INTERVIEW
 
Pakistanis worry about their international image
Los Angeles Times
April 28, 2009
College student Amena Omer inhaled tobacco from a hookah, the octopus arms of the hubbly-bubbly wrapped around a table leg, and summed up the state of her country: “Worse than zero.”

Having foreigners refer to their home as a failed state naturally puts Pakistanis on the defensive, she said. But when the 19-year-old looks around at the creeping fundamentalism, increased terrorist attacks, squabbling politicians and large swaths of the nation beyond government control, part of her thinks they might have a point.

“This country’s situation is getting worse,” Omer said as she hung out with several college friends at a cafe in Lahore. “Honestly, Pakistan is going in the wrong direction. Sometimes you wonder if it’s going to exist in another 20 years.”

In the narrow alleys of the Aabpara Market in Islamabad, fabric seller Akhlaq Abbas scoffs at a young person’s dire predictions. Pakistan is not a failed state, the 61-year-old says. Sure, it has problems, although he doesn’t think that’s exactly accidental.

“Groups of people from abroad are working to destabilize Pakistan,” he said, as others in the bazaar nodded in agreement. “Outsiders — from India, Israel, America and Britain — are meddling. They send drones over our heads and kill people. Our troubles happen because outside forces want to hold Pakistan back.”

As Pakistanis grapple with growing problems at home, many are keenly aware of their nation’s eroding reputation. They’re outraged at implicit comparisons with Somalia or Afghanistan, and fearful that as more foreign commentators chime in, the view that their country is fundamentally flawed will become contagious, taking on a life of its own.

Many also recognize, however, that the country has deep-seated flaws. Sharia, or Islamic law, was recently imposed in the Swat Valley as part of a peace deal with militants, further sapping the power of a government that only nominally controls large parts of its tribal and frontier territories.

Taliban militants declared the peace deal “worthless” after a Pakistani military offensive against insurgent hideouts in Dir, near the border with Afghanistan. Paramilitary forces using helicopters and artillery killed 20 suspected militants Monday and a total of at least 46 in recent days, according to a statement by the army.

The nation’s shaky democracy is headed by a weak leader in President Asif Ali Zardari, whose main qualification is being the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who many believe was assassinated by Islamic militants. The government struggles to rise above corruption and insularity even as the nation’s economy is on life support. And Pakistan’s intelligence community may or may not be doing everything it can to fight rising militancy.

That said, the idea that Pakistan is falling apart is hardly new, analysts here said. For decades, foreign pundits have been predicting the imminent collapse of their country, although in recent months the cry has intensified.

“Every time I go to America, I hear that Pakistan is going to break up in the next few years,” said I.M. Mohsin, Pakistan’s former interior secretary, who travels abroad periodically to visit relatives.

“Sure, there are problems, and we stumble ourselves,” he added. “But the relationship with your country is like the relationship with your family. There are strains, but you work through them.”

The way some here see it, the country needs more political leaders and officials who care about the country as a whole, rather than about building their own ego or fiefdom. “I can’t say it’s a failed state,” said Rizwan Majeed, who runs a general store in Lahore. “But it’s got lots of administrative problems. Also, our very different local traditions make it difficult to govern with a single set of rules.”

The parade of statements made recently by foreign leaders and experts on the risk of a Pakistani meltdown only fans nationalistic fears, some said. A map published recently in Armed Forces Journal, a U.S. publication, drew howls after it detailed how Pakistan might break apart — leaving it about half its current size, with huge chunks absorbed by Afghanistan and a new “Free Baluchistan” state to the south.

“There’s a huge conspiracy mind-set in certain pockets and these ... assessments are taken as evidence that foreigners are planning something,” said Fasi Zaka, an academic, television host and music critic based in Islamabad. “Unfortunately, that spurs national pride, kills self-reflection and prevents the country from taking action against its own domestic groups and problems.”

Pakistan’s nascent democracy can be a bit shaky, said Ishtiaq Ahmad, a professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, but that doesn’t mean its institutions, law enforcement arms and nuclear command-and-control systems aren’t functioning. “Pakistan can’t be compared to a Somalia or Afghanistan,” Ahmad said. “What’s generally perceived outside doesn’t match the reality on the ground.”

Justified or not, the country’s eroding international reputation exacts a toll, several said. Foreigners start believing that everyone in Pakistan is a terrorist, making it difficult to travel, study abroad, even finalize import and export deals.

“No one supports Pakistan anymore. Just mentioning our name generates fear,” said Hadia Azam, 19, a ceramics major at the National College of the Arts in Lahore. “Lahore, with its beautiful architecture, is called the heart of Pakistan. Now no one wants to come see our heart anymore.”

Omer took another puff of tobacco and made room for a friend on a bench, her words coursing out of her mouth faster than the scented smoke. Leadership is indeed a problem, she said, and it’s up to the younger generation to break the cycle of cynicism, self-interest and corruption that has beset Pakistan for decades.

The problem, she said, is that relatively well-off, educated families like hers all but forbid their children to go into public service. "There have been so many people killed in politics, so much bribery and dirty business, they don't want us to get into that."

Furthermore, the rise in suicide bombings and attacks has made protesting in public increasingly dangerous, especially for a woman. So she and her friends have tried to raise awareness from home by -- what else? -- hitting the Internet, especially the social networking site Facebook.

"We're trying to bring about change from inside our rooms, tell the world that all Muslims are not terrorists," she said. "People think we're all extremists. Look at us, we're wearing jeans. We like to hang out. It's so sad. At the end of the tunnel, you're supposed to see a light. Sometimes, we just don't see a light."

Access interview at latimes.com