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Pakistan: its trial, tribulations – and its beauty

By Anwar Akhtar: Published on
February 14th 2012

As Pakistan’s political crisis deepens, Anwar Akhtar, an expert in south Asian politics and culture, looks at everyday life in the tumultous country – and picks his top ten observations.

1 – Pakistan is not poor, despite the best efforts of some of the people running this country to make it so. It takes five hours to drive from Multan to Lahore, another four to then go to Islamabad, as far as the eye can see are the lush fields of the fertile Punjab agriculture belt, full of wheat, cotton, sugar cane, mangoes, and more citrus fruit then I can list.

There are massive opportunities for wider agricultural diversity and investment – Pakistan could be self-sufficient in food production but instead millions live in poverty, whilst feudal landlords export food on a mass scale to the Arab Gulf States.

2 – Travelling to visit relatives in Multan, Bahawlphur and remote villages near Ahmed Pur East, life is very different from Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. Some places seem unaffected by the 21st century power struggles of oil, gas pipelines and conflicts between rival clerical conglomerates – some USA backed, some not.

Villages I last visited over a decade ago have not changed since.

3 – The military, religious, feudal and political elites that run this country are either in denial or apathy regarding the severity of the multiple crises Pakistan faces. They display a shocking lack of regard for the welfare of the people. Pakistan’s problems are vast and well documented, but there is also an extraordinary resilience of the people here, both in the cities and the villages.

Despite sectarian tensions and troubles, Karachi is an adrenalin-fuelled economic engine – a mega-city port of huge potential. There are countless civil society organisations, small and large businesses, a mind-boggling array of media organisations, TV channels, bloggers, campaigning journalists, young film makers, welfare and charitable networks.

There are both small and mini welfare states such as the Edhi Foundation, The Citizen’s Foundation, Human Rights Commission Pakistan, Simorgh Women’s Welfare Project and many educational and cultural institutions doing amazing work. The gravity defying logic of this is the subject of countless books, articles and academic papers, but it’s there for any visitor to Pakistan to see for themselves.

4 – It is hard to explain to an outsider the importance Islam has in Pakistan. Religion is everywhere – even petrol stations have a prayer room or mini mosque.

5 – Prioritising education and the economy is vital in turning Pakistan around. It has huge trade and economic potential, and a fast growing young population. These areas need more attention than the West’s obsession with madrassas. Nonetheless, what is taught in many madrassas is a huge problem. Some (by no means all) are schools of sectarian hatred and misogyny.

If the funding and support is coming from Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, they should be held accountable for this. Some manage their own sectarian fascists by letting them focus their energies on Pakistan, rather than closer to home. What is happening to Pakistan’s minority Ahmadi, Christian and Hindu communities is heart-breaking and a crime against humanity. These are human rights issues, oil, power and money is not an excuse to deny the universality of human rights and the rule of international law. Do read this article that looks at this issue.

6 – Islam is the justification of Pakistan in much the same way Judaism is for Israel. The challenge is to celebrate the centrality of Islam to Pakistan whilst allowing a pluralistic democracy, full equality, equal citizenship and protection of all other indigenous communities and faiths. That was Jinnah’s vision for Pakistan which is now being betrayed. Many people of Pakistan, my family included, follow an orthodox religious path. The way of many in Pakistan and Islam is a source of huge spiritual value, comfort and security to so many Pakistanis. Their faith, their soul and their reason to be. Some western commentators fundamentally misunderstand the importance of Islam to people’s lives and the hostility that ensues causes anger, the very stuff sectarian elements here relish.

7 – Britain is actually quite popular here. Britain’s footsteps are everywhere from the still functioning water distribution plants in the centre of Multan to Karachi Port, to the railways and random statues of Victoria and Albert popping up in parks and gardens. In Lahore you can’t move more than ten minutes without bumping into a cafe, book shop or street food stall named after Kipling or Kim. There is also, of course, the million-plus British citizens with Pakistani heritage, Commonwealth links and legacy of the many who fought in the Second World War. This article looks at the relationships between Britain and Pakistan.

8 – It is shocking that slavery is still widely practiced in Pakistan. Millions of children are born into a life of bonded agricultural or carpet labour in the Sindh, or brick kiln work in the Punjab. Children born into such a life work to pay back a family debt they will never earn enough money to clear, passing it onto their children to continue. The fact that many clerics remain silent on this issue, yet get so worked up on matters that are of people’s personal business is a disgrace – the work of the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan is a beacon of hope in ending such evil practices.

9 – I have met many business and civil society entrepreneurs that to me represent the best hope for this country. Young people setting up cafes, restaurants and clothes labels. The fashion scene in Lahore and Karachi is full of energy and talent, and the crafts, furniture and textiles sectors are of great quality with huge potential for export.

Also, corporate social responsibility here is not just an afterthought – with employment practices trying to ensure gender equality, city businesses sourcing goods from villages to provide people with secure income sources, restaurants setting up food delivery of daily unused produce to welfare centres, employing people with disabilities and much more.

They all echo one sentiment: that Pakistan does not become economically and culturally isolated but is given market access for trade and exchange. Supporting young people, education and the business sectors here is the best hope for stability that will reap innumerable benefits on a regional and global level.

10 – Finally, Pakistan is beautiful. The landscape from the cities to the villages, fields, valleys and mountains is visually stunning and cinematic. Something summed up by Sherbano Taseer – someone much more knowledgeable and informed of the culture, people and history of this amazing country than me. You should visit or at least look beyond the headlines and stereotypes.

Anwar Akhtar is Director of a culture and politics site with a focus on Britain and South Asia. He is also associate of a Manchester based regeneration practice. He was previously Director of

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