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New Straits Time 07 April 2001

Cross Currents
A metaphor for the Muslim world
By Farish A. Noor

MALIK became a taxi driver by accident. One day, while driving along the manicured streets of Islamabad, his car was hit by a speeding Pajero.

Forced to have it repainted, the mechanics at the workshop suggested that the car should be painted yellow and that he should turn it into a taxi instead.

And that is how Malik found himself driving around the capital of Pakistan as a taxi driver.

But Malik is not merely a taxi driver. He carries the latest model of cordless handphone and works on his computer at home, surfing the Internet looking for work opportunities abroad.

For Malik also happens to be a university graduate and he dreams of working as a computer technician in some other country where the window of opportunity is bigger.

He is not the only one who dreams of leaving. At the cafes and tea shops of Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, young Pakistanis openly talk about the prospects of migrating to the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia in search of greener pastures.

The country is literally overflowing with talent - from taxi drivers with degrees in computer science to dock workers who speak more than half a dozen languages.

Yet Pakistan today ranks as one of the highest in the list of countries whose citizens have opted to make that fateful move to the West. Along with China and India, Pakistan sends out (or loses) thousands of its young and able citizens to Western companies in search of skilled professionals.

But Pakistan is more than a stereotypical country in crisis. It also happens to be a metaphor for the state of the Muslim world at present, where conflicting forces are battling it out in the streets and on the corridors of power to determine the orientation and heading of the country in the future.

While the ruling elite - living almost under a state of siege in their barricaded compounds in Defence, Gulberg and other fashionable enclaves - bemoan the collapse of public institutions and services such as education, health, welfare and law and order, they also happen to be part of the problem itself.

The very same ruling elite has managed to produce only a handful of incompetent and corrupt politicians who have made a mockery of the democratic political process. This has opened the way for the army to intervene and for the mullahs and their fanatical followers to clamour for a fabled Islamic state as a remedy to the woes of the lumpen masses.

Those who have tried to succeed and overcome the obstacles that stand before them encounter instead a limitless array of glass ceilings and invisible barriers - built on unstated and unwritten rules of class, caste and feudal norms - which dictate that only those born with silver spoons in their mouths have the right to be sent to exclusive institutions of learning like Aitchison College, while the rest are left with the prospect of either ending up as fodder for a demoralised state education system, or worse, a madrasah education system run by religious parties and fundamentalist mullahs.

Such divisions are certainly not new nor unique to Pakistan. Indeed, a cursory overview of the state of the contemporary Muslim world will show that practically every Muslim country today is host to such social inequalities to a lesser or greater extent.

Like the rest of the Muslim world, Pakistan is also caught in the vicious cycle of international politics. Today it is accused of harbouring clandestine extremist movements and of not doing enough to curb the activities of pro-Taliban and pro-jihadi movements close to its borders.

The hawks of Washington in particular are keen to place Pakistan on the blacklist of "terrorist states" (which one day will presumably include the whole Muslim world if they have their way).

But who was it who helped to sow the seeds of such religious extremism in Pakistan in the first place?

Was it not the Americans, under Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton, who helped to channel billions of dollars worth of death-dealing arms to religious militants working in both Pakistan and Afghanistan during the peak of the Cold War and the Mujahideen conflict?

Was it not the Americans who were wheeling and dealing with the Taliban, with Pakistan as the go-between, in the struggle for oil pipeline routes through Afghanistan and Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union?

It is, therefore, ironic that Pakistan is now being branded as a terrorist-supporting state by the US, which has sponsored and aided more terrorist organisations in the world to suit its realpolitik interests at home and abroad.

Once again, the situation in Pakistan is not unique to the country alone: Pakistan being held hostage to the vicissitudes of global political struggles is symptomatic of the weakness and vulnerability of the Muslim world at large.

In the face of all these problems, it is amazing - almost miraculous - that Pakistan and her people have managed to survive and continue to do so.

Despite the collapse of its public institutions and the lack of faith in the country's leaders, millions of Pakistanis remain in the country either out of choice or bacause they have to.

But for those who remain, the future will depend on the alternatives presented before them. Between the narrow parochialism of the Islamist militants and the defunct proposals of the ideologically bankrupt elite, those who dream of a liberal, tolerant and prosperous Pakistan still continue to exist.

The great challenge that lies before the government of General Pervez Musharraf is to do what no other civilian or military government has ever been able to do before: to open the way for a truly democratic and progressive civil society to develop which retains its traditional religious character without falling into the trap of religious extremism and exclusive ethno-nationalism.

The people hope and wait for a change for the better. They do not need more mullahs to tell them that Islam calls for jihad against its enemies, or politicians who claim that they want to save their people while they line their own pockets.

But for change to come, the present government has to create a democratic space for Pakistan to realise itself and come into its own. And perhaps it is this belief and longing for a better future that keeps this country together, and which allows ordinary Pakistanis to cry out against all odds: Pakistan Zindabad! And so should all of us.


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