ISLAMABAD (May 16) — Pakistanis are becoming the world’s pariahs. Since being implicated in a steady stream of violent attacks — from the London Tube bombings in 2005 to this month’s failed attempt to bomb Times Square — it seems almost inevitable now that when the next act of terrorism happens, a Pakistani will be involved.As a Canadian of Pakistani descent, I’ve watched this pattern emerge with a rising sense of trepidation. Thirty-five years ago, when my parents decided to move to Canada, things were much different. Pakistanis were different. They were much in demand — an intelligent, hard-working people who integrated and contributed positively to society, wherever they went.
What a terrible journey we’ve made since then.
Today, Pakistanis are objects of fear and suspicion. Wherever we go we must contend with the “terrorist” label and endure the scrutiny that accompanies it. Like many of my compatriots, I’ve been “interviewed” by the Joint Terrorism Task Force at the U.S. border, questioned at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport and scrutinized with extra efficiency by a German border control officer. Every time it happens, a piece of advice a Sufi in Saudi Arabia once gave me cycles through my mind: “When an obstacle is placed in front of you,” he said, “be like water — flow around it.”
Pakistanis are being asked to flow a lot these days, and it will not get better any time soon. Many people in the world must be asking why it is that so many acts of terrorism in the West seem to lead back to Pakistan. Is there something in the Pakistani psyche that makes them susceptible to violence?
What those people might be surprised to hear is that Pakistanis are asking the same questions.
At the forefront is something quite basic: How did this happen? How, in 30 years — a mere generation — have Pakistanis gone from being desirable to becoming undesirables?
The standard narrative goes something like this: During the 1980s, the U.S. promoted violent jihad in Pakistan to create a proxy army to fight against the godless Soviets in Afghanistan. The Americans funded the growth of jihad ideology, encouraged the construction of madrasas — religious seminaries that have now become militant birthing grounds — and are now fighting the jihadists they helped to create, including Osama bin Laden.
But there is another side to the story. After Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, Pakistan’s military establishment decided to continue using the jihadists as proxies, both in Afghanistan and in Kashmir. That cold-hearted act of realpolitik was inspired by a neo-Cold War mentality in which India was — and still is — viewed as an existential threat to Pakistan.
Most Pakistanis feel that America has brought war on them, a war no one here wanted and which is ultimately killing Pakistanis. But for me, and for a silent minority of Pakistanis as well, there is an alarming lack of recognition of the role played by Pakistan’s own armed forces and intelligence agencies in sending Pakistan down the road to jihad.
There are two reasons for this. First, for decades, Pakistan’s generals have diligently maintained the illusion that the army is the only reason Pakistan has not collapsed. Pakistanis are spoon-fed this false perception from childhood, indoctrinated into believing that the army is the Great Savior, the Protector, the Guardian.
Second, opposing the army can have dire consequences. The execution of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979 is one salient example. The mounting evidence of an army role in the December 2008 assassination of his daughter, Benazir Bhutto, is another.
Just a few days ago my uncle expressed his concern in connection with the work I was doing tracing Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad’s militant connections back to groups linked to Pakistan’s dreaded spy service, the ISI. “You don’t understand these people,” he warned me. “They can make you disappear and you will never be found again. No one can stand up to them.”
But somebody must stand up to them. Pakistan’s image in the world, not to mention its future, depends on it. Is it an accident that Faisal Shahzad was the son of a senior Pakistani military officer? I don’t think so. Military culture in this country is virulently anti-American. Couple it with the rampant spread of jihad ideology — also the product of the army’s failed policies — and you end up with a deadly mix.
The failed attack on Times Square is only the tip of the iceberg. The fear among many Pakistanis is that some similar attempt is likely to succeed. With each attack, fear and suspicion of any Pakistani is bound to rise. And the irony is that as Pakistan spirals into chaos, young people here are increasingly looking to get out.
Two of my cousins are waiting for their immigration papers to be approved in Canada. They are educated, moderate Pakistani Muslims, much like Shahzad appeared to be until recently. They worry now that the environment of fear will hamper their efforts for a better life abroad. My brother, a professor of biochemistry at Trinity College in Dublin, is planning a sabbatical to Harvard, but worries about the treatment he’ll receive there.
Bearded Pakistanis have been under the microscope for years. Now, clean-shaven, Ray-Ban-wearing Pakistanis may be in for the same treatment. My advice to them is to listen to the Sufis. Self-respect lies within the self; no one can take it away from you. Be like water.