In the Himalayan resort town of Nathiagali, a party is under way. Ice clinks in tumblers and corks pop while the conversation an amalgam of English and Urdu that is the mark of Pakistan’s élite flows from meditation techniques to a heated debate over a U.S. politician’s warning that Pakistan is on the brink of collapse. The hostess, Rifat Haye, 54, is one of two female pilots with the national airline and is celebrating her promotion to captain. She wears jeans. Her hair is streaked with blond, and a diamond nose stud glints in the sun, as does the jeweled Allah pendant around her neck. She is frustrated with the image the world has of Pakistan, that of a failing state overrun by Muslim fanatics. Pointing first to herself, then at her guests, she says, “This is Pakistan.” Then she waves her hand over the valley beyond the deck of her summer cabin. “But that is also Pakistan.”
By that she means all those Pakistanis who do not belong to her class and who have as much to do with the Taliban as she does, which is to say nothing at all. But her sweeping wave inadvertently encompasses a part of Pakistan she has failed to address the Swat valley, where the army has embarked on a campaign to rout out Islamic insurgents who threaten to destroy the Pakistan Haye knows and cherishes.
Pakistan is a complicated country, one of religious and political diversity, fractured by class and ethnicity. Pakistanis like to quip that they have a population of 170 million and as many different opinions. Which is why defensiveness sets in when outsiders attempt to reduce the country to a terrorist statistic. The problems in Swat don’t define Pakistan, says Haye. It’s not that she doesn’t care she does but that Pakistan has very little to do with her Pakistan. “What is all this talk of Talibanization Not once have these maulvis [religious leaders] complained that a woman is flying their plane,” she says. Guests nod in agreement. “There is no way the Taliban can take over Pakistan,” says one. “We are too many, and they are too few.”
It is indeed unlikely that Pakistan’s Islamic militants can seize power. But to spread fear and insecurity and slow down economic development, they don’t need to. Hundreds of terrorist attacks have taken more than 2,500 lives in the past 18 months. Talibanization may not have reached Pakistan’s élite, but it is already threatening others. Women in the city of Rawalpindi complain that they are harassed if they don’t wear headscarves. In Lahore, a prep school for girls has banned the wearing of blue jeans, for fear of a Taliban attack. In the capital, Islamabad, the Red Mosque’s prayer leader, Abdul Aziz, sanctioned vigilante squads of baton-wielding women to go out and threaten video stores, barbershops and massage parlors for being un-Islamic. Two years ago, his followers kidnapped six Chinese masseuses, calling them prostitutes, and held them hostage. The army eventually cracked down, launching a siege and battle that saw the death of nearly 100 militants. Last month, Aziz was released from prison on the condition that he would not preach against the state. But residents in the neighborhood fear that the vigilante squads will soon be back. Talibanization doesn’t start with a military takeover. It happens when there is a Red Mosque in every city and citizens are afraid to stand up to its edicts.
The government, at last, seems to be fighting back. On May 7, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced a military operation in Swat. “The armed forces have been called in,” he said, “to eliminate the militants and terrorists. We will not bow before extremists.” Only weeks before, the government had finalized a peace deal with the militants in which their principal demand the establishment of Islamic law in the area was granted in exchange for giving up arms. At first officials defended the deal, even as the militants moved on a neighboring district and their leader announced that democracy was contrary to Islam. But in a move that coincided with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to Washington, the government declared the deal over. “The militants have waged war against all segments of society,” Gilani said. “I regret to say that our bona fide intention to prefer reconciliation with them was perceived as a weakness on our part.”
The fighting in Swat masks far more serious problems. In Waziristan, a region on the Afghan border, security forces have ceded control to the militants. Outlawed sectarian groups are gaining a foothold in Punjab province. And in the financial capital of Karachi, where Pakistani Taliban insurgents raise funds, ethnic clashes claimed more than 30 lives last month. When U.S. President Barack Obama commented during an April news conference that the Pakistani government did not “seem to have the capacity to deliver basic services schools, health care, rule of law, a judicial system that works for the majority of the people,” the nation erupted in fury, and effigies of Obama were burned. But privately many Pakistanis agreed with the U.S. President; their nation, for all its people’s many talents, has failed to develop the education, economic-development and justice systems that are the bedrock of modernity and stability. “These guys have been in power for more than a year,” says lawyer Anees Jillani, speaking of Zardari’s government. “What have they done We still have acute poverty, joblessness and injustice.”
See pictures of fighting in the Swat valley.
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