Red Pakistan, blue Pakistan

timecover1I don’t know about you, but I really miss reading a good, newsy, weekly magazine. Thus, while I was on the road (that long trek, literally, around the world last week to speak in Manila, Bangalore and New Delhi) I really enjoyed getting to dig into a small stack of international editions of Time.

In particular, I had missed reading the late May cover story that ran with the headline, “How Pakistan Let Itself Down.” That was sobering reading, on an airplane flying to India.

(Speaking of nice headlines in that issue, faithful readers may also want to check out this one, “Getting Religion: Inside the Global Halal Economy.” Nice, catchy choice of words.)

Once again, the key to the cover story is how it digs into the tensions inside Islam, inside Pakistan. And once again, we see a mainstream newsroom struggling to define the doctrinal content of “moderate” Islam. What we are given is a stress on the lifestyles of Pakistan’s educated, urban elites — symbolized by a female airline pilot and her friends, popping corks and sipping drinks in a Himalayan hideaway while worrying about the future of their nation.

Hostess Rafi Haye states the central issue in an interesting way:

She wears jeans. Her hair is streaked with blond, and a diamond nose stud glints in the sun, as does the jeweled Allah pendant around her neck. She is frustrated with the image the world has of Pakistan, that of a failing state overrun by Muslim fanatics. Pointing first to herself, then at her guests, she says, “This is Pakistan.” Then she waves her hand over the valley beyond the deck of her summer cabin. “But that is also Pakistan.”

By that she means all those Pakistanis who do not belong to her class and who have as much to do with the Taliban as she does, which is to say nothing at all.

The obvious question: Then who backs the Taliban, if anyone?

Here’s another look at the central issue, this time expressed as a question about history:

Founded as a Muslim nation carved from British-ruled India in 1947, Pakistan has long struggled to unite a population divided by language, culture and ethnicity. It is quite true that Pakistan may never have resolved what Sabahat Ashraf, a Pakistani blogger now living in California, calls its “existential dilemma: Are we an Islamic state, or are we a state of Muslims?”

By definition, this means that conflict inside Pakistan is conflict within Islam, which means that it is impossible to cover events inside the borders of this troubled nation without drawing some doctrinal and cultural lines between Muslims. Yet that is precise what the mainstream press seems hesitant to do. If the conflict is merely political, then why are the big, painful questions rotted in religion? Yes, I am well aware that in most expressions of Islam there is no separation between mosque and state. That’s part of the equation.

This is where things get complicated. The battles in the Swat Valley are often expressed as fights over the use of Sharia law. What reporters need to emphasize is that the battles actually center on what form of Sharia law will be used, since Pakistan already has Islamic law from border to border. Ask anyone who attempts to convert to another faith.

But it is also unclear — here’s that theme again, as in Iran — whether the “moderate” Muslims are as powerful as the press seems to think they are. Do the “moderates” have any sense of unity when it comes to faith and practice? Can they express themselves?

That brings us to what I think is the most interesting section in this important story:

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, pulls up on his laptop the pages of a first-grade primer distributed in private religious schools. “A is for Allah,” he reads. “B is for bandook, or gun.” T, for thakrau, collision, is illustrated with a drawing of the World Trade Center in flames, while Z, for zenoub, the plural of sin, is depicted with alcohol bottles, kites, guitars, drums, a television and a chess set. Any attempt to change the religious curriculum is met with fierce resistance. “Many fear that to be seen protesting against the extremists who are pushing Shari’a [Islamic law] would be seen as protesting against Islam itself,” says Hoodbhoy.

The paradox here is that historically, Pakistanis have practiced a syncretic version of Islam that venerates saints and emphasizes a personal relationship with God. But the influx of Arab preachers during the war against the Soviets brought a more austere form of the religion. Shayan Afzal Khan, an Islamic scholar who writes about women and Islam, thinks Pakistanis lack the confidence to defend their moderate beliefs. “People are afraid to take on the mullahs because we can’t quote the Koran the way they do,” Khan says. “We have to take our religion back,” but fear gets in the way. She has decided not to publish her most recent book, about early Muslim women, in Pakistan “because the situation these days is too unstable.”

Now that’s chilling.

Don’t you want to know more?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Again with the red/blue thing:-) How about cerise and lavender instead to underline that what applies in the US is not transferable to countries like Pakistan.

    Pakistanis lack the confidence to defend their moderate beliefs

    There are times when poetry springs into my mind. This reminded me very strongly of Yeats’ “The Second Coming”:

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

  • Jerry

    After I posted that, I was immediately reminded how different things are in Iran perhaps even the opposite.

  • Greg

    rooted not rotted

  • Ben


    I get the sense that you don’t quite believe this, but I think there actually is minimal support for the Taliban among Pakistanis. After interviewing dozens and dozens and dozens of internally displaced people from Swat and Buner from all walks of life through interpreters (not English-speaking elite), the word that people used over and over to describe the Taliban was “criminal.” That’s true even among some people who had lost family members to the recent Pakistani military incursion. Many indicated the movement had changed: In the beginning it was pious religious students, but in recent years it had been augmented by foreign militants and local criminals who sensed an opportunity to wield power, and did so rapaciously.

    Interviews of Pakistanis living in the plains revealed that they basically viewed the Taliban as a movement that mostly appealed to backward people living in the mountains. And they viewed the Taliban “ideology” to be as much a product of ethnic Pashtun customs as a flavor of Islam.

    Since the Time Magazine piece, a number of things happened to turn much of the nation more decisively against the Taliban: The flogging video, the killing of some Pakistani special forces in the Swat region, the Taliban incursions into Buner after the Swat “peace deal,” and Sufi Mohammad’s statements against the Pakistani state. These things seemed to cross a line both for the military and for the wider population.

    So if most of Pakistan feels this way, why has it taken so long to fight the Taliban? On the Army side, it’s many people’s estimation that the state has been playing a double game, trying to preserve the Taliban as a useful foreign policy tool in Afghanistan. On the civilian side, people gave way to Taliban militants because, of course, the militants were armed, and because there was a niggling guilt about being maybe a bit too secular in the face of more pious Muslims. However, all these reasons appear — particularly the secularists’ guilt — appear to be fading very very fast given the way the Taliban have acted recently.

  • David

    Of course, the common people also believe that India is funding the Taliban in order to destroy Pakistan

  • Bern

    Why would a private religious school first grade primer in Pakistan use the English alphabet?

  • naeem

    Please see the history of what is the Geography of Pakistan. This has been a passage for the invaders throughout the History. Again, some invaders are making an attempt to get a safe passage, and now they find the nuclear defence in their way. So, you see all what you are saying, in so may words.

    Recently, Soviet’s ( The Reds ) were stopped and so will the rest ( The Blues) who will try to intrude.

    It is true, Pakistanies are Green and a mix of so many kinds of people, gathered over hundreds of years and homogenously are not the best of the Muslims.

    Definately, we believe in ” …..You also Plan, and they also Plan. But God is the best planner of the Planners….”.

  • tmatt


    All I mean when I use this term is a divide between urban elites and the rest of the country. I am implying — as have other writers — that the “blues” are more secular or somehow, in Keller’s words, less “pious.”

  • Roberto Rivera

    From what I have read it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand Islam in South Asia without accounting for the role of Sufism, the “syncretic version of Islam that venerates saints and emphasizes a personal relationship with God” referred to in the article.

    Part of the conflict within Islam is the attempt by more, for lack of a better word, puritanical strains of Islam, such as the “Arab preachers,” the Taliban and the Salafists, a.k.a., “Wahhabis” to eradicate this “syncretic” form of Islam.

    Actually, “puritanical” is an apt phrase, since there is an analogy to the Western Christian experience: the desire to root out what were regarded as “accretions” and “idolatry” and restore an imagined status quo ante. Indeed, their 17th century critics compared the Puritans to Muslims in their willingness to use force.