Monday, December 07, 2009

A revolution is not a dinner party, and a dinner party shouldn't be a revolution

The Demons That Haunt the Pakistanis

Being a diplomat, Ms. Lodhi speaks in a low key. But not Dr. Mubbashar, whose brand of patriotism may sound paranoid to an American, but is shared by many Pakistanis. He asserted that the American security company formerly known as Blackwater, a favorite target of criticism for ultranationalists, rented a house next to his, and that its employees had been trying to lure his servants with sweets, alcohol and “McDonald’s food every Sunday.”

Conspiracy theories are pervasive in Pakistan, and Ms. Alvi offered an explanation. They are a projection, she said — a defense mechanism that protects one’s psyche from something too difficult to accept. “It’s not me, it’s you,” she said. “It’s a denial of personal responsibility, which goes a long way to cripple our growth.”

Anybody who has ever been to a Pakistani dinner party will know how the conversation is. If religion and politics are the two subjects to avoid in Western conversation, they're the only two safe topics in a Pakistani conversation (fun fact: the official language of Pakistan is not Pakistani, but Urdu). Pakistanis, largely because they're from Pakistan, attach an inordinate significance to the country.

At least one of my relatives has long been convinced that recent developments in American foreign policy, namely war in Afghanistan, closer ties with India and a rise in tensions with Iran, are really part of a larger, overarching plan to surround and then subjugate Pakistan. After all, Pakistan is the height of civilization, with its cricket teams, 180 million people and kind-hearted people (to be contrasted with rude Indians). Add in its status as the only Muslim country with an atomic bomb, the two things that Christian, militarized America apparently fears most, and it's obvious why American strategists have long been scheming to ensnare this basket case on the Indus.

Really, though, I've heard it all over the years: the Russians swept Saddam Hussein away in the spring of 2003, the Jews perpetrated 9/11 to give Muslims a bad name, the Indians orchestrated a series of attacks in their country to give Muslims a bad name, that Danish newspaper published those cartoons to give Muslims a bad name, that Indian guy looked at me cross-eyed to give Muslims a bad name...

Lately, though, what I hear from Pakistanis I know and what I read online seems to be a little more reasonable. The constant spectacles of Pakistani-on-Pakistani violence has moved many people, if not the McDonald's-fearing psychiatrist, to accept a plainer view of facts. I haven't really hard anyone insist that the never-ending series of bombings and low-level civil war euphemized as a counter-insurgency is really a plot by Mossad agents to make Muslims look bad.

That India, long in lockstep with Pakistani misery, seems to be moving on from the 1947 partition suggests that maybe the way Pakistanis operate is really not normal. Maybe they've held on to these paranoid lunacies about Jews, Americans, Indians and kafirs for far too long. Recently the Pakistani government, like a lazy, absent-minded parent that finally decided to do something about its teenage delinquent of a son.

Whatever the outcome, it's a safe bet that life in Pakistan won't improve any time soon, as this survey points out. Only 20% of Pakistanis between 18-29 have permanent, full-time jobs, in part because 25% of them are illiterate. Perhaps reflecting an obsession of a diaspora with their homeland, only about 10% were "very interested" in politics. Troubling for the future of Pakistan, an artificial construct of Muslims in what was northwestern India, is that only about 15% identify as Pakistani.

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