Red Pakistan, blue Pakistan

timecover1I don't know about you, but I really miss reading a good, newsy, weekly magazine. Thus, while I was on the road (that long trek, literally, around the world last week to speak in Manila, Bangalore and New Delhi) I really enjoyed getting to dig into a small stack of international editions of Time. In particular, I had missed reading the late May cover story that ran with the headline, "How Pakistan Let Itself Down." That was sobering reading, on an airplane flying to India.

(Speaking of nice headlines in that issue, faithful readers may also want to check out this one, "Getting Religion: Inside the Global Halal Economy." Nice, catchy choice of words.)

Once again, the key to the cover story is how it digs into the tensions inside Islam, inside Pakistan. And once again, we see a mainstream newsroom struggling to define the doctrinal content of "moderate" Islam. What we are given is a stress on the lifestyles of Pakistan's educated, urban elites -- symbolized by a female airline pilot and her friends, popping corks and sipping drinks in a Himalayan hideaway while worrying about the future of their nation.

Hostess Rafi Haye states the central issue in an interesting way:

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.

The obvious question: Then who backs the Taliban, if anyone?

Here's another look at the central issue, this time expressed as a question about history:

Founded as a Muslim nation carved from British-ruled India in 1947, Pakistan has long struggled to unite a population divided by language, culture and ethnicity. It is quite true that Pakistan may never have resolved what Sabahat Ashraf, a Pakistani blogger now living in California, calls its "existential dilemma: Are we an Islamic state, or are we a state of Muslims?"

By definition, this means that conflict inside Pakistan is conflict within Islam, which means that it is impossible to cover events inside the borders of this troubled nation without drawing some doctrinal and cultural lines between Muslims. Yet that is precise what the mainstream press seems hesitant to do. If the conflict is merely political, then why are the big, painful questions rotted in religion? Yes, I am well aware that in most expressions of Islam there is no separation between mosque and state. That's part of the equation.

This is where things get complicated. The battles in the Swat Valley are often expressed as fights over the use of Sharia law. What reporters need to emphasize is that the battles actually center on what form of Sharia law will be used, since Pakistan already has Islamic law from border to border. Ask anyone who attempts to convert to another faith.

But it is also unclear -- here's that theme again, as in Iran -- whether the "moderate" Muslims are as powerful as the press seems to think they are. Do the "moderates" have any sense of unity when it comes to faith and practice? Can they express themselves?

That brings us to what I think is the most interesting section in this important story:

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University, pulls up on his laptop the pages of a first-grade primer distributed in private religious schools. "A is for Allah," he reads. "B is for bandook, or gun." T, for thakrau, collision, is illustrated with a drawing of the World Trade Center in flames, while Z, for zenoub, the plural of sin, is depicted with alcohol bottles, kites, guitars, drums, a television and a chess set. Any attempt to change the religious curriculum is met with fierce resistance. "Many fear that to be seen protesting against the extremists who are pushing Shari'a [Islamic law] would be seen as protesting against Islam itself," says Hoodbhoy.

The paradox here is that historically, Pakistanis have practiced a syncretic version of Islam that venerates saints and emphasizes a personal relationship with God. But the influx of Arab preachers during the war against the Soviets brought a more austere form of the religion. Shayan Afzal Khan, an Islamic scholar who writes about women and Islam, thinks Pakistanis lack the confidence to defend their moderate beliefs. "People are afraid to take on the mullahs because we can't quote the Koran the way they do," Khan says. "We have to take our religion back," but fear gets in the way. She has decided not to publish her most recent book, about early Muslim women, in Pakistan "because the situation these days is too unstable."

Now that's chilling.

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