By Jane Perlez
During her travels across Pakistan, Pamela Constable, a veteran foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, dropped in on the campus of Punjab University in Lahore, a city of 10 million, the scene of terrorist bombings and the cultural capital of the nation. By cultural capital, residents generally refer to the fading Mughal monuments and, to a lesser extent, the lively contemporary art scene at the National College of Arts.
The university, the country’s largest, has little to do with these two attributes of Lahore. The campus has been a crucible of Islamic radicalism for a decade. Ms. Constable’s visit, she recounts in her new book, “Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War With Itself,” was spurred by the news that students belonging to Jamiat-e-Tulaba, a radical Islamic group affiliated with a national religious party, had beaten a dean who dared to expel some of its members.
She had not been on the campus for two years. When she arrived in the spring of 2010, she was amazed, she writes, by how much power the group wielded. A student told her: “We are good Muslims, so when on campus boys cross the limits, we have to check them. Some of the values that come from the West do not belong in our society, and we cannot allow them to be practiced on our campus.” When pressed, the student listed: “Things like drugs, music, media, relations with girls.”
This was not the secular place Ms. Constable once knew. The student’s argument, she noted, “came straight from the Taliban worldview.” Less than a year later an extremist bodyguard assassinated the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, a man who belonged to the old Lahore of tolerance.
The killing was bad enough. More disturbing was the celebration of the killer among lawyers, police officers and clerics as a defender of the faith. “A so-called moderate Muslim society was proving far more fanatical than either its political elite or Western backers had suspected, while its authorities were too intimidated to take on the religious mob,” she writes.
Ms. Constable meets and talks with many different kinds of Pakistanis — students, landowners, clerics, government ministers, poor women, factory managers, even strangers at bus stops — in a book that she says is designed to introduce the general reader to a complex, little understood nation of immense importance to the United States. She does not seek, she explains at the outset, to ferret out “the secrets of powerful institutions or radical movements” or to delineate the complex, and now rapidly sinking, relationship between Pakistan and the United States.
Instead, she focuses on the main themes of Pakistani society. She deals with feudalism, the deplorable situation of most Pakistani women, the rotten justice system, the powerful military, the relentless march of religious extremism, and she weaves in interviews, news events and a touch of history.
For newcomers to Pakistan Ms. Constable’s method may well be satisfying. With deft choices, she illuminates some of the shocking truths about a Muslim country that emerged at the end of Britain’s Indian empire in 1947 with the stated intention of honoring other religions.
In the well-titled chapter “Hate,” she points out that only one Pakistani has won a Nobel Prize. Abdus Salam, a theoretical physicist, received the honor in 1979. But because he belonged to the Ahmadi Muslim sect, a small minority that is basically outlawed in Pakistan, Mr. Salam is an unknown in Pakistan. “To his homeland Salam’s achievements were an embarrassment and a glitch in the official narrative that Ahmadis are enemies of Islam — infidels to be avoided, mistrusted, and despised.” In contrast A. Q. Khan, a scientist who stole nuclear secrets and then peddled them to rogue states, is hailed as a national hero.
An intrepid reporter, Ms. Constable is at her best when she ventures among the underclass, the vast majority of the population trapped, she notes, at the bottom of a deeply hierarchical society. At a brick kiln she uncovers violence and desperation. In heat and dust the laborers reap little but mounting indebtedness to the harsh owners. Some of the workers resort to selling their kidneys to the underground organ trade. One man said he was 45 but, after having sold his kidney, looked 60. “The worst part,” he said, “is that I still haven’t paid off my debt.”
Ms. Constable does not ignore the elite. She writes in general about the corruption of President Asif Ali Zardari and the mixed signals of the chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. She interviews parliamentarians who for the most part are feudal landowners with an interest in perpetuating the status quo rather than seriously working toward a real democracy. She discusses the support given to Lashkar-e-Taiba and other proxy militant groups that the military uses against India and that foment extremism at home.
But her resolve to ignore the long, tortured Pakistani-American relationship, and her decision to avoid drawing conclusions about why Pakistan is on such a downward spiral, sells the reader short. Pakistani society is important for Americans to understand because the United States has a strategic interest in a country fraught with the toxic mix of nuclear weapons and Islamic militancy. That radical Islam is growing so rapidly has much to do with the refusal of the civilian leaders to push back against extremism, to run government for the benefit of the citizens rather than themselves. President Zardari was too afraid to attend the funeral of his friend Mr. Taseer, the murdered governor of Punjab. General Kayani did not appear either. It was an ideal moment for one, or both, to appeal to sanity.
These two leaders have yet to take such a firm stand, and given the anecdotal evidence of the gains of radical Islam accumulated with energy and detail by Ms. Constable, it may be too late.
Jane Perlez is the chief Pakistan correspondent for The New York Times.
Source: The New York Times