We cannot afford to shun Pakistan
The world must not abandon Pakistan to the religious extremists
On a recent Pakistan International Airlines flight from Karachi to Lahore, a local – and somewhat revealing – fashion show played out on the TV screens. Among those having to watch were a large number of people returning from the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. This scene is but a microcosm of contemporary Pakistan. On the one hand, there are signs everywhere not just of personal piety but of a narrow and intolerant ideology based on religion, and, on the other, of people, especially the young, straining to break through the barriers of convention. The clash is evident everywhere, with the same newspapers, magazines and television channels carrying Islamic revivalist messages and permissive films. How this clash is resolved will be a clue to the destiny of the country.
This destiny is one that, in the medium term, is fraught with difficulty. The noted journalist Ahmad Rashid has said that Pakistan is going through political, economic and terrorist crises simultaneously. It is impossible in these circumstances to be ambitious, for example, about infrastructure and the urgent energy needs of the country. The confidence of international financial institutions is being bought by the strict and immediate implementation of harsh IMF policies, especially the removal of subsidies on domestic gas and electricity consumption. Needless to say, this has huge political implications in terms of public unrest.
The political situation remains very fragile, with the parties, the judiciary and, of course, the military all, publicly or privately, jockeying for power. Although there are encouraging signs, levels of violence remain obstinately high. There are daily reports of suicide bombings, political assassinations and kidnappings. There is evidence that attacks on minorities, such as Christians, Shia Muslims and the Ahmadiyya are a deliberate attempt by the Pakistani Taliban and their related “lashkars” – tribal militias – to widen the conflict in the area.
Independent surveys show that over 90% of Pakistanis believe that religious extremism is the greatest single threat to the country. As someone said to me recently: “It seems that an extremist 3% are holding the other 97% to ransom.” A close encounter with extremism and terrorism has made even previously sympathetic Pakistanis realise the mortal danger they are in. This must be taken into account when assessing the effects of the “war on terror” on Pakistani public opinion. It may not be as uniformly hostile to combating terrorism as is sometimes made out by the press. The means used and the time taken, as well as civilian casualties, are crucial in determining the direction in which public opinion will go.
For these reasons Pakistan should not be isolated from the mainstream of the international community. It is important also to make sure that ordinary Pakistanis remain in contact with the outside world. The response by the international community to the earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 was hugely appreciated by ordinary people in Pakistan. A generous and timely response to the recent floods is yet another sign that the world has not abandoned Pakistan, whether to natural disaster or to extremists.
Pakistan will be a litmus test as to whether the international community and the Muslim world can halt the advance of extremist ideologies based on religion. It is vital for us to co-operate with those in Pakistan and elsewhere who have similar aims. These may be NGOs, universities, the media, women’s and minority groups and, indeed, progressive elements in government. The world needs a stable, strong and moderate Pakistan, and so do its own citizens.