How do you say, “Happy Valentine’s Day” in Urdu, the elegant national language of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? The answer is: You don’t.
On February 13, the High Court in Islamabad banned the celebration of Valentine’s Day. The court has ruled against advertising and the distribution of Valentine’s Day merchandise, and it has prohibited celebration “in any public space or government building.”
Valentine’s Day receives mixed reviews with the Pakistani public. Much of the middle and upper middle class is quite Anglicized and observes some Western traditions, manners, and tastes in dress, literature, and speech. However, there is much paranoia about Islamist fundamentalism, which dominates regions such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly the North-west Frontier Province, the capital of which is Peshawar, as well as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that have a porous border with Afghanistan and very limited writ of authority on the part of Islamabad. And the Pakistani chapter of Al-Qaeda has made inroads into the commercial and industrial city of Karachi. Valentine’s Day is seen by some parts of the population as a Western tradition inconsistent with Muslim values — basically a threat.
Doubtless Valentine’s Day will be celebrated in private, and some of the middle and upper classes will laugh it off, knowing that the court’s order is for consumption by anti-Western zealots who must be placated from time to time. But lurking in their imagination must be the image of an ideological coup in Islamabad, and if that happens, the hangman’s noose could be working overtime. It is reminiscent of a grim stanza of “The Ballad of the King’s Mercy” by Rudyard Kipling, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1907:
Before the old Peshawur Gate…
The Governor of Kabul dealt the Justice of the Street,
And that was strait as running noose and swift as plunging knife,
Tho’ he who held the longer purse might hold the longer life.
A coup in Islamabad would probably not feature the image of jihadists in dusty turbans with Kalashnikov automatic rifles — atop Toyota trucks swarming into the modern city constructed in the 1960s. To the contrary, it could likely be an ideological movement where pro-Islamist elements of the Inter-Services Intelligence and Pakistan Army collude to eliminate Western influence. The instigators would not look like our notion of fanatics, and would likely be civil servants and members of establishment. Indeed the Iranian Revolution was a largely unseen ideological takeover where hardly a shot was fired.
In neighboring India by contrast, Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in recent years. India has an estimated 180 million Muslims who are mainly secular. However, there is also a small vocal right-wing Hindu minority that sees Valentine’s Day as an affront to traditional values.
In Urdu, Pakistan means “Land of the Pure.” A truly purist approach for the country would mean banning English, which is widely spoken. It would mean adopting Sharia law throughout the country, which maintains a respected Western judiciary and legal system for commerce and industry but accepts Sharia for rural and family disputes, particularly in tribal areas. It would mean grounding or giving back to the U.S. much of the Pakistan Air Force, which relies heavily on nuclear enabled F-16s manufactured by the U.S. firm, General Dynamics — and China would joyfully rush to fill the void. And it would mean banning consumer goods that while made mainly in Pakistan, nonetheless reflect Western conceits and habits. The consequences of such purity for direct and indigenous investment, regional security, and the economy are of course too ghastly to contemplate.
Pakistan is a sophisticated and complicated country with much industrial and commercial capacity. It is engaged in a struggle for its essence, with Islamist forces lined up against those of Western democratic capitalism. One would think that its judiciary would have better things to do than fret about Valentine’s Day, named after a martyred saint.
But we can be sure of one thing: there is laughter and smirking in New Delhi.