Hunting for the Truth in Pakistan

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 15, 2011 | Go to article overview

Hunting for the Truth in Pakistan


Byline: Patrick French

Even before the country's creation in 1947, some were predicting the collapse and break-up of Pakistan. The Indian Muslim leader Maulana Azad thought the partition of the subcontinent would be reversed in a matter of months. More recently, in the chaos and bloodshed that have come to Pakistan since 2001, commentators have suggested it is a failed state. In the last week - since Osama Bin Laden was cornered, living down the road from the capital, Islamabad - it has been portrayed as a rogue nation.

Anatol Lieven will have none of this. His Pakistan is a durable and varied country held together by complex ties of kinship, tradition and a powerful professional army. He sees it as being far from a failure, even if parts of the administration are dysfunctional. As a journalist turned academic, Lieven is able to range across different levels of Pakistani society and show the huge contrast between, for example, the business community in a city like Karachi and the vengeful tribes living on the Afghan border. His conversations with people in remote areas are fascinating for their insight.

He rejects the stereotype of Pakistan as a land of religious fanatics. Interviewing a frontier chief whose walls are 'festooned with the heads of mountain goats and photographs of ancestors bristling with guns, swords and facial hair', he learns that failures by the police make rough justice popular. In a region where honour is vital, the chief prefers to execute a rapist and slit the nose and ears of his accomplice. If he doesn't, the government's legal system might leave them 'free to roam the streets raping more girls and laughing at us'. Islam as practised in Pakistan is often 'non-Koranic', and justice is based on local traditions of revenge.

Lieven's book is an important corrective to a monolithic view of Pakistan. He is right when he says support for the Taliban is superficial, or that 'water shortages today pose a growing and possibly even existential threat' to the nation.

His take is fresh and deeply informed, and fully aware of the problems of Pakistan's static social customs. To give an example, 100 years ago in undivided India, the veiling of women or reverence for a chief were as common as they are in Pakistan today. These practices have largely disappeared in modern India because there has been a calculated attempt at social progress and reform. But in Pakistan, attitudes have hardly changed. …

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