The Demons that Haunt the Pakistanis

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.



Filed under Army, Democracy, Islamabad, Pakistan, Parliament, Partition, Religion, Terrorism, War On Terror

17 responses to “The Demons that Haunt the Pakistanis

  1. AZW

    One of the most important parts of this short article at NY Times was the little poignant observation by Dr. Ishma Alvi: “Our healing is recent,” Ms. Alvi said. “Before, we were very confused about who and what we were”.

    As our airwaves fill with most creative conspiracy theories, blame the world games and drawing room political discussions, at a smaller scale Pakistan is beginning to ask itself the tough questions that were whispered before but never actively debated. Who are we, why are we here, and what do we stand for?

    We have never ceased to blame the world for our woes. As we conjure up newer villains to blame for our perennial misfortunes, the free speech is allowing us question our knee jerk shortstop approach of not questioning the core ideals that we had always embraced as sacred dogmas. While we have seen the ineffectiveness of the Ideology of Pakistan to keep our country united, for some reason we never got around to questioning whether this so called Ideology of Pakistan ever was validated by the history leading up to the creation of Pakistan, or the decades afterwards.

    Instead, the loose cabal of Pakistan Army, the select and opportunist politicians, religious organizations and certain right wing media kept its hold on this ideology and led us straight into the mess that a religious mandated state invokes when it starts training proxy militias to fight proxy wars on its behalf.

    Yet, I am heartened to see that the 800 pound gorillas in the midst of Pakistani consciousness are being acknowledged (even if it is happening at a smaller scale). Among all of its misfortunes, Pakistan can count itself as fortunate for a country having a (fitful) democratic tradition and a free media. The Pakistani right wing is predictably lashing back; yet part of that reaction is based on a fear that the hitherto unquestioned ideals about Pakistan have not only been invalidated by the history, but are also beginning to be questioned by a previously silent Pakistani audience.

    To keep the introspection going, it is imperative that Pakistan keeps the free speech and democracy alive. For Pakistan to grow out of its tempestuous teenager phase and become a responsible adult among the comity of nations, the process of objective introspection must continue. As individuals, tremendous leaps in our personal growth often follow severe mishaps that we face in our lives; there is no reason it won’t be the same for Pakistan as well.

  2. Rabia

    Ishma Alvi’s comments were good but this Dr. Mubashir sounds like a mental patient himself

  3. Milind Kher

    If Pakistan is in an introspective mood, it is a good thing. Coupled with a freedom of speech, this will lead to positive thoughts and positive steps.

    There will, of course, be a crucial need to avoid being drained by the negativity of the right wingers, but given the overall youth of its population, it can pull through.

  4. rex minor

    It matters not what Pakistanis are and where they have landed. What matters is that because of the military rule the country finds itself in a mess, whereas the demons of the global village outside Pakistan are now in a position to give a fatal body blow to the now remaining skeleton of the country. Who are these Demons? I am not sure about Dr. Maliks theory. Mr Obama’s move on the other hand is of a strategic importance. My guess is that the increase in combat troops is intended, at the request of Mr Gate, against Iran, in case the nuclear issue is not resolved. I also believe that the Bin Laden story is a bogey since the recent repoprt points out about the mysterious non responce of the US Command in providing additional marines to arrest Mr Bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains. Perhaps his exit from the mountains was organised by the US administration similar to that of his family clan from Miami.( Mr Brown should be demanding from the Saudis). What Pakistan is now facing is more serious than realised. The military intrusion into Waziristan was a cardinal error, and Pakistan should now expect the destruction of its capital and the military headquarter. Can they protect it?

  5. G.Vishvas

    Don’t forget the islamic factor. Pro-islamic history-writing is misleading pakistanis to become haters of hindus and hindu religions (note the plural) although the pakistanis are the real hindus.

    Hindu = (originally) one who lives in the Sindhu river basin.

    Islam was created by arabs for arbs for their own racism, imperialism and glory. Islam misuses the word god (allah) for its arab-centered chauvinism and imperialism and must therefore be regarded as a blasphemy.

    If Pakistanis are not allowed to read and publicly debate this critical analysis then it proves the fascist nature of islam and the fascist nature of a society based on islam.

    If anything (e.g. a book) or anyone is regarded as uncriticizable then it leads to a fascism centered around this something or someone. This explains why islam is a fascism centered around the kuran and around Mohammad. Fascism by misusing the word god (allah) is the most evil and dangerous and long-lasting form of fascism.

  6. Shahbaz Ali

    @ G. Vishvas
    Can you form a sentence without using the word “fascism”? 🙂

  7. Archaeo

    @Shahbaz Ali

    Weak, just not good enough.

    You should have asked him to form a sentence without using either ‘fascism’ or ‘Islam’. We’d have had a much neater post, namely,

    Hindu = (originally) one who lives in the Sindhu river basin.

  8. rex minor

    @ G Vishvas
    With respect you are too much of academic nature. I would take the Mr Archeos advise and also change the ‘V’ in your name to ‘W’ whic would go along with your illusion about Arabs etc. The facts are that the muslim armies intrusion into Europe and Asian sub-continent was not based on glory etc. but simply to destroy the then prevailing cultures. During the process the moghuls(Turkish not Arabs) learnt the depth of the hindu and sikh spirtual side of the culture which made them to stay on, and hence inter marriages and todays a mix of muslims and hindus in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan policy of unfriendliness towards India isunfortunate and has a different background not of a religious nature.
    Islam is a religion like other religions which are holy and came into this world to teach peoples them humility, understanding of their mission and the way of living. With regard to Allah, it was invented by Arabs, since it is the translation of God in the Aramaesh language spoken by Jesus and even today the christians of the middle east still use it.

  9. Punjabi

    Why is “allah hafiz” replacing “khuda hafiz”?

  10. ravinder

    @ G Vishvas
    You wishy-washy watered out wacko. Walking talking wet dreamer. Make love not war.
    We win. We win. East or west, Believer is the best.
    You are a whiner, you are a whiner.

    The proposition that killing of kafirs/mushriks/munafiqs/Jews/Christians/Ahmedias/Zorastrians/Shias/Lesser Sunnies can be peddled as glorious in the land of believers is all insensitive, and hence it never happened. Whatever is against the sensibilities of the community of believers, never happened. The present crop of Jihadists just appeared out of nowhere or…or…or they were created only and only by the army. So who tolerated the army and failed to disband the army that had already shown its colours in 71. hmmmm…. ok the Taliban appeared out of Satan, who has deviously deceiving ways. And America is the Great Satan. Problem solved.

    The problems cannot and should not be shown as bigger then the ability to counter, of those who are now doing you a favour by recognising the problem. There sensibilities are so important that sense is non sense.

    What c_ _ p!What c_ _ p!
    Havent you heard the saying by the great scholor in the court of Sultan-e-Hind “Something is better then nothing and nothing is better then non-sense”.

    The so called records left allegedly by muslim historians clearly tell us how much the turki mughals loved the locals. You should know the correct narrative. Killing means love. Maharana Partap should have known better. Bhils allied with him…. what! that was a lie too. Ghazni, Ghori, Abdali, Aurengzeb etc. they all loved us, while the stupid non-believers accuse them of being early Jihadists. It was only there love that an economy that was allegedly 32% of the world GDP became a huge 16% in 800 years. Oh, and oh, Mr. Jinaah clearly said that the hero of one is the hero of other. Such love, it was only bums like you who broke the country and invented a new country, India for yourself. Proof! you want proof? Ok, Believers had there birthday on 14th and you broke the country on 15th. There you have it. Naipaul et al are all people lost in translations. You should learn the ………..hmmmm…….ok just take what I am saying.

    In any case a rebuttal can be a proposition or the other way round in different posts in different forums by different posters and all of whom can be believers.

    What are you doing here spreading vish (poison) and vice among believers, when you should be spreading Vishvas (trust/belief).

  11. ravinder

    And yes. while we are at it.

    “a much neater post, namely,

    Hindu = (originally) one who lives in the Sindhu river basin.”

    This is a valid response to the initial post “The Demons that Haunt the Pakistanis”

    Take that.

  12. vajra


    You see what I mean? They need to be stamped out before they start breeding.

  13. Luq

    Locusts……. here, take these new scuba fins and use your hands as well.


  14. rex minor

    I am really impressed with Mr Ravinder’s great sense for humour. The softy softy spoken Fakir from India has just managed to collect few more innocent nuke machines from the old buddy”the small bear” which would be installed along the kashmir or Chinese border? This way the Jehadis planned onslaught will be averted. O’h by the way the pre-historic People living in the Sindhu river basin included numerous mix of wandering species or groups of people who later took the form of modern humans and were then seen as gypsies, sindhis etc. etc.. The gypsies from that part of the world were also seen residing in the basin of the river Danube, Loir and as far as today’s Finland. If one were to compare their languages today with that of the Indian sub-continent one would…….. But this has no relevance to the Article.

  15. Akash

    @ Punjabi,
    Why is “allah hafiz” replacing “khuda hafiz”?

    God doesn’t understand Persian. That is why.

  16. Milind Kher

    Allah Hafiz has replaced Khuda Hafiz because Khuda is a word that Christians use in Urdu for God. (there are Urdu Bibles available). Therefore, the “holier than thou” section wants to say Allah Hafiz.

    These ignoramuses do not know that the Christian Arab word for God is Allah. Once, they know, whom knows what greeting they will come up with!!