Scholars who have made it their life's work to study Pakistan often conclude that the only thing that unites this discordant nation of tribes, ethnicities, cultures and languages is religion. In 1947 the nation was born as an Islamic state, a refuge for a persecuted minority fleeing the Hindu dominance of India, newly liberated from colonial rule. Yet 60-odd years later, even as contraband Johnny Walker is liberally poured into the glasses of those who can afford it, Shari'a, or Islamic law, is declared in a district not far from the capital as a concession to the Taliban. Islam no longer unites; it divides. In its place rises a new unifier: cricket.
This is not as far-fetched as it might first sound. A friend in Karachi educated, a staunch feminist and usually disparaging of all things religious invokes a popular ditty every time the game is brought up: "I don't like cricket; I love it," she chants (after the 1978 10cc number "Dreadlock Holiday"). When I interviewed one of the founding members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group suspected of orchestrating November's terrorist attacks on Mumbai, the ice was broken with a discussion of a cricket match. And when I visited a conservative seminary campus in Muridke, near Lahore, I was greeted with the timeless scene of young men bowling and batting through the mist rising off a well-tended pitch. They were bearded and wore their trousers hiked up above their ankles in the manner of the Prophet Muhammad. Even foreigners are touched by cricket mania. Afghanistan, never a cricket-playing nation, is well on its way to the 2011 World Cup through the skills acquired by players who grew up in Pakistani refugee camps near the border.
So when, on March 3, the true national religion was targeted in an audacious commando-style attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team making its way to a test match in Lahore, the response was predictably overwhelming. Candlelight vigils were held not only at the scene of the attack, where six policemen and a bus driver died, but across the country. Entire newspapers were dedicated to coverage and editorials lambasted the attackers in an unusually united voice. Television anchors quivered in anger as they described the precipitous, and understandable, departure of the Sri Lankan team after the seven wounded players were released from the hospital. "They were our guests," Pakistani Sports Minister Aftab Gilani told the Indian network NDTV. "We are very sorry about this; it's really shocking." (See pictures of the attack on the Sri Lankan team.)
Pakistan is already an international cricket pariah Australia, England and New Zealand pulled out of matches in 2008, citing security concerns. When India, too, boycotted the early March test match following the Mumbai attacks, Sri Lanka graciously stepped in to save international cricket in Pakistan. No longer. Pakistan had been picked as a co-host for the upcoming World Cup, but immediately following the Lahore attack International Cricket Council chief executive Haroon Lorgat told reporters in London, "It's difficult to see international cricket being played in Pakistan for the foreseeable future. It will be very challenging for us to be convinced that Pakistan is a safe venue."
As far as terror attacks go in Pakistan, the damage was relatively minor. The 12 terrorists, divided into teams of two, were well-trained and armed with grenades, rocket launchers and automatic weapons. Like the Mumbai attackers, they carried backpacks filled with extra ammunition and explosives. But where the comparison doesn't work in scale and numbers 165 died in the Mumbai attacks the damage to the national psyche may be similar.
Mumbai has always been the heartbeat of India. An attack on that city is an assault not just on a financial capital but on a national cultural identity seen through the prism of Bollywood movies and on a pluralistic ideal embodied in its diverse masses. Pakistan has no such geographic center. Its cities are defined by their ethnic makeup and their provincial politics. So an attack on one location rarely resonates beyond regional boundaries. But an attack on cricket is a body blow that will not so easily be shrugged off. Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricket star turned politician, scoffed at the Australians when they decided not to play in Pakistan last year. No terrorist would dare threaten the one thing all Pakistanis hold sacred, Khan reasoned, for fear of the inevitable backlash. Sadly and tragically, Khan has now been proved wrong.
When Pakistanis find something unjust or unsporting, they like to say, "It's not cricket." The Lahore attacks were not cricket. Now, perhaps, someone will be moved to do something about it.