In March of 1999, I stepped out of the Allama Iqbal International Airport, in Lahore, Pakistan, greeted by long-lost family members and a barrage of young men wanting to carry our luggage to the awaiting cars. While in the clutch of my aunt’s bosom, I quietly asked, “Will we be shot at?” Both amused and concerned, my aunt laughed and asked if I had lost my mind, assuring me that I was perfectly safe, even when the country was in the midst of a war with its neighbour. Yet even with her good-humoured comfort my heart and breath continued their uneven palpitations. I was 11 years old and couldn’t bring myself to trust my Pakistani niqabi-clad aunt over what I had been told from the good folks at CNN for the past few years. My eyes remained fixated on every rooftop that passed; they expected to see a bearded extremist wielding a Kalashnikov, just waiting to shoot at any car holding foreigners.
But the Pakistan I would experience in the ensuing six months would be fundamentally different from the one that I had expected. Although the subcontinent was being torn apart by a war, life was, to my innocent surprise, completely normal. Better than normal. The problems were plentiful, but nothing lived up to the negative image that the hype back home, in the United States, had created in my mind.
Ten years later, however, the situation is radically different. The country is falling apart at the seams, and even some of the most unwaveringly patriotic Pakistanis are beginning to take notice of issues regarding extremism that required their attention years ago. Yet the hype with which we are constantly bombarded is still leading us to false conclusions. As The Observer’s Jason Burke rightly observes, the prediction of Pakistan’s collapse is an old story, one that has been espoused several times in the past 40 years, from after the creation of Bangladesh to after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Pakistan will most likely become a failed state, but it will not be the next Somalia. But most importantly, Burke notes that one of the biggest problems facing Pakistan’s future and existence, as well as the security of the international community, is the rise of so-called religious and nationalist extremism, not only among Pakistanis living in Pakistan but also in the diaspora, as seen with several communities in the United Kingdom in recent years.
This isn’t about a black dress or facial hair. This is about the rhetoric and reactionary mentality of a significant minority of Pakistanis, especially among those living in the West. The problem of Pakistan is no longer secluded to its government; it has penetrated through the country’s citizenry, which is reacting against the social and economic realities denigrating culture and life through the use of religion and nationalism. These vulnerabilities allow for the politics of the region to be as they are; corrupt government after corrupt government has filled its stomach on these vulnerabilities. And do not doubt the transcendence of these frustrations. While people with such warped religious essentialism and national zealousness are a minority, with the majority of Pakistanis on the secular side, they do still exist and are not isolated to the subcontinent.
That being said, my fellow Pakistanis need to awaken from their slumber. We have to come to terms with the fact that what we understand as Pakistan exists now only in nostalgia. The road to democracy and stability is never easy. And even then there’s no guarantee. Pakistan arose from another country, through the bloodiest mass migration of our time, breaking away from colonialism, with no institutions to call its own – it had to create a country essentially from scratch. The foundation that Muhammad Ali Jinnah and company created was not strong. Yet the country has continued to attempt to build itself upon that weak foundation. And all of this, of course, is not to deny the involvement of international parties, which has helped exacerbate the downward spiral of Pakistan. But there’s still much that can be done.
Islam has become corrupted as a political tool, violence against women has increased, civil society is constantly repressed, the gap between the rich and the poor continues to rise at a repulsive rate, and justice and accountability remain just mere song topics. As Pakistanis, we need to be able to accept that these issues have surpassed the borders of Pakistan. Many of us need to snap out of our classist bubble and realize that a Pakistan exists outside our massive bungalows. As McGill students, we need to bring further light to religious and nationalist extremism that will prove to hinder any potential progress or stability for the region. We need to bring attention to the fact that the many different situations in South Asia have an effect on our political conduct in North America. The lack of a proper department or even sub-department for South Asian studies – in either political science or Islamic studies – is indicative of the general, and unfortunate, lack of academic interest in the region.
Of course a discourse on Pakistan exists on campus, but it is minimal and primarily involves an audience of South Asian descent. This needs to change. There needs to be a larger, more inclusive discourse regarding Pakistan, and South Asia as a whole, which can be sustained. As another commentator, Faiz Lalani, mentioned in Monday’s edition of The Daily, there is a world of conflict outside the Middle East. Amen, Lalani. Hezbollah has nothing on the Swat Valley.