Letter from the Road #44

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Pakistan: The Politics of Fear: Part 1

It was tea break. I joined the stream into a large gloomy room with no windows (for our security I was told) in the National Library in Islamabad and confronted a sea of men, all of us pushing for our portion of strong sugary tea. None of the faces felt familiar – Muslims from all over Pakistan and from Tajikistan, China, India, Russia, Indonesia, sprinkled with a few European and Canadians. Occasionally I would catch a glimpse of a brightly dressed Indian or Pakistani woman – butterflies in a sea of grey.

Before I left for Pakistan a friend asked me, “Why are you going?” I told her I wanted to walk up to Pakistanis and ask them about terrorism, peace, and Islam, and listen to what they want to say to Americans. Now here I was. I finished my second cup of tea and began to “work the room,” as they say in Washington D.C.

International Conference on Sufism and Peace
I got into this unlikely scene because Elias was invited to speak at an international conference on “Sufism and Peace.” I decided to accompany him to meet with people in Pakistan’s “peace movement” before and after the conference.

The conference hosted about 100 “foreign intellectuals and writers” (the organizer’s appellation) from 30 countries and 300 Pakistani writers, professors, religious leaders and politicians. 95% of the attendees were men. Elias and I were the only Americans. Unlike my trip to Afghanistan there were no pre-set appointments or translators. Everything required a personal plunge to contact and open up to people I didn’t know.

I walked up to a small group of men, introduced myself and waited for an opportunity to open the conversation to what they thought of the policies of the United States. The men were visibly surprised when I said I was American, and warmly welcomed me for making the long trip “just to listen.” They were eager to talk.

As Asad Fatehpuri, an NGO leader who works in the North Western Frontier Provinces said to me over our tea, “To gain our respect, it is not so much what you Americans say – it is what you are willing to hear.”

And over the eight days I was in Islamabad, I listened to a lot: I listened to President Zardari who spoke of how religion has become a weapon of war. I talked with a small group of self-identified “leftist revolutionaries” who felt the Taliban had hijacked the rhetoric of the left, and as a result the Pakistani progressive movement was in disarray. I heard from NGO’s working with women and refugees in the SWAT valley who claimed the people hate the Taliban, and from a Pashtun elder from Peshawar who supports the Taliban “freedom fighters.”

The conference was clearly a political effort to repair the Pakistan government’s image as a haven for fundamentalist terrorists – and to present instead a softer side of Islam, namely Sufism, which has  a long tradition in Pakistan. For me personally it was a rich meal that I am slowly digesting. I have been researching since my return home to weave together the bits and pieces of the cultural world-view I was exposed to during the conference and in my meetings both before and after.

Why did Pakistan create the Taliban?
I admit I went to Islamabad with a chip on my shoulder. The Afghan people I talked with in Kabul last October all pointed their fingers to Pakistan as the major source of their problems over the past decades.

Over and over I was told in Afghanistan that it was Pakistan that recruited, subsidized, harbored and continued to support the fundamentalist Taliban take-over in Afghanistan.  Afghan women argued that fundamentalist Islam was not homegrown in Afghanistan but imported from Pakistan. Some Afghans now believe that Pakistan will only be satisfied if Afghanistan is partitioned with a Taliban government in the south sympathetic to Pakistan’s military needs and its radical jihadist agenda.

When I asked people in Pakistan about these accusations the responses took one of two roads. First, some said, “It is simply not true. The Taliban are an American creation.” They said it is India that is gaining too much influence in Afghanistan and the Pakistan army is “gallantly” fighting the Taliban at its own expense.

The second type of response was more common. “Well, that might be. Yes, the Pakistan Intelligence Services (ISI) probably does continue to support the Taliban in Afghanistan – but it is all because of Pakistan’s exceptionally fragile security situation in the region – a situation that the U.S. is doing nothing to counter,” said Asma Kamal of the Pakistan Writers Foundation.

Most people I talked with felt they and their country were victimized by one or all of the following foreign forces: the Wahabi fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia, the Shia in Iran, the Mossad of Israel, the fickle citizens of the United States and Russia, and virtually all the Hindus of India. The only country most Pakistanis spoke highly of was China – “a true all-weather friend.”

Pakistan’s Identity Crisis
Elias and I had dinner at the home of a gregarious Muslim woman artist, who angered her friends and colleagues by painting a red dot in the center of her forehead on a self-portrait to signify her roots in Indian culture. This small symbolic gesture revealed to her the depth of the enmity between Pakistan and India. An enmity, according to Ulrika Sundburg, the Swedish ambassador in Pakistan and one of the conference participants, that is “the most dangerous in the world today.”

“Identity is the big problem here,” said Mohammed Tahir, a Pakistani anthropologist and art dealer. “Pakistanis are looking for their roots,” he told me. “The five tribes comprising the country don’t identify with each other and don’t mutually benefit from national resources. Pakistanis are in denial of their 5000 years of civilization before the coming of Islam. India is part of that history, but now India is the enemy and children are taught in school to hate Hindus – so the only identify that unites us is Islam.”

This national identification with Islam took an ugly turn under General Zia who seized power through a coup in 1977. During his 11-year reign Zia handled Pakistan’s identity crisis by imposing an ideological, fundamentalist Islamic state upon the population. He banned politics and censored the media. He evoked a “divine mission” in Islamizing the legal system, ordering public floggings and the use of torture. His supporters came from the religious right and he inculcated the conviction that only fundamentalist solders were capable of ruling Pakistan. Most of today’s problems are rooted in Zia’s era.

Zia’s success and longevity as a ruler was made possible by the unstinting support he received from President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. administration after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Zia offered the ISI as conduit for the arms and funds Reagan wanted to supply to the Afghan mujahadeen – to fight the “godless communists” (see Letters from the Road # 37 & 38). The money coming through the CIA over the following decade built the Pakistan army and transformed the ISI into a powerful intelligence agency that eventually created and supported the Taliban. The anti-communist “jihad” launched by Zia and Reagan sowed the seeds of al Qaeda and the Taliban, and turned Pakistan into the world center of jihadism.

To be continued in “The Politics of Fear: Part 2”
(Note: Names in this and the following letter have been changed for security reasons.)
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