Constructing a Portrait of Pakistan through the Stories of Its People

During her travels across Pakistan, Pamela Constable, a veteran foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, dropped in on the campus of Punjab University in Lahore, a city of 10 million, the scene of terrorist bombings and the cultural capital of the nation. By cultural capital, residents generally refer to the fading Mughal monuments and, to a lesser extent, the lively contemporary art scene at the National College of Arts.

The university, the country’s largest, has little to do with these two attributes of Lahore.   The campus has been a crucible of Islamic radicalism for a decade. Ms. Constable’s visit, she recounts in her new book, “Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War With Itself,” was spurred by the news that students belonging to Jamiat-e-Tulaba, a radical Islamic group affiliated with a national religious party, had beaten a dean who dared to expel some of its members.

She had not been on the campus for two years. When she arrived in the spring of 2010, she was amazed, she writes, by how much power the group wielded. A student told her: “We are good Muslims, so when on campus boys cross the limits, we have to check them. Some of the values that come from the West do not belong in our society, and we cannot allow them to be practiced on our campus.” When pressed, the student listed: “Things like drugs, music, media, relations with girls.”

This was not the secular place Ms. Constable once knew. The student’s argument, she noted, “came straight from the Taliban worldview.” Less than a year later an extremist bodyguard assassinated the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, a man who belonged to the old Lahore of tolerance.

The killing was bad enough. More disturbing was the celebration of the killer among lawyers, police officers and clerics as a defender of the faith. “A so-called moderate Muslim society was proving far more fanatical than either its political elite or Western backers had suspected, while its authorities were too intimidated to take on the religious mob,” she writes.

Ms. Constable meets and talks with many different kinds of Pakistanis — students, landowners, clerics, government ministers, poor women, factory managers, even strangers at bus stops — in a book that she says is designed to introduce the general reader to a complex, little understood nation of immense importance to the United States. She does not seek, she explains at the outset, to ferret out “the secrets of powerful institutions or radical movements” or to delineate the complex, and now rapidly sinking, relationship between Pakistan and the United States.

Instead, she focuses on the main themes of Pakistani society. She deals with feudalism, the deplorable situation of most Pakistani women, the rotten justice system, the powerful military, the relentless march of religious extremism, and she weaves in interviews, news events and a touch of history.

For newcomers to Pakistan Ms. Constable’s method may well be satisfying. With deft choices, she illuminates some of the shocking truths about a Muslim country that emerged at the end of Britain’s Indian empire in 1947 with the stated intention of honoring other religions.

In the well-titled chapter “Hate,” she points out that only one Pakistani has won a Nobel Prize. Abdus Salam, a theoretical physicist, received the honor in 1979. But because he belonged to the Ahmadi Muslim sect, a small minority that is basically outlawed in Pakistan, Mr. Salam is an unknown in Pakistan. “To his homeland Salam’s achievements were an embarrassment and a glitch in the official narrative that Ahmadis are enemies of Islam — infidels to be avoided, mistrusted, and despised.” In contrast A. Q. Khan, a scientist who stole nuclear secrets and then peddled them to rogue states, is hailed as a national hero.

An intrepid reporter, Ms. Constable is at her best when she ventures among the underclass, the vast majority of the population trapped, she notes, at the bottom of a deeply hierarchical society. At a brick kiln she uncovers violence and desperation. In heat and dust the laborers reap little but mounting indebtedness to the harsh owners. Some of the workers resort to selling their kidneys to the underground organ trade. One man said he was 45 but, after having sold his kidney, looked 60. “The worst part,” he said, “is that I still haven’t paid off my debt.”

Ms. Constable does not ignore the elite. She writes in general about the corruption of President Asif Ali Zardari and the mixed signals of the chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. She interviews parliamentarians who for the most part are feudal landowners with an interest in perpetuating the status quo rather than seriously working toward a real democracy. She discusses the support given to Lashkar-e-Taiba and other proxy militant groups that the military uses against India and that foment extremism at home.

But her resolve to ignore the long, tortured Pakistani-American relationship, and her decision to avoid drawing conclusions about why Pakistan is on such a downward spiral, sells the reader short. Pakistani society is important for Americans to understand because the United States has a strategic interest in a country fraught with the toxic mix of nuclear weapons and Islamic militancy. That radical Islam is growing so rapidly has much to do with the refusal of the civilian leaders to push back against extremism, to run government for the benefit of the citizens rather than themselves. President Zardari was too afraid to attend the funeral of his friend Mr. Taseer, the murdered governor of Punjab. General Kayani did not appear either. It was an ideal moment for one, or both, to appeal to sanity.

These two leaders have yet to take such a firm stand, and given the anecdotal evidence of the gains of radical Islam accumulated with energy and detail by Ms. Constable, it may be too late.

Constructing a Portrait of Pakistan through the Stories of Its People by Jane Perlez, Aug. 8, 2011

Courtesy of New York Times


Pakistan at war with itself

Pakistan is a vast and diverse society of some 175 million people who inhabit scattered pockets of clan and class, religion and ethnicity, poverty and power. It has a thousand separate worlds that may coexist at close quarters but never intersect. Pakistan is a country of existential as well as cultural contradictions, some of which have not been resolved since it was founded six decades ago. It is a constitutional democracy in which many people they have no access to political power or justice. It is an Islamic republic in which many Muslims feel passionate about their faith but are confused and conflicted over what role Islam should play in their society.

In all these issues lurks the same central question: why is Pakistan, with its huge military establishment, democratic form of government, and tradition of moderate Muslim culture, failing to curb both the growing violent threat and the popular appeal of radical Islam?

The most important thing that I have learned is that many Pakistanis feel they have no power. They see the trappings of representative democracy around them but little tangible evidence of it working in their lives. They feel dependent on, and often at the mercy of forces more powerful then them: landlords, police, tribal jirgas, intelligence services, politicized courts, corrupt bureaucrats, and legislators tied to local power elites. People do not trust the system, so they feel they need a patron to get around it. This in turn makes everyone complicit in corruption, especially its victims.

The second most important thing I learned is that in Pakistan, truth is an elusive and malleable commodity. Many things are gray and murky, and people survive by playing the angles, ducking their heads, and reinventing themselves. Truth is elastic, fleeting, and subject to endless political manipulation.

When those at the top of a society routinely prevaricate and obfuscate, hypocrisy becomes a way of life and the state cannot expect or demand that ordinary citizens will behave honestly. When political pressure and corruption filter down to the pettiest legal case or the smallest bureaucratic transaction, a government cannot ask its citizens to rise above them.

The third thing I began to understand was the deeply–sometimes frighteningly–emotional nature of many Pakistanis attachment to their religion. Pakistan is not a theocracy, but it was founded as a Muslim nation, its laws written in conformity with Islam, and the vast majority of its inhabitants are Muslims. Yet its citizens receive a barrage of confused messages about what it means to be a Muslim, what is the correct meaning of sharia or jihad, and what is the proper relationship between the state and religion.

Many Pakistanis are extremely passionate about Islam and easily roused to anger in its defence. To an extent the fervour correlates with class and education. In a society where millions are barely literate, raised to revere rather than question, and exposed to limited sources of information, they can be easily swept up in mob hysteria against anyone accused of insulting their religion. Police, courts, and political leaders are often reluctant to intervene, either from sympathy or from fear of backlash by powerful Islamic groups and their followers.

There are also influential people in Pakistan, including highly educated opinion makers, who deliberately equate national pride and patriotism with unquestioned support for Islam, no matter what form it takes. Some seem to be promoting a dangerous clash of civilizations with the West for purely domestic political or religious purpose.

This deliberate conflation of religion and state, famously rejected by Jinnah in 1947, was revived and promoted heavily during the Cold War era of the 1980s, when military ruler Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq launched a campaign to “Islamize” the nation. It has continued to filter through society ever since, accompanied by the proliferation of Islamic seminaries, of which there are now more than twenty thousand across the country, teaching an estimated two million students. Many of these establishments are moderate and mainstream, but others are unregulated, unregistered nurseries of hate.

Since the attacks of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been a growing tendency toward a more muscular or conservative religious attitude among Pakistanis as well as Muslims elsewhere, from pop singers and politicians to cricket players and TV hosts. Many Pakistanis today abhor the primitive extremism of the Taliban, yet they deeply resent the West and feel stridently defensive about Islam.

In the first four months of 2011, a series of events brought Pakistan’s internal contradictions into sharply dramatic relief. They highlighted the violent divergence of religious convictions among ordinary Muslims, the cultural divide between rural and urban notions of justice, the abysmal level of mistrust between allied military and intelligence establishments in Islamabad and Washington, and the official incompetence or perfidy that allowed al Qaeda’s fugitive leader, Osama bin Laden, to live for years just a few blocks from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point, where he was killed in a secret raid by US Navy Seals.

The first issue exploded just after the New Year, with the successive, hate-driven assassinations of two liberal Pakistani officials, Punjab Province governor Salman Taseer and the Federal Minister for Minority Religious Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti. The two men had little in common: Taseer was a brash, wealthy, and secular Muslim politico; Bhatti, a devout Christian advocate from a Punjabi village. What they shared was an outspoken commitment to religious tolerance, a cornerstone of Jinnah’s founding vision for Pakistan.

Another growing source suspicion and tension between the United States and Pakistan–despite their official partnership in the war on Islamic terrorism–was the role of covert American military and intelligence operations inside Pakistan. They included a campaign of missile strikes by CIA drone planes on military targets near the Afghan border and rumoured ground operations to spy on extremist groups. American officials had long suspected Pakistan of secretly shielding some militants, despite its adamant denials, thus necessitating covert action.

These tensions erupted in a nationwide furor in January, when Raymond Davis, a burly CIA contractor, shot dead two young men who were following his vehicle on motorbikes in Lahore; a third was struck and killed by a US embassy vehicle. The incident confirmed Pakistan’s worst suspicions about US spy activities and created an awkward dilemma for Washington, which needed to placate its allies in Islamabad but prevent Davis from being publicly tried in Pakistan.

Yet for every enduring problem in Pakistan, feudalism or corruption, militancy or injustice–there are signs of change and pockets of hope. Unfortunately forces for change can also become compromised, or work against themselves. The independent judiciary, destroyed by military rule and then restored by the extraordinary lawyer’s movement, has set an inspiring example in some cases but it has proven hidebound in others or provoked political and institutional confrontations that Pakistan can ill afford.

The remarkable rise of the independent media, especially private TV news channels, has exposed sandals and abuses, and it has made officials more accountable than ever before. Yet often news and commentary stray into sensationalism and ad hominem attacks, and influential talk show hosts frequently pander to public fears and prejudices rather than calling for fairness and facts.

But change is not coming fast enough. The majority of Pakistanis still feel excluded from politics, educational opportunities, jobs, and justice. They have become accustomed to paying bribes instead of taxes, and to seeking favour from corrupt politicians instead pf demanding service from the state. They look to someone to blame for their plight, and it is easy for them to be persuaded that foreign enemies of Pakistan and Islam are the cause, when often the problem starts at home.

Most major news in Pakistan comes from its volatile, densely packed cities–suicide bombings in Karachi, protest marches in Lahore, teeming refugee camps in Peshawar. But almost two-thirds of Pakistan’s inhabitants, more than 120 million people, still live in rural areas, and 87 million make their living straight from the land.

Agriculture dominates the national economy, with crop production and livestock contributing 31% of the total gross domestic product (GDP). Of the four provinces, Punjab and Sindh are the big breadbaskets and export producers, with hundred s of thousands of acres planted in cotton and food crops. In 2008-09, Pakistan produced 50 million tons of sugar cane, 24 million tons of wheat, 11.7 million bales of cotton, and 6 million tons of rice.

Much of Pakistan is extremely arid, and its crops are heavily dependent on man-made irrigation, including an elaborate system of canals built by the British a century ago. It also faces a chronic water shortage that is becoming more acute each year and that could seriously jeopardize its ability to feed a population that continues to grow at more than 3% a year. Some analysts call water scarcity the single greatest threat to Pakistan’s stability and survival.

At the time of Partition, land ownership in Pakistan was highly concentrated among a few families, with about 7% of farms occupying more than half the arable land and a handful of vast feudal estates accounting for one-third. In the 1950s and 1970s, two modest land reform programs broke up many large holdings, and today 93% of Pakistani farms are less than 10 acres in size. Yet many wealthy landowning families were able to skirt these limitations by parceling out property among dozens of relatives. Today large plantations still occupy 40% of the total cultivated area, and the power of the landlord class is reinforced by their continued dominance in regional and national politics.

Despite the formal break up of feudal lands, the feudal mind-set persists–especially in southern Punjab and northern Sindh–perpetuating the wide social gulf between the peon and the patron, and reinforcing the bonds of paternalism and loyalty that keep many illiterate villagers trapped on the land rather than seeking education and opportunities elsewhere.

Most rural Pakistanis live and die in small circumscribed worlds that have barely changed for generations. Often their children do not attend school, or drop out after a few years. Families need them to work in the fields and may see little benefit in sending them to class. Girls are married off early to keep them chaste and safe within the clan. Teachers are hard to recruit and keep in remote areas, and thousands of rural “ghost” schools sit empty, while bureaucrats collect their operating fees.

The result is abysmal rural literacy rates and a burgeoning population of unskilled young people who will probably never rise above their parents learning or earning levels. The national literacy rate is officially 57%, but it is only 36% for women. In some rural areas of Sindh and Balochistan, less than 20% of women are able to read, add and subtract, or even write their name. The situation is even worse in the northwest tribal areas, where militant groups often recruit unoccupied young men from poor villages.

Rural life has other priorities. It is ruled by the changing seasons and by unquestioned traditions of honour,duty, and vengeance. Villagers are subject to the decisions of the waderas, hereditary rural chiefs, and sardars, hereditary tribal leaders. In the rural areas, people are bound together by the traditions and kinship of their biraderi, a word whose definition lies somewhere between “caste” and “brotherhood”. The old nomenclature persists too, although it represents a dying way of life. Landless peasants are still known as haris and landowners as zamindars, although some zamindars are also waderas, which makes them responsible for handling the problems of haris in their area: property disputes, illness, debts, crimes, and family crisis.

Even today, many haris have never been to school, never owned a plot of land, and never earned more than a few hundred dollars or a few sacks of grain for a years hard toil. They may own a cow or a buffalo, which they have borrowed heavily to purchase, but their only luxuries are likely to be an electric fan or a bicycle. They turn to their biraderi elders for advice and to the landlord for loans. At election time, they usually vote for the candidate their elders support, and in return they are guaranteed a patron to intervene on their behalf with the police and unblock bureaucratic hurdles. They do not make news, hold protests, travel farther than the nearest city, or dare imagine any other life.

While Pakistan’s rural society remains trapped in the past, its urban class is careering toward a dynamic but perilous future. The population of its cities–especially the large metropolitan magnets such as Karachi and Lahore, and the gritty industrial zones such as Faisalabad and Sialkot–has expanded seven-fold since 1950. Karachi, a sprawling port city on the Arabian Sea is home to 18 million.

The most volatile problem facing the cities is the population explosion. More than half of Pakistanis today are under age fifteen. The number of inhabitants has doubled since the 1960s and increased by 50 million in the last twelve years alone, to an estimated 176 million. Even though families are larger in the countryside, competition for space, jobs, and basic amenities is much greater in the cities.

With formal employment market expanding much more slowly than the population, Pakistan faces an imminent youth explosion that will trap many young people in dead-end urban jobs and may push others into the arms of criminal gangs or Islamic guerrillas.

Bhutto founded the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 1967, which championed the idea of Islamic socialism, and as prime minister, he proposed a variety of reforms aimed at reducing the power of the wealthy elite. But the antagonisms of class and ideology he aroused were seen as a dangerous threat by the permanent military and civilian establishment.


Excerpts from: Playing with Fire by Pamela Constable, Random House Inc. 2011 New York





2 thoughts on “Constructing a Portrait of Pakistan through the Stories of Its People

  1. An excellent review…I especially admired how you explained where the author failed to recognize, or delve into, the importance of Pakistan (as a strategic partner in the region) to the USA.


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