By Ayesha Ijaz Khan
Pakistanis entertained, cross-questioned, vented their anger at and generally basked in the company of Secretary Hillary Clinton on her recent visit. Yet with the exception of one good interview conducted by on a private TV channel, the Pakistani press largely ignored the similarly timed visit of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of Turkey. This is not only ironic but sad because Mr Erdogan is both charismatic and wise.
As a result of Ms Clinton’s painstaking outreach, she is likely to inform President Obama that it will take a lot more than references to keema and daal to “turn the page on US-Pakistani relations”. But isn’t it time for our press to broaden its horizons? If we are to open avenues for Pakistan and educate our people then we must reach out to partners other than the US. This of course is not to suggest that we should ignore our relationship with the US. Given our history, that is not feasible; nor is it advisable. But as I heard, the discourse between Secretary Clinton and the various groups with whom she interacted, I could not help but notice the wide gap in perceptions. Surely, gaps can only be bridged through interaction, but there is also a more pressing question that comes to mind. To what extent is the gap really bridgeable?
When, for instance, a media person says to Ms Clinton that “this is not our war” in spite of the fact that Pakistanis are victims of violence every day, it may earn her kudos with domestic audiences, but raises serious questions about Pakistan’s tolerance towards extremism, not only among western analysts but also within the Islamic world. As Prime Minister Erdogan explained to a journalist, Islam favours the middle path of moderation, and we must shun extremes. Pakistan is at war with a violent extreme and wavering on the commitment to eradicate it, or justifying it by implying that the violence is in response to American imperialism, leads to concerns about Pakistan’s willingness to harbour terrorism. To say that this is not our war is exactly the type of rhetoric that fuels mistrust of Pakistan and plays in the hands of lobbies vying to portray Pakistan as a state that is in denial of the extremist problem. It is this mistrust that then leads to the type of conditions that Pakistanis are objecting to in the Kerry-Lugar Bill KLB)?
If more Pakistanis were to take the contrary approach, as voiced by another media person at the same platform, saying to Ms Clinton that “this is our war because we have shared creating this monster with you” and therefore you must also share our burden. That is a position that would resonate far more around the world and evoke sympathy towards Pakistan.
It is true that America abandoned Pakistan at the end of the Soviet-Afghan war and was insensitive to its needs in the aftermath of a bloody conflict that took a severe toll on Pakistan. It is also true that America has historically supported military dictators in Pakistan and has worked against the interests of democratic movements. Yet we must be fair and acknowledge that America has nevertheless provided Pakistan with large amounts of aid, much more than any other country — and $7.5 billion “in the middle of a global recession” as Ms Clinton put it, is certainly not “peanuts”— contrary to what some analysts would have us believe. Where that money goes, both on the Pakistan end (potential corruption) and on the US end (inflated consultancy fees, etc) is a wholly other matter and must be actively monitored by Pakistanis.
The American frustration, as voiced by Ms Clinton, is that in spite of forking out large sums of cash, anti-Americanism continues to rise. This is symptomatic of a far deeper issue which is that we just don’t have much in common. Our fates linked because of Pakistan’s geography more than anything else, it is unlikely that the Pakistanis and the Americans will ever really trust each other. On the other hand, Pakistan is so preoccupied with its American addiction, cursing it but repeatedly turning to it for aid, that it has lost focus of the possibility of forging real alliances with countries like Turkey, not just at the governmental level but at people-to-people level.
Part of the reason for this failure is the way that Pakistanis define friendship. In conversations with fellow Pakistanis across the board, I am struck by our focus on the handout. It appears that we define friendship by how much money others send our way. Examples are cited of China and Saudi Arabia giving us aid free of conditions. In reality, there is no free lunch and alliances cannot be based on how actively a nation is contributing to our begging bowl. If enough aid is sent our way, no matter who the donor, conditions will be attached.
The best way around this is a two-fold strategy in which the press must play an active role to ensure that taxation issues are the front and centre of national debates. Increasing revenues is essential to our survival as a self-respecting nation. Lifestyles must commensurate with taxes paid to the national exchequer while the people must be educated in the importance of accountability of spending taxpayer money. Handouts, in the form of money or jobs in exchange for loyalty, have led to a society driven by patronage that has detrimentally affected our national psyche such that it is also what we have come to expect from the international community. We cannot expect to have friends if all we really want are benefactors.
Second, we must outgrow our sovereignty complex. Pakistan was created in 1947. The independence movement was successful and it’s over. This is not the time for chest-thumping rhetoric. Let’s get real. With a bomb blast a day, sometimes more, Pakistan really does need all the help it can get. This means acknowledging that we have a problem with extremism instead of looking for scapegoats. In order to combat this, it is an ironic reality that we need to cautiously partner with the US in a well thought-out alliance, as our government and army appear to have realised. But we cannot be myopic and believe that the US is interested in solving all our problems or that if the US were to leave the region all our problems would be solved. While managing our difficult alliance with the US, we must also actively plead our case elsewhere, including the Organisation of Islamic Conference.
The OIC, a body historically known for inaction rather than action, has recently had an interesting and promising development — its first ever democratic election for the office of Secretary General. Dr Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, elected as the first Turk to head the OIC, in a recent interview, asked with concern, “Who is helping Pakistan?”
Pakistan must work with Muslim countries in addition to the west in order to solve its extremist problem. So I hope that the next time Prime Minister Erdogan travels to Pakistan, our press will pay him at least half as much attention as they did Ms Clinton. His thoughts on maintaining a balance between Islam as a personal religion and secular political expression would have had Jinnah nodding in agreement. His ideas on civil-military relations and the struggle for democracy in light of Turkey’s historical experience would be instructive to Pakistanis, who would be able to relate more to his than to Ms Clinton’s experiences.