Do you remember the last time Sabrina Tavernise, who reports for The New York Times from Islamabad, was discussed at this site? It was a little piece, put up on February 6, 2010, about how she covered the rape and beating to death of a 12-year-old girl in Pakistan. Here it is:
Neither Sabrina Tavernise – who certainly got wind of this article – nor her editors at the newspaper, saw fit to respond. They did not see fit to explain their calamitous lapses, not to be confused with the old-fashioned lapsus calami of the ink-stained wretches. No, when the Times issues a correction, it’s almost always of the harmless kind, the kind that does not call into question the knowledge, and the objectivity, of the paper, for that would never do. Instead, it’s to correct a name or a date.
Now just the other day, on April 16, Sabrina Tavernise reported again from Islamabad. This time her article was about the U.N. and the findings of the commission entrusted with investigating the killing of Bhutto and the aftermath of that killing, the various ways that almost all of the evidence was destroyed, and other goings-on that apparently have to do with Pakistan’s Interservice Intelligence Agency, or I.S.I., and about Pakistani police taking their orders from generals of that powerful and feared I.S.I.
Read it over. There’s very little to complain about, is there? Why, it seems almost acceptable. It gives the Pakistani military, the I.S.I., and the police their meretricious due. But there is a section where Sabrina Tavernise decides to veer from the matter at hand, and to reach for an analogy. Here it is:
The reason, he said, is part psychology and part national identity. Pakistan’s army has long represented the central and most crucial part of this country’s idea of itself, a symbol of protection against Pakistan’s mortal foe, India. That narrative is taught in textbooks and reinforced in society, and going against it is like attacking yourself. “The army has a geopolitical mind that is unchanging, and that’s what people love,” Mr. Ahmed said.
Pakistan is not the only country like this. In Turkey, the military exerted extensive control over civilian affairs for decades, deposing elected governments, working behind the scenes to foment unrest, and even executing a civilian prime minister.
But in Pakistan the influence is more overt, and the report points it out in painstaking detail in the example of the police investigation of Ms. Bhutto’s killing. The intelligence agency was portrayed as having been the invisible hand guiding the police.
Notice the question raised in the first paragraph. There is the army of Pakistan, which is a “symbol of protection against Pakistan’s mortal foe, India. That narrative is taught in textbooks and reinforced in society, and going against it is like attacking yourself.” But why is the Army of Pakistan the “symbol” against this “mortal foe, India”? What is it about India that makes it regarded as a “mortal foe”? Do the Indians sponsor terror groups, such as Lashkar-e-Toiba, that conduct attacks on Pakistan the way Lashkar-e-Toiba and other groups have for decades attacked targets in Kashmir and in India itself, including its business center, Mumbai, and the Indian Parliament? Has there been a single recorded attack, sponsored by either the Indian army or the Indian government, in Pakistan? No. When Pakistan and India have gone to war, is it India that does the attacking, or is it in most cases Pakistan, as in Kargil, that starts the war? In which country do the leaders call for war with the other country – India, or Pakistan? Who was it if not Bhutto herself, who is misunderstood and hailed in the West as one of us because she went to Radcliffe (lived right in Briggs Hall) and Oxford, and therefore, you see, when she can be found on Youtube screaming about “Jihad, Jihad, Jihad” to her followers we are to discount this, we are to pay this no never mind?
It never occurs to Sabrina Tavernise to explain the centrality not of the army, but of Islam itself, to the Army, to the I.S.I., to Lashkar-e-Toiba and a dozen other terrorist groups, to the people who run the tens of thousands of madrasas churning out Pakistanis whose minds are full of Qur’anic and other texts they can and have memorized, in a language, Arabic, they can hardly understand. Islam is central to everything that happens in Pakistan, including the habit of mental submission that Islam inculcates and that overlaps with the habit of political submission to the Ruler, as long as the Ruler remains a Muslim.
And then she attempts an analogy with Turkey, attempts to liken the Pakistani military to the Turkish military: “Pakistan is not the only country like this. In Turkey, the military exerted extensive control over civilian affairs for decades, deposing elected governments, working behind the scenes to foment unrest, and even executing a civilian prime minister.”
But this analogy is based on a complete misunderstanding of the Turkish military. The Pakistani military has always been deeply, fervently, Muslim – don’t let smooth Anglophone Pakistanis tell you the “trouble” began with Zia ul-Haq, a fanatical Muslim. It sees Pakistan as the Land of the Pure – pure Muslims, that is. During the war for Bangladesh’s independence, when the Pakistani Army was raping and killing a million or more Bangladeshis, it found local allies in the razakars, the most fanatical Muslims, who responded to the idea that if Pakistan were to be dismembered, this would be damaging to Islam — and Islam itself, the cause of Islam, was the reason for being, so it was said, so some believed, for Pakistan, West and East.
In Pakistan, power has always been held by the military. Not power to be brought to bear only when the country’s system is in peril, but power that is always being deployed and felt. It is the Pakistani military that creates one vast safe haven in which such groups as Lashkar-e-Toiba may flourish and freely gain adherents to their bloody and fanatical cause. The Pakistani military does not have to work to “foment unrest,” for Pakistan is in a state of permanent unrest. The Pakistan military will even, occasionally, allow some zamindar (one of the handful of rich landowning families) or some corrupt on-his-way-to-being-a-zamindar to hold a position of power, as if it were passing along a baton in a relay-race, and expecting, in due time, that baton to be passed back.
Sabrina Tavernise makes it seem as if the Pakistani military is akin to the Turkish military. She says that it engages in the same things: “deposing elected governments, working behind the scenes to foment unrest, and even executing a civilian prime minister.”
But it isn’t, and it doesn’t. The Turkish military really does not hold onto political power for long, and does so only fleetingly, and reluctantly. When, on a few occasions, it has seized power because a civilian ruler was felt to be betraying Kemalism, the true religion of the Turkish military, one that systematically constrains Islam as a political and social force, it has always wanted to quickly hand that power over to civilians, to a secular authority. This is very different from the Pakistani case. It does not routinely engage in “deposing civilian governments,” but does so most reluctantly, and has no desire to hold power for more than a few weeks, or a few months.
And as for “working behind the scenes to foment unrest” – this is the kind of remark that is based on the recent attacks on the military, and the “plots” uncovered and attributed to military men by the Erdogan government. These “plots” have not been proven. Many believe they are, like the Reichstag fire, deliberate set-ups and entrapments created by the Erdogan people to weaken the army and the secularists.
And finally, Sabrina Tavernise claims that the Turkish army is akin to the Pakistani one in “even executing a civilian prime minister.” No doubt, since her article is about mysterious goings-on and destruction of evidence in the killing of Bhutto the daughter, which leads her to thoughts of Bhutto the father, who was hung, this led her to rather carelessly make allusion to the execution more than a half-century ago of the only Turkish prime minister to be executed. But does she know why he was executed? That Prime Minister was Adnan Menderes. And he was executed because of his role in betraying the secularist ideology of Kemalism. Adnan Menderes had been Prime Minister when the Istanbul Pogrom against the Greek Community was unleashed in September 1955 (the most complete account of this is by Spyros Vryonis in The Mechanism of Catastrophe). Menderes as early as 1950 had advocated bringing back the use of the Arabic language – which Ataturk had tried to banish from the Turkish practice of Islam, even commissioning a Turkish-language Qur’an and commentary or Tafsir – for the Call to Prayer. He allowed the rebuilding of thousands of mosques that had been allowed to fall into disrepair or had been closed altogether. Menderes, in short, was undoing, or was charged with undoing, Kemalism.
The young officers who in a coup overturned Menderes and then had him tried and executed were doing so in order to prevent Islam from coming back, in a big way, to Turkey. The advanced and secular element, the intellectuals in the population, supported them, as today so many of them – not all, but many — would support an army coup against Erdogan and his troglodytes if they thought it could succeed.
The role of the Pakistani Army, on the other hand, is to keep Islam at the center of Pakistani power and Pakistani life, and to make sure that for the Pakistani state, as for the Muslims within Pakistan, it is and remains the real reason for being. For them, as good Muslims, the true object of worship in Islam is Islam itself. The Turkish army is quite different. It stands for the nation-state, Turkey, and for a particular ideology, Kemalism, that was based on distrust of Islam, and recognition of the harm that Islam, taken straight up rather than diluted in a thousand ways, could do to the Turkish state and to the people living in Turkey.
These are very different things.
I have the feeling that in this, as in so many other matters, Sabrina Tavernise would prefer not to think about, not to take into account, and certainly never to mention, the effect and the role of Islam. She doesn’t do it when reporting on a Muslim raping and killing a Christian girl. And she is not about to do it when it comes to affairs of state in Pakistan, though without a grasp of Islam, almost nothing reported from Pakistan makes sense.
Three possibilities suggest themselves.
She knows this, but doesn’t care.
She knows this, but is afraid to write the truth, afraid to discuss Islam, for fear that it will make her life more difficult and dangerous.
She lives in, but has not sunk beneath the surface of, life in Muslim Pakistan. And simply remains inviolably ignorant.
I won’t choose for you.
You do it. You choose. You figure out what so fatally vitiates so much of what Sabrina Tavernise, and so many others like her, in the Times and in other newspapers of indiscriminate and lapsed record, write when they “report” on the world of Islam.