Sunday, April 24, 2005

Trust Thy Neighbour

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar: Trust Thy Neighbour

If life had followed the predictable arc for President Musharraf, he would possibly have been running a think-tank NGO on strategic warfare by now. Instead he is making the running for history. Dr Manmohan Singh is not the kind of man who would have ever fantasised about being Prime Minister. But he has grasped the opportunity with consummate ease and a beguiling confidence. The two leaders are agreed on two things: that there is no sensible substitute for peace, and peace will come only when India and Pakistan melt the rigidity that has created confrontation and sparked off war.


A without speeches is not necessarily a speechless dinner. One of the paradoxes of official life in a capital city like Delhi is that the more speeches there are the more silence there is during the rest of the meal.

There were no official speeches on the agenda at the dinner that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hosted for President Pervez Musharraf on 16 April since the President had not come on an official visit, he had come to watch cricket. (The British had no idea what they were leaving behind; without English and cricket, where would our subcontinent be?) But at about five in the evening that Saturday the Pakistani delegation was informed that Prime Minister Singh would like to make a few remarks.

When Dr Manmohan Singh brought out a printed speech during dinner, the hearts of Pakistani officials accompanying President Musharraf began to flutter. No equivalent speech had been prepared in response. On the rising scale of gaffes, this was in the penthouse apartment. High commissioners have been known to lose their jobs for less. But President Musharraf lost neither his temper nor his composure. After Dr Singh finished an emotional and stirring paean to peace between India and Pakistan, President Musharraf offered an unscripted, impromptu response that his delegation now characterises as one of his finest. At least they were left speechless.

Our first image of President Musharraf, seen on television after the coup against Nawaz Sharif, was of a general playing with a silver gun. Our most recent image is that of a peacemaker with a silver tongue. How did the change come about?

Surprise winners of the power lottery have one significant advantage over elected leaders: they have nowhere to go but up. They begin from a base of such low expectations that they have to be particularly silly to sink further in the public esteem. It is not as if this cannot happen. Very little was expected for instance of President Yahya Khan of Pakistan, who replaced the long-serving Ayub Khan. His main responsibility was to bridge the time difference between a dictatorship and a democracy. He bungled it so badly that the country split.

An elected leader has quite a different problem. A newly-elected leader has the opposite problem. His or her peak moment comes with victory. The voter has delivered a decision and the more unexpected it is, the stronger the need for emotional (through speeches) and practical (through policies) recompense. It is hard for the most accomplished leader to deliver: witness the problems Mrs Indira Gandhi had after her astonishing victory in 1971 and her even more astonishing recovery in 1980. The Janata simply withered under the weight of great expectations between 1977 and 1979.

If life had followed the predictable arc for President Musharraf, he would possibly have been running a think-tank NGO on strategic warfare by now. Instead he is making the running for history. Dr Manmohan Singh is not the kind of man who would have ever fantasised about being Prime Minister. But he has grasped the opportunity with consummate ease and a beguiling confidence. The two leaders are agreed on two things: that there is no sensible substitute for peace, and peace will come only when India and Pakistan melt the rigidity that has created confrontation and sparked off war. Who would have expected an Indian Prime Minister to cauterise the hardliners of his own bureaucracy and stretch out a hand of welcome that was transparently honest, and which was trusted by yesterday’s foe? Who would have thought that a Pakistani President, and one in uniform at that, would have said on Indian soil that there could be no military solution to the Kashmir problem, or that the peace process was now "irreversible"? He was not being unrealistic. He also warned that if no solution was found, he could not vouch for what might happen in five or ten years.

Two questions, possibly asked with a bemused look. How did we arrive here? And where do we go next?

Indo-Pak relations are not propelled by a single fact or factor. A number of atoms keep whirling within the reactor for a long while until they develop critical mass. Here is a quick list. Peace can only be built on a foundation of confidence. Confidence is not a flash of revelatory lightning on the road of Damascus; it takes time and the variations of experience, for the brick and mortar of confidence is realism.

Seven years ago India and Pakistan went nuclear, and with that began the last phase of the war that started in 1947. It was a war of brinkmanship that tested nerves to the limit; that included a hot phase in Kargil, insurrection, the near-demolition of Parliament in New Delhi and a moment when America ordered its non-essential staff out of the subcontinent because it felt that a nuclear fallout was imminent. Nothing, they say, clears your mind faster than the prospect of a hanging. Minds began to clear at that point.

Nuclear power is the strength of a closed fist; God forbid that anyone should reveal what lies in that fist. The key to its utility is paradoxical. Since a nuclear war assures mutual destruction, it prevents war. Nuclear power has served to eliminate a street-dread in Pakistan that India can destroy the country because of its anger against partition. Visible evidence came when both sides retreated from war during their eight-month-long eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.

9/11 helped: after that momentous day in America, as President Musharraf pointed out, the world changed and a military solution was no longer possible. But that by itself was not enough. America influences the world, as any superpower would, but it does not control the seminal fluid of historic passions that give birth to war. Fundamental to the new spirit is the popular support in both countries for peace. It was cricket that once again permitted the two peoples to rediscover each other, and they began to wonder why they had been tricked into hatred when there was such obvious and natural fraternity. There is also a strong belief, particularly among the young, that elites have turned into an alibi for economic stagnation or at least insufficient progress. People are simply not ready to accept poor governance and poverty any longer, and governments — whether dictatorial or democratic — have to measure the cost of disaffection.

If Dr Singh is at the start of his first term in office, then President Musharraf is, in a sense, at the start of his second. Both need momentum. Both know that in the present climate a peace dividend can sustain their governments as well their own place at the top. They are also surely aware of the risks of failure. The President has to deal with hardliners who will wave that slightly stale label of appeasement, and he has faced assassination attempts from the war lobby already. Dr Singh could be outflanked as well, if not now a little later. While the senior leadership of the BJP is committed to the peace process thanks to Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee’s crucial role in it, the BJP is in flux. There is Narendra Modi waiting to win votes by blaming "Mian Musharraf" for a dozen crimes.

Can India and Pakistan continue their forward movement if there is no forward movement on Jammu and Kashmir? No. The formula for hope rests on three legs. Peace must have a real meaning for the people of Kashmir, on either side of the divide. This much is now understood by Delhi as well as Islamabad, which is why there is a bilateral commitment to soft borders. It is axiomatic that if the line melts in the Himalayas, then it will thaw even faster in Punjab and the plains. The next step is engagement with Kashmiri leaders of all hues. There has been significant change in this respect as well. While Delhi is ready to meet the Hurriyat (if Dr Singh’s offer had not been foolishly turned down, the talks could have already begun), President Musharraf has publicly accepted that there are other voices apart from the Hurriyat in the valley. Delhi and Islamabad have also realised that any "final solution" has to be both acceptable and sustainable, and this cannot happen without agreement between the two.

The promise of peace must not be confused with peace. The optimism has come from the change in dialectic, but all the hard work remains to be done. There is still a walk through a swamp ahead, with leaves as markers. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf will have to tread lightly at every step, occasionally helping each other out. This is going to need huge investment in trust. They will have to find it along the way, for the one missing from the Indo-Pak vault is trust.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

One Year Later

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar: One Year Later

There is a fundamental law of Indian politics: you can reach Delhi from which angle of the ideological prism you like, but when you reach the Centre you must rule from the center. The BJP could not run a government on the three wheels on which it ran its populist campaigns: the construction of a temple to Lord Ram on the site of the Babri mosque, which it helped destroy; the abolition of Article 370; and the enactment of a uniform civil code.

There is no evidence yet that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is planning any anniversary parties to celebrate his surprise elevation to the top job in India. But there is plenty to indicate that the BJP has begun to mark a year of its funeral with a spectacular civil war.

We know that a year ago the BJP-led government died in the general elections. Was the death of natural causes? Was it suicide? Was it murder? These are the vital questions that the Hindutva Parivar has grappled with for twelve-odd months without finding a convincing answer. After much deliberation, RSS head Sudarshan, chief justice of the Supreme Court of the BJP’s criminal-justice system, has reached a verdict of suicide and wants the two men who have led the party for the last quarter century to retire. But there remains some confusion about the verdict. Are Messrs Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani being punished for having lost the election or having lost their teeth? Were they wrong? Were they disobedient? Or are they simply too old for Mr Sudarshan, no spring chicken himself? The options are intriguing.

The fact that their election strategy failed is an old story. It doesn’t take a year to figure out that they fell on their face when trying to expand the BJP space at the expense of allies like DMK in Tamil Nadu, Asom Gano Parishad in Assam, Janata Dal(U) in Jharkhand and Lok Dal in Haryana. But the younger men and women in the party were equally guilty. There is no record of anyone having suggested that the party was heading towards the pavilion rather than the three-century mark. Moreover, the two elders have learnt to get along with each other. That is not a quality that the BJP’s Gen Next can boast of. The middle-aged leaders may have lost the elections, but they have not lost their egos.

Which of the younger leaders would Mr Sudarshan put in charge? The answer goes to the heart of a supplementary: did the BJP lose because of Vajpayee or because of Narendra Modi and the indelible scar of the Gujarat riots? I suspect that the RSS wants the two elders to make way for Narendra Modi, although that is not being said quite so plainly yet. For him, Narendra Modi is the solution rather than the problem. Mr Modi’s problem is not the BJP: the party’s knees get wobbly the moment it enters the vicinity of Nagpur. But the BJP is not yet ready to fight an election alone. It needs allies and its allies don’t need Narendra Modi.

The anger against Mr Vajpayee stems not from age but from disobedience, for he attempted to use power to reshape the party. He was, in a sense, trying to remake the BJP into a mirror of his preferred kind of government.

There is a fundamental law of Indian politics: you can reach Delhi from which angle of the ideological prism you like, but when you reach the Centre you must rule from the center. The BJP could not run a government on the three wheels on which it ran its populist campaigns: the construction of a temple to Lord Ram on the site of the Babri mosque, which it helped destroy; the abolition of Article 370; and the enactment of a uniform civil code. You do not have to be a Chanakya to recognise that all three are issues that are hostile to the sentiments of Muslims. Mr Vajpayee and Mr Advani, whatever the difference in nuance between them, could not run a government that was on principle hostile to Muslims. In six years of office, construction of a temple did not begin. The abolition of Article 370 was always an absurd idea, since it would sever the constitutional link with Jammu and Kashmir. And of course no one ever did anything more than pay lip service to the idea of a uniform civil code. The RSS is punishing Messrs Vajpayee and Advani for disloyalty to its agenda. It believes that prevarication cost the party power, and wants to retire them. But since political formations respect the social culture, such bloodletting will not be easy. Mr Vajpayee did not walk the plank after Mr Sudarshan’s fulminations. In a public speech he suggested that he might have lost his office but he had not yet lost his honour.

Confusion is the mantle of despair. Loss of government has turned the alleged swayamsevaks of the RSS into power-addicts. They can’t seem to survive without sniffing the glue of office each morning.

If the Opposition is fragile, the government is frail. Its principal redeeming feature remains the personality of the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, but while the goodwill generated by his integrity is fine, it is not good enough. The electorate has acquired a demanding voice. It expects a healthy government to deliver a child every nine months. So far the main things delivered to the people of India have been sermons in English. (It is a curious fact that all the leading lights of the Congress Party are far more comfortable in English than Hindi: Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Shivraj Patil, Natwar Singh, P. Chidambaram…) Sermons may be good for the soul but do very little for the stomach.

The principal achievement of the Manmohan Singh government has been the peace process with President Pervez Musharraf. So much of this process is atmospherics that there is always great danger of slippage over a stray phrase. Foreign minister Natwar Singh did indeed start off on a less than benign note, and it was not until Dr Manmohan Singh met President Musharraf in New York in September that stability returned, bringing back a whiff of promise.

There are facts, and then there are central facts. President Musharraf and Prime Minister Singh have done more in a few months than has been achieved in decades. The buses that softened the rigidity of the Line of Control are central facts, for they address the heart of the problem. Peace has meant many things to many people in the complex maze of Indo-Pak relations but it has rarely meant anything to the Kashmiris. One bus in fifteen days may not sound very dramatic, particularly when it remains vulnerable to mischief or accident, but a principle has been established that could begin to melt the difference. One sign is already visible. Militants who attacked the passengers on the eve of the first bus to Muzaffarabad are being disowned. Syed Salahuddin, commander in chief of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, now says that he believes that "no ‘freedom-fighter’ will attack or fire a single bullet on the bus". He also adds that he is ready for peace talks if invited by Delhi. This is not sudden conversion. He is responding to the strong surge for peace in the valley. Kashmir is the problem. Could the Kashmiri become the solution? The thought is not without its virtues.

President Musharraf made a remarkable statement on the eve of his weekend cricket diplomacy. He said that the peace process was now virtually irreversible. "Virtually" was a thin safety clause. Dr Manmohan Singh promised that the sky is the limit, without lifting his feet too much from the ground. This momentum took a long while building. The question is whether it has developed critical mass or not. If it has, issues like the costly (in terms of lives more than money) confrontation on the Siachen glacier will be resolved with nothing more dramatic than an application of common sense; there will be a dozen crossing points on the Line of Control; a route will open up on the western seas; and even artistes like Shobha Mudgal might get a visa without a hassle. This is all part of the common-sense regime.

If there is an application of uncommon wisdom, then the neighbours will start thinking about strategies for the next twenty years. President Musharraf has said more than once that we need to think out of the box. The problem of course is not the theory. What is the practical content of life outside the box? Where are the ideas that hinge on known dimensions but have the strength to chart a way forward? Is there space enough in the mind to accommodate the other? If Indians and Pakistanis begin but to think without aggression, and plan without malice the world will suddenly seem a different place. Think differently and symbols of war, like nuclear arsenals, can turn into means of strategic cooperation. All you need is the will to change a won’t. Will that happen over dinner and cricket? I won’t rule it out.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Next Moment

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar: The Next Moment

Two buses on 7 April crossed a psychological barrier as much as a physical one. For the first time since partition, the much-interrupted peace process has some real meaning for the Kashmiri people. For the first time in nearly six decades, the warmth on the dividing line comes not from the heat of artillery shells but from emotions beyond the reach of words. Only those who have been divided truly understand the meaning of partition

A decision creates a moment. A moment creates an opportunity, and history rides on the wheels of opportunity.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf created such a moment with the bus between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, and around it lie a range of opportunities and options that will shape the dialectic as well as the content of the India-Pakistan relationship. Significantly, opportunity could also lie outside the known script.

In that sense, April 6 could prove to be as significant as April 7. On the eve of the first bus to Muzaffarabad, militants attempted to sabotage the journey by the most brutal means conceivable — by killing all the passengers. This was in line with their threat to convert the bus into a coffin. One would have thought that this, at the very least, would have ensured better security in Srinagar. Mercifully, the passengers survived both the inept security and the trauma of the attack. Remarkably, not a single passenger changed his or her mind about the journey. The extraordinary emotional scenes when the buses reached their destinations, and the courage of the drivers and passengers, proved beyond doubt how far the militants have moved from the sentiment on the ground.

Those who believed that terrorism would succeed clearly did not think through the consequences. Their guns were trained on ordinary Kashmiris, the very people they were seeking to "liberate". Death must seem like a strange form of liberation. These passengers were not "Indian agents" or partisan politicians. It was actually a welcome fact that the nuances of politics had kept politicians out of the first bus, and left the moment to ordinary Kashmiris with a vested interest in nothing more, and nothing less, than a peaceful reunion with loved ones. In other words, the militants have succeeded in alienating those whose sympathy is essential to their cause.

They should have considered a second outcome. This was the first time that Delhi and Islamabad condemned the same terrorist attack — and meant it. No government can permit terrorism to sabotage an international agreement. If anything, it strengthened the resolve to protect the bus route.

Islamabad has been careful about its position-play. While Prime Minister Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi went to Srinagar to flag off the bus, President Musharraf stayed at home. Islamabad treats the bus link as an "internal" matter between two Kashmirs. (While the presence of Mr Singh and Mrs Gandhi was welcome, foreign minister Natwar Singh might have resisted the temptation of a photo opportunity.) The attack on the passengers however placed Delhi and Islamabad on the same side of an important barricade — the barricade against violence. The strong condemnation of the attack by the Pakistan media is an element of the same story.

Cynics carped. So what? What else should we expect from cynics? A fellow journalist from the audio-visual media asked me whether 18 people a day were going to bring eternal peace. I had to point out that 18 is an infinite number of times greater than zero. Indian television got hyper in its coverage of the attack, with some querulous microphone-holders virtually demanding that the bus be postponed if not scrapped. So what? Television is in the business of building ratings, not in the business of building peace.

The great question since 1 January 1949, the day a ceasefire line froze through Jammu and Kashmir, is whether this Line of Control has been drawn in stone or sand. It might seem unfashionably sentimental to say this, but I believe the tears of the Kashmiri people turned stone into sand. Dr Singh, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, General Musharraf and indeed Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee — for it was during his tenure that the idea was mooted and gained strength — deserve credit for listening to the aching murmurs of the Kashmiri heart.

Two buses on 7 April crossed a psychological barrier as much as a physical one. For the first time since partition, the much-interrupted peace process has some real meaning for the Kashmiri people. For the first time in nearly six decades, the warmth on the dividing line comes not from the heat of artillery shells but from emotions beyond the reach of words. Only those who have been divided truly understand the meaning of partition. History created two nations in 1947. That cannot be changed. But no history, not even the history of tyrants, gives governments the right to destroy the ties of kinship and friendship that keep human society humane.

I particularly enjoyed the remark of one passenger from Muzaffarabad who arrived without a single relative on our side of the Line of Control. Every Kashmiri was his relative, he said. Touché. It was extremely sensible of Delhi not to deny him an entry permit on such a technicality. If a tourist cannot come to Srinagar, where on earth should he go?

This warmth will melt much more than the tensions of Kashmir. Punjab is already beginning to stir. A series of visits between leaders of the two Punjabs has already generated hope that Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus who speak the same language and share the same culture will rediscover a shared economy, a shared literature and a shared life. There has been a minor Punjab Olympics that generated great enthusiasm earlier this year. A few weeks ago, thousands of Pakistanis came to Chandigarh to watch cricket and stayed to witness the future when thousands of Indians opened their homes to them. Independent nations must not punish their people and sentence them to life in a national prison. It was said once that while a British fort was meant to keep people out, Shah Jehan’s Red Fort was built to bring people in. That is the difference that confidence, or absence of it, makes.

Is it possible that I am reading too much into a bus journey? That is certainly possible. Has my wish for peace edged out the considerations of realpolitik and the power of saboteurs from this assessment? Again, I cannot rule that out. I know I am on the "weaker" side. War is a swooping hawk. The words and associations that go with conflict are "tough" and "masculine" and "hardheaded" and "realistic" and, most artfully, "patriotic". Peace is a fluttering dove, vulnerable to a brat’s stone, let alone the batteries of firepower. Peace is idealistic and therefore considered woolly-fuzzy. Peace does not march to the cadence of a martial band. Peace is a happy crowd thronging a bazaar rather than disciplined ranks in step with a heavy drum. Peace is feminine, and dismissed as weak; a pool of goodwill (never considered good enough) rather than a raging torrent distributing both positive and negative energy. Peace is limp, conflict is muscular. Nations are governed by hard heads, not trembling sensibilities.

But while there is triumphalism in conflict, there is no joy in it. Any soldier who stakes his life upon his oath knows that he should be a government’s last resort, not an adventurist’s first move. A nation may be won by the sword, but it can only be built by the ploughshare.

Could there be regress? Of course there could. Could this burst of optimism degenerate into another swamp swarming with the usual dangers? Yes again, if Delhi and Islamabad treat the bus through Kashmir as a crowning achievement rather than the beginning of yet another difficult but no longer hopeless phase in their relationship.

It is not entirely fortuitous that President Musharraf has sought the excuse of a cricket match in Delhi and Prime Minister Singh has agreed to host him within less than a fortnight of the start of the bus. That will provide the opportunity to set the parameters of the next phase of the relationship. There has to be a sustained and sustainable dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir, as well as pace in the eco-political equation. India cannot shy away from Kashmir and Pakistan cannot shy away from trade.

There are creative opportunities awaiting thought. Imagination and initiative have set up a gas pipeline that both India and Pakistan have defended against an American objection. There is much thinking to do on subjects like nuclear doctrine, and the objective use of strength to protect our common economic interests. History awaits the next moment.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Vicar

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by M.J.Akbar : The Vicar


Death sells, otherwise it would not be on television. Death has always been news, obviously. But the death of Diana, queen-apparent of Britain, turned death into a brand-builder.

Diana was dead when television picked up the reaction, but her funeral became the template. Greatness is now measured by television footage. There is nothing wrong or unethical about this, for television is the mass medium of the moment, in a way print could never be, since television news has all the elements that the masses want: it is audio-visual rather than intellectual, it is specific rather than elaborate, and it is free. The length of the camera’s vigil is proof that John Paul II is on the short list of great Popes. Add the fact that he is the only Pope to feature in a comic book, and you need no more evidence that he has the popular vote.

Karol Jozef Wojtyla, who took the name of John Paul upon his election as Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Successor of St. Peter, Prince of Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy and Sovereign of Vatican City, became convinced of his destiny not when he became Pope on 16 October 1978 after the sudden death of John Paul I, but after an assassin’s bullet failed to kill him on 13 May 1981.

The strange story goes back to another 13 May, during the First World War. On 13 May 1917, the Virgin Mary, in a size no larger than a doll, appeared in a vision to three peasant children in a Portuguese village called Fatimah, and told them three things about the future. The first was that the Great War would end soon. The second was that a second world war would begin if Christians did not pray to her. The third revelation was considered so volatile that it was kept secret in the archives of the Vatican. There would be an attempt on the life of a Pope by an atheist, after which the atheist empire would be brought down.

It was not as if a Pope had never been assassinated. By far the larger number of Popes has been more political than ecclesiastical, playing a vigorous role in the politics of Europe and sometimes paying the price of politics. The first Pope to be assassinated was John VIII — the slightly inadequate poison took so long to take effect that the assassins decided to speed things up by clubbing him. Other inventive methods to get rid of Popes included placing crushed glass in figs or lemons offered to the Holy Father. But the gradual separation of Church and State in Europe changed the nature of a Pope’s power and reduced his vulnerability. Popes now expect to die a normal death.

On 13 May 1981, a Turk called Mehmet Ali Agca, in the pay of the Soviet bloc, fired twice at the Pope in Rome. A bullet lodged in his body, but he survived. Later, the Pope visited Agca in his prison to forgive him, and heard Agca say, in astonishment, "How is it that I did not kill you?" Pope John Paul II offered the bullet extracted from his body at the shrine of Virgin Mary in Fatimah. He knew who had saved him. He also knew that it was his destiny to make the revelation come true. He had in fact started such a mission much before 1981.

When Karol Wojtyla became Pope, Yuri Andropov, the celebrated chief of the KGB and later head of the Soviet Union, apparently warned the Politburo that there would be trouble ahead. They did not have to wait long. Within a year of his election he visited Poland, then still a member of the Communist bloc, and told a million-strong crowd, "You are men. You have dignity. Don’t crawl on your bellies." Now that much more than a decade has passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and we have the virtue of hindsight, those three sentences sound very much like the beginning of the end. He made history, and therefore has a right to be considered historic.

He was a believer in the classic mould, without private doubt or cynicism. His crusades were against atheism, rather than another faith. He made no secret of his antipathy to Godless communism, and once angered Buddhists by describing their religion as a largely "atheistic system". Buddhist priests boycotted his visit to Sri Lanka. In contrast, he repaired relations with Jews. He was the first Pope to visit a synagogue and the memorial to the Holocaust at Auschwitz. Very correctly, he described Jews as "our elder brothers": Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe in the same line of Prophets from Adam through Abraham, differing only in who they consider the last messenger of their God. Jesus, the saviour of Christians, is venerated in the Quran as a "Ruhollah", or a prophet blessed with the spirit of Allah; and the virginity of Mary is also a Quranic belief, although the Quran rejects any attribution of divinity to Jesus, considering the one God to be indivisible. He reached out to Islam as well, condemning the Crusades. This might seem a trifle irrelevant, until you examine some of the rhetoric used in contemporary political debate. He may have cooperated with the White House and the CIA in bringing down the Soviet Empire, but he was resolute in his condemnation of the American war in Iraq. He had deep contempt for materialism, often suggesting that little good could come out of an addictive consumerism that defined the modern economy.

Faith is such a rarity now even among the faithful, that John Paul’s conviction in the fundamentals of traditional Vatican doctrine could hardly be popular among liberals. His position on birth control is well-known; he refused to give permission to wear condoms even if the risk was to life. Mother Teresa, who he adored, had similar views. The Catholic Church under him thereby finessed itself out of the debate on AIDS. He hesitated to criticise misconduct of his priests, even when the misconduct was sexual.

Men of power are not immune to contradictions; they must be judged on the tilt of the balance. Personally speaking, and without meaning to hurt any sentiment, Pope John Paul’s contribution to the edifice of the international Church that was his parish is less important than his contribution to the idea of faith. The battle between faiths has been superseded by the battle for faith against the spreading triumph of rationalism. Faith is not rational. Faith is moral, ethical, doctrinaire and inspirational. Faith believes that there are limits to man’s knowledge: he can, for instance, understand how he is born, but not why. He must leave the why to God. As the verse from the Quran that is recited during a funeral ("Inna li-llahi wa inna ilay-hi raji’un") puts it, we belong to God, and we return to God. In an age that raises intellect to the power of prophecy and science to the status of a religion, John Paul believed in a faith that could move mountains. He did move one whole range of mountains, when he took on the Soviet empire. He was never ashamed of the tears shed in prayer. A sufi would have understood this. You do not have to agree with Pope John Paul in order to respect him.

For a believer the strange tale of the prophecy of the Holy Mother in the village of Fatimah would not have been strange at all. His sense of history would be deeply imbued with the doctrine of predetermination, the belief that nothing happens except by God’s will. Does that make him "backward" and "pre-modern", a dinosaur from some "pre-enlightenment" age? There are doubtless people who think so. Strangely, the one quality that unbelief does not possess is humility. It needs must condemn the other to contempt. Three centuries ago the Church sent the heretic to the stake; today, the heretic sends the believer into the bear’s pit of ridicule. The behaviour of reason has not been as reasonable as you might expect.

Pope John Paul II believed in miracles. He lived beyond the age of reason.