Self-flagellation is practiced across the globe, with Christians in the Philippines reenacting crucifixions on Good Friday to commemorate Jesus or with Shiites beating their chests during Muharram to remember the death of their spiritual leaders. While the body suffers during this exercise, the pious purpose for which the devotee is punishing themselves is supposed to provide a spiritually clarifying experience. When a nation, like Pakistan, punishes itself for some ‘higher purpose,’ one should remember whether or not the effect is so constructive.
Pakistan’s “mathaam” starts with the perverse reverence and deference awarded to Saudi Arabia by the state and the society. There have been positive elements to the relationship with Saudi Arabia including the billions in aid, which has saved the state from financial collapse at times of economic distress. The same can be said for the United States and other powers who have supplied Pakistan with funding at crucial points, and yet they do not receive the same status as the Saudis.
The reason that both the state and society wish to recognize Saudi Arabia as a patriarch, is for a higher purpose of nearness to the origin of Islam. However, the real effect of this Saudi relationship is that Pakistan has become inundated with religious extremism stemming directly from Saudi Arabia. The predominant interest for Saudi Arabia in Pakistan is to neutralize Iran, and it utilizes policies that the U.S. used with other nations during the Cold War. Namely, funding and training religious right-wing groups to challenge the ability of communists (or Iranians) from taking control of the state. Thus, there are allegations that Saudis are financially and intellectually exporting a violent ideology in Pakistan, which is uprooting the society itself and tearing the nation apart. If one compares the motivation of closeness to Islam and the violent effect of religious extremism and intolerance, it seems clear that Pakistan is “beating itself” for no real purpose.
The next “mathaam” Pakistan is engaging in relates to the presumption that India is a primordial enemy of Islam and that Pakistan has a duty to attack this threat. The higher purpose for this animosity to the eastern neighbor is that Pakistan will serve its Islamic purpose by defeating India in true David-versus-Goliath form. However, there have been horribly negative effects of this focus on India as an “arch nemesis,” highlighted by the growing insurgency in the Afghan border region. The mistrust towards the Indians is so deep that Pakistan currently holds hundreds of thousands of troops on the Indian border while suicide attacks and murders are being carried out brazenly by extremists. This mismanagement of priorities has allowed for the militant anti-state organizations to carry out operations in the heartland of the country.
Similarly, the focus on India inspired the ISI to develop the practice of fostering “low intensity conflicts” or organizing small-scale terrorist attacks against their rival. This led to the ISI creating bonds with certain extremist groups who were provided with funding and training as long as they could carry out terrorist threats in Kashmir and India’s heartland. However, after the Army’s Red Mosque siege and the hard-hitting military operations in Swat and Wazirstan, those ISI-supported groups turned against the state and people of Pakistan. Out of all this, India has suffered far less than Pakistan, who continues to ‘beat itself’ whether by training the same groups who now are aimed at destroying the state or avoiding an offensive in hotbeds of terrorism due to mistrust of Indians on the border.
Finally, Pakistan’s “mathaam” extends to its practice of relying on the military as the ultimate responsible ruler of the government. The higher purpose for this reliance is that the military provides a strong top-down leadership structure, with highly trained technocrats, and a history of providing services to the people. However, one must remember the holistic image of the military’s leadership when it comes to power, which is usually through an illegal coup. The Army’s very ascension to power is a violation of general constitutional principles that require a military to be subservient to the state, not vice-versa. Further, the composition of the military, its leadership, and its decision-making are not subject to any control by the Pakistani people, which is the central benefit of civilian rule.
The Army’s adversarial relationship with the civilian government hinders the ability of the civilian state apparatus to bourgeon responsible governance. In this regard, the Army has relied solely on the help of obedient religious parties to negate the influence of politically independent politicians, whether they are from the PML (N) or PPP. This has been accompanied by the political removal or assassination of almost every politically progressive mind in the nation’s history, thereby limiting the ability of capable civilian leadership to emerge. Pakistan ‘beats itself’ by pursuing the ‘higher purpose’ of responsible leadership in its deference to the Army, because the Army itself extorts this deference by prohibiting the ability of a government elected by the people to achieve these same goals.
No self-flagellation can be supported unless it is for a truly “higher” purpose, because without this higher purpose, the effect of the act is to harm the physical body without any benefit to the spirit. Pakistan self-flagellates for invalid higher purposes including idealizing a nation that exports violent ideologies, training terrorists to attack India who instead attack the Pakistani people, and idealizing a military that has continually destabilized civilian rule. Thus, without any benefit to the ‘spirit’ of the nation, these practices should be stopped before there is no ‘physical form’ left to save.