How to win Pakistan's culture war
Deepak Chopra and Salman Ahmad
San Francisco Chronicle, March 2, 2009
Pakistan is a war zone, but its battle is far more cultural than military. The whole country realizes this fact and is holding its breath, hoping that President Obama will come to the same realization. As long as the United States pursues the futile military policy of the Bush years, the situation in Pakistan will grow increasingly dire.
Catastrophe looms. Although Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, culture, not religion, is the glue that binds the souls of its people. But now the Taliban are grafting an alien form of Islam onto Pakistan. Earlier this month a weak Pakistani government, realizing that its frontier regions are completely out of control, was forced to make a deal. After countless pitched battles with the militants, they ceded a key area, the Swat Valley, to fundamentalist control.
Imran Khan, formerly Pakistan's greatest cricket star and now a political activist, appeared on CNN over the weekend with a desperate plea to the U.S. The points he made are crucial to understand:
The Taliban are extremists but they are not terrorists. Merging them with al-Qaeda was a serious mistake on the part of the U.S.
The bombs dropped from fly-over drones do little to stop the real terrorists but have destroyed civilian morale. As a result, the militants gain sympathy among the population. What was once a hated insurgency is steadily becoming a people's revolution.
The frontier territories have reverted to tribalism and chaos. There are no police or law courts. The Pakistani army has lost to the militants.
The democratic honeymoon after General Musharraf gave up his power is over. The current government is seen as a bigger stooge of the U.S. than its military predecessors. Khan, and every other informed Pakistani, despairs over the blindness of the U.S. as it stubbornly does everything it can to increase the radicalization of the country. War has two children: sorrow and chaos. Both are running wild in Pakistan today.
So what to do? The first thing is to realize that there is no military solution. The Soviet Union sent a massive force into Afghanistan, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and achieved nothing. The whole regional conflict will turn into Obama's Vietnam unless he changes course drastically and soon.
The next step is to realize your final goal. In this case, the final goal is to isolate al-Qaeda from the Taliban. Fundamentalists can be talked to. Dialogue can reduce tensions. Power sharing and compromise become possibilities. But as long as you equate the Taliban with the terrorists, there is no hope for peace and much risk that you will drive the two camps into each other's arms. Imran Khan made a critical point when he said that the U.S. must begin to understand the people, in particular the Pashtuns who occupy the region shared by Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over 40 million strong, these tribes furnish an unlimited supply of young males to fight for the militants.
To understanding these people, a basic fact must be known about Pakistan. For six turbulent decades as an independent state, Pakistan has been held together by its music, poetry, films, literature and sports. There is no hope of winning a military war, but the U.S. could win the culture war. The Taliban's strict puritanism is widely hated as they forbid dancing, singing and the watching of television. They also suppress women, who make major contributions to culture — they are its heart and soul. The fanatics' idea is simple: to strangle Pakistan's rich and vibrant culture and replace it with a totalitarian brand of Islam.
In short, the Taliban is a cultural enemy far more than a military one. Contrary to the Bush era, when Islam stood for a "clash of civilizations," Obama needs to support, respect, and appreciate the value of Islamic culture. Keeping that culture alive will win the allegiance of moderate Muslims, but even beyond that, it will uphold the dignity, beauty, and worth of Muslim life everywhere.
For the last twenty years, Pakistani music and pop culture has built a global following. The late Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan collaborated with Peter Gabriel and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam on Hollywood soundtracks. Pakistani rock bands and singers like Junoon, Strings, Jal and Atif Aslam have been huge draws in India, America and Europe. Last year Pakistani director Shoaib Mansoor's movie "In the Name of God" became the first Pakistani film to be released in India. The film portrays the difficulties of being a liberal Muslim in Pakistan after 9/11 — something that will become harder if voices like Mansoor's are silenced by radicalism.
The U.S. has an important role to play. America must help strengthen Pakistani civil society — the artists, writers, humanitarians, rights activists and educators who have braved military dictators, corrupt politicians and religious fanatics. They are America's natural allies against extremism. By promoting creative collaborations in film, television, fashion and music, the U.S. will empower the voices that the Taliban seek to silence. But with the Taliban creeping farther into Pakistan every day, that precious window of opportunity is closing fast.
Deepak Chopra is the author of over 50 books on health, success, relationships and spirituality, including his most recent novel, "Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment," available now at www.deepakchopra.com. Salman Ahmad, a doctor by training, is the founder of the Rock Band Junoon, a UN Goodwill Ambassador for HIV/Aids, and the author of forthcoming book "Rock and Roll Sufi" (Simon and Schuster). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org