Pakistan’s Heartland Under Threat

West meets East in prosperous, populous Punjab. But the Taliban wants to change the status quo.
By John Lancaster

The Taliban would not be amused. On a sunny winter afternoon in Lahore, the local culturati have turned out in force for the annual show at the National College of Arts. In the main courtyard young men and women mingle easily, smoking and sipping from cans of Red Bull. Some of the men sport ponytails, and one has a pierced eyebrow.

Nearby is a life-size sculpture of a couple hold­ing hands on a swing. Inside, the image of a male torso, viewed from one angle, morphs into a female breast. Yet there is no mistaking the stamp of the subcontinent. Women wear tra­ditional thigh-length tunics over their jeans, and some cover their hair. There are also miniature paintings, which traditionally might capture a hunting scene; here they portray other scenes, as in one bold depiction of a bearded cleric reclining on a couch in front of a bombed-out school.

The jumble of styles and influences—the stew of peoples and faiths Rudyard Kipling captured so vividly in his novel Kim—is a hallmark of Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city and capital of Punjab Province. The wealthiest and most populous of the country’s four provinces, Punjab is where East meets West and everything in between. Even the brutal and bloody partition of British India in the mid-20th century could not destroy Punjab’s cosmopolitan brio.

But the Taliban and its allies are doing their best. In the past few years they have unleashed a wave of terrorist mayhem in Punjab, the home turf of Pakistan’s political and military establishments, that has targeted even the visiting Sri Lankan national cricket team. The intrusion of violence from the remote tribal badlands near Afghanistan has shocked Punjabis, who until recently tended to dismiss the extremists as someone else’s problem. It also has raised fears in Washington that nuclear-armed Pakistan, an inconstant but vital partner in the war on terrorism, could be heading toward collapse.

The Punjab I knew in the years after 9/11, when I covered Pakistan as a foreign correspondent, was relatively undisturbed. To be sure, it suffered from a myriad of social ills and had its share of homegrown Islamist militants. But the guardians of the status quo—generals, feudal landlords, industrialists—remained deeply entrenched, as did Sufism, the tolerant, mystical, music-and-poetry-saturated brand of Islam that is anathema to many Muslim hard-liners. Could the fabric of society here really come unraveled?

A few days after the art show I tracked down Imran Qureshi, head of the college’s miniatures department, at the modern, two-story home he shares with his wife and two young children. A boyish 38-year-old in corduroys and a zippered sweater, he showed me into a living room decorated with tribal rugs and Scandinavian-style wood furniture. Qureshi and his wife, Aisha Khalid, both renowned artists, could easily migrate to London or New York, where they often show their work. But they have no intention of leaving. “I think it’s getting more liberal here,” Qureshi said, his voice swelling with enthu­siasm. “People are talking about politics, sexuality, all kinds of issues. It was not like this ten years ago.”

Qureshi’s commitment to his country and his art was impressive, and so was his apparently sturdy faith in Punjab’s civility and resilience. On the other hand, perhaps he was simply in denial.

If geography is destiny, there are few better examples than Punjab. Wedged between Central Asia and the subcontinent, the region was squarely in the path of invaders—Macedonians, Turks, Mongols, Persians, Afghans—as well as trade caravans traveling between the subcontinent and points west. Lahore became the capital of a succession of imperial dynasties, and a focal point of surprising diversity. In the late 16th century, the Mogul emperor Akbar infuriated orthodox Muslims by flirting with Hinduism and Christianity. The Sikhs who later ran the city and its environs paid for the upkeep of mosques and Hindu temples, along with their own gur­dwaras. The British added universities and stone churches, and Punjabis learned to love cricket and the queen’s English, if not the queen herself.

All was torn asunder by the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947. Punjab was the richest and most bitterly contested prize, and the largest share, an area the size of Wyoming, was awarded to Pakistan amid a spasm of communal bloodletting that killed up to a million people. Five million Hindus and Sikhs fled to India, and eight million Muslims streamed the other way.

Punjab now accounts for almost 60 percent of Pakistan’s economy and is slightly more populous than Germany, with about 90 million of Pakistan’s 173 million people. In terms of income it is roughly on a par with Sindh, which includes the sprawling financial and industrial capital of Karachi.

The national capital was shifted from Karachi to newly built Islamabad, near the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, in 1967. But Lahore, a frenetic and timeworn city of eight million, is arguably Pakistan’s cultural capital and a living expression of the history of its people.

Like the students at the arts college, the young men who attend Aitchison College, an exclusive boys’ school founded by the British in 1886, reflect many of the contradictions of modern Pakistan. The boys wear blazers stitched with the Aitchison crest (“Perseverance Commands Success”) and every day at sunset stand at attention in front of their dorms as the school flag is lowered to a bugler’s squeaky rendition of the “Last Post.”

The Aitchisonians, thoroughly versed in Amer­ican pop culture, chatter at dinner about the relative hotness of J-Lo and Salma Hayek. At the same time, the boys have been shaped by the Islamization of Pakistani society that began in the late 1970s during the military dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Both they and their teachers are infused with a strong sense of Muslim identity and, at times, grievance, especially toward the United States. “We all thought you were a spy,” one of the teachers told me after I spent time teaching at the school in 2009. “We hate Americans.”

Lahoris of an earlier generation pine for the more permissive and worldly era that preceded Zia’s rule. Yet Lahore’s cultural life lives on. One of the more popular lowbrow diversions is a theater that features live performances by come­dians and dancers. The grimy auditorium is always packed with men, some obviously drunk. As burly guards with Kalashnikovs keep order, dancers in satin leotards and filmy tunics shimmy across the stage to the screech of recorded Indian film songs. The dance routines are interspersed with skits full of bawdy humor and double entendres. Men howl vulgarities and at the end of the night shower their favorite dancers with crumpled rupee notes.

One of the dancers is Nida Chaudhry. Waiting backstage between numbers one night, she wears magenta lipstick and purple eye shadow that make her look older than her 20-some years. A recent citation for risqué dancing does not seem to have cramped her style. “What should I do?” she asks. “Should I dance in a burka?”

The wildest dancing I saw in Lahore was not in a theater but in a place of worship. Late on a Thursday night hundreds of mostly young men gathered at the tomb of a 17th-century Sufi spiritual leader, or saint, named Shah Jamal. They formed a tight circle around a trio of drummers and a pair of long-haired dervishes, who whirled at dizzying speeds on a tiled courtyard slick from rain showers and crushed rose petals. Hashish smoke drifted over the crowd, along with chants of “Allah! Allah-u!” and the names of various saints. The dervishes collided, and a shoving match erupted. “It’s our version of rave,” a Punjabi friend later explained.

Actually there’s a bit more to it than that. Sufism has flourished in the subcontinent since its arrival centuries ago in the wake of Turkish armies. It centers on the veneration of saints, often with help from qawwals—singers of devo­tional songs whose mesmeric rhythms are said to induce spiritual ecstasy. Famous saints such as the 18th-century poet Bulleh Shah were once persecuted for their liberal and iconoclastic views. Today their graves are pilgrimage sites for millions of steadfast followers.

The spectacle at Shah Jamal’s tomb was but one expression of Sufism. Last September I drove with photographer Ed Kashi to Mithankot, a town in Punjab’s far southwest. It is the burial place of a 19th-century saint named Khwaja Ghulam Farid and close to a district where the Taliban is said to have made inroads. But the Sufis in Mithankot seem not the least bit intimidated. The night we arrived, a few thousand men, women, and children had assembled for a festival at the saint’s domed burial chamber, which was draped with green lights. The crowd chanted “O Farid, the truth!” and listened, enraptured, to the saint’s poetry of divine and romantic love, sung by a harmonium-playing qawwal. A white-bearded man gripped my arm. “We like Jesus!” he declared in English. “Jesus is a prophet too!”

The town of Pakpattan is the burial place of Baba Farid—a beloved 13th-century Sufi mystic who is remembered for, among other things, his sweet tooth. On a Sunday afternoon pilgrims were tossing candy onto the shrine’s marble plaza, which was sticky with the evidence of their love. Men filed into the burial chamber to kiss the green cloth that covered the saint’s sarcophagus.

Sitting just outside was Ashran Bibi and her 25-year-old daughter. (As at most such shrines, women are barred from the tomb itself.) Bibi, a laborer’s wife, explained that her daughter had suffered from breathing problems since eating pesticide in a suicide attempt. They had traveled to the shrine three days earlier in hopes that Baba Farid could accomplish what doctors so far had not. “He has good access,” Bibi said, waving her arm at the sky. “We bring our problems to him, and then he takes our problems to Allah.”

The guard at a madrassa in the southern city of Bahawalpur, on the edge of Punjab’s desert region, was not as friendly. As soon as we emerged from our vehicle, he brandished a pistol and made it clear that photographs were unwelcome. His reaction was no surprise. Madrassa Taleem ul-Quran is an Islamic seminary affili­ated with Jaish-e-Mohammed, an extremist group that has been linked to al Qaeda. The group and oth­ers like it in Punjab once operated with the sup­port of the government, which used them as prox­ies in its struggle with India over Kashmir. After 9/11 the government banned the groups under U.S. pressure, but failed to prosecute their leaders or regulate the madrassas that feed their ideology. Pakistan has thousands of madrassas, many of which draw their ideological inspiration, and sometimes financial support, from Saudi Arabia.

The Jaish madrassa fronts a quiet street. Because it was the holy month of Ramadan, the semi­nary was not in session when we arrived, but construction work on a new fourth floor sug­gested that it suffered no lack of resources. A street-level store sold alcohol-free perfume along with books glorifying insurgent martyrs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I didn’t expect to get past the gate, so I was surprised when, after a phone call or two, we were invited to return later that day to meet the nazim, or chief administrator. “It is in the tradition of the Prophet to be hospitable,” said Mau­lana Imdad Ullah, greeting us in a small ante­room over tea and lemon biscuits.

A self-assured man with an unexpectedly warm smile, the nazim asserted that the ma­drassa was purely a religious institution. But he made no secret of his sympathy for Jaish or its leader, Massood Azhar, whose father founded and runs the school. “It should be a natural desire for every Muslim to follow in his footsteps,” he said. I asked if students were encouraged to take up arms against U.S.-led forces in Afghan­istan. “When they graduate, it’s their own choice if they want to go to jihad or not,” he said. And what exactly did he mean by “jihad,” which can be defined in many ways? “Jihad is fighting and killing.”

The nazim’s candor was striking, as was the government’s apparent willingness to let him oper­ate unhindered. So the following morning I paid a visit to Mushtaq Sukhera, the senior police officer for the region, at his official residence. He turned out to be a charming, well-educated man with a practice green on his front lawn and a son at New York University. Sukhera was no fan of extremists and said that his men kept a close eye on the madrassa we had visited. But, he added, “they are teaching the normal syllabus that is being taught in any madrassa, so what does one do about that?”

Dangerous as they are, Punjab’s militants only recently arrived in the province. For a glimpse at a more established pillar of society, we traveled to Multan, the largest city in southern Punjab and a stomping ground of the wealthy, landed aristocrats known as feudals. Faizal Abbas, 39, with close-cropped, gray hair and the hint of a double chin, greeted us outside his air-conditioned reception hall in a walled garden stocked with peacocks and miniature ponies. A huge lion paced in a cage.

Anything less would have been a disappointment. The feudals acquired their land in colonial times or even earlier, and many have parlayed their riches into political careers. As the city grew up around them, Abbas and his brothers sold off some of their land for development and now earn part of their living from a gas station. Lunch arrived in a box from Pizza Hut.

The family still owns several thousand acres of prime farmland—much of it planted in mangoes—and revels in its feudal roots. Behind Abbas’s garden is a reproduction of his ancestral village, with an outdoor clay oven and rope cots of the sort he slept on as a child. After lunch he showed off one of his prized dancing horses.

Abbas’s younger brother, Ghulam, was planning a run for public office. In the garden that night he presided over an informal council gathered to resolve a land dispute between a man and his nephew that had escalated into a display of firearms. After much back-and-forth, the pair agreed to suspend hostilities until Ghulam had a chance to see the disputed property for himself. “We are well-known,” he explained later. “The bane of this public life is that I do not have a private moment.”

The feudals are not universally beloved in Punjab. Halfhearted land reforms have failed to eradicate pockets of deep poverty, especially in the water-starved south. Poverty, in turn, is often blamed for fueling extremism by encouraging landless parents to send their children to madrassas, where at least they’ll be fed and sheltered.

Leaving the unkempt streets of Multan, I drove north through lush fields of sugarcane and rice, past textile mills and service plazas with mini-marts and prayer rooms. Near Islamabad I came upon a vast, unfinished housing development dotted with water towers. Curving boulevards were flanked by Mediterranean-style villas that could have been transplanted from southern California or Abu Dhabi. A billboard advertised a new swim and tennis club.

The development belongs to Pakistan’s biggest real estate developer and most powerful institution—the army. Officers buy land at below-market prices, then build on it or sell it to private buyers for a profit. The perk is a result of a sprawling network of army-run welfare schemes and businesses, including cement factories, fertilizer plants, and Pakistan’s largest trucking firm. Nowhere is the system more deeply rooted than in Punjab, where the British Indian Army focused its recruiting and its Pakistani successor still does.

Hashim Khan is one of the system’s beneficiaries. A retired brigadier, he works for a military contractor and lives in the army-run development. He met me near the entrance in his black Lexus SUV and drove me to his 10,000-square-foot home, where a gilt-framed portrait of his army officer father hung in the marble foyer. A hearty sort with a mustache and straight brown hair, Khan showed me into the study he called his I Love Me Room, which was equipped with a humidor and a refrigerator stocked with Heine­ken. Pavarotti played in the background.

Army personnel, however, have no monopoly on upscale neighborhoods. In the northeastern city of Sialkot, the roads are flanked by sidewalks, sewers are covered, and digital displays count down the seconds at traffic lights. As it happens, Sialkot is one of the world’s top manufacturing centers for surgical instruments as well as sports equipment—especially hand-stitched soccer balls sold under brands such as Nike and Adidas—and some of the exporters contribute to public amenities of the sort they often see on business trips abroad. Khawar Anwar Khawaja, a Sialkot native whose company makes cricket balls and bats in partner­ship with a British firm, says “There was al­ways this simmering anger that we were so far behind.” Exporters had for years lamented the need to truck their goods to airports in Islamabad or Lahore. So Khawaja persuaded fellow movers and shakers to buy shares in a new private airport—the only one of its kind in Pakistan—to serve cargo and passenger flights from the Middle East and Europe. It opened in late 2007.

Khawaja is under no illusions, though. He is as frustrated as anyone by daily power failures, the dismal state of Sialkot’s public schools and hospitals—to say nothing of the Taliban. But he enjoys a good life in the city, where he lives with his wife in an ivy-covered villa and plays golf and tennis at nearby military clubs. His two sons joined the family business after finishing college in California.

Complacency is dangerous in Pakistan. During the weeks when Ed Kashi and I were traveling outside Lahore, the Taliban launched a new series of devastating attacks in Punjab— among them a 22-hour siege of the army headquarters in Rawalpindi that left 23 dead, including the attackers. Returning to Lahore from Sialkot, our car was stopped and searched at one of the new checkpoints that had sprung up overnight around the city. Th e province appeared to be tilting toward chaos.

It was Bulleh Shah who restored a measure of hope. A champion of free thought, the saint made no distinction among castes or creeds and so offended orthodox clerics that they refused him burial in a communal graveyard. Yet his message of tolerance seemed, if anything, more relevant today than when he died in 1758. On the afternoon before my flight home, I decided to visit his tomb, which is on the outskirts of the town of Kasur, about an hour from Lahore.

The shrine is not especially beautiful or grand, but its spiritual power over Bulleh Shah’s acolytes was something to behold. As qawwals warmed up their instruments in preparation for the evening crowd, a trickle of visitors—mostly women—approached the saint’s burial chamber in reverent silence. Some sought his blessing by tying colored threads to the chamber’s filigreed stone. A few openly wept.

I hadn’t been there long when an elderly woman walked up to me and extended a cardboard box. “You must have a sweet,” she insisted. “It is being offered in the saint’s name.” I was touched by this gesture to a stranger, which reassured me that somehow Bulleh Shah’s teachings had not been forgotten—and might yet prove more enduring than the Taliban’s. The taste of the woman’s offer­ing lingered for a long time.

One response to “Pakistan’s Heartland Under Threat

  1. Jawaharlal Nehru built 6 IITs (Indian Institute of Technology). The first one at Kharagpur West Bengal., was started in the dilaiplated and defunct Army Barracks (used during WW-II). From those tin sheds/ army barracks., IITs have grown into world-class institution. Harvard admits 10% of students who apply. IITs admit only 1% students who apply.

    Nehru built IITs., whereas Zia-ul-Haq built MADRASAS. This is a classic case. Means are as important as the end. While Indian Engineers are rocking world-wide, the boys who were groomed in Zia-ul-Haq’s Madrasas are busy with “blasts”.

    Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had many many failings. In the main he was a motor-mouth talk-shop (who gave great speeches… he was an orator… but he did nothing practical for his country on the ground.. Same for Ms. Benazir Bhutto. She did not open even 1 one… quality High school in Pakistan). Yet, Bhutto had written before his legal assasination., the dangers that lie ahead. One of its prediction was the collapse of the country with the nexus of the Army with the Mullah.

    Had Bhutto been alive., there would have been no Afghanistan., no taliban., no 9/11, no 26/11., and Pakistan today would not have been the terrorist-capital (epicenter) of the world !

    Pakistan will progress, only and only when it takes to SECULAR EDUCATION. Otherwise its Laal Masjid and Peela Madrasas and weekly blasts !

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