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 educated youth.
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 general.
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 Frontier Province.
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 Pakistan.
Witness the following scenes from today's Pakistan in April that did not make it to the Western news media's attention:
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 and pro-West.
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 page.
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 Herald Tribune)

 


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