All the Things You Didn't Know About Pakistan


Since 2005, the people of Pakistan, no strangers to upheaval, have been suffering near-constant food and water shortages, rampant power-outages and bodily harm as formerly peaceful cities are besieged by extremist violence. All the while, American leadership continues to direct criticism and threats at the troubled nation, allocating most of its monetary aid for Pakistan to its army, and openly endorsing India as blameless in the endless brinkmanship between the two equally culpable South Asian nations.

A decade ago, few Americans could say with certainty where Pakistan was geographically, let alone where it fit within geopolitics and global commerce. Despite the country's well-worn place in the headlines recently, Americans still seem unclear as to how Pakistan came to be among the world's most prolific exporters of nihilistic political Islam, let alone able to think of it as anything but a terrorist training camp. For Bush et al., this was a good thing.

Following 9/11, neoconservatives in the Bush White House worked overtime to at once demonize and obscure the enemy, which, many felt, was Islam itself. Popular perception began to conflate Afghans and Pakistanis as a monolith of geographies and populations. Seven years and two disastrous wars later, candidate Barack Obama made Pakistan a pillar of his platform, vowing to take that nation in hand if it could not heal itself and stamp out terrorism within its borders.

Now that he's president, the only way, apparently, for Obama to deal with a politically tenuous, nuclear-armed Pakistan is drone warfare, the logical extreme of fighting a completely dehumanized and faceless enemy. After all, if Pakistan is populated by woman-haters and terrorists and headed by a not-entirely-cooperative government, it's a lot easier to sidestep the nagging ethical questions about the use of drones.

Short of traveling to Pakistan for a corrective to the one-sided representation available to most news consumers, here's a quick primer on Pakistan, a nation to which the United States is inextricably -- and by its own design -- tied.

The Cultural

The Pakistani bourgeoisie feels terribly misrepresented by Western observers, especially when it comes to women. In contrast to those among the urban working poor and agrarian communities, wealthier Pakistanis in cities tend to be more educated, fairly cosmopolitan, and more likely to take women's rights as a given. As is the case the world over, money buys access not just to goods and services, but to a worldview.

Middle-class women attend university, hold jobs, enjoy mobility and increasing autonomy, and are spared the more demanding strictures of modesty placed on rural women in particular. Clad in the kaleidoscopic and protean shalwar-kameez, women in Pakistan's cities in no way resemble the shrouded figures of Afghan women under Taliban rule, Iranian hijab-wearers or Saudi women in black. And professionally, Pakistani women now appear in virtually every male-dominated sector, including in leadership positions, and are powerful advocates of their own advancement.

There is obviously a certain tokenism in fixating on Pakistan's fortunate and independent women when so much of the female population still labors under repressive patriarchy, but it's also dubious to take the view that women in Pakistan are a uniformly oppressed class of victims, without the agency or desire to effect change. Poverty undermines a feminist agenda as effectively as misogyny, and still women work to change Pakistan every day.

One cultural misconception about Pakistanis is that they frown upon music and performing arts in general. It didn't help matters when in 2006, a Taliban-sympathizing religious leader in the North-West Frontier Province declared music, like narcotics, unlawful, and a slew of CD-store bombings in the area ensued. Such a ban was anathema to Pakistanis, for whom music always has been the inviolable accompaniment to every aspect of life. From regional folk tunes to Qawwali (and its most celebrated practitioner, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) to Hindi tunes out of Bollywood, from centuries-old classical ghazals to smarmy pop songs to Metallica-inspired metal, music is one of the few things almost all Pakistanis have in common. Perhaps that's why political Islam targets music for its own ends; the reverberations of proscribing it are endless, and help create the impression that the Taliban possess a greater social influence than they actually do.

As for sport, if you concentrated Americans' love for football, baseball, basketball, Nascar and WWE into a single all-encompassing allegiance, you might have some idea of how much Pakistanis love cricket, perhaps the most overt gift (along with a love of milky tea) of British imperialism. The year Pakistan defeated New Zealand to win the Cricket World Cup, 1992, the government declared a nation-wide holiday. Virtually every boy, from the shoeless urchin who begs at traffic stops to the gym-rat behind the wheel of his tricked-out muscle car, has dreams of cricket stardom. Cricket can be played with whatever -- and whomever -- is at hand. Any sort of ball will do, as will any small stretch of flat earth. One of the nation's biggest names in cricket, Imran Khan, went on after retirement to head a political party in a bid for prime minister. His only credentials were his bowling (the cricketing term for pitching).

Ironically, the national sport of Pakistan is actually field hockey. Pakistani players also dominated in squash for decades, producing the greatest-ever competitor in the sport, Jahangir Khan.

The Geographical

It seems only mountaineers in Europe and the United States are aware of Pakistan's dramatically varied geography. Contrary to popular fallacy, Pakistan is not a Sahara-style desert. (Perhaps it's assumed to be by those who also mistakenly think it is located in the Middle East.) The country has some of the most extreme examples of a variety of topographies in the world, from the Indian Ocean coast in the south to six of the 14 highest peaks on earth in the north, and everything in between. People and crops in fertile Punjab and the Indus River Valley live and die by the Monsoon rains in July and August; the Deosai plains in Skardu, a high-altitude plateau, are home to alpine meadows not unlike those in Alaska tourism ads; the Baltoro Glacier in the Karakoram mountain range is visible from space, while cities in arid Balochistan have been known to approach 130 Fahrenheit in the summer.

Such geographical diversity helps account for some of Pakistan's heterogeneity: its four provinces, linguistically and ethnically distinct, its 300 languages and dialects, and its genuine multiplicity despite the predominance of one religion.

The Political

General Pervez Musharraf's takeover of the faltering government in 1999 was not the first military coup in Pakistan's history, nor is the military's influence in politics restricted now that civilians are back in charge. Thanks to the country's geographical location, the constant tension and high troop-presence on the "line of control" (LOC) bordering India, and occasionally poor relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan's leadership has always worked closely with the army, particularly regarding foreign policy. The first coup took place in 1958, led by General Ayub Khan, who hung on to power until 1969. His successor was the army's commander-in-chief, Yahya Khan, who resigned following the devastating 1971 war. Six years later, Zia-ul-Haq reprised the army's role in governance. To date, martial law has been imposed and revoked three times in Pakistan, not including Musharraf's 2007 State of Emergency, which signaled the end of his regime.

Religious fundamentalism and the rise of political Islam in Pakistan can be traced back to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, president from 1971 to 1973 and prime minister from 1973 to 1977. In the wake of the 1971 India-Pakistan War, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, the disillusioned nation was increasingly orienting itself toward the right. Bhutto capitalized on the growing religious conservatism by institutionalizing it: he banned alcohol, declared Fridays weekly holidays, and enabled mullahs to become a legitimate political force.

Bhutto also founded the nation's nuclear program, which, arguably, led to his demise. When, despite Henry Kissinger's warnings to desist, work on the bomb continued, the United States in 1977 backed General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in a bloodless coup. Bhutto was jailed for conspiring to murder a political opponent, and was executed in 1979. For many Pakistanis, Bhutto remains shaheed, or martyred, a victim of Zia's implacable ambition. After some maneuvering, the general installed himself as president in 1978, initiating a 10-year reign of terror.

Carrying on where Bhutto left off, Zia-ul-Haq took an unstable situation and used it to irrevocably change Pakistan. Not particularly religious himself, Zia saw the religious right as the key to preserving his leadership. Among his most egregious contributions (one is hard-pressed to pick just one) to Pakistan's "Islamization" was the Hudood Ordinance, a supposedly Islamic set of laws which essentially equated rape with extramarital sex on the part of the victim, made it virtually impossible to prosecute the crime, and further cemented the prohibition of alcohol. The rape laws weren't repealed until General Pervez Musharraf signed the Women's Protection Bill into law in 2006, which, though imperfect, was more than any other leader had even attempted, including Benazir Bhutto.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Zia-ul-Haq also worked with the CIA and the Saudis to fund, train and arm the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets. Once the Soviets were defeated, however, the United States quickly cleared out, leaving the mujahideen with a destroyed country, no prospects and a lot of weapons. Their even better-equipped and angrier descendents, the Taliban, need little introduction.

Perhaps Zia-ul-Haq's most lasting legacy is the proliferation of madrassahs, or Quranic schools, which he actively nurtured and which soon became integral to the indoctrination of scores of young radicals. He can also be partially credited with making Pakistan home to the largest number of refugees in the world, consisting primarily of nearly two million Afghans who started fleeing after the Soviet invasion in 1979 (many of whom never returned). Added to this count are the internally displaced Balochis from the southwest of the country, where the army struggles to uproot the Taliban.

Benazir Bhutto came to power following the death of Zia-ul-Haq in an unexplained plane crash in 1988. Touted by the West as a beacon of democracy when she returned in 2007 from luxurious exile in London's Hyde park to heal her ailing country, Benazir Bhutto had already had two runs as prime minister and was crushingly ineffective both times. In fact, Bhutto was neither an able leader nor the democratic icon that she was labeled in the days leading up to her murder.

The daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and an outlandishly wealthy feudal family, Benazir was as acquainted with the troubles of her constituents as Marie Antoinette. Significantly, she didn't initiate a single piece of legislation to ameliorate the conditions of women in Pakistan. Instead, she and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari -- nicknamed "Mr. Ten Per Cent -- "appropriated" billions of rupees from the impoverished country's government, among other crooked financial dealings, for which crime Zardari served seven years.

On the heels of Benazir's assassination in 2007, Zadari promptly dyed his gray mustache black, and despite his checkered past and the fact that he lacked the college degree required to be a minister of parliament, he designated himself her successor until his son comes of age. (The requirement was conveniently repealed to allow Zardari to proceed.) He secured the requisite parliamentary votes to become president in 2007 and has since managed to rehabilitate his image somewhat among Pakistanis, largely by responding in kind when barked at by American leadership. Whether he has any lasting impact on Pakistan -- positive or negative -- remains to be seen.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a mere 63 years old, formed, in the midst of great bloodshed and the greatest mass migration in history, for India's Muslims. Its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a liberal secularist who, among other distinctly British idiosyncrasies, delivered his rousing speeches in English. Jinnah died a mere 13 months after Partition, in 1948, of tuberculosis.

There is little question that it would have pained him to witness the theocratic leanings of the state he labored to create; but he would have felt just as acutely the inadequacy of the reportage disseminated by mainstream American news sources, which have unambiguously allied themselves with their government's militaristic agenda. It's with glib self-satisfaction that the media labels a country of 170 million the "world's most dangerous place." Pakistanis, at least, as they focus on feeding their families and living in peace, beg to differ.

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