When it comes to prescribing solutions to issues and challenges facing Pakistan, or processes to ameliorate them, there is no shortage of opinions and analyses. Many of these are intelligent, informed and relevant – indeed excellent. Many are not. But even the latter are not irrelevant because they often better reflect the texture of the political and social fabric from which a way forward will need to be tailored.

That is why textbook solutions often do not apply. They are abstracted from specific social and political contexts in which habits of mind, norms of society, criteria of respectability, attitudes towards established authority and sacred texts, etc can vary considerably from what to the contemporary ‘educated’ mind may be commonsense and reason. In fact, the very notion that the welfare of the people is the overriding priority of public policy is not universally accepted. The notion of welfare itself is contested, and other mundane and supra-mundane goals are often prioritised above conventional and modern notions of human welfare.

Let us take, for example, the equality of men and women. Contemporary reason and commonsense, deriving from an accumulated body of ethical reflection, scientific investigation, anthropological and sociological studies and, not least, human intuition and a political tradition of agitation and struggle on behalf of women’s rights, would insist there is no acceptable basis for maintaining any form of gender discrimination.

But this is a culturally, socially and politically evolved consensus that cannot be directly transplanted to a Muslim society and culture where such evolution has not yet sufficiently occurred, even if at an intellectual level an ‘enlightened’ interpretation of Islamic injunctions accepts the arguments for gender equality. In practice, distorted, literal and de-contextualised interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah are insisted upon in the name of their absolute and eternal validity. In fact the dominant interpretations of today derive from after the Prophet (pbuh) and they do not always do justice to the Message of Islam.

But ‘practical’ politicians will not find such arguments convenient in the milieu in which they operate. The result is that contemporary Muslim individuals and communities have largely remained spiritually circumscribed, socially stunted and politically unable to defend their interests and rights in an age of information and technology. In this ruthlessly globalising world, such failure will increasingly lead to political extinction.

One way out is a belief in which the real world is the hereafter, where losers are transformed into winners. This way out has over the centuries been internalised and institutionalised in Muslim societies. The politics of these societies rests on a refusal to challenge these developments even though they contradict the message, purpose and early history of Islam. By and large, contemporary political leaders in Pakistan dress themselves in a political religiosity that actually involves a denial of true faith.

There have always been enlightened Muslim individuals who have taught the true humanitarian meaning and purpose of Islam. However, they have always been shouted down by official interpreters of the faith on behalf of established authority and power. These official interpreters have held legal and institutional sway over the masses. Nevertheless, the Sufi masters and their teachings of universal love, brotherhood and self-realisation, while eking out an honest living in the world, have never lost their appeal and resonance in the religious imagination of the people.

But this humanitarian and ethical sensibility has been increasingly challenged and overwhelmed by a pathological political impulse to preserve a structure of faith – against the ravages of external forces too strong to beat back – at the cost of denuding the faith of its living essence. It is this essence that embeds the changing and the ephemeral in the universal and eternal, and makes Islam relevant to all ages – past, present and future.

That is why militancy, which seeks to keep the 21st century at bay, is an enemy of the faith it pretends to defend through an implacable violation of its fundamental tenets and essence. Tragically, such militancy finds allies among ‘pious and practical’ leaders who lend it support in return for an overlooking of their own decadence. A deal made in Hell in the name of Heaven!

As a result, a Muslim father, who seeks to murder his ten-year-old child because she has been mercilessly raped in a mosque by a sick mullah, is considered to be planning an ‘act of honour’, which is somehow compatible with a somewhat unenlightened observance of the faith! And our political leaders shake their heads, endlessly reiterate pledges of ‘zero tolerance’, and ‘move on’ to handling the next outrage in their usual deft, experienced and photo-op manner. All bases are covered!

Such leaders embody democracy and progress in Pakistan today. In the comfort of their acquisitions they worry about the dangers of agitation and struggle, including stirring up the masses against the seductions of incremental democracy and invisible progress. Meanwhile those who espouse a different idea of democracy, progress and faith are threatened by murderous guardians of a distorted faith. Who is served?

What is to be done? We talk of democracy; good governance; liberalism; secularism; moderation; the rule of law; institutions; capacity building; top-down and bottom-up; breaking begging bowls; human rights and human resource development; public goods and basic services; eliminating poverty, corruption and preventable disease; education and other jihads; unleashing the creativity of market forces; regulations and safety nets; good relations with neighbours, friends and all mankind; resolving outstanding disputes; national security and national development; asserting government writ and redressing grievances of the alienated; etc. Cleverer people can, of course, extend the list forever.

But what do we mean by all of the above? We mean what we do. Since the people don’t think we do much we have ministers and ministries to proclaim what has been done. Polls are accordingly designed. Goebbels had a point when he said if you say something loud enough and long enough it becomes received truth… until reality catches up. Well, reality has caught up with Pakistan, several times, and it has made no difference, yet. Maybe this is a form of resilience!

Is the situation impossible? Too complex and entrenched? A question of not having the right ideas or leaders? Too little faith? The natural order? External conspiracies? Low level equilibria? Divine punishment? Qismat? Of course, it is none of these. Everything can be done and has been done – elsewhere. Can what needs to be done, be done – even here? For sure. But not with this lot. Or this rotten system. There are no manuals or Dogar answer books. There is only education, due diligence and rational choice.

The required task of nation-building is vast, difficult and extended. A thousand mile journey is made up of millions of steps – in the right direction. Reinforcing steps, not false or retreating steps. The people have to be organised and empowered with the conviction they have the potential to begin and continue their epic journey.

We are so far from such a work in progress that even referring to its possibility seems idealistic, irrelevant and idiotic. But actually struggle is the very stuff of human history. It requires participants more than leaders. If we do not make the effort, or just gesture towards it, we will deserve our national fate, which so many of our so-called leaders, who constantly update their exit strategies, are willing to treat as Allah’s will. That would be an obscenity.

To pin the responsibility for the deliberate neglect of ‘haqooq al ‘ibaad’ (the rights of God’s faithful) in their charge on Allah’s will! Astaghfarullah!

Will August 14 turn out to be seminal?

The writer is a former envoy to the US and India.