Tuesday, August 28, 2007

National Geographic cover story on Pakistan

The September issue of National Geographic has a good and well-balanced article on Pakistan. It is titled, Struggle for the Soul of Pakistan, and it talks about two versions of Islam competing for power there - a peaceful version of the planes and a harsher religion of the mountains. It summarizes the rise of fundamentalism in the 80's (jihad against the Soviets) and the 90's (the rise of the Taliban) and also provide a glimpse of the present. I will add some quotes from the article below that are relevant to this blog, but if you do have time, please read the section on Abdul Sattar Edhi - he has been doing phenomenal humanitarian work for the past 60 years (see Edhi Foundation) and his story is truly incredible.

The article has a nice beginning - Pakistan is indeed situated on a religious fault line:
If there is an address, an exact location for the rift tearing Pakistan apart, and possibly the world, it is a spot 17 miles (28 kilometers) west of Islamabad called the Margalla Pass. Here, at a limestone cliff in the middle of Pakistan, the mountainous west meets the Indus River Valley, and two ancient, and very different, civilizations collide. To the southeast, unfurled to the horizon, lie the fertile lowlands of the Indian subcontinent, realm of peasant farmers on steamy plots of land, bright with colors and the splash of serendipitous gods. To the west and north stretch the harsh, windswept mountains of Central Asia, land of herders and raiders on horseback, where man fears one God and takes no prisoners.

This is also where two conflicting forms of Islam meet: the relatively relaxed and tolerant Islam of India, versus the rigid fundamentalism of the Afghan frontier. Beneath the surface of Pakistan, these opposing forces grind against each other like two vast geologic plates, rattling teacups from Lahore to London, Karachi to New York. The clash between moderates and extremists in Pakistan today reflects this rift, and can be seen as a microcosm for a larger struggle among Muslims everywhere. So when the earth trembles in Pakistan, the world pays attention.
The more radical madrassas were built and funded for the war against the Soviets in the 80s, and it is through these madrassas, that the Taliban (literally, students) later arose.
During the 1980s, as the mujahideen prevailed against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the winds of extremism blowing from the northwest began to chill all of Pakistan. Millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia flowed into the hard-line Sunni madrassas clustered along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, which eventually spread across Pakistan. Not all Pakistani madrassas today are fundamentalist or radical. Some are shoestring operations run by moderate clerics to meet the educational needs of the poor. But the majority—more than 60 percent—are affiliated with the fundamentalist Deobandi sect, an austere interpretation of Islam that calls for a rejection of modernity and a return to the "pure," seventh-century Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. Politically savvy and extremely well funded, more than 10,000 of these schools operate across Pakistan today, compared with fewer than 1,000 before General Zia took power. Thousands more operate unofficially.

By the time Zia died in a mysterious 1988 plane crash, the Islamization of Pakistan was well under way. The following year, the Soviet Union, preoccupied with its own implosion, pulled its demoralized troops from Afghanistan. The U.S. promptly declared victory and returned home, leaving the Afghan people to the chaotic rule of the mujahideen warlords. One crucial chapter in the story of radical Islam's ascendancy had come to a close. The one we are still living had just begun. Osama bin Laden and other leaders of the Afghan jihad now moved freely in and out of northwestern Pakistan and its Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The madrassas swelled with the children of the Zia Generation. In the rugged mountainous land shared by Afghanistan and Pakistan, the seeds of the Taliban, and al Qaeda, had been sown.
And to get a glimpse of a Deobandi madrassa, here is an amusing exchange:
My new friends want to know why Americans think they are terrorists. It's a good question, and an innocent one, judging by the young and open faces of the dozen or so students sharing their evening meal with me. They don't look like terrorists as they sit in a semicircle on green mats in the courtyard of Jamia Uloom-ul-Quran, a small Deobandi madrassa located in a historic downtown mosque in Peshawar. This provincial capital served as headquarters for the Afghan resistance against the Soviets, and jihad is still a going concern here. A block away from the madrassa, at shops selling shoes and used clothes, I'd bought a 50-cent al Qaeda DVD of a suicide bomber preparing for a mission. At the end of the disc, over religious music, the bomber is shown in his car at a distant crossroads, blowing up a convoy. "We know that shop," the students say. "But we're not terrorists."

A few of the students appear to be ten or younger, but most are in their late teens or early 20s. They say their dream for Pakistan is "a peaceful nation, in which justice prevails, in keeping with Islamic law." But they believe, as many here do, that Islam is under attack. By America, by the West, by India, by their own government. Under these circumstances, they say, jihad is justified. What about suicide bombing? Is it sanctioned by Islam? "You must think we have classes here in making bombs or AK-47s!" exclaims one boy, and they all laugh.

"In any Muslim land that's occupied, suicide bombing is allowed," says a personable older boy named Rafiullah, who has bright brown eyes and the beginnings of a beard. A few mention Iraq and Palestine as places where such bombings are justified. Another boy mentions Afghanistan. "But it's not allowed in Pakistan," Rafiullah says, "since we're not an occupied country." ("Not yet!" somebody else interjects, to laughter.) "Nobody has a right to blow you up, even if you're a non-Muslim, or an infidel. If you are here as a guest, you are welcome." He reaches to shake my hand, as if to reassure me.
By the way, I grew up in Karachi in the 80' s and for me (and probably for a lot of Karachiites) Peshawar was scary conservative even then. Perhaps Alabama for someone growing up in New York city, except Alabama with lots and lots of guns (preferably AK-47s).

But if the state does not provide education, what options do people have:
About a third of the students at the Deobandi madrassa in Peshawar, for instance, are poor kids from far-flung regions of the North-West Frontier Province or the tribal areas. They are like Mir Rahman, 16, a sweet-faced boy from a family of poor herders in the Mohmand Tribal Area. The family lives miles from the nearest public school, which is so badly run that few kids attend. It's not unusual in Pakistan to hear of public schools that receive no books, no supplies, and no subsidies from the government. Thousands more are "ghost schools" that exist only on paper, to line the pockets of phantom teachers and administrators. Faced with choosing between bad public schools and expensive private ones, many poor parents send their children to the madrassas, where they get a roof over their heads, three meals a day, and a Koran-based education—for free.
But Zia managed to reshape the whole education system and it will take time to reverse the damage:
Pervez Hoodbhoy lives every day with the consequences of the lack of public education in Pakistan. An MIT-trained professor of nuclear physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, he was speaking to a graduate-level class in physics a few days after the huge earthquake that devastated Kashmir in 2005, describing the geophysical forces that produced the disaster. "When I finished, hands shot up all over the room," he recalls. "'Professor, you are wrong,' my students said. 'That earthquake was the wrath of God.' "

This, he says, is the legacy of General Zia-ul-Haq, whose education ministry issued guidelines on bringing an Islamic perspective to science and other subjects in the public schools. "The Zia Generation has come of age," he says. "It isn't Islamic to teach that earthquakes are caused by the movement of tectonic plates. Instead, you are supposed to say, by the will of Allah, an earthquake happens." Today a government commission is working to modernize education, but "it goes deeper than updating textbooks," he says. "It's a matter of changing society."
A step in the right direction...but it will take time. Zia (with a supportive US) did enormous damage and it will take at least another generation to reverse the effects of his Islamization.


hedge said...
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hedge said...

It was a really interesting article. I couldn't help drawing some pretty scary parallels between Pakistan and its origins and the USA and its origins.

Abdul Sattar Edhi is amazing. It is people like Edhi who make me want to shake Richard Dawkins and shout at him. This, too, is what religious people can do. Do you do anything so good?

(I'm really struggling to get through The God Delusion. I believe in just about everything he says, but he's such a snot that I want to throw the book across the room.)

Also, off-topic: I may not like Dawkins, but making fun of religion can still be funny.

Salman Hameed said...


>I couldn't help drawing some pretty scary parallels between Pakistan and its origins and the USA and its origins.

Yes, but I think the vision of the founders here (U.S.) and the constitution has survived quite well. There was an interesting piece in NYT magazine two weeks ago, "The Politics of God", and it touched on this aspect. Did you get a chance to read it? It shows that inspite of the onslught from the religious right, the separation of church & state has help up quite well - but a lot of it has to do with historical circumstances.

>It is people like Edhi who make me want to shake Richard Dawkins and shout at him. This, too, is what religious people can do. Do you do anything so good?

Well...you have touched on an excellent point here. See the response to the Asian sunami, Katrina, and the earthquake in Pakistan, and you will see many many religious organizations helping out. Agressive atheism from an intellectual perspective is well good (and important), but then there are still some real world issues that still need to be resolved. Religion is not the only body that provides reason for charity/welfare work, but it is still one of the largest and most effective. And we (including Dawkins) should atleast rocognize it.

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