The puzzled looks were impossible to ignore.
“Why on Earth would you go there?”
That was the general feedback from friends and family when they heard I was traveling to Pakistan as part of a group of U.S. journalists to study the country in South Asia. Many feared for my safety and wondered why I was so interested in this dangerous and troubled place.
Now that I’m home – safe, secure, enlightened and never threatened – I’ll turn the question on its head.
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Why on Earth wouldn’t I go?
You probably don’t know much about Pakistan, but you should. The country of nearly 210 million is at the epicenter of some of the world’s most vexing geopolitical conflicts. Established as a Muslim-dominated homeland at the end of World War II, it is a land in continuous upheaval – a nuclear-armed power at odds with India, its much larger neighbor (and the country from which it was carved in 1947); a focus of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment from China, which is exerting influence here as part of its ascendency to superpower status, and a front line in the war on terror and radical Islamic fundamentalism. Its government – which has periods of military dictatorship in its past – struggles to be effective. The prime minister was recently ousted in a corruption scandal.
Add in the lawlessness of Pakistan’s tribal areas that border Afghanistan and you have one heck of a powder keg. Conversely, if there’s a place to build bridges and set a path toward understanding and peace, it’s here.
Bottom line: Pakistan matters. And I’m fortunate I was able to see it up close.
The group I traveled with was coordinated by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., and was funded through a grant from the U.S. State Department, which wants to foster a stronger relationship between the nations’ media organizations.
The Bee has hosted two Pakistani journalists, the most recent being award-winning Naimat Khan, who covers national security and insurgency for The Frontier Post, an English-language daily, in 2015. He’s also the joint secretary of the historic Karachi Press Club. I reunited with Naimat while visiting the sprawling port city that is the country’s financial and media capital, much like what New York is to the United States.
Pakistani hospitality is legendary. We were stuffed with amazing food and chai at just about every stop along our journey. I crave South Asian food, and Pakistanis do the Indians one better, with no shortage of meat. Sindhi biryani will live on in my dreams. Through food and friendship, everyone we met made us feel welcomed and safe.
Our visit started in Islamabad, in the northern region of the country in the foothills of the Himalayas. The city was built in the 1960s as the designated capital (much like Washington was built to be the capital of the United States) and is likely the safest region of Pakistan.
Like most foreign visitors, we stayed at the five-star Serena Hotel, which can best be described as a fortress. Vehicles must pass through concentric rings of checkpoints before approaching the grounds. Once inside, all visitors are cleared through two sets of metal detectors and bag scanners. Security was intensified in the wake of the deadly 2008 bombing of the Islamabad Marriott – another favorite of foreigners – which killed 54 people and injured nearly 300.
We were chauffeured around in a deluxe van with an armed guard riding shotgun. He followed us or stood outside during appointments.
Pakistan is not a “walking” society, and we weren’t encouraged to set out on foot anywhere, both for practicality and our safety. The only way we were able to really see the cities was out the windows of our van. There, Islamabad and Karachi – our second stop – spread out almost endlessly, in a symphony of craziness.
Navigating the streets of Karachi – one of the largest cities in the world with a population of more than 20 million – would be a challenge for anyone. Traffic rules are largely ignored; every move is negotiated with a wink and a nod between drivers, pedestrians and, occasionally, brave traffic cops who stand in the middle of the street, attempting to bring some order to the chaos. Horns honk as cars, buses, rickshaws, motorcycles and scooters all stake their claim to a portion of the road.
The views outside the van windows took my breath away.
Islamabad is large, but Karachi is an assault on the senses. It’s noisy, humid, smelly and exhilarating. Armed guards stand sentinel in front of homes and businesses, but the occupants inside could not be more welcoming.
The rich history of the Indus Valley civilization dates to antiquity. Pakistan boasts an impressive arts history. The works of Sadequain, the 20th Century painter and calligrapher, are among the finest examples in the country’s galleries. The Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi, founded in 1989, helps keep alive an interest in fine art, design and architecture.
Unfortunately, too many have no interest in this culture’s art or knowledge; only its violence.
Journalists under assault
Journalism is a deadly profession in Pakistan.
Reporters and editors deal with poor salaries and working conditions; most have no medical or life insurance. “The joke is if you’re in a TV van, the camera is insured but the journalist is not,” said Kamal Siddiqi, director of the Center for Excellence in Journalism, a Karachi think tank that works to train Pakistani journalists and to help them develop quality fact-based reporting. The center is funded in part through a U.S. State Department grant and is a collaboration between ICFJ, the Institute of Business Administration and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
More than 60 journalists have been killed since 1992, and few of their killers have been brought to justice, encouraging more assassinations. We didn’t meet a single journalist who had not been threatened at some point.
Perhaps most frightening is the journalism that doesn’t happen. Siddiqi points out that many Pakistani reporters censor themselves when a topic might result in retribution. He recalled a deadly collapse of bleachers at a concert that wasn’t reported because the show was sponsored by a powerful benefactor the local media were afraid to offend. Word of the tragedy spread through social media. He sees this “commercial censorship” increasing.
Newspapers fall into two categories – the English and Urdu press. The English language dailies, led by Dawn – the most prestigious nameplate in the country – practice substantive journalism and are influential because they reach the educated and powerful. The English press can more freely criticize the government and private citizens. The Urdu language press, which reaches a wider audience, generally isn’t afforded the same luxury.
The real force in Pakistani media is 24-hour television news. Until fairly recently, TV was dominated by the government-run Pakistan Television. “Ptv” no longer has a monopoly and the audience has fled to dozens of commercial outlets that reach millions of Pakistani homes through cable and satellite systems. Geo TV is the most prominent. The impact of TV news is heightened in a country where more than 40 percent of the population is illiterate. It’s also a medium easily used as a weapon by unscrupulous journalists and rich owners hellbent on attacking political enemies.
The government also exerts considerable control over media through the power of the purse. Siddiqi says the government is the country’s biggest advertiser and often threatens to withhold ad dollars from outlets that report stories it doesn’t like.
Social media is in its infancy here, but has become a force. Roughly 38 million Pakistanis use the internet today, still barely 18 percent of the population and among the lowest in the world. But smartphones are cheap and plentiful, and this is resulting in an explosion of social media – and attempts to squelch it.
The group Media Matters for Democracy fights for openness. There’s no law in Pakistan that guarantees freedom of speech, and this extends to social media. The Electronic Crime Act of 2016 is vague enough to be used to stifle free speech. Asad Baig, executive director of MMFD, points to examples where the law has been used to threaten commentary that is openly critical of the government or other institutions. “You can be charged for anything,” he said.
Among the most serious charges is blasphemy. The mere threat of such a charge is enough to scare most journalists off a story. “It is a ‘full stop,’” Siddiqi said. “It’s a simple and clear way to discredit someone.”
Islamic republic and education
It seems religion is behind almost every issue in Pakistan.
This goes back to the birth of the nation and the intentions of its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah – a lion of a man revered as the Quaid-I Azam, or “great leader.” His visage is on every denomination of the Pakistani Rupee – the official currency – and his remains are housed in the Mazar-e-Quaid, a spectacular mausoleum in Karachi. Jinnah was a member of the Indian National Congress and reluctantly fought to establish Pakistan as an independent Muslim country once British rule over India ended following World War II. He became the country’s first leader upon its inception in 1947, but died of tuberculosis on Sept. 11, 1948.
There’s near endless debate about Jinnah’s intentions. Many argue he wanted a secular state. Others point out his devotion to creating an Islamic homeland. If you really want to get Pakistanis arguing, bring up this topic.
But it wasn’t until the 1950s that Pakistan became known by its current official name, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan – a de facto theocracy, with Islam at its core.
There’s no doubt the Islamists control much of the Jinnah narrative, even if they are not electorally successful. A broken education system, many experts say, helps extreme ideologies thrive.
Michael Kugelman, Asia Program Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., said much of the curriculum in Pakistan’s public schools is designed to brood enmity with India and creates a mindset in which students can be receptive to extremist ideologies. Just getting children to school is a monumental challenge; 47 percent from ages 5 to 16 are out of school, and 16 percent of the population has never had even a day of education.
This has left Pakistan wide open to outside influence. Madrassas financed largely by Saudi Arabia have an extreme religious-based curriculum and the government has done nothing to shut down these schools.
“Pakistan is the only country that has a subject in school call ‘Islamia,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, who leads Alif Ailaan, an organization that is working to address Pakistan’s education crisis. “If math and science become as important as religion, then we’re going to fix this country.” He sees this as key to creating a work force that can compete in the global marketplace.
The economy and China
As we toured the Jinnah mausoleum in Karachi, I was struck by a plaque on the wall that carries this inscription:
“A Beautiful Chandelier Gifted by People’s Republic of China is installed in December 2016.”
Clumsy English translation aside, this simple gesture of friendship is emblematic of China’s growing influence here. Ask any Pakistani, and they will say the relationship is “higher than the Himalayas, deeper than ocean, sweeter than honey and stronger than steel.”
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, commonly called CPEC, is welding the countries closer together than ever before. The $62 billion investment from China is intended to address Pakistan’s aging or nonexistent infrastructure, including improvement to a faltering electric grid that will light rural communities and eliminate embarrassing power outages in urban areas. On the flip side, CPEC is a way for China to efficiently get its goods to market through Pakistan’s Indian Ocean ports. CPEC is part of China’s One Belt One Road initiative, an effort to resurrect the ancient Silk Road.
CPEC is widely seen as a boon for a country that doesn’t have the means to fix its own problems. But there’s concern that China will use CPEC to influence Pakistan when the loans come due. “China does nothing for altruistic reasons,” Kugelman noted.
At the same time China is swooping in, the U.S. is reducing its presence. U.S. aid to Pakistan peaked at around $1.3 billion per year at the height of the war on terror and fell to around $300 million in 2016. The Trump administration has yet to articulate a Pakistan policy, and it’s likely this figure will dip further.
The U.S. government always has been skeptical of Pakistan, and that mistrust only increased when Osama bin Laden was found living in Abbottabad, not far north of Islamabad. But Pakistani help has been essential in the U.S. Afghanistan war.
Hope for future
As I headed home, it was hard to get my head around the enormity of Pakistan’s challenges.
Still, the country is showing inspiring signs of growth. Its per capita GDP hovers around $5,000 per person – one of lowest in the world – but it’s on an upward trajectory. The stock market recently was placed on the emerging markets list, which could spur foreign investment.
A drive around Karachi shows development in just about every corner. Skyscrapers are under construction and the retail sector is thriving. Naimat took me to Dolmen Mall in the upscale Clifton neighborhood. It boasts an impressive array of stores, and it’s only one of the city’s many malls. I bought a pair of shoes at a shop that specializes in Pakistani leather, some of the world’s finest.
It’s hoped the CPEC investment will lead to a cascade of prosperity.
The government has long been impotent, with the military regarded as the real seat of power. While still true, there are encouraging signs that democracy is working.
The Pakistan Supreme Court this summer ousted Nawaz Sharif as prime minister following a complex corruption scandal involving his family and its business interests. This initially destabilizing move has been held up as an example that Pakistan’s democratic institutions are operating as intended, with checks and balances keeping everyone honest without the military stepping in to impose its will.
Socially, change is afoot. Groups like Uks Research Center are pushing mightily to improve women’s rights – and succeeding.
After spending time with Tasneem Ahmar, the leader of Uks, and Shaista Yasmeen, an Uks projects coordinator who accompanied us for the entire trip, it’s impossible not to feel hope for Pakistan’s future. Their passion for their country and their dedication to addressing its flaws is infectious.
The vast majority of Pakistanis desire a peaceful world and the freedom to go about their daily lives without fear.
Pakistan already is the most “free” Muslim country. But its population is young and poor, making it fertile ground for extremists. Imagine the nightmare of a nuclear-armed Pakistan controlled by extremists. The people we met are working on the inside to strengthen civil society. We ignore them at our peril.
A world with a strong, stable and free Pakistan is a better world.
I’m rooting hard for them. And you should, too.
Population: 207.7 million
Neighboring countries: India, Afghanistan, China, Iran
Largest city: Karachi
How to get there: There are multiple routes. We flew Etihad Airways from Washington, D.C., to Abu Dhabi, then to Islamabad. The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning and strongly advises U.S. citizens against all non-essential travel to Pakistan. Outside of Pakistani-Americans, there are few U.S. visitors. A visa is essential and must be obtained from the Pakistani embassy in Washington prior to departure.