Saturday, 2 May 2009

Pakistan: Struggling to See a Country of Shards



The New York Times
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
Published: May 2, 2009

LAHORE, Pakistan — On a spring night in Lahore, I came face to face with all that is puzzling about Pakistan.

I had just interviewed Mobarak Haidar, a Pakistani author who was confidently predicting the end of the world. Islamic extremism, he said, was a wild animal that would soon gobble up Europe and all of Western civilization. “All the world’s achievements for the past 500 years are at risk,” he said in a gloomy tone, sitting in his living room. Soon there would be no more music, dancing or fun of any kind. The power went out and candles were lit, adding to the spookiness.

And then, as I climbed into a car to go home, a wedding party came out of nowhere, enveloping us in a shower of rose petals. Men playing bagpipes marched toward us, grinning, while dancing guests wriggled and clapped, making strange-shaped silhouettes in our headlights.

So which is the real Pakistan? Collapsing state or crazy party?

The answer is both, which is why this country of 170 million people is so hard to figure out.

Pakistan has several selves. There is rural Pakistan, where two-thirds of the country lives in conditions that approximate the 13th century. There is urban Pakistan, where the British-accented, Princeton-educated elite sip cold drinks in clipped gardens.

The rugged mountains of the west are inhabited by fiercely tribal Pashtuns, many of whom live without running water or electricity; there, an open Taliban insurgency seems beyond the central government’s control. In the lush plains of Punjab in the east, the insurgency is still underground, and the major highways are as smooth as any in the American Midwest.

The place where these two areas meet is the front line of Pakistan’s war — valleys and towns less than 100 miles from the country’s capital, Islamabad. Taliban militants, whose talk is part Marx, part mullah, but whose goal is power, now occupy this area. In recent weeks they pushed into Buner, even closer to the capital, and last week the military, after weeks of inaction, began a drive against them.

The war, in a way, is a telling clash between Pakistan’s competing impulses, so different that they are hard to see together in the same frame.

“It’s like when people try to take snapshots, but the contrast is too sharp,” said Feisal Naqvi, a Lahore-based lawyer. “You only capture a little bit of the real picture.”

Islam is perhaps the only constant in this picture. Pakistan, after all, was established in 1947 so the Muslims of the subcontinent would have their own country after independence from Britain. The rest became India, a multifaith, Hindu-majority constitutional republic.

But Pakistan didn’t declare itself an Islamic republic until 1956. In its early years, Pakistan’s liberals will remind you, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder, delivered two speeches in which he said that Pakistan would not be a theocracy and that citizens of other religions would be free to practice.

Nevertheless, Islam became a powerful glue for the new nation; subsequent leaders, civilian and military, relied on it to stick the patchwork of ethnicities and tribes together. Then, like a genie out of a bottle, it took a direction all its own. “Once you bring Islam into politics, it’s hard to handle,” Mr. Naqvi said. “You don’t have the tools to control it.”

Young countries have long memories, and Pakistanis have not forgotten (or forgiven) the actions of the United States since the 1980s, when its spy agency, together with Pakistan’s own, backed Islamists fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Soon after the Soviets left, Washington withdrew its aid to Pakistan, and the Islamists were left with their own safe haven.

“The Americans just walked out, and Pakistan became the most sanctioned state in the world,” said Najam Sethi, editor of The Daily Times, a newspaper. “That has now created a powder keg of sympathy for the Taliban.”

Like splinters in fingers, these memories continue to irritate. They came tumbling out in a candle-lit room (again, no power) full of journalists in Muzaffargarh, a town in southern Punjab where militants had recently issued threats. Instead of hearing about those threats, though, I was reminded of grievances against America.

“Baitullah Mehsud is the puppet of the C.I.A.,” sputtered Allah B. Mujahid, a newspaper editor in his 50s, referring to the Pakistani Taliban’s leader. A man in thick glasses blurted out: “America has supported dictators in Pakistan!”

Now Pakistan, a young state still wrestling with growing pains and insecurity, is at a turning point. It is in danger of being strangled by Islamic extremism, and the big question is: What will it take for its people and its government to shake off the confusion and stand up to the militants?

Manan Ahmed, a University of Chicago historian, says such an effort would require a fundamental rethinking of Pakistan’s identity. Pakistan, he argues in his blog, Chapati Mystery, never defined what it meant to be a Muslim state. Is it Saudi Arabia? Is it Turkey?

“Somewhere between the Taliban and the drone,” he wrote, “the Pakistanis have to begin forming a sense of their whole.”

Some argue that Pakistanis should return to their roots. For centuries they practiced a tolerant South Asian form of Islam, heavily influenced by Sufism, a mystical, open-minded blend that worshipped in music and dance. The trouble began in the 19th century with the strict Sunni Deobandis, who rejected all that was modern, even nation-states, and demanded a return to the seventh century, when Islam began.

For them, “laughter is not permitted, not even a full smile,” said Mr. Haidar, the writer in Lahore.

Pakistan is not a collapsed state. Its urban infrastructure works far better than most of the Soviet Union’s during that empire’s peak. Pakistan has a national airline that sells tickets online, and highway rest stops with air-conditioning and packaged cookies. But the poorest Pakistanis know nothing of these things, and the bigger the gap between rich and poor, the more likely are major social unrest and war.

“This is really a war for the soul of Pakistan,” Mr. Sethi said.

Pakistanis may have restored civilian rule in the last year, but few of them pin much hope on Pakistan’s political class, most of which comes from the landed elite and has ruled corruptly in the past.

There’s the lawyers’ movement, which recently showed it has a national following. But will it harness its power to stand up to the mullahs now on the rise in the north? Does it want to?

Mr. Sethi says the movement will not. In the short six weeks since it challenged the government and won, he said, it has retreated to its old ethnic and class divisions. It has not, for example, come to the aid of embattled colleagues in the courts of Swat and Dir, areas the Taliban have seized.

Insurgencies can only be stamped out if societies turn against them, and Mr. Sethi said he believed that Pakistan’s brightest hope for salvation may be the clumsiness of the Taliban themselves. In recent weeks, they have offended many Pakistanis by defending the public flogging of a girl and declaring Pakistan’s Constitution, Supreme Court and National Assembly un-Islamic.

Although the militant Islam preached by the Taliban is alien to most Pakistanis, many had identified with the Taliban as a native movement fighting foreign occupiers on their borders. Now, Mr. Sethi said, “after so many years, people are now looking askance at the Taliban. People are saying, ‘They might be anti-American, but they are also anti-us!’ ” He said this was a moment that Islamabad and Washington must seize.

But there are many ifs.

Mr. Naqvi shared a memory from the final day of the recent lawyers’ march to celebrate a victory over the government. The sun was shining. Crowds were celebrating. Among them, a lawyer was holding a giant silver rattle, dancing and wiggling his body. He was shouting a longstanding slogan of the religious right: “What is the meaning of Pakistan? There is no God but Allah.”

For me, a newcomer to Pakistan, the thoughts seemed mismatched — almost as if the man was changing the subject, rather than answering a question. Mr. Naqvi saw a contrast of his own — a modern lawyer dancing to a fundamentalist chant.

“Who is Pakistan?” he asked. “I think it’s that guy dancing. It’s confused. But it’s us.”

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