Struggle for the Soul of Pakistan: National Geographic

Struggle for the Soul of Pakistan
By Don Belt: National Geographic: September 2007
Photographs by Reza

The nation's efforts to straddle the fault line between moderate and militant Islam offer a cautionary tale for the post-9/11 world.

If there is an address, an exact location for the rift tearing Pakistan apart, and possibly the world, it is a spot 17 miles (28 kilometers) west of Islamabad called the Margalla Pass. Here, at a limestone cliff in the middle of Pakistan, the mountainous west meets the Indus River Valley, and two ancient, and very different, civilizations collide. To the southeast, unfurled to the horizon, lie the fertile lowlands of the Indian subcontinent, realm of peasant farmers on steamy plots of land, bright with colors and the splash of serendipitous gods. To the west and north stretch the harsh, windswept mountains of Central Asia, land of herders and raiders on horseback, where man fears one God and takes no prisoners.

This is also where two conflicting forms of Islam meet: the relatively relaxed and tolerant Islam of India, versus the rigid fundamentalism of the Afghan frontier. Beneath the surface of Pakistan, these opposing forces grind against each other like two vast geologic plates, rattling teacups from Lahore to London, Karachi to New York. The clash between moderates and extremists in Pakistan today reflects this rift, and can be seen as a microcosm for a larger struggle among Muslims everywhere. So when the earth trembles in Pakistan, the world pays attention.

Travel 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) across this troubled country, as I did recently, and it becomes obvious that, 60 years after its founding, Pakistan still occupies unsettled ground. Traumatized by multiple wars with India, a parade of military strongmen (including the current president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf), and infighting among ethnic groups—Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi, Pashtun—Pakistan's 165 million people have never fully united as one nation, despite being 97 percent Muslim. To hold the country together, successive governments have spent billions on the military, creating a pampered and self-serving monolith of mostly Punjabi generals while neglecting the basic needs of the people, for justice, health, education, security, and hope. Lately, these grievances have spilled onto the streets, as lawyers and other opponents challenge Pakistan's military government and demand a return to civilian, democratic rule. Meanwhile, six years after 9/11, the forces of Islamic radicalism are gaining strength and challenging Pakistan's moderate majority for the soul of the country.

It's not just the surging homegrown Taliban, which in one two-week period this year scorched and bloodied the streets of half a dozen cities with suicide bombs. Or the al Qaeda fighters who prowl the western mountains of Waziristan, butchering anyone suspected of being an American spy. Just as chilling are the "night letters" posted on public buildings, warning that all girls, upon threat of death, must wear head-to-toe burkas and stop attending school. Or, in a rising tide of intimidation, the murders of teachers and doctors and human rights workers accused of "crimes against Islam." But perhaps the most telling evidence of all was my encounter with a 22-year-old woman named Umme Ayman, who seemed all too eager to die.

I CANNOT SEE HER FACE, or even her eyes, but I can tell you that Ayman is an impressive young woman. She wears glasses under a black veil and speaks in short, eruptive bursts of English that sound like well-rehearsed lines in a school play. She and a group of 200 female religious students have taken over a public children's library in Islamabad. They are protesting the destruction of mosques run by radical clerics that the government says were built without permits. Riot police, bristling with sidearms and batons, have encircled the library and ordered the students to leave. But Ayman is in no mood to listen.

"We are not terrorists," she says. "We are students. We wish to spread Islam over all the world. If America wants to end Islam, then we are prepared to die defending our faith. We have said our goodbyes." Ayman and the other women sit around the library's circular tables in tiny chairs meant for children. Amid shelves lined with children's storybooks, they have posted signs reading "Allah is for Muslims, not infidels." Across the street, their parents have been holding an anxious vigil for weeks.

"Our fate is with Allah," Ayman says, as other protesters gather around, "but if the government grants our demands, there will be no problem." And what are those demands? "To rebuild the mosques and to make Pakistan an Islamic state." Half a dozen veiled heads bob in agreement.

From the start, the founders of Pakistan intended their nation to be a refuge for Muslims, not an Islamic state. Pakistan was created when India, a British colony for nearly a hundred years, gained its independence and was partitioned into two countries along a hastily drawn border. Pakistan's first leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and his brain trust of secular intellectuals created a fledgling democracy that gave Islam a cultural, rather than political, role in national life. Their Pakistan was to be a model of how Islam, merged with democratic ideals, could embrace the modern world. "Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense," Jinnah said in his inaugural address, but "as citizens of the state."

Sixty years later, having been educated in schools that teach mainly the Koran, the young women in the library are stunned when I mention Jinnah's secular vision for Pakistan. "That is a lie," Ayman says, her voice shaking with fury. "Everyone knows Pakistan was created as an Islamic state, according to the will of Allah. Where did you read this thing?" Such is the certainty of Pakistan's Islamists, whose loud assertions give them political influence far beyond their numbers.
The women may be on the front lines of this protest, but it's clear the clerics in the mosque next door are calling the shots. The children's library is a few yards from one of the most radical mosques in Pakistan, Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, which has posted dozens of lean young jihadists in black turbans around the library, brandishing swords, staffs, axes, and AK-47s. The men from the mosque include pro-Taliban clerics and Javed Ibrahim Paracha, a bearded, heavyset former member of parliament who has been dubbed "al Qaeda's lawyer" for successfully representing several hundred jihadists captured in Pakistan after 9/11. He explains what emboldens these young women to risk their lives for Islam: "This government has lost all credibility," he says. "People look at Musharraf and they see a U.S. puppet who's willing to declare war on fellow Muslims to satisfy America. They also see his generals getting rich, while they're getting poorer every day. People are losing hope. Pakistan and its government are becoming two different things. This will have to change, and soon."

A week later, the standoff comes to an apparent end after the government backs down and agrees to start rebuilding the mosques. The children's library is stripped of all books deemed un-Islamic, and the students take over. In the capital, a mere ten minutes' drive from the presidential palace, the Islamists have won. (Months later, as this story goes to press, the government finally stormed the Red Mosque and killed scores of militants. Umme Ayman survived.)

More than anyone, it was General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq who created Pakistan's current generation of Islamic radicals, and the climate in which they thrive. A Punjabi general with a pencil-thin mustache and raccoon circles under his eyes, Zia seized power in a coup in 1977, had the democratically elected prime minister tried and hanged, and promptly pressed for the Islamization of Pakistan, calling for more religion in the classroom and the use of punishments such as flogging and amputations for crimes against Islam. To Zia, Pakistan's secular founders, with their emphasis on Muslim culture, had it exactly backward. "We were created on the basis of Islam," Zia said, and he set out to remake democratic Pakistan as a strict Islamic state—despite the fact that a large majority of Pakistanis were, and remain, moderates.

Whether by temperament or tradition, most Pakistani Muslims are more comfortable with the mystical and ecstatic rituals of Barelvi Islam, a colorful blend of Indian Islamic practice and Sufism. For a Punjabi farmer whose crop has just come in, it has always been more satisfying to hang out at a Sufi shrine listening to qawwali music and watching dervishes whirl than reciting the Koran in a fundamentalist mosque. Most Pakistanis, though powerless to resist, were lukewarm to Zia's Islamization program, as was much of the outside world.

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