5 Things Americans Need to Know about Pakistan

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5 Things Americans Need to Know about Pakistan

Richard Clarke described Pakistan as a nation of “pathological liars” on the Bill Maher Show last year. He also called Pakistanis “paranoid.” In the public mind there is little apart from suicide bombings, terrorism, violence and corruption associated with Pakistan. Commentators freely call Pakistan a “nursery for terrorism.” Every news item from that country confirms this image — whether the shocking news that Osama bin Laden lived just by Pakistan’s premier military academy with Pakistanis claiming they had no idea about his whereabouts, or the shooting, a couple of weeks ago, of Malala Yousufzai, the 14-year-old girl, whose only crime was that she wanted an education.

Surely there is more to Pakistan than this? Yes, there is. Here is the reality:

1. Pakistan’s Democratic Foundations

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, created a modern Muslim state in August 1947, the first of its kind in the Muslim world. A brilliant, successful lawyer with a reputation for integrity and rigid principles, he advocated women’s rights, minority rights and human rights. One of his first acts in August was to declare himself the “Protector-General of the Hindu community” and to attend church to reassure the minorities of their inclusion in the Pakistani nation. In his first address to the Constituent Assembly in the same month he laid out his vision for Pakistan: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

Fatima Jinnah, Jinnah’s sister, played a key role in promoting the visibility and rights of women. Women ambassadors, governors, parliamentarians and editors soon made a mark. It was with this background that Benazir Bhutto emerged as the first female prime minster in the Muslim world. Today, there are some 70 female parliamentarians in the National Assembly and the foreign minister of Pakistan is a woman.

2. The Widespread Influence of Nonviolence in Pakistan

Sufi Islam — which promotes the notion of sulh-i-kul, or “peace with all,” and non-violent political movements and humanitarian initiatives — is widely supported by millions of Pakistanis. The great Sufi centers which attract thousands of worshippers every week are spread throughout Pakistan, and the historic city of Lahore can boast the shrine of the celebrated Sufi Master, Data Ganj Baksh. The qawwali, Sufi devotional music, sung by groups like that of Fateh Ali Khan, made an international impact.

Pakistan also produced the legendary Ghaffar Khan, called the “Frontier Gandhi” because of his non-violent philosophy and close association with Mahatma Gandhi. Ghaffar Khan led a widespread and powerful movement that was allied with the Indian Congress Party and therefore fell out of favor in Pakistan, but the roots of his non-violent philosophy, as he emphasized, were deep within Islam and his Pukhtun tribal culture. Humanitarian work with a focus on the poor and the dispossessed is symbolized by the saintly Abdul Sattar Edhi and his wife, Bilquis. They are the founders of the Edhi Foundation, a social welfare program providing help to the destitute across Pakistan for the past half century. Wearing thread-bare clothes and living a life of extreme simplicity, the Edhis personify the emphasis on compassion in traditional Muslim society.

3. Pakistani Hospitality

Pakistani hospitality is famous. At the birth of the nation in 1947, Pakistan received between 10 and 12 million refugees from different parts of India. Many of these had lost everything they possessed and spoke a different language to the local people. Yet, they were welcomed to the new nation with some of them thriving. There were several heads of government who had a refugee background, including Presidents Pervez Musharraf and Zia-ul-Haq. In the 1980s there were more waves of refugees escaping Afghanistan from the brutal Soviet invasion. Anywhere between 5 and 6 million Afghans sought shelter in Pakistan. One of the side effects of the refugee invasion was the creeping violence that began to appear in society as Kalashnikovs and drugs made their way into the markets. Increasingly, Pakistan’s politics became involved with the politics of Afghanistan across the border.

Next time you hear the discussion whether a dozen or two refugees should be allowed into the country as it may threaten its stability and character, think of Pakistan which opened its arms to literally millions of people seeking refuge.

4. ‘Shining Pakistan’ as a Model for Growth

It is difficult to conceive, but only a generation ago Pakistan was seen by the World Bank, Harvard development economists, and developing countries like South Korea looking for role models of growth as an Asian nation on the verge of “taking off.” Building on its British heritage in agriculture, industry, education, the civil service and the army, Pakistan had made steady strides. It had made a name for itself on the international stage as world champions in cricket, squash and hockey. It had a brand new and smart airline called PIA (Pakistan International Airlines), and the Pakistani President boasted of having the finest Armored Division in Asia. Professor Abdus Salam emerged from this environment to become the first scientist from the Muslim world to win the Nobel Prize, for Physics. It was this scientific base that allowed Pakistan to become the first nuclear Muslim nation in the world.

5. Pakistan as a Traditional American Ally

Mr. Jinnah set the orientation for Pakistan’s foreign policy as an ally of the United States. For about half a century Pakistan remained firmly in the Western camp. There were important economic, cultural and larger geo-political reasons that made the relationship mutually beneficial. Today Pakistanis are bitter about their American ally and blame “America’s war” for the destruction that lies over the land. They point to some 40,000 Pakistanis who have lost their lives as a result of the war on terror and the billions of dollars of property destroyed. They blame the uncontrolled nature and violence of the Taliban on America’s war. They feel betrayed.

The anti-Americanism is widespread. The good news is that it is not too deep. If you doubt this statement, take a look at the picture of Jackie Kennedy visiting Lahore in 1962. She is in an open car with the Pakistani President and surrounded by smiling Pakistanis throwing flower petals to welcome her. She later visited the Tribal Areas along the Afghanistan border and received a similarly warm welcome. The iconic image of the elegant and smiling American lady who set out to win over Pakistani friends should prompt both Americans and Pakistanis concerned at the sorry mess that is their alliance to ask: What happened to that relationship and how best can it be repaired?

Akbar Ahmed is a member of the ISPU Board of Advisors and the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and Visiting Professor at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies and Jesus College, Cambridge. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam (Brookings February 2013).

This article was published by The Huffington Post on October 22, 2012. Read it here.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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