Pakistan's Contradictions -- the View From Lahore

LAHORE, Pakistan -- In America, we know what Pakistan is supposed to look like. Rife with anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories, sympathetic if not outright supportive of Islamic extremists, blind to the dangers of corruption and extremism that we see more clearly. It's not hard to find support for these stereotypes in some Pakistani publications. In a recent (May 22) column in Dawn, Shahid R. Siddiqui declares "The world outside America hates Shylocks that rule America. It refuses to meet their increasing demand for their pound of flesh," and explains that the "reign of terror" ascribed to Islamic extremists cannot be the work of actual Muslims since violence violates Islamic teachings. The writer concludes that the terror attacks that have rocked Pakistan are actually the work of "mercenaries hired to destabilise Pakistan at the behest of foreign interests." (Shylock -- get it? So many different British legacies rolled into that one.)

There we have the confirmation of our stereotypes -- now for the contradictions. While I cannot speak for other parts of the country, I can report that contradictions emerge as soon as one arrives in Lahore. The city is not what Pakistan is supposed to look like, or feel like. Well, except for the weather and the food. The food is terrific, as advertised, and as for the weather... it was very mild in Lahore today, only about 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Later in the week the temperature is supposed to climb back up to where it was a few days ago, around 116. There is a serious shortage of electrical power, resulting in short-term blackouts that ensure that no one (outside the government, I presume) is entirely spared. Families that can afford it rely on generators for backup. "Oh yes," one woman told me, "in my family the air conditioner gets first priority. We'll sit with no lights on in the dark if necessary." That's part of the background of the story that Pakistan is going to start importing natural gas from Iran. There is an increasingly serious energy shortage, and have you ever tried to get anything done in a non-air conditioned building when it's 116 outside?

Once you get past the food and the weather, Pakistanis will tell you that their country is nation of contradictions, and that is certainly an accurate description for Lahore. Bustling, vibrant, positively crackling with energy despite the checkpoints on the road, the omnipresent private security forces, and the inescapable fact that the city is still reeling from the terrible massacre of approximately 90 Ahmadi worshippers on May 28, and the role that legal persecution and government actions may have played in encouraging that violence.

If I was supposed to expect to find widespread attitudes of justification for corruption, anti-Americanism, or sympathy for Islamic extremism, I came to the wrong place. The same goes for anyone expecting to hear the Pakistani government's actions defended. Here are a few tidbits from the editorial page of the print edition of the Lahore Sunday Times on June 13. On Sen. Kerry's expression of concern that money sent to the Pakistani government might be misappropriated, the main editorial describes government officials by saying "their lack of commitment to [the] people is in fact terrifying to behold... the worst form of moral decay." An editorial columnist named Masood Hasan paints a grim picture of the consequences: "[W]hat life has come to mean to the huge majority of people here,' he writes, is "gigantic grinders that crush them ruthlessly." Meanwhile, columnist Ghazi Salahuddin is not finished drawing the conclusion from the May 28th attacks: "Even the intellectually blind in our society should be able to see that the induction of religion in politics has divided us." Salahuddin calls for the creation of an explicitly secularist party of the type familiar in Turkey, arguing that such a party reflects the real sentiments of Pakistani voters. "More than ever before, the liberals in this country feel totally betrayed," he writes. "There must be a lot of them in a country where religious parties have never won a national election."

These are strong words in a major newspaper -- I have a hard time thinking of any American publication that has stated the same points with such force. Then there are the conversations with Lahore's residents. On that same Sunday evening four days ago I had dinner with a group of young Lahore professionals. They were an impressive, multitalented bunch: a lawyer, who is branching out into advertising, a journalist who is also studying for her PhD in political science, a local star of the rock music scene who runs a company as his day gig, an aspiring urban planner who is also a professional photographer. All have been educated both in Pakistan and abroad. In other words, extremely bright, extremely talented, ambitious young adults -- the backbone of the next generation of Pakistan's civil society. To a person, they speak of their country with a combination of attitudes that I find absolutely unique: a combination of matter-of-fact despai and stubborn commitment. A reference to Pakistan as a failed economy passes by without so much as a raised eyebrow, but low turnout at a vigil demanding a stronger government response to the Ahmadi massacre is a cause for real anguish. 'There were more people at the damned freedom flotilla march," one observes bitterly, launching a lengthy discussion about problems of mobilization and political communication. They have nothing but contempt for Islamists, whether in the Taliban or in their own government. They are not in the slightest degree anti-American, and they aren't sure how much anti-American sentiment "the street" really contains anyway. One recounts an interesting story about hosting a student researching anti-American attitudes in Lahore -- she had a great deal of trouble finding any. (In his column, Saddiqui refers to polls showing Pakistani anti-American attitudes; as I have pointed out previously, a more careful parsing of the polling data than Siddiqui goes on about suggests the same thing.) And to a person, in the same breath that they freely declare that the situation is utterly hopeless, they are committed to staying in Pakistan.

At a rather different point on the socioeconomic spectrum I shared sweet tea -- very, very sweet tea -- with two drivers. Through limited English and lots of hand gestures, one made an economic argument: Pakistan has good workers, he said, but no good managers. All the good managers are leaving the country to make more money somewhere else. They are terribly curious to know what Americans think of Pakistan -- I try, gently, to explain that most Americans have no idea. I have also been speaking to the college students in my classes at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, a small and elite private college whose students are notable, among other things, for the fact that their English is rather better than that of the students I encounter at home. In a conversation in my office a physics major asked me an entirely non-hypothetical question: "How do we change people?" He's talking about a population that falls for conspiracy theories and extremist views, and he wants to know what the government -- any government -- can do to create an environment for more reasonable deliberation. We talked about education and the role of public schools, the study and teaching of history, and the scale of the challenge involved. He wants to do a PhD in the United States... and then come right back home. My apartment-mate says the same thing: He, too, is on his way to the U.S. to pursue a PhD, in economics, and then plans to turn around and head straight back to Pakistan.

This combination of simultaneous black pessimism and cheerful insistence on pitching in is a contradiction within the larger contradiction. We need to start paying attention to that larger contradiction of our stereotypical assumptions. American policymakers are fond of talking about this or that strategy to strengthen some movement or some segment of a society -- the opposition in Iran, the moderates in the Middle East. It's a strategy that represents at least a minimal sensitivity to the fact of complexity within polities and the need to consider the consequences of our actions in that light. The Obama administration's semi-public decision not to endorse the Iranian protesters for fear of giving the government a means to delegitimize them is a case in point. But that is not a sensitivity that I have seen much of in American public discussions of Pakistan.

The young professionals with whom I had dinner, the college and graduate students, the editorial writers, even the drivers -- we should be thinking about our policies in terms of seeking to strengthen their position if we can, or at least take care not to undercut them. When the time comes for this generation to assume leadership roles, America should be there to help, and we should make it clear starting now that we will be. The stereotypes are not completely wrong, but Pakistan is a country of contradictions. That's where the hope lies, in the contradictions. Whether the question is drone attacks, sanctions, or political strategies with respect to India, America needs to stop ignoring these contradictions and start occupying the space in between their competing elements. We need to start figuring out ways to reach out to this next generation of Pakistani leaders and encourage them to go on contradicting our assumptions, and those of some of their countrymen as well. And then we can start thinking about our own contradictions and see where that leads us.