Cross post from New York Times, Published: December 5, 2009
All rights reserved with The New York Times Company
By Sabrina Tavernise
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — These are emotional times in Pakistan, particularly since President Obama told its leaders last week to fight harder against Islamist extremists, and expanded a deeply unpopular covert air strike program in Pakistani territory.
After Mr. Obama’s speech at West Point, newspapers and talk shows here were full of heated commentary that those demands would push Pakistan further toward disaster. “Approval of increasing drone strikes in Pakistan,” blared one headline. “A very difficult time is approaching for Pakistan,” a former foreign secretary intoned on television.
Some of the feeling is not hard to understand. Who would want another country using missiles against targets in one’s own? But there was something else, an anti-Americanism whose depth and intensity I could not fully grasp. So to find out where Pakistan’s head was, I sought help from one of the country’s top psychiatrists.
What I got was not so much an explanation as an illustration, in all its anger, of the embittered language in which a great many Pakistanis discuss their relationship with America — living proof of just how different America’s understanding of Pakistan is from its own view of itself.
“The real terrorists are not the men in turbans we see on Al Jazeera,” said the psychiatrist, Dr. Malik H. Mubbashar, vice chancellor of the University of Health Sciences in Lahore. “They are wearing Gucci suits and Brit hats. It’s your great country, Madam.”
I asked him to spell it out. “It’s coming from Americans, Jews and Indians,” he said. “It’s an axis of evil that’s being supervised by you people.”
This is not such an unusual view in Pakistan, even if the tone was particularly harsh. At 62 years old, Pakistan is something of a teenager among nations, even in its frame of mind — self-conscious, emotional, quick to blame others for its troubles.
It was born in 1947, in a bloody, wrenching partition from India in which hundreds of thousands were killed. That traumatic event left deep scars on the psyches of both nations, and locked the countries into a perilous rivalry in ways that foreign observers often fail to understand.
But while India closed itself off, eliminated its feudal system and developed its economy, Pakistan kept a corrosive system of feudal privilege and went through decades of political upheaval. And India still looms large in Pakistan’s collective imagination.
“We didn’t heal very well after the partition because we didn’t deal with it,” said Ishma Alvi, a psychologist in Karachi.
So it is natural that Pakistan’s security concerns focus much more on its eastern border with India, where the rivalry over who controls Kashmir festers, and less on its western border with Afghanistan — a smaller, weaker country that Pakistan has traditionally been able to influence.
It is that focus that Americans now insist that Pakistan change, and it is not irrational that Pakistanis are resisting. Pakistan and India have fought three wars (or four, depending on who’s counting) and India maintains a large force along its border. India has also poured money into Afghanistan, raising hackles on this side of the border.
These are facts that Pakistanis like Dr. Mubbashar believe the United States willfully ignores as it single-mindedly pursues its own interests, as it did in the 1980s when it was confronting the Soviets. Washington now sees the Taliban and Al Qaeda as the biggest threat in the region, and is exasperated that Pakistan sees things differently.
“There is a clash of narratives,” said Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States.
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.”
In recent months, Pakistan has begun challenging the Islamist extremists on its border and the extremists have directed bombings against Pakistani citizens and institutions. Even so, Pakistan’s powerful news media aggressively trumpet the conspiracy theories, which are consumed by anyone who picks up a paper or turns on a TV.
But there are exceptions, and I stumbled upon one in the most unlikely of people, the elderly father of a young jihadi. A retired telephone operator living in a working class area of Islamabad, the man blamed his son’s ways not on India or America, but squarely on the Pakistani groups that lured him.
He spoke in the broken, bitter manner of a father who had lost his son, but went out of his way to tell me that foreigners, whatever their faith, would always be welcome in his home. “Islam treats foreigners according to their wishes,” he said, sitting cross legged on the floor of a bare room. “It’s not what these people say — killing them or asking others to terrorize them,” he said contemptuously of the militants. “We must treat everybody equally. Christians, Jews, Muslims.”
Pakistan recently has begun asking hard questions about who it is. The freeing of the news media seven years ago, as unruly as it is, opened the floodgates. Musicians and artists are wrestling with Pakistani identity in new ways, and self-awareness is growing.
“Our healing is recent,” Ms. Alvi said. “Before, we were very confused about who and what we were.”
But she said there is still a long way to go.
“A giant step forward would be to take responsibility,” she said.