Pakistan is a country that many of us see on the news and discuss in conversation; it is a country whose name has become synonymous with terrorism, corruption, extremism and Islam. Over the years, we have been inundated with violent images and stories about the country, yet this narrative of Pakistan as a broken country teeming with extremist Muslims ready to blow stuff up is simplistic. Pakistan remains an excruciatingly diverse country that most of us still fail to understand at all. At the heart of any discussion of Pakistan is the country’s relationship with Islam, which is long and complicated. Pakistan’s origin as a homeland for India’s Muslims could have foreshadowed the various conflicts and tensions that embroil the country today. Addressing his citizens, Pakistan’s former president General Zia al Huq said, “If we are not Muslims, then what are we? Second-rate Indians,” implying that the only distinction between an Indian and a Pakistani is his or her religion. Today I sat down with Naziha Niazi ‘14, a Pakistani-American citizen, and Bilal Asad ‘15, an international student from Pakistan, to discuss their views on Pakistan’s current state of affairs.
Humzah: Thank you both for participating in this exciting endeavor. I would like to start by asking you both how each of you feel about Pakistan’s situation. In other words, describe today’s Pakistan in your own words.
Naziha: Based off of my American view and what my family there has told me, one of the biggest problems there is the rampant corruption in the government. I think that some of the political parties have good messages, yet I remain skeptical of others—it’s kind of hard for me to believe any of them will actually bring about any change. What else irks me is the fact that minority rights are ignored; killings in Quetta and Shi’a persecution are just a few examples of areas the government needs to focus on more.
Bilal: I think one of the main problems right now is how to deal with the war. The situation is bad but it does not truly represent daily life; the war is only in the Pakistani provinces of Waziristan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Some common stereotypes exist; for example, not everyone has a beard. In fact, it’s actually rather uncommon. The bigger cities are safe and suicide bombings are not a daily occurrence. Another important factor to note is that the Taliban do not move freely. The education system is deplorable and only caters to the elite, contributing to Pakistan’s status as having the second highest number of children out of school in the world.
Humzah: Why do you think so many Americans hate Pakistan? Why is it targeted?
Bilal: There’s a general misconception of what Pakistani people are actually like. I feel Americans think all Pakistanis hate America, but there are many who adore American culture; it’s just that they don’t agree with America’s foreign policy. I feel Americans look at Pakistan solely through the media. They only judge what makes headlines, but they never get to see everyday life.
Humzah: What’s the biggest problem Pakistan is dealing with? Gender inequality? Religious intolerance? Lack of education? Poverty? Pervasive government corruption? Of course these problems are all interwoven and affect one another, but are there specific issues that stand out to you?
Bilal: I think the root problem is education. It’s a long-term problem that will take around five to six years to fix, but it’s the best place to start. The War on Terror is also a huge issue and I think the Pakistani people need to unite to see what needs to get done. There is no leadership to unite the people towards one point, no one there to convince them or to explain to them how to solve the problems. Usually if someone does step up, people don’t trust them. But people are hopeful for the elections to finally get a government that represents them.
Naziha: My family and I talk about this a lot; we also think the people need to unite. I personally was very impressed and proud when they had the 100-man march. I know Pakistanis have great ideas and that they are smart but they have a hard time coming together. I really do not understand why the people cannot see the benefits of coming together. On the bright side, I do feel these issues have received more attention thanks to the many atrocities going on.
Humzah: What are some short-term solutions you can advise? Long-term ones?
Bilal: In terms of short-term solution[s], I think a lot of attention needs to be given to ending the war on terror. My reasoning for this is that it is tied to everything and prevents the government from focusing on other issues and allocating the proper amount of funds due to the costly nature of such a war. A lot of money per month goes to fighting the war. To end the war I think we first need to understand our enemy. There are more than 25-30 militant groups fighting the US/Pakistani armies, but each one has a different agenda and a different reason to fight. So we need to see which ones we can negotiate with, as it is unwise to generalize them all. Once the groups have been properly understood we can conduct operations against those who do not want to discuss. For the long term, education needs to be improved. We need to focus on building more schools, improving the quality of staff and creating a national standard—at least at the preliminary levels.
Naziha: For the short term I really feel that at this point, a change in the political system would do wonders. I don’t know much about politics, but if there could be any decrease in the corruption, I think a huge difference would ensue. In terms of long-term solutions, I think gender equality definitely needs to become something people talk about. There needs to be an implementation of more girl-focused programs, and encouragement of girls to go to school; just something that can show girls they have choices and that they matter and to show their families that it’s OK to let their girls go out into the world.
Humzah: Naziha, seeing as you are a Pakistani-American, what do you think people our age here can do?
Naziha: I think Pakistani-Americans can play a big role in helping educate Americans about Pakistan. I want to be able to show the culture and people of Pakistan, what it is capable of. There are so many beautiful aspects of that country and I want to show it all to America. You have extremely talented and smart people there; they are not all extremists or how they are portrayed in the movies – they are people. Changing perceptions is very important to me.
Humzah: Do you both believe religion should be downplayed in the average Pakistani’s life? If not, how would you remedy the current inseparable bond between religion and society?
Bilal: I don’t think people need to be less ultra-religious; instead, I think we need to fix the macro issues like economy. Though it is not really a problem, I admit religion is practiced more socially than personally and I think that can sometimes be problematic, but you cannot force people to change immediately. When we win the war, we will have more money that can be used on things like education and health. That is what will modernize the society.
Naziha: I think aside from education, there is a need for more tolerance, but that only changes with societal attitude. The government seriously needs to monitor the rights of minority religious groups such as Shi’as, Hindus and Christians.
Humzah: Is Pakistan really as violent as the media portrays?
Bilal: Not exactly. It depends a lot on where you are. In the major cities, at least in Punjab, it’s fine, but if you go to Quetta in the west, Peshawar in the northwest or Karachi in the south, you should watch your step. There are currently three kinds of insurgents: the movement for independence in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa … where the Taliban reside and where a majority of the war on terror takes place, and in Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, gang violence is prevalent.
Humzah: As an international student, what information can you contribute to undermine the common stereotypes of Pakistan?
Bilal: Whenever I meet someone new here, they ask me if Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world. I think the best thing to do is to tell them Pakistan has not always been like this. We can tell them about things we do: we go to cinemas, we go out to eat, it’s not just what they show on television. They only show the negative extremes. It’s still a vibrant country; everyday life still goes on.
Humzah: What stereotypes or complaints do Pakistanis have against Americans?
Bilal: Pakistanis definitely do not hate the American people; they are able to separate the US government from its citizens. We feel that Pakistan has always been the US’s client state. The US can make Pakistan do what it wants. What they don’t like about the US is that it took a sharp U-turn in its policy after 9/11. For example, Pakistan’s ex-president Musharraf wrote in his memoirs that the US threatened to bomb Pakistan “back to the Stone Age” unless it joined the war on terror. They think the US just uses Pakistan for its own interests and then throws it away when it’s done. One important point that I would like to add is the fact that in spite of this, Pakistanis adore American culture and especially its scientific achievements.
Humzah: Naziha, as a woman, what do you think of the current situation of Pakistani females?
Naziha: There definitely needs to be less of a focus on what women are doing with their lives. For example, actress Veena Malik receives too much attention on all the “bad” and “unIslamic” things she is doing, even though there are so many other issues. Malala Yusefzai is another example; she simply wanted to get an education and they made a huge deal about it. A lot of places do employ and educate women but there needs to be acceptance of the empowerment of women. I just feel we should encourage girls more—if the women that have privilege helped those that don’t, that would be great.
Humzah: I understand you’ve been taking some classes that deal with women in Islam; would you care to share the status of women in Pakistan versus that in a few other countries?
Naziha: What I want to say about this issue is that horrifying practices such as honor killings and acid-throwing solely arise from culture, not Islam. It is a point that was specifically made in my class. Honor killings, for example, have to do with the importance of a woman’s honor in certain tribal cultures. It is also important to understand that these customs are not only prevalent in Muslim countries, as Cambodia and India also have many such incidences. The countries with the highest domestic violence rates are actually found in some South American and African countries. My professor’s point was that it actually wasn’t in Muslim-majority countries. I think each country has issues like this, but Pakistan is specific issues but I wouldn’t say they come from Islam, even though people like to pit religion as the main culprit.