BELIEVE it or not, the world is fascinated by Pakistan. This may come as a surprise to many in the country who believe that Pakistan is the victim of an evil western/Indian/Jewish conspiracy to destroy the state and undermine its values.
But in fact the opposite is true: Pakistan, with its multiple facets, stark contrasts and colourful, complex realities intrigues and fascinates the rest of the world. Admittedly, the interest Pakistan generates is not always on a par with the largely positive global focus on China’s turbo-charged economy or India’s status as a rising power. The world media and analysts follow the twists and turns of China’s upward trajectory in open-mouthed wonder. The China obsession is not surprising: as the West grapples with multiple crises — financial, political, social — China marches to a different, self-confident and upbeat tune.
The interest in India is similarly understandable given the country’s new global assertiveness — and optimistic economic prospects. The current international scrutiny of Pakistan is due to different reasons. Yes, there are concerns about Pakistan’s links with terrorists, fears that the nuclear arsenal could fall into Taliban hands and the general rise of intolerance and extremism across the country. In addition, tense relations with India and Afghanistan prompt fear.
But as illustrated by the countless books and articles written about Pakistan and Pakistanis, the worldwide consensus appears to be that despite the squabbling politicians, a ruthless army, immoral security forces and fierce militants, the people of Pakistan are what make the country special — and intriguing.
Whatever the problem, no matter how acute the crisis, Pakistan and Pakistanis muddle through. Of course, that’s not how a country becomes an object of worldwide admiration — or joins the G20 group of emerging nations. But it does mean that even as they lash out against Pakistan’s two-faced military and political leaders, American and European policymakers raise their hats to the resilient, strong and upbeat spirit of the people of Pakistan. That’s the message I have received over the years from the likes of the late Richard Holbrooke and others.
Member of European Parliament Sajjad Karim who is also founder and chairman of the assembly’s Friends of Pakistan Group, says that Pakistan is lucky to have a vibrant civil society which has “developed by default”. He told this correspondent recently, “Because the state has failed the people, the people have decided not to fail the state.” He added that one of the most promising — though difficult to quantify — features that Pakistan has is the sense that, when seemingly insurmountable challenges to the country rear their head, “a glimmer of hope invariably appears, not from government structures or authoritative bodies but from the people”.
“Individuals or civil groups provide the glimmer of hope that allows the country to pull itself out of adversity,” he insists. Karim is not alone in admiring the resilience of Pakistan’s civil society. After having worked almost exclusively with state institutions in the past, the US and the EU are also turning their focus on civil society groups to nurse the country back to health.
The general impression appears to be that while many in Pakistan are unable or unwilling to rock the boat and have decided to stay silent in the fact of repression and oppression, there are others who are ready to stand up and be counted.
This is the case for the many hardworking human rights activists who stand firm in the face of attacks on minorities, women and children. The international press writes about such people regularly as it did about the Ghairat Brigade rock band which so successfully mocked the seemingly conservative morals of many Pakistanis.
The decision by Samaa TV to fire Maya Khan for her unforgivable witch-hunt of couples seeking some much-needed private romantic downtime also secured worldwide attention.
(Actually I would also like others in her posse of self-appointed vigilantes to be taken to task.)
There is interest of course in the latest mass rallies organised by Imran Khan and the sulks of both the president and the prime minister as well as the strutting of the army and security chieftains. But while these men and women come and go, the people of Pakistan are increasingly being viewed as the country’s main asset — whether living at home or abroad.
The truth is that while China and India have been successful in establishing strong ties with their diaspora communities, Pakistan maintains an awkward love-hate relationship with its brothers and sisters abroad. This correspondent fought for many years to secure Pakistani passports for her children. The request was initially refused because their father is Spanish — although Pervez Musharraf did introduce legislation which allows them to be recognised as non-resident Pakistanis.
Sajjad Karim is angry that Pakistan is considering legislation that would ban Pakistanis with dual nationalities from standing for office in Pakistan. “It is quite clear, looking at China and India, that the diaspora has had a huge role in their economic revivals,” he says. In each of these cases, the countries reached out to their respective diasporas and helped bring them into the fold. In the same way, Pakistan needs to harness the resources and energy of its citizens abroad as a starting point for its own revival, he says.
I have attended many lunches and dinners where visiting Pakistani leaders waft in and out, begging bowls in hand, asking for contributions from ‘loyal’ Pakistanis living abroad to bring prosperity to the motherland. The truth is that many members of the diasporas are working very hard to ensure the development of their country of birth. But to partially quote the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, most would rather eat grass than trust a Pakistani politician with their hard-earned euros and dollars.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.