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Pakistan's Precarious Balance

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Driving into Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, there is a sign on the road that welcomes you to "the land of hospitality." This is not what you'd expect to find on your way to Peshawar, gateway to the Taliban and al-Qa'eda controlled region of the country, where Osama bin Laden is likely hiding. But it's an indication of how how diverse and filled with contradictions Pakistan is today; why so many people with whom I spoke fear that without a significant but unlikely change for the better, the Pakistani state and society will fracture beyond repair in the coming years.

Each meter of Peshawar brings new contradictions. The "smugglers' bazaar features both an age-old arms market and one offering the latest Chinese electronics. Its an extremely conservative city in which cheap drugs and pornography are readily available. Some of Pakistan's most militant madrasas are located minutes away from two of its best universities. Road signs point to the "Imaginarium Institute for American Studies," but the US-consulate's American Club changed its name for security reasons. There are innumerable NGOs with names like the Center for Excellence in Women's Studies, yet female literacy stands a bit above two percent in the surrounding region.

The gates leading into the tribal areas warn "No foreigners allowed," yet Peshawar is awash in foreign money and people. The CIA, USAID, European NGOs, the Taliban; you name it, all have staked a claim to a city that has been at the cross hairs of empire since Alexander the Great crossed the nearby Khyber Pass. And then there is Sajid and Zeeshan, one of Pakistan's hottest new rock bands, whose improbably beautiful new album of acoustic guitar driven songs was recorded almost entirely in the home studio of the band's keyboard player using vintage synthesizers and guitars bought for a song at the smugglers' bazaar.

The contradictions of life in Peshawar are almost as glaring in the more cosmopolitan cities of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. Violence, both petty and political, permeates the society. Hotels and airports are bombed with increasing frequency. Each day brings news of soldiers, rebels, and too often civilians, killed in clashes in Baluchistan or the North West Frontier Province. Vice President Cheney stopped in Islamabad the day I arrived to warn Musharraf to "do more" in the fight against the Taliban; yet nothing short of a massive investment into fighting Pakistan's debilitating corruption and improving the country's underdeveloped infrastructure will win the allegiance of an increasingly alienated populace. Tragically, this is a path neither the Bush nor Musharraf governments seem included to pursue.

Indeed, the greatest threat to Pakistan's stability, if not existence, is the vast disparity in wealth that divides the privileged upper class from the mass of the people. The country is ranked 134 out of 177 countries in the most recent Human Development Index, although you wouldn't know it in the neighborhoods, malls and coffee bars of the country's elite. News reports in the West suggest that religion, or at least militant Islam, is the main threat to democracy and modernization, but it is better understood as a tragic response to the deliberate attempts by the country's elite and its western backers to stymie both.

And the children of the elite seem disinclined to break this cycle, as I saw at a party thrown by the son of a senior government official. The festivities featured a stage, light and sound system on which local bands played their best Guns N' Roses impersonations, a catered buffet, and half a dozen heavily armed, poorly paid and angry looking guards there to protect the teenage revelers as they engaged in all sorts of religiously--not to mention legally--prohibited activities late into the night.

Ironically, among the few optimistic developments in Pakistan has been the emergence, or better, reemergence, of a more "moderate"--in fact, in the current context, "radical"--Islam than the Saudi-sponsored Salafism of the Taliban and al-Qa'eda. This became clear in severals days of lectures and meetings at Islamabad's International Islamic University. I arrived expecting to find a bastion of Sunni conservatism, but instead found it filled with intellectually curious students, and faculty intent on synthesizing the best of the Islamic and Western intellectual traditions.

In one meeting a group of PhD students in comparative religion described their mandatory courses in Hebrew and offered detailed comparisons between American Christian and Pakistani Muslim funadmentalisms. As I've found with younger members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the students were anxious to move beyond the closed and violent vision of the Taliban and towards a more tolerant and open Islam. The Dean of the Faculty of Islamic Law described plans to expand the offerings of "secular" courses, while my host, the Chair of History, expanded on his eclectic pedagogical philosophy.

But the professors were also uneasy; as one complained, I might risk losing my job for speaking my mind, but he risked disappearing at the hands of the US-allied intelligence services if he spoke out too strongly against the corrupt elite.

Both students and faculty agreed that it was going to take a lot of time to bring about the kind of large changes that many believe are necessary to avoid political and social disintegration. The question on most people's minds, however, is whether Pakistan has enough time to achieve a transformation that goes against the interests of so many forces in society before disaster strikes. One thing is for sure, hardly anyone expects the United States to play a positive role here. As one student argued, "The US preaches democracy and secularism but you have a fundamentalist government that supports the undemocratic Musharraf regime. What are we supposed to think?"

While Musharraf's recent attacks on lawyers and opposition figures points to the autocratic nature of his regime, not all the news is bad. Pakistan's news media is generally freer than its counterparts in Egypt or Jordan. An IT-driven middle class is emerging that is drawing into Pakistan the kind of tech services and call-center jobs that have helped drive economic growth in India. And Pakistan's artists have experienced unprecedented freedom and even government support under Musharraf, a far cry from the more or less open contempt with which previous regimes have held them.

Almost a dozen music video channels beam a constant supply of the country's powerful and eclectic pop music, far superior to the formulaic Bollywood music of Pakistan's much larger neighbor India, into the country's living rooms. While largely unknown outside the Subcontinent, it's far more popular than the country's conservative religious establishment (Islamist parties polled around 20% in the 2002 legislative elections). The head of newly established MTV Pakistan, Wiqar Khan, was raised in England by a father who is the imam of one of London's most important mosques. Like most of the musicians I've met, he sees no problem blending together the best of South Asian Islam and English heavy metal, as long as the intentions are pure on both sides.

Running the gamut from hedonistic rock bands like Karavan and Akash to more spiritually grounded artists like Mekaal Hasan, Faraz Anwar, Ali Roooh and the supergroup Junoon, Pakistani rock 'n roll symbolizes the potential of Pakistan to return to its historic roots as a bastion of tolerance and artistic and intellectual creativity. But at this crucial moment in the country's history, most artists are hesitant to step into the fray. As one of the country's biggest stars told me, "If we were to protest and hold rallies for a return to democracy the last thing we would want is to go back to the bad old days of [former Prime Ministers] Nawaz Sherif and Benazir Bhutto. And the other alternative are the mullahs." With few good option, he prefers to "sit on the sidelines and and seeing how things develop."

The West, however, doesn't have this option. The disastrous repercussions of a disintegrating Pakistan are almost too frightening to contemplate. Iraq pales in comparison. Yet the policies of Bush, Blair and their European allies are pushing the country towards precisely such an outcome. Someone had better sound the alarm before it's too late.