Let me tell you about the Pakistan I’ve seen during my fieldwork — and why it matters.
I sit in the back of a rickshaw in Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan, as it leisurely makes its way out of the bustling, narrow streets of the old city. The city on a summer night is magical. The day’s heat is gone and streets are still steaming from the last gush of monsoon rain. Every corner smells of delicious traditional fast-food. Jasmine flowers bleed away their narcotic fragrance. People have finished the daily work and are strolling slowly along the main roads, glancing at brightly lit, glitzy shop windows.
Passing a police checkpoint, we get pulled over. The young officer demands to see my passport. While he is flipping through the document, the actual purpose of our encounter becomes clear. I’m not going to give him the tip he expects. When he realizes that he won’t receive any bribes, he makes a fuss but eventually lets us get away.
As we get going again, my driver asks how I like Pakistan. When I tell him I absolutely love the place, his long grey beard gracefully nods in approval. “Which do you prefer, Pepsi or Coke?” he asks. A bit startled, I stammer a response, and at the next roadside snack bar he stops, jumps out and returns with a bottle of Coke.
For someone who makes fewer than $80 a month, it is an expensive gift.
“This police guy bothered you and I want to apologize on his behalf,” he explains. “You are a foreigner and our guest. When you leave our country, I want you to retain a good impression of Pakistan.”
This heart-warming scene might come as a surprise to many in the United States and the West in general, where Pakistan’s image in the international media is usually disastrous. Articles focus on teenagers who are shot in the head for promoting girls’ education. Disabled children are accused of blasphemies they never committed. Women are beaten, abused and gang-raped. Religious minorities are threatened and marginalized. Of course, all this is true and it sadly does happen. But other stories are equally important. Rarely does a different perspective on Pakistan make its way into the headlines of major newspapers. Most readers in the West are completely ignorant of the country’s contemporary society, rich cultural heritage, mystic traditions and great intellectuals.
Yet, this other side of Pakistan is the one that matters. A one-sided perception of a whole nation cannot but lead to further misunderstandings and a loss of trust which is crucial for any strategic partnership.
People who are constantly looked down upon will eventually turn against the abuse. They will grow increasingly convinced that nothing makes a difference, no matter how hard they try to improve themselves. Worse, Pakistanis have already begun to adopt this perception of their nation.
Start a conversation with anyone living between the shores of Karachi and the lofty peaks of Kashmir, and you will get a disturbing mixture of low self-esteem coupled with an alarming sense of hubris. People feel ashamed and helpless in the face of sweeping criticism directed toward their very identity.
In their helplessness, they turn to defiance. I repeatedly heard comments along those lines: If you don’t like us, well, just leave us alone. We will manage to muddle through this mess alone. Better go down fighting with self-respect, they say, than begging for your acceptance.
The underlying message in many conversations with Pakistanis is this: Westerners, especially Americans, are neither willing nor able to understand us. It does not matter to them who we are nor what we think. This impression, reinforced by drone attacks targeting innocent civilians, causes anti-American sentiments to run high among the broad majority of the population.
Yet, the U.S. “war on terror” depends heavily on the cooperation of Pakistan’s government, the country’s military, secret service and political parties. Those, in turn, rely on the support of the man in the street. As the recent developments in the Middle East have shown, regime changes can be brought about in no time by protesting crowds taking to the streets.
When anti-American sentiments prevalent in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore reach into corridors of power, the tide could quickly turn against the government’s overt or secret support for American policies. Then a foreigner won’t be greeted with a bottle of Coke, but rather the bitter enmity of a bullied nation.
This is important for us to keep in mind when Pakistan is discussed on campus. Year after year, Princeton produces people who will occupy important positions in the government, academia, finance and industry. They will help to shape public opinions about foreign policy. Especially with regard to Pakistan, it means that we need to promote an open mind-set that does not just focus on security issues and military strategies, but includes the country’s history, culture and society into the analysis.
Maria-Magdalena Fuchs is a graduate student in religion. In 2011 and 2012, she spent seven months on fieldwork and language studies in Pakistan.