the causes of unrest, according to one Delhi source, was that “the British had closed the madrasas.” These were words that had no resonance to the historians of the 1960s. Now, sadly, in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, they are phrases we understand all too well, and words like jihad scream out of the dusty pages of the source manuscripts, demanding attention.

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Afghan National Budget Sources

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 311-312:

Despite Afghanistan’s well-deserved reputation for independence, no government there was ever stable without access to foreign sources of revenue. While such income took many different forms, obtaining it remained a high priority for every Afghan regime. Ahmad Shah Durrani mounted raids on India and took tribute from there in the eighteenth century. Nineteenth-century rulers made peace deals with the British raj in exchange for substantial subsidies and access to modern weapons. The Musahiban rulers of Afghanistan exploited the cold war rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States to modernize Afghanistan’s military and develop its economy. The PDPA was entirely dependent on resources from the Soviet Union to keep it afloat. The Karzai government was equally dependent on the United States and other Western countries.

The problem for Afghan rulers was that under ordinary circumstances, there was little incentive for foreign governments to provide the assistance that was vital for their regimes’ survival. The only way to overcome this obstacle was to make Afghanistan seem important (or dangerous) enough to justify these payments. But here Afghan rulers were faced with a difficult task. They were acutely aware that they lived in a world where their country’s primary interests were always at the bottom of someone else’s agenda. Even taking the country seriously earned the rebuke of critics in nineteenth-century Britain; they coined the term “Afghanistanism” for those who exaggerated the significance of events in distant and obscure places. Yet time and time again, Afghanistan returned to the world stage with an importance that always belied this gloss and generated the revenue it was seeking. In the nineteenth century, Afghanistan’s successful resistance against the British gave it a central place as the frontier of the raj—negatively as a potential threat to India’s NWFP, and positively as a barrier to Russian expansion. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Soviet Union and the United States each feared “losing Afghanistan” to the other. This gave a country with no developed resources or vital strategic location a remarkably crucial significance until the cold war ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It recovered that position when Islamic terrorism became a new world security issue and keeping Afghanistan free of it an international priority.

The U.S. invasion that expelled the Taliban and al Qaeda from Afghanistan created an odd circumstance in its wake. The usual priority among the Afghans of expelling foreign invaders was replaced by a tacit strategy of keeping them there to guarantee security and finance the development of the country. This was because the Afghan population was looking for stability after decades of war and protection against predation by factions within Afghanistan as well as from neighbors seeking to exploit its weaknesses. But accepting such assistance needed to be carefully balanced: a Kabul government that was dependent on it could be labeled a puppet regime unless it proved itself independent enough to protect Afghan interests and values. It was also dangerous to assume that the initial willingness of the Afghan people to accept foreign intervention had no expiration date. To be successful, foreign military assistance to the Afghan state needed to be self-liquidating, and foreign economic assistance needed to improve ordinary lives.

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Crucible of the Taliban

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 255-257:

The Taliban was a cross-border movement led by Afghan Pashtuns trained in Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan. Its ideological roots lay there, and its Afghan leaders had close ties with religious parties in Pakistan. The madrasas had grown at a tremendous rate in Pakistan under Zia al Haq, attracting a large number of Afghan refugee boys by offering free room and board along with education. During the Soviet war, the schools’ graduates joined the mujahideen to fight in Afghanistan in defense of Islam through the existing Peshawar party structure. But because the civil war now pitted Muslim against Muslim, the Taliban movement’s goal shifted to ending the disorder while also reforming Afghanistan’s religious and cultural practices by creating a pure Islamic state along Salafist lines. This ambition was shared by the religious parties within Pakistan, but the disorder in Afghanistan gave the Taliban a better chance of achieving it.

The Taliban was unlike other Afghan political movements not only in the exclusively clerical origin of its leaders but in the refugee origins of its followers too. The Soviet war lasted for so long and the refugee flow into neighboring countries was so great that over time they created a new class of people: refugee Afghans born in Pakistan who had never seen the country or experienced life there. Refugee camps are notorious hotbeds for radical movements of all types because they are generally poor, provide few opportunities for young people, and are under the control of political factions that manipulate their populations. The hope of recovering a lost homeland is a particularly powerful ideal, but as time passes the view of this homeland becomes more and more mythical because refugee children know of it only by hearsay. The past is idealized because the present is so miserable and the future is so uncertain. Groups with extreme messages, whether their ideologies are political, ethnic, or religious, galvanize their followers not only with the visions of reclaiming a lost homeland but also of then transforming it. Refugees in Afghanistan did better than most. They experienced a tactical victory when the Soviets withdrew and in theory could return to their homeland.

But the fighting among the mujahideen foreclosed that option for most. Even when the refugees did return, their homeland was not what they had known when they left it. Although poor before the war, the Afghan economy at least functioned, and there was general security for life and property. Now there was none. The mujahideen, who had been heroes in the anti-Soviet jihad, lost respect when they became mere factions engaged in self-interested and violent struggles for power with other similar groups. The Taliban drew on this discontent in two ways. First, they recruited men who had been too young to participate in the anti-Soviet war and gave them a chance to participate in a new type of jihad—one that would bring a “truer version” of Islam to Afghanistan. Jihad had been the focal experience for young men throughout the Soviet war, and a new generation of refugee youths was looking for a goal that was equally as idealistic. That the Taliban’s view of Islam was far more radically reactionary than any existing in Afghanistan previously meant little to people who had nothing to compare it with. For them it was far easier to imagine an ideal Afghan way of life, and to enforce it on others, because they drew their lessons from religious schools rather than the give-and-take of everyday life. Their hostility toward women may well have stemmed from being removed from their families and female relations at an early age to grow up in all-male religious schools. Second, the Taliban drew on the discontent of the population living in areas where chaos prevailed. For them, any ideology or regime that could bring about stability was preferable to the status quo.

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Afghan Superiority

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle p. 42:

Few peoples in the world, particularly the Islamic world, have maintained such a strong and unproblematic sense of themselves, their culture, and their superiority as the Afghans. In abstract terms all foreigners, especially non-Muslims, are viewed as inferior to Afghans. Although the great powers might have been militarily, technologically, and economically stronger, because they were nonbelievers, or infidels, their values and way of life were naturally suspect. Afghanistan’s Muslim neighbors, however, fared only slightly better in (Sunni) Afghan eyes. The Uzbeks must have been asleep to allow the Russians to occupy central Asia for more than a century; Pakistan is a suspect land of recent Muslim converts from Hinduism (Pashtuns and Baluch excepted) that never should have become a nation; and Iran is a nest of Shiite heretics who speak Persian with a ludicrous accent. Convinced they are natural-born Muslims, Afghans cede precedence to no one in matters of religion. They refused to take doctrinal advice from foreign Salafis, who claimed they had a superior vision of Islam, coming as they did from the Islam’s Arabian heartland. Instead, even under the Taliban, Afghans continued to bedeck graves commemorating martyrs with poles and flags, tied cloth swatches to sacred trees, made pilgrimages to the shrines of saints reputed to cure illnesses or help women conceive, and placed magical charms on their children and valuable domestic animals to ward off the evil eye. Afghans responded to any criticism of these practices by arguing that since there are no purer or stronger believers in Islam than themselves, their customs must be consistent with Islam. Otherwise they would not practice them. Islamic Sufi orders (Nakhshbanidya and Chisti particularly) are also well established in the country and give a mystic turn to what sometimes appears to be an austere faith.

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How Afghanistan Became Ungovernable

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 6-7:

More than any other set of events, the Communist coup and Soviet invasion opened the question of political legitimacy in Afghanistan. The old dynastic tradition was in ruins, but there was nothing to replace it. This issue of who had the right to rule and on what basis was not resolved even after the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 and its client regime collapsed in 1992. Lacking any overarching political unity among themselves, the various mujahideen resistance factions led the country into civil war and lay the groundwork for the rise of the Taliban. These conflicts eviscerated the formal state structure they were fighting to control and engulfed an ever-larger part of the Afghan population into political struggles from which they had been previously isolated. All the ethnic and regional groups in Afghanistan became politically and militarily empowered, reversing the process of centralization that had been imposed by Abdur Rahman.

Unfortunately the successful resistance strategy of making the country ungovernable for the Soviet occupier also ended up making Afghanistan ungovernable for the Afghans themselves. While the Afghans had recovered from many earlier periods of state collapse, the body politic was now afflicted with an autoimmune disorder in which the antibodies of resistance threatened to destroy any state structure, regardless of who controlled it or its ideology. Compounding this problem was a centuries-old structural weakness: the dependency of all Afghan governments on outside aid for financial stability. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan found itself without world-power patrons for the first time in 150 years and hence had no significant sources of outside revenue with which to fund a central government. In the face of indifference and a lack of aid by the major foreign powers and the international community in general, the country could no longer right itself as it had done so many times in the past.

The stalemated mujahideen civil war opened the door to interference in Afghan affairs by neighboring states, strengthened regional ethnic power brokers, and facilitated the exploitation of Afghanistan’s weakness by foreign Islamist groups. At the forefront of these Islamist groups was the Afghan Taliban, which with the support of Pakistan and foreign jihadists, took power in Kabul in 1996. Although they justified their rule in Islamic terms, the Taliban were largely Pashtuns who saw all other ethnic groups as enemies. Even after they had conquered almost all the country, they never created a real government, and Afghanistan became a classic failed state. As an ally of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, the Taliban were the immediate target of U.S. retribution following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC. The Taliban fell even more quickly than they rose: once it became clear that they would lose, every region of the country (including the Pashtun south) turned against them. Foreign troops were welcomed, against all expectations, because the Afghans saw them as a bulwark of protection against the very Afghan forces that had driven the country into ruin. More pragmatically it was equally clear that the Afghan government and economy could not be revived without massive infusions of foreign aid. If other wars had driven Afghans out of the country, the end of this one brought back about four million people, the largest repatriation of refugees ever seen (and one done largely by the Afghans themselves).

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Prelude to Partition in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 3380-3420:

The war was ending. The two main political parties, the Muslim League and the Congress, were arguing over the future constitution. Both sides knew the British would soon leave India. But in what state? Would there be one India or two, a Hindustan and a Pakistan? What would be the fate of Calcutta, which was India’s largest city and the capital of Bengal, its largest Muslim-majority province? Everything was up for grabs.

Initially, the League’s demand for Pakistan – a separate nation state for India’s Muslims – seemed more like a bargaining tool at the negotiating table. But when the discussions between Congress and the Muslim League fell through in the monsoon of 1946, the League’s leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, declared 16 August 1946 to be Direct Action Day.

In Bengal, the Muslim League had formed a provincial government. Its leader Husain Suhrawardy declared Direct Action Day a holiday and called a bandh. The league organised a major rally at the Maidan. On 16 August thousands of Muslim men walked to Esplanade from all over the city and its industrial suburbs. Some of the first clashes of the morning happened in Maniktala as Muslim labourers were crossing the Beleghata Canal heading to the Maidan. In front of Maniktala Market, League supporters fought with Hindu shop owners who refused to close their shops. By afternoon those areas had become war zones. Guns had been plentiful during wartime. A bottle of whisky could get you a revolver from a GI. The strongmen on both sides were ready with arms. About three-quarters of the city’s residents were Hindu and one-quarter were Muslim, not very different from what it is today. But back then, the layout of the city was completely different. There were Muslim pockets in Hindu areas, Hindu pockets in Muslim areas, patchworked across the city.

On Direct Action Day, Calcutta was going to be liberated para by para. After the Muslim League’s rally, mayhem broke loose. Bands of men went lane by lane, house by house, burning, looting and killing. Smoke them out, burn them down, take over land. Drive the other side out. The strategy was area control. In Maniktala, Hindus drove out Muslims. In Park Circus, Muslims were driving out Hindus. In Kidderpur, Pakistan was being made, in Bowbazar, Hindustan. Barricades went up between neighbourhoods, like international borders that could not be crossed. On Chitpur Road, the buses stopped near the Nakhoda Masjid and detoured for several blocks before continuing onward. That stretch of Calcutta’s oldest street had become Pakistan.

In the first two days, the League had used its goons and guns to take the battle to Hindu paras. Worse, Suhrawardy used his power to hold the police back. Then the goondas of the Congress and the other Hindu parties had organised their war in Muslim paras. Even the full force of the state could not control the violence for several more days. The killings went on for a week. Hundreds of thousands were forced into refugee camps. Five to ten thousand people were killed; the actual figures will never be known. In the muggy August heat dead bodies began rotting on pavements as they had during the famine. There were so many bodies everywhere that the sanitation authorities could not figure out how to dispose of them. On the streets there were bodies being eaten by vultures. Bodies were thrown into the Ganga. Bodies were burned round the clock at Nimtala. Bodies were buried in mass graves at the cemetery in Bagmari. Bodies were chopped up into pieces and stuffed into drains. The water pressure of the city plummeted until, as the historian Janam Mukherjee wrote, Calcutta could finally ‘digest its dead’.

Partition was born on the cannibal streets of Calcutta. After this, there could be no more coexistence. There would have to be two nation states: India and Pakistan.

From August 1946 onwards the killings continued sporadically for months, first in Noakhali, then in Bihar, here and there across the land. It was a time when homemade bombs were going off in the Bengal countryside, when rumours of stabbings abounded. In their village, my uncles remembered Muslim schoolfriends suddenly brandishing knives and talking casually of murder. At that time, Dadu felt that it would be better to take the family with him to Calcutta. Not permanently – after all, his mother and brothers were still in the village, with families of their own – just until the ‘Hindustan-Pakistan’ troubles died down.

On 15 August 1947, the British partitioned their empire and left. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, delivered the radio address on that day in his clipped English accent:

‘Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.’

At the moment that Nehru celebrated India’s half-measure freedom, Gandhi, his mentor, wasn’t making sweeping Hegelian pronouncements. He was keeping vigil in a house abandoned by a Muslim family in Beleghata in Calcutta, meeting with Hindu and Muslim leaders and pleading with them to hold back their goons. It was a year after Direct Action Day. Pakistan had come into being; Bengal’s Muslim League government was being disbanded. The Hindu thugs began the attack, dreaming of a redux of the previous year’s mass killing, only this time initiated by them and not the League. The violence had resumed in Calcutta.

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Persian Nader Shah vs. Moghul Empire

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2997-3027:

Crowned shah, with his western frontiers secure and in undisputed control of the central lands of Persia, Nader set off eastward to conquer Kandahar. The exactions to pay for this new campaign caused great suffering and in many parts of the country brought the economy almost to a standstill. Nader took Kandahar after a long siege, but he did not stop there. Using the excuse that the Moghul authorities had given refuge to Afghan fugitives, Nader crossed the old frontier between the Persian and Moghul empires, took Kabul, and marched on toward Delhi. North of Delhi, at Karnal, the Persian army encountered the army of the Moghul emperor, Mohammad Shah. The Persians were much inferior in number to the Moghul forces, yet thanks to the better training and firepower of his soldiers, and rivalry and disunity among the Moghul commanders, Nader defeated them. He was helped by the fact that the Moghul commanders were mounted on elephants, which besides proving vulnerable to firearms were liable to run wild—to the dismay of their distinguished riders and anyone who happened to be in their path.

From the battlefield of Karnal, Nader went on to Delhi, where he arrived in March 1739. Shortly after his arrival there, rioting broke out and some Persian soldiers were killed. So far from home, and with the wealth of the Moghul Empire at stake, Nader could not afford to lose control. He ordered a ruthless massacre in which an estimated thirty thousand people died, mostly innocent civilians. Prior to this point, Nader had generally (at least away from the battlefield) achieved his ends without excessive bloodshed. But after Delhi, he may have decided that his previous scruples had become redundant.

With a characteristic blend of threat and diplomacy, Nader stripped the Moghul emperor of a vast treasure of jewels, gold, and silver, and accepted the gift of all the Moghul territories west of the Indus River. The treasure was worth as much as perhaps 700 million rupees. To put this sum in some kind of context, it has been calculated that the total cost to the French government of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), including subsidies paid to the Austrian government as well as all the costs of the fighting on land and sea, was about 1.8 billion livres tournois (the standard unit of account in prerevolutionary France). This was equivalent to about £90 million sterling at the time—close to the rough estimate of £87.5 million sterling for the value of Nader’s haul from Delhi. Some of the jewels he took away—the largest, most impressive ones, like the Kuh-e Nur, the Darya-ye Nur, and the Taj-e Mah—had a complex and often bloody history of their own in the following decades.

Nader did not attempt to annex the Moghul Empire outright. His purpose in conquering Delhi had been to secure the cash necessary to continue his wars of conquest in the west, for which the wealth of Persia alone had, by the time of his coronation, begun to prove inadequate.

Nader’s campaigns are a reminder of the centrality of Persia to events in the region, in ways that have parallels today. A list of some of Nader’s sieges—Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul—has a familiar ring to it after the events of the first years of the twenty-first century. It is worth recalling that Persians were not strangers in any of the lands in which Nader campaigned. Although he and his Safavid predecessors were of Turkic origin and spoke a Turkic language at court, the cultural influence of Persian was such that the language of the court and administration in Delhi and across northern India was Persian, and diplomatic correspondence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul was normally in Persian, too. Persian hegemony from Delhi to Istanbul would, in some ways, have seemed natural to many of the inhabitants of the region, echoing as it did the Persian character of earlier empires and the pervasive influence of Persian literary, religious, and artistic culture.

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Madrasahs vs. Secular Schools

From: Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, by Vali Nasr (Free Press, 2009), Kindle Loc. 3297-41:

Madrasah is a catchall term. A madrasah can mean something as simple as a Koranic academy where young children learn a few religious basics and practice reading from Islam’s holy book. Or it can mean a primary or secondary school meant to compete with national education; or a seminary established to train proper clerics in classical Islamic religious knowledge. Madrasahs, in other words, vary widely in what they teach, how they teach it, and what view of Islam and its place in the world they impart on their students.

Madrasahs are generally conservative and some are troublingly fanatical—some do indeed harbor and train jihadis and terrorists. These are a minority, however, and the problem is less extensive than is usually thought. To begin with, there are not as many madrasahs as common wisdom holds, and they train relatively few students. A Harvard University and World Bank study of Islamic education in Pakistan found that in 2002, fewer than 1 percent of all students in Pakistan were attending madrasahs. That number has risen but only to 1.9 percent in 2008. The report also found that over the decade leading up to 9/11, madrasah enrollment had risen by 16 percent, which was slower than the increase in overall school enrollment. Madrasahs were not gaining, but instead were losing part of an already small market share. Even in Indonesia, where Islamic education is on the rise, only 13 percent of the country’s 44 million students attend some form of Islamic education. The poor do flock to madrasahs, but more so in rural areas than in cities, and studies of students’ economic backgrounds reveal too much diversity to see Islamic education as the domain of the poor.

Terrorism experts Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey argue that the link between madrasahs and terrorism is weak. The anthropologist Robert Hefner estimates that of some 46,000 pesantrans (as madrasahs are called in Indonesia), no more than forty or so qualify as extremist. Perhaps a larger problem is that in many countries, the so-called secular schools teach a great deal of religion, often interpreted in illiberal ways, and sometimes push hair-raising intolerance. State textbooks in Algeria, Pakistan, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia all stand as cases in point. In Algeria, the battle against Islamic extremism now centers on changing school curricula that have long been under the control of conservative religious leaders. Sometimes, as in Jordan, the problem is that state authorities have tossed fundamentalists the education ministry as a sop. Better to give them that than have them clamoring for the foreign-affairs or finance portfolios, the thinking seems to have run. It is a worrisome reminder of the lack of seriousness with which these governments consider education.

In Pakistan, it was General Musharraf—an avowed secularist and admirer of Kemalism—who changed the law so that a madrasah certificate counts as well as a university degree in qualifying someone to run for parliament. Other rulers seem to feel that a religious formation for young people is preferable to the Marxism or Western decadence that might otherwise vie for youthful attention. Pakistan’s national identity is strongly Islamic, and Saudi Arabia sees Wahhabism as its national creed. Neither country can truly envision education as a secular enterprise. In this, they may not be so different from secular-nationalist regimes that seek to infuse young minds with an almost religious sense of national identity and cohesiveness. Madrasah-bashing will not clean up education; that requires pressing the governments not just the clerics.

Since 9/11, many madrasahs have in fact done better than governments when it comes to reform. The overwhelming bulk of madrasahs in Indonesia and Bangladesh have submitted to government oversight and implemented required curricular reforms. In general, madrasah reform progresses slowly, but in the meantime, Islamic education of a hopeful nature has been thriving outside of the madrasahs.

In one Pakistani poll, 70 percent of those surveyed favored reforming madrasahs to root out extremism and boost educational quality but also rejected secular education. That is not a surprise if you consider that secular education in that country has pretty much collapsed. Too many schools lack textbooks, desks, and blackboards, and too many teachers are underpaid and unqualified. There is very little in way of proper education in sciences and math. All around the Islamic world today, in fact, secular education draws little praise. The demand is for high-quality, useful Islamic education but not extremism; for teaching religious values but not political activism; and vitally, for providing children with the knowledge needed to make it in the competition of the modern, globalized economy.

In Pakistan, Islamic high schools cost far less than secular private schools while producing graduates who do better than average on college-entrance exams and standardized tests. Muslim parents can see the value for money here, especially in a country with numerous young people and a tight job market. In Bangladesh, almost a third of university professors are graduates of Alia madrasahs, a network of government-mandated seminaries that combine traditional Islamic education with English and modern subjects. Between 1985 and 2003, the number of Alia madrasahs in Bangladesh grew by 55 percent. If the goal is upward mobility, Islamic education is the rational choice for many parents in many countries.

In too many countries around the Muslim world, political parties have turned campuses into battlegrounds and gutted higher education in the process.

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