Room for optimism

[‘The audacity of hope’? ‘Hope dies last’? Or, just the reality of Pakistan in its many aspects? Here’s how Mohsin Hamid sees it. – PTH]

Dawn, Friday, 09 Apr, 2010
 EVER since returning to live in Pakistan a few months ago, I’ve been struck by the pervasive negativity of views here about our country. Whether in conversation, on television, or in the newspaper, what I hear and read often tends to boil down to the same message: our country is going down the drain.

But I’m not convinced that it is.

I don’t dispute for a second that these are hard times. Thousands of us died last year in terrorist attacks. Hundreds of thousands were displaced by military operations. Most of us don’t have access to decent schools. Inflation is squeezing our poor and middle class. Millions are, if not starving, hungry. Even those who can afford electricity don’t have it half the day.

Yet despite this desperate suffering, Pakistan is also something of a miracle. It’s worth pointing this out, because incessant pessimism robs us of an important resource: hope.

First, we are a vast nation. We are the sixth most populous country in the world. One in every 40 human beings is Pakistani. There are more people aged 14 and younger in Pakistan than there are in America. A nation is its people, and in our people we have a huge, and significantly untapped, sea of potential.

Second, we are spectacularly diverse. I have travelled to all six of the world’s inhabited continents, and I have seen few countries whose diversity comes close to matching ours. Linguistically, we are home to many major languages. And I mean major: Punjabi is spoken in Pakistan by more people than the entire population of France, Pushto by more than the population of Saudi Arabia, Sindhi by more than Australia, Seraiki by more than the Netherlands, Urdu by more than Cuba, and Balochi by more than Singapore.

Nor is our diversity limited to language. Religiously we are overwhelmingly Muslim, but still we have more non-Muslims than there are people in either Toronto or Miami. We have more Shias than any country besides Iran. Even our majority Sunnis include followers of the Barelvi, Deobandi and numerous other schools, as well as, in all likelihood, many millions who have no idea what school they belong to and don’t really care.

Culturally, too, we are incredibly diverse. We have transvestite talk-show hosts, advocates for “eunuch rights”, burka-wearers, turbaned men with beards, outstanding fast bowlers, mediocre opening batsmen, tribal chieftains, bhang-drinking farmers, semi-nomadic shepherds, and at least one champion female sprinter. We have the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party and we have Porsche dealerships. We are nobody’s stereotype.

This diversity is an enormous advantage. Not only is there brilliance and potential in our differences, a wealth of experience and ideas, but also our lack of sameness forces us to accommodate each other, to find ways to coexist.

Which brings me to our third great asset. ‘Tolerance’ seems a strange word to apply to a country where women are still buried alive and teenagers have started detonating themselves in busy shopping districts. Yet these acts shock us because they are aberrations, not the norm. Pakistan is characterised not by the outliers among its citizens who are willing to kill those unlike themselves, but by the millions of us who reject every opportunity to do so. Our different linguistic, religious and cultural groups mostly live side by side in relative peace. It usually takes state intervention (whether by our own state, our allies or our enemies) to get us to kill one another, and even then, those who do so are a tiny minority.

The ability to hold our noses and put up with fellow citizens we don’t much like is surely a modern Pakistani characteristic. It could be the result of geography and history, of millennia of invading, being invaded, and dealing with the aftermath. Europe learned the value of peace from World Wars One and Two. Maybe we learned our lesson from the violence of partition or ’71. Call it pragmatism or cosmopolitanism or whatever you want, but I think most Pakistanis have it. I’ll call it coexistence-ism, and it’s a blessing.

Over the past 60-some years, with many disastrous missteps along the way, our vastness, diversity and coexistence-ism have forced us to develop (or to begin to develop, for it is a work in progress) our fourth great asset: the many related components of our democracy. Between India and Europe, there is no country with a combination of diversity and democracy that comes close to ours. Other than Turkey, the rest are dictatorships, monarchies, apartheid states or under foreign occupation.

We, on the other hand, are evolving a system that allows our population to decide how they will be ruled. Many of our politicians may be corrupt and venal, but they are part of a lively and hotly contested multiparty democracy. Many in our media may be immature or serving vested interests, but collectively they engage in a no-holds-barred debate that exposes, criticises, entertains and informs — and through television they have given our country, for the first time in its history, a genuine public space. Our judges may have a rather unusual understanding of the correct relationship between legislature and judiciary, but they are undoubtedly expanding the rule of law — and hence the power of the average citizen — in a land where it has been almost absent.

As I see it, the Pakistan project is a messy search for ways to improve the lives of 180 million very different citizens. False nationalism won’t work: we are too diverse to believe it. That is why our dictatorships inevitably end. Theocracy won’t work: we are too diverse to agree on the interpretation of religious laws. That is why the Taliban won’t win.

Can democracy deliver? In some ways it already is. The NFC award and, hopefully, the 18th Amendment, are powerful moves towards devolution of power to the provinces. Too much centralisation has been stifling in a country as diverse as ours. That is about to change. And the pressure of democracy seems likely to go further, moving power below the provinces to regions and districts. Cities like Karachi and Lahore have shown that good local governance is possible in Pakistan. That lesson can now start to spread.

Similarly, democracy is pushing us to raise revenue. Our taxes amount to a tiny 10 per cent of GDP. After spending on defence and interest on our debt, we are left with precious little for schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, water and social support. We, and especially our rich, must pay more. American economic aid comes to less than nine dollars per Pakistani per year. That isn’t much, and the secret is: we shouldn’t need it. New taxes, whether as VAT or in some other form, could give us far more.

Our free assemblies, powerful media and independent judiciary collectively contain within them both pressures to raise taxes and mechanisms to see that taxes actually get paid. This is new for Pakistan. Our number one war shouldn’t be a war on terrorists or a cold war with India or a war against fishing for the ball outside off-stump (although all of those matter): it should be a war on free riders, on people taking advantage of what Pakistan offers without paying their fair share in taxes to our society. Luckily this war looks like it is ready to escalate, and not a moment too soon.

I have no idea if things will work out for the best. The pessimists may be right. But it seems mistaken to write Pakistan off. We have reasons for optimism too.


Filed under Democracy, Economy, Education, Identity, Judiciary, Languages, Media, Pakistan, Religion, Society, state, Terrorism

13 responses to “Room for optimism

  1. M.H, please donot forget to mention the thriving community of Ex Muslims in Pakistan.
    May God and Muhammad bless you. Amen

  2. ashu

    Good stuff!

  3. RODA

    Now i believe that how writers like you brings false hope and dreams in poor men of this country.
    Sir kindly bring your self out from drawing room and spend some time in Orangi town,baldia town,macher colony ect of Karachi .
    They are enjoying the fruit of independence .
    They have best health and education facilities
    This country is only for rich and burgers like you.

  4. Ganpat Ram

    Pakistan has no identity crisis to worry about. Hindus and Moslems could never have lived peacefully in the undivided India: their differences were too great. That was why Pakistan was necessary.

    Now it needs to stop having an inferiority complex vis-as-vis India and get on with its Muslim life.

  5. Honest People

    Your article talks of independent judiciary. This is a hoax. Judiciary is not independent at all. All judges are hostages to Iftikhar Chaudhry. The present judiciary has leanings towards PML[N]. Ever since the so-called restoration of Chief Justice, the backlog of cases has increased manifold. The newly appointed judges are incompetent and their credentials are highly doubtful. It is a hard fact that all confirmed judges including Iftikhar Chaudhry are PCO judges while the unconfirmed are inexperienced and are intellectually deficient. Iftikhar Chaudhry also has no sense of proportion or legal acumen and has got appointed an adhoc judge [Khalil Ramdey] to write judgments for him lest the CJP gets exposed. Khalil Ramdey is erratic and short tempered. He has double standards and is in the habit of misbehaving with litigant public.

  6. I like Mohsin Hamid’s writing but somewhere and somehow,he advocates a strong defence of ‘moral and cultural nationalism’ of Muslim civilisational expression i.e Pakistan.

    I enjoyed his interviews to TOI and other Indian media but the question he is raising ,Why is India so self assured and confident when we(Pakistan) are also a diverse and multi-cultural entity ,much like India?

    My two penny worth of opinion, “insecurities can result in paranoia and totalitarianism and stability and cultural self-respect will result in creativity and co-existence of diverse religious/cultural and social expressions.”

  7. Mustafa Shaban

    I appreciate the posotive attitude of the author, for once somebody is doing something other than just complaining. We should look at both good and bad. And ofcourse Pakistan has a lot of hope, change is coming rapidly to Pakistan, 5 years down the line there will be a completely new picture of Paksitan, a more posotive one.

  8. Ganpat Ram


    India is much more self-assured than Pakistan because it is based on its real history, not a radically form of denialism as Pakistan is.

    India is based on the history of Hinduism. This is unquestionably the predominant heritage of the country.

    On the other hand, Hinduism is a tolerant outlook and therefore is able to accomodate the Muslim role in Indian history. There are to be sure bitter arguments about the Muslim role, but not the Pakistani phenomenon of DENYING IT EVER HAPPENED, as is the way Hinduism in treated (almost) in Pakistani histories.

    Hindus are generally far more self-assured than Muslims, because theirs is a tolerant view of life.

    Muslims have to live a philosophy of radical intolerance – unreformed Judaism, straight out of the Old Testament – and are therefore far more jumpy.

    Muslims also feel the need to deny their Hindu roots in India, and are therfore very touchy.

    Hence the general insecurity of the Pakistani outlook.

    The solution?

    Frankly accepting the Hindu past, saying: We are now Muslims but were once Hindus.

  9. AZW

    Dil Nawaz:

    “My two penny worth of opinion, “insecurities can result in paranoia and totalitarianism and stability and cultural self-respect will result in creativity and co-existence of diverse religious/cultural and social expressions”

    Well said. Occasionally as I wander to the Urdu online newspapers in Pakistan. I never cease to see the paranoid, shreiking analysis that is always trying to find an imagined enemy out to get “us”. The same newspapers and their learned columnists have never ceased to back the institutional discrimination against the minority sects and religions, and kept the India bogeyman alive in the Pakistani subconscious for generations now. Paranoia, bred due to deep seated insecurities, indeed cultvates confused hatred. Pakistan is not the only example, but a good example nevertheless.

  10. Carlos Hernandez

    “My two penny worth of opinion, “insecurities can result in paranoia and totalitarianism and stability and cultural self-respect will result in creativity and co-existence of diverse religious/cultural and social expressions”

    Couldn’t agree more!!!

  11. Ganpat Ram


    The sad thing is, Pakistan has nothing to feel secure or inferior about.

    All it needs to do is admit its Hi9ndu heritage.

    No big deal, that.

    Just say: we were Hindus once, but for various historical reasons habve ceased mostly to be so. And for good reasons, most of us are never going back to Hinduism.

    So we have our own country. It was part of India until 1947. Now here it is – a Muslim portion of India that is independent. Strikingly like India in countless ways, yes, but also somewhat different.


    No problem?


    But instead the Pakistanis try to pretend they NEVER were Hindus; that there was NEVER a country called India until 1947….It’s just some nondescript “South Asia” etc.

    This attitude just boxes them into a claustrophobic world of cultural denial and insecurity.

  12. Ganpat Ram

    I meant to say, Pakistan has nothing to feel insecure about…..

  13. Ganpat Ram

    Pakistan is obsessed with India – NOT Islam, surprisingly enough.

    I often get the impression many Pakistanis are downright BORED by Islam.

    But NO Pakistani I have ever heard of is not obsessed with India.

    Hindus haunt Pakistan, it seems.

    India is different. It too is obsessed: but only with itself.

    If it were not for the threat of Pakistani terrorism Indians would soon forget Pakistan exists.