Behind the Clichés,
a Modern Pakistan
By Shuja Nawaz
For a returning
native, Pakistan offers a kaleidoscope of images
that defy the West's stereotypes. American audiences
are used to seeing Pakistan as poised on the brink
of nuclear conflict with India, hosting Taliban
"jihadist" militia, with a military-dominated
government that has a tenuous hold on its fractious
component provinces. Violent riots and screaming
bearded crowds shouting anti-US and anti-Western
slogans make their way into evening news broadcasts.
Pakistan is often depicted as a failed or failing
state that is an unreliable ally in America's "war
against terror." At the same time, the United
States, in particular, appears to wish that Pakistan's
president and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, would
wave his powerful swagger stick and remove Al Qaeda
from the border region near Afghanistan.
The reality of Pakistan today is far more complex.
Pakistan has a palpable vibrancy that is reflected
in its burgeoning cities, revitalized private sector
and increasing prosperity, with gross domestic product
growing at more that 6 percent annually.
Foreign investors have recently scooped up huge
chunks of former public enterprises like the Karachi
Electric Power Supply Company, Pakistan Steel Mills,
and the former state monopoly, Pakistan Telecommunications,
despite the security threats posed by Al Qaeda and
its amorphous network of disaffected Islamist groups.
Nongovernmental organizations are improving their
traction in the fields of human rights, health and
education. Their focus is on women and girls, a
much-neglected aspect of Pakistani economy and society.
The recent success of NGOs in fighting the ravages
of the earthquake in northern Pakistan has given
them new life and visibility. Meanwhile a largely
unfettered press keeps the government on its toes.
Yet Pakistan faces many challenges. More than half
of its 160 million people are under the age of 20.
This offers an opportunity: Unlike the aging economies
of the West, Pakistan could energize its growth
for decades on the shoulders of a liberated and
Unlike their ennui-ridden and angst-driven Western
counterparts, young Pakistanis of all economic and
political hues are thirsting for education and knowledge,
seeing it as the ticket to a better life. Demand
for quality education is volcanic, spurring the
government to revise its ancient curricula and remove
from them the constraints of religious dogma, a
vestige of the Islamic dictatorship of General Zia
ul Haq, who ruled from 1977 to 1988. Ironically,
Zia's son is now the religious affairs minister,
while the reformist minister of education is a retired
Pakistani society today is much more open than under
Zia's rule, despite the anomalous presence of a
uniformed president. Musharraf, dubbed a "liberal
autocrat" by the commentator Fareed Zakaria,
says he intends to transform the political and social
landscape of Pakistan. But despite his good intentions,
he must undertake a difficult balancing act, keeping
his political base secure at home while meeting
his anti-terror obligations to the United States,
and quieting fears of a nuclear conflict with India
while bringing order to Baluchistan and the Northwest
Musharraf must also maintain his support among the
increasingly conservative officer class of the Pakistan
Army, many of whom grew up in the Zia regime. This
February, 29 brigadiers were promoted to major-general,
all of whom were commissioned in the army in 1976
or 1977 and who spent their formative years under
martial law and the Islamist ethos of the Zia period.
They represent the future leadership of the army
five years hence, when some of them will rise to
lieutenant-general and take over important posts
at army headquarters or as corps commanders.
Musharraf is part of a dying breed that received
its early training overseas. The imposition of bans
on training Pakistani officers in the United States
in the past few decades, most recently under the
Pressler Amendment, has meant that many of the army's
emerging leaders have a restricted worldview. Since
9/11, about 300 Pakistani military officers have
been trained in the United States every year. But
the results of these moves will not be evident for
many years hence.
Military personnel have been involved in recent
attacks against Musharraf. But in recent interviews,
senior current and retired military leaders told
me that the Islamist veneer that Zia pasted on Pakistan's
army is just that.
The army remains true to its Muslim roots, they
say, but its ethos is one of professionalism, not
fundamentalism. And it remains a potent and pervasive
presence in Pakistani society, with retired military
officers commanding parastatal organizations and
even leading civil service training establishments.
In an interview, Musharraf lived up to his liberal
label, promising to stand shoulder to shoulder with
human rights workers to protect women and children.
He has made this promise many times, but the National
Assembly and the leadership of his political base,
the Pakistan Muslim League, refuse to remove some
of the egregious Islamist laws that are a vestige
of the Zia era.
Musharraf currently does not have the two-thirds
majority needed to repeal Pakistan's antediluvian
sexist laws. If he does manage to live up to his
promise, however, he will find an educated and active
ally in his country's middle-class and urban elite
who are craving for such leadership. The intellectuals
that he was wary of when he took over in 1999 are
preparing the ground for a moderate, peace-loving
Witness the following scenes from today's Pakistan
in April that did not make it to the Western news
A joint Indo-Pakistani drama festival called Punj
Pani, or "Five Waters," a reference to
the Punjab, a province shared by India and Pakistan,
played to packed houses in Lahore's Al Hamra Theater;
A rally in Qaddafi Stadium, also in Lahore, on April
4 produced the "world's longest love letter"
from the people of Pakistan to the people of India;
A performance by the Pakistani rock star Ali Azmat
and his Indian counterpart Rabbi Shergil (a Sikh)
at the Royal Palm Golf Club in Lahore on April 22
had young men and women dancing with abandon.
Modernity is taking hold in Pakistan today. Yet,
it must live side by side with a basic religiosity
and awareness of local cultural values and sensibilities.
Mosques fill up regularly during the day while chic
coffee houses and eclectic restaurants throb with
activity in the evening.
Followers of politicians in exile and opportunist
Islamist opponents of Musharraf recently took to
the streets in the wake of the cartoons depicting
the Prophet Muhammad. They burned foreign-owned
banks and locally owned franchises of US fast food
chains, as well as the offices of Telenor, a Norwegian
cell phone company. Their underlying aim was clearly
to destabilize the current regime and gain power
from the street by depicting Musharraf as anti-Islamic
The challenge for Musharraf and his local and foreign
allies is to ride out such disturbances while staying
the course on his liberal agenda. In this regard
Musharraf and his technocratic prime minister, Shaukat
Aziz, a former Citibank executive, are on the same
It would be wrong for the West to overestimate Musharraf's
ability to press a few buttons and resolve the Al
Qaeda situation without creating longer-term problems
for Pakistan and further angering its population.
The stakes are high: If Musharraf refuses to become
beholden to the forces of political and religious
anachronism, Pakistan could turn out to be an island
of stability in a turbulent neighborhood. If he
cedes to those forces, the consequences would be
disastrous for Pakistan, South Asia and the West.
If this spring is any indication, the forces of
moderation in Pakistan are fueling their own renaissance.
Musharraf would do well to make common cause with
them and to ride their success into the future.
America's "war against terror" can only
be won through the hearts and minds of these moderates
in a key frontline state.
(Shuja Nawaz, a journalist, recently returned to
Pakistan after working for 32 years at the International
Monetary Fund and the International Atomic Energy
Agency, to complete "Crossed Swords,"
a book on Pakistan and its army. Courtesy International