By SABRINA TAVERNISE
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.
Courtesy: The New York Times