A Hard Country

America continues to back the wrong parties in Pakistan.  The state hasn't fallen apart yet—in spite of US intervention. 

To judge by much Western reporting on Pakistan, I suppose I ought to be dead by now. In recent weeks, I spent a good deal of time on the streets of cities in the north of that country, asking ordinary people about their views on issues including US drone strikes, the release of Raymond Davis and the burning of the Koran. Yet despite their anger at all these things, at no time did I feel in personal danger. Expressions of anger at US policy were accompanied by declarations that “you are our guest”, offers of cold drinks, and expressions of gratitude that a Westerner had come to ask their opinions (something which, I was told, “our own elites never do”).

It’s true that I avoided notorious areas of militant support—but then, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, there are parts of New York where I wouldn’t exactly advise you to carry out interviews on the street. On the subject of Davis’ release, many of the answers were notably pragmatic: that even if they didn’t like it, it was in accordance with Pakistani and Islamic law, and if the families were satisfied with the compensation, no one else had a right to veto the settlement. This brings out two things: That if only the US could learn a reasonable respect for Pakistani national pride, it is still possible to appeal to the rationality of ordinary Pakistanis (what, oh what, are all those advisers on public diplomacy in Washington being paid for?); and that while Pakistan is indeed a violent and volatile country, much of the violence is not in fact spontaneous, but has to be carefully inspired and orchestrated.

This didn’t surprise me, because I have carried out many such “vox pops” in Pakistan over the years, often at times of heightened tension. What did surprise me—and reminded me never to be carried away by Western media reports without checking—was the speed with which Pakistan has recovered from last year’s supposedly “devastating” floods. In fact, Pakistani agriculture is experiencing a boom, largely because of the Chinese and Indian-fueled rise in global commodity prices, but also in part because the floods proved a boon to certain drought-struck areas of the country. It is true that the damage to communications infrastructure was severe in some areas—but as to the fabric of towns and villages, in many flood-hit areas you would not know that anything has happened. The reason for this however is not a cheerful one: it is that the houses are so primitive that they are easily rebuilt, and so decrepit that flood damage—and even war-damage—does not show up clearly against the general background of decrepitude. I vividly remember two years ago visiting the excavated ruins of the four-thousand-year-old city of Mohenjo-Daro, one of the centers of the Indus Valley Civilization, and being struck by how much better made and more regular the mud bricks were than those used to build the surrounding Sindhi towns and villages of today.

In addition, let me add that even after 23 years of visiting Pakistan, I can still be shocked. Some members of the professional elite—and not just any elites, but ones who in 2007-2008 were celebrated by the Western media as representing “the triumph of civil society” and a “middle-class revolution” in Pakistan—supported the recent murder of the Governor of Punjab by one of his own bodyguards, for calling for changes to Pakistan’s savagely misused law on blasphemy. Among the members of the legal profession who reasoned away this murder was a retired chief justice of the Lahore High Court. In fact, the biggest demonstration of lawyers in more than a year was one in which they showered rose petals on the self-confessed murderer when he was brought to court, and offered to defend him. What is more, the religious tradition from which the murderer was drawn, and whose leaders also lined up on his behalf, is that of the Barelvis – a tradition closely related to the Sufis, bitterly hostile to the Wahhabi tradition of Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda, and one which the United States, in recent years, has discreetly sought to build up as a “moderate” barrier to “extremism”! The retired chief justice, and some of the other lawyers with whom I spoke, reinforced this extremely unfavorable impression by sneering at a woman who was gang raped as a collective punishment of her clan nine years ago, and whose attackers have not yet been brought to justice by Pakistan’s judicial system.

My maternal grandfather, an official in India under the British Raj, is supposed to have said that after more than thirty years of service in India, he thought he was just beginning to understand one Indian province. After 23 years of visiting Pakistan, I feel much the same, even having just completed a book on the country. The book is dedicated to my grandparents and my uncle (an officer in the British Indian army), partly with this perception in mind, and partly in tribute to all those honest and dedicated officials and soldiers in the Pakistan of today who help somehow to keep their country going. There aren’t very many of them perhaps, and the going is often very rough, but they still help to ensure that—once again, much Western reporting to the contrary —Pakistan is not yet a failed or failing state. Galileo’s Eppur se muove is my epigraph – “and yet it moves”.