Is there a different Islam in Dubai? | Ayaz Amir


Is Dubai not a Muslim country? Is it not a prosperous country, or call it emirate, doing rather well for itself, with not much oil but lots of imagination? Its airline alone earns more money than most of our enterprises put together. Why? The simple answer is its rulers are not stupid. They have reinvented and rebranded their city-state and the world comes to visit it.

What resources does Dubai possess? Sand, plenty of it, the sea, a shoreline and a humid climate. Throw in camels and falcons, and that’s about it. But the rulers, pure autocrats, had imagination and they successfully turned the place into a happening place. They are Muslims and very strict about Islam. Try necking in public or drinking in public and you’ll find out for yourself what this means. But they made allowances for human nature and they turned their emirate into a congenial place for foreigners. And the world came to their door.

True, endless shopping malls may not be everyone’s idea of culture or development. Our friend Malik Riaz would certainly approve and if he had his way there would be nothing in Pakistan except shopping malls and housing colonies. But Dubai has made itself attractive to foreigners and they come there. And they like owning property there. It certainly is the unofficial capital of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan because any leader worth his name feels incomplete unless he owns a piece of Dubai. You name them and they all have a second or first home there.

And don’t they love their nightclubs and cathouses? When they fly out to Dubai they leave spiritualism or Islam at home and try something else for a change. And after their sojourn there, refreshed in mind and body, they return to the green expanses of the republic. And Dubai, mind you, is a convenient, discreet place. Nothing happens outside, in the streets. Everything happens inside…hotels, apartments or whatever.

Half of Lahore’s cultural workers, who add colour and flair to the city’s skyline, and without whom Lahore would not be Lahore, are regular visitors to Dubai. And not all of them go there for shopping. In this new Babylon the skin trade is a flourishing enterprise and the cultural workers are a part of the scene, out there to make some extra bucks.

There are some silly things in Dubai like a snow park for skiing. Dubai would lose none of its glitter without such patent absurdities. But now they have built an opera house there too and Prince Muhammad was there at its opening. I can bet anything we won’t get anything like it in the next hundred years. Those who are big in the real-estate business here can be counted on to build more mosques – can’t do without that. Anything like a museum, concert hall or opera house, perish the thought.

Bhutto tried to cash in on the oil bonanza because he was quick to realise what it meant. The first thing he did was to liberate the Pakistani passport. Getting one previously was about as easy as traversing the seven seas. It sounded unbelievable therefore when Bhutto decreed that you could get an urgent passport in one day and an ordinary passport in a fortnight. This is how the first Pakistanis and professionals took off for the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. And work was started on one or two casinos in Karachi to attract visitors and petrodollars from there.

Criticise him for whatever but Bhutto had imagination. Dubai was then little better than a fishing village and Karachi, a cosmopolitan city, had everything. There was no airline which did not come to Karachi. I was posted in Malir and we would come to the airport just to see the lights and the bustle, and to eye the airhostesses. Not that it got us anywhere. We were greenhorns, nobodies, good only for gawking and staring.

A lot could have happened if Bhutto had stayed around. But 1977, especially the summer of it, was a fateful time for Pakistan. The rightwing parties just couldn’t stand Bhutto and with cries of Islam on their lips, their partisans took to the streets protesting the rigging of the elections held in March that year. Bhutto had gone overboard trying to manage the outcome of those elections. But had he been an angel and a stickler for democratic propriety the Jamaat-e-Islami and its fellow travellers of the right would still have looked for ways to do him in.

The upshot we all know. The Islamists had their revenge and Bhutto was ousted. The group of generals who came to power turned the clock back and pushed Pakistan into the dark ages. The lights went off in Karachi and the airlines one after the other stopped coming. There were plenty of nightclubs which added a touch of glamour to the city. It would be hard to believe now but back in those days floor shows, say at the Metropole or the Palace Hotel, would be advertised in the one or two English papers then in circulation. Come the night of the generals and the nightclubs were closed, never to reopen again. The bars went dead and drinking became a punishable crime.

Gen Zia himself was inclined the Islamist way but he also had a practical problem on his hands…the treasury was empty. Pakistan had no money. So Zia played up to the Saudis, hoping for help from that quarter. That’s how the Hudood Ordinance was passed, which provided for harsh punishments for drinking, adultery, etc. Thus was born the Pakistan we see around us today. As if all this was not enough, there came about soon thereafter the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. From the ensuing maelstrom arose the battle cry of jihad. The rest is familiar history.

If the nightclubs had stayed open and the casinos Bhutto had started had got built we might have been spared the holy paths we followed – and in whose following, our generals and strategists felt convinced, lay our salvation.

People of my generation stood at the threshold of youth at the time of the 1971 war. When Bhutto on the evening he took over as president declared that the dark night was over I and countless others believed him. And we counted ourselves lucky that the bad times were over and the world lay at pour feet. But what use in moaning perpetually about all these wasted years? Let the dead past bury its dead.

Pakistan can still be rebuilt and reinvented. All we need is imagination…and how many times am I repeating this word? That and a measure of boldness. Leadership: that is what it is about. The lights can still come on, but there must be someone, someone strong and visionary, to discard all the rubbish, throw it to one side, catch opportunity by the arm and step boldly forward, untouched by imaginary fears.

We have already overcome our worst challenges, the struggles and sacrifices of the last two years amply testifying to this. Terrorism and violence were about to overwhelm Pakistan but these dangers while not conclusively defeated have been pushed back. Pakistan for all the challenges it faces is a safer place today than back then. We can now march forward.

Only trouble is, dumb leaders, especially those short on integrity and whose first order of business is to line their own pockets, just can’t do the trick.