By Patricia Lee Sharpe
How many reasonably well-informed Americans realize that Pakistan is a giant, population-wise. It comes in fifth, after China, India, the U.S. and Indonesia. Taken person-by-person, Pakistan should be in the big leagues. Instead, Pakistan is a pygmy player in the Great Game of international power and influence.
To put it another way, Pakistan is the whiny kid always tagging after big brother India, always looking for a chance to kick big brother in the shins, never working to excel by identifying and developing its own quite unique combination of historical strengths and talents.
Meanwhile, in a system reminiscent of the anti-bellum American South where mediocrities lorded it over an enslaved black population, Pakistani men sustain their sense of superiority by multiplying pretexts for repressing women, thus depriving the country of the creative talents of half the population.
So there we have it. Pakistan: tens of millions of under-achieving men, stiffened by a misogynist version of Islam, engulfed in patriarchal tribal traditions, puffing themselves up with titles, rank and office as they strut about a country they mostly plunder—and ill betide the observer who points out the dysfunctionality, then asks for change, especially if she’s female.
How much better to keep these unpleasant facts under wraps! So Pakistan’s a country in perpetual national purdah! As for those who offend by speaking out, consider the case of the little girl who terrified a gang of religious thugs who aspire to national leadership.
The Girl Who Loved Learning
Like everyone else I’ve been following the Malala Jusufsai story, trying to understand it on levels deeper than the wholly horrifying tale of the attempted murder of a very pretty, very articulate, audaciously outspoken, young girl who loved her books—and was willing to let the whole world know (via a BBC blog) that, to her young mind, all girls everywhere have a right to education.
The Pakistani Taliban, who’d briefly ruled her home valley of Swat, held otherwise: women should be ignorant, mute, housebound and wholly subservient to male whim. Because Malala’s voice threatened Islamist ideology, the Taliban leader in Swat sent a hit man to kill her. He flubbed the job. Gravely wounded in face and head, she was rushed to a hospital in Islamabad, then flown to the UK where, faster than anyone expected and certainly more completely than anyone expected, she recovered.
Oddly enough, her survival didn’t prompt much rejoicing in Pakistan. For one thing, Western surgical skill had saved her life and her good looks, a matter of shame not pride for touchy nationalistic Pakistanis. (And yet, Pakistan exports superb physicians to the US and the UK and elsewhere. Why do they leave? Introspection, anyone?)
Meanwhile, still pretty, still in love with books, hair modestly hidden under a scarf, Malala was back in school, in the UK now, and she’d resumed her campaign for girls’ education, eventually winning many honors (too many honors, as critical Pakistanis have pointed out and, given the plethora of needs and the many angels who are never recognized, I can’t help agreeing with them) and famously addressing a conference at the UN in New York. She was even considered for a Nobel Prize, which fortunately she did not receive. A child may be very brave, her story may be emotionally compelling, but the Nobel Peace Prize is not an appropriate form of recognition. Hugs are more in order, it seems to me. Hugs and a chance to grow up.
No doubt this torrent of foreign adulation helped to inflame Pakistani opinion against Malala. However, the mere existence of Malala living the life of a happy, normal school girl would make Pakistan look bad enough in the eyes of the world. And the ill-considered, egocentric title of her book, now banned from Pakistani schools, didn't help: I am Malala. (I blame tone deaf Western collaborators for this.) And thus, far from admiring the girl that the rest of the world was adoring, Pakistanis were more likely to denounce the impertinent little upstart, or so the polls said. How dare she wash dirty laundry in public? How dare she criticize her country from abroad? And, strange as it may seem to Americans, no Pakistani has rushed to seize Malala’s banner and resume the campaign of advocating, openly, for girl’s education.
Definitions of Loyalty and Patriotism
Does the reluctance stem from fear? That would be perfectly understandable. No one wants to get shot. But fear isn’t the main reason, I believe. The urge to fight for girls’ education in Pakistan is weaker by far than the will to protect the national honor.
Whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden may have a hard time of it in the U.S., but many of them, also like Snowden, are admired for their courage and appreciated for their service. In fact, thanks to what Americans now know, via Snowden, changes to the laws on national security are in the offing. In Pakistan, by contrast, the concept of public self-criticism — This is bad! We need to improve! Here’s how! — is all but non-existent.
When I worked at the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistani friends would ask me how American diplomats like me could admit to flaws in any aspect of American life or politics or even in foreign policy. Among Americans, I explained, criticism is often regarded as a very powerful form of patriotism. Americans mistrust secrecy, and timely information may lead to improvement. My friends shook their heads. Washing any dirty laundry in public, they insisted, is a form of disloyalty—disloyalty to family or clan or tribe or nation, all of which, it seems, must be represented at all times as just fine, thank you very much. Malala, by blogging on BBC about the difficulties of being a girl in Pakistan, had offended an entire nation.
Meanwhile, the Big Brain (so to speak) behind the attack on Malala, having made no effort to conceal his role or whereabouts, having even sat down for prideful interviews with the media, has yet to be apprehended and certainly hasn’t been prosecuted as the criminal code that Pakistan inherited from the U.K. would normally demand. Worse yet, within a matter of months the Monster reached something like apotheosis: he was elected to replace a top Taliban leader who’d been assassinated in a very well-targeted U.S. drone strike. In the near future Malala's would-be murderer may be negotiating the shape of a future Pakistan with the constitutionally elected Prime Minister in Islamabad.
So who, at this point, is public enemy number one in Pakistan, according to opinion polls? Not the man who ordered the killing of a young girl who loved books. Malala is the villain. She shares the spotlight of infamy with the U.S.
My readers know that I have qualms about the over-use and careless use of drones in modern warfare, but something more basic is seriously wrong with the US-Pakistan relationship: Pakistan has no interest in hindering extremist Islam. The evidence is ubiquitous, and the Malala saga is consistent.
If that’s the case, why is the U.S. providing Pakistan with massive amounts of aid, military and civilian? Probably, I’d say, because Pakistani men are great at sweet talk and American men almost always fall for it. Also because too many Americans in policy positions delude themselves into thinking that a big powerful country can't be outwitted by the leaders of a much smaller country. Result? Pakistan continues to undermine U.S. foreign policy with U.S.-sourced equipment and funds.
Will we never learn?
In fact, Pakistan wants American “friendship” only for one reason: to wage relentless war against India. U.S. money strengthens the Pakistani military in its incessant cold and sometimes hot war against India. American money supports Pakistan-backed insurgencies in Kashmir and vicious terrorist attacks inside the rest of India.
And this, too, will happen, I predict: U.S. resources funneled through Islamabad will be used to weaken the Afghan government once the U.S. military withdraws. The U.S. wishes the new government in Kabul to survive the coming foreign troop drawdown. Pakistan does not want a united, self-reliant, non-Taliban government to succeed in Kabul.
If only the U.S. would face up to these facts! Think of the billions that could be shaved from the U.S. budget if we called Pakistan's bluff? Enough to save Medicare and Social Security.