Was Jinnah a saint or sinner?

Lord Mountbatten called Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, a vain, evil genius. A new film attempts to rehabilitate him as a tolerant secularist and as the model for a modern Muslim leader.
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In the end the sex was a bit of a disappointment. We had been promised, in advance press reports, that we would see Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, revealed as a bisexual and that we would witness new details of the steamy affair between Mountbatten's wife, Edwina, and the first prime minister of India, Pandit Nehru.

Of all that, more later. In the event there was something far more interesting about Jinnah, the new film by the director Jamil Dehlavi and the academic Akbar Ahmed, which was such a sell-out when it was premiered earlier this month at the London Film Festival, that a second screening has been organised next week before it goes on general release.

For it asks a question which is not historical but very much of our time: who speaks for Islam? And it posits the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, as the exemplar of a tolerant, open, democratic style of Muslim leadership - in contrast to the archetypes of the mad mullah and the military dictator which dominate our contemporary view of the religion of Mohammed.

The film is Pakistan's answer to what it saw as the travesty of their great founder hero as he was portrayed in Richard Attenborough's movie Gandhi. Not that Jinnah has been universally acclaimed in Pakistan. A bitter and vitriolic campaign has been launched against the film there with the nation's biggest English-language paper carrying a front- page condemnation because of the actor chosen to play the great national hero - Christopher Lee. (The piece was accompanied by an old Hammer horror pic of Lee as Dracula, complete with fanged teeth.) And this came on top of the row about a white actor blacking up for the role which had blown up earlier when Jeremy Irons was mooted for the part.

Such was the furore that the man who has inspired and produced the film, the Cambridge don and Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed, was forced to chair a press conference in Karachi flanked by historians and former government ministers to defend the project from all sides. It had achieved the unenviable distinction of being attacked in India as Pakistani propaganda and in Jinnah's home country as both a Hindu and a Zionist plot.

Rewriting history is, of course, always contentious. And viewing the past merely as a lens through which to endorse our view of the present is the fallacy which the great historian Herbert Butterfield warned against in The Whig Interpretation Of History. Yet Professor Ahmed felt he had no alternative after the portrait of his hero in Attenborough's film. In Gandhi Jinnah is portrayed as a glowering sulking villain - intransigent, power-hungry and impervious to the dangers of breaking up British India and the million deaths which ensued at the partition of the subcontinent.

The slander, in Akbar Ahmed's eyes, goes well beyond the cinema. Lord Mountbatten - while publicly claiming he was entirely impartial between Jinnah's Pakistan and Nehru's India - privately called the Muslim leader everything from vain and megalomaniacal to an evil genius, a lunatic, a psychotic case and "a bastard". By contrast Ahmed's film - and the book, TV documentary and Pakistani comic-book which are also part of the rehabilitation project - sees Jinnah as a complex and sensitive figure whose political views evolved and altered significantly during his lifetime (going from a pan-religious Indian nationalist to a Muslim separatist) in response to the events which were forced upon him by the British, Nehru and the man he describes as "wily old Gandhi".

"Jinnah has always been seen as a blackguard - but, in fact, he was unimpeachable in his integrity," Ahmed said. His research included the first published interviews with Jinnah's daughter and private secretary. They revealed that the Pakistani leader knew about the affair between Nehru and Edwina. "He was given four love letters from Nehru to Edwina by a Hindu rival to Nehru. The rival was confident that Jinnah would publish them in a newspaper. But instead Jinnah said gutter politics was not his style and that he'd rather not have an independent Pakistan if it meant resorting to that."

Tussling with this welter of historical detail clearly threw up a number of dilemmas for Ahmed. There will be many who feel that he took the pusillanimous options in his attempt to come up with Pakistan's answer to Braveheart. The sex between Edwina and Nehru is hinted at in the gentlest of ways. Louis Mountbatten's sexual ambiguity - or at least his lack of jealousy at his wife's relationship with the Indian leader - remains enigmatic. And scenes which revealed Jinnah to be (in contravention of Muslim law) a whisky-drinker, albeit in moderation, were cut.

The result is a curiously dated, endearingly innocent Fifties style of film, full of unmuddled decency and heroic virtue. But there is more behind the hagiography than the mere desire to ensure that the film is not banned as indecent in Muslim countries. For Jinnah stands for a way of being an Islamic leader which has fallen from the lexicon of contemporary politics.

Pakistanis, Ahmed insists, need to be reminded of the tough-minded, secularist pluralist who created their nation. More than that, Jinnah offers an example to the wider Muslim world. "Here is a man who wants to balance tradition and modernity, who is speaking as a Muslim but also as a man who says that Islam is tolerant," said Ahmed. "Jinnah is a modern Muslim leader who believes in human rights, minority rights and women's rights and who - in a nation now tainted by corruption - was a man of total integrity, taking only one rupee a month as his pay."

Yet the Jinnah model has now almost faded from view. Many Pakistanis under the age of 30 have never even heard of him. "Their idea of an Islamic leader is a military dictator like Saddam, or the `mad mullah' model of Afghanistan or Iran," he said. "Many people have latterly been taught to regard Jinnah as a secular figure but he spent his life fighting for a kind of Islam which showed respect for law, for the rights of women and of minorities - things which the Prophet Mohammed himself insisted upon."

In one sense this is familiar territory for Akbar Ahmed. During the Rushdie crisis he spent many hours mediating between the positions of fundamentalists in the Muslim and libertarian camps, explaining that Rushdie was guilty of needless blasphemy - for which he should atone - but unequivocally condemning the fatwa which condemned the author to death.

In many parts of the world today Islam, or a particular interpretation of it, has rushed into the vacuum in which angry, alienated young Muslims exist. "It gives them a sense of pride, identity and strength - and the notion that they have the ability to shake the most powerful nation on earth with a few bombs," Ahmed said. In countries where the state is strong the result is military dictatorship; where the state is weak the result is mullah-led theocracy.

"The Jinnah model is much more ambiguous, yet if it is not kept before the eyes of young Muslims then they will turn to a Gaddafi or Khomeini figure," he said.

Either that or they will descend into the morass of myopia, corruption and caprice which he says characterises modern-day Pakistan. Over the past two decades the state Jinnah founded has undergone successive periods of martial law, abortive military coups and states of emergency - in which only one president has completed his term, prime ministers have been dismissed eight times, one prime minister was assassinated, one executed, and eight parliaments have been prematurely dissolved.

Jinnah would be horrified at the distortion which has grown from his ideal of a secular state, Akbar Ahmed insists. "Now, more than ever, Muslims need to be reminded that there is another way."