Over the years, a large community of Pakistani-Americans has enjoyed success and upward mobility living here in America. As a community, we are well-assimilated, mostly educated and enjoying a fair degree of financial success. We are comfortable in our American identities, but like earlier waves of immigrants, we have a strong bond of affection for and like to keep tabs on the “Old Country”.
The news from Pakistan these days, however, is not good. As much as we would like to hear about progress and prosperity, we have instead become accustomed to reports that leave us shaking our heads in dismay and disbelief. Suicide bombings, assassinations and kidnappings-for-ransom are de rigueur. The national economy remains weak and the country seems often to be lurching from one existential crisis to another. While other similar large developing countries are rapidly moving into the age of modernity, Pakistan seems stuck in place or even moving backwards. Fifty years ago, Pakistan was at least socially and economically on-par with the likes of India, Turkey and Indonesia.
Today Pakistan is embarrassingly receding further and further into their rear-view mirrors.
In most peoples’ minds today, Pakistan is sadly associated with terrorism, violence and religious extremism. Terrorist bombs and ignoramus religious fanatics have wrought enormous physical damage on Pakistanis’ property, infrastructure and lives. But on a deeper level, they have damaged the country in more profound ways: They have succeeded in fundamentally changing the Pakistani psyche and the very cultural fabric of that nation. Mountains of anecdotal evidence indicate that Pakistanis have become more religiously intolerant, more illiberal towards different than themselves and more prone to wild conspiracy theories in the past decade.
Quite simply, these changes are ruining the country that many of us love.
How is it even fathomable that in the 21st century a village of “council elders” would officially sentence a 30-year-old woman to be gang raped as honor-revenge for the alleged misbehavior of her teenage brother?
Or that a large swathe of society believes that both 9/11 and the Bin Laden’s killing were both faked?
In which other country will 70,000 people participate in a demonstration because of an offensive cartoon run in some obscure Danish newspaper?
What are we to make of a society that gives widespread approval to a law that exposes its Christian and Ahmeddiya minorities to the death penalty for simply criticizing Islam?
And what does it tell us when the assassin who killed the governor leading the charge against that law is feted with rose petals by jubilant mobs?
It is difficult not to sound alarmist about this subject. Certainly no society should be judged by its few bad apples. But it is time that Pakistanis became concerned about the rot affecting the entire national apple cart. Religious extremism, misogyny and deep anti-Western paranoia are no longer limited to militants and terrorists. Casual conversation with numerous Pakistanis will confirm that these attitudes have gained wide currency amongst regular people; middle class families who are educated and worldly in most regards.
Sadly, there are fewer people who have tolerance for religious diversity. And there is hardly any problem that cannot be pinned on some devilishly complex Indian/Israeli/American plot conspiracy.
No doubt, Pakistan has been dealt a particularly tough hand. From its inception, it has lived in the shadow of a hostile neighbor in India. During the Cold War, being a strategic chess piece in a proxy war between the US and the Soviet Union has caused it to become enmeshed in a complicated web of dangerous and conflicting geopolitical alliances. Crushing poverty and rampant corruption abounds to this very day. But even taken together, these factors cannot completely account for the toxic brew of attitudes that have taken hold in the minds of too many people within Pakistan. There are numerous other poorer societies and at least a handful as corrupt. But none of them have given themselves over so completely to a dark, dangerous irrationality in the preceding days.
When confronted with these issues, Pakistani officialdom often recoils into hyper-defensiveness, blame-shifting and reflexive victimhood. But this complacent head-in-the-sand attitude isn’t benefiting anyone anymore. Instead, they would serve the country best by acknowledging that corrosive effects of anti-social attitudes which are causing permanent and irreparable harm to the nation. Immediate and urgent steps need to be taken to pull it out of its current downward spiral.
This is not an ordinary issue that a competent technocrat can fix. These problems are far more ingrained. The Pakistani government and people must engage in a massive, sustained and ambitious political reformation of Pakistani culture as a whole. Pakistanis need to re-learn the values of enlightened citizens in a modern, science-driven world that is multi-ethnic and multi-religious. They need to understand that building a better society is far closer to the Islamic ideal than engaging in pointless and untenable (and un-Islamic) contests of religious purity. Pakistanis needs to internalize still-tenuous democratic values of judicial independence, rule of law, civilian supremacy over the military. And fanatically-religious ideas must be harshly stigmatized and purged from mainstream society once and for all.
Of course, this will take billions of dollars and decades to accomplish. But what other choice do Pakistanis have if they want to become a normal, functioning, modern country?
The United States can help in this daunting task by redirecting its largese away from the over-developed military apparatus into civic rehabilitation. But ultimately this is an effort that must be owned by Pakistanis themselves.
It is high time for Pakistanis now to take a stand in order to save their country for future generations of their children.
Saqib Ali is a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates.