Room for optimism
12 April, 2010
By Mohsin Hamid
EVER since returning to live in Pakistan a few months ago, I’ve been struck by the pervasive negativity of views here about our country. Whether in conversation, on television, or in the newspaper, what I hear and read often tends to boil down to the same message: our country is going down the drain.
But I’m not convinced that it is.
I don’t dispute for a second that these are hard times. Thousands of us died last year in terrorist attacks. Hundreds of thousands were displaced by military operations. Most of us don’t have access to decent schools. Inflation is squeezing our poor and middle class. Millions are, if not starving, hungry. Even those who can afford electricity don’t have it half the day.
Yet despite this desperate suffering, Pakistan is also something of a miracle. It’s worth pointing this out, because incessant pessimism robs us of an important resource: hope.
First, we are a vast nation. We are the sixth most populous country in the world. One in every 40 human beings is Pakistani. There are more people aged 14 and younger in Pakistan than there are in America. A nation is its people, and in our people we have a huge, and significantly untapped, sea of potential.
Second, we are spectacularly diverse. I have travelled to all six of the world’s inhabited continents, and I have seen few countries whose diversity comes close to matching ours. Linguistically, we are home to many major languages. And I mean major: Punjabi is spoken in Pakistan by more people than the entire population of France, Pushto by more than the population of Saudi Arabia, Sindhi by more than Australia, Seraiki by more than the Netherlands, Urdu by more than Cuba, and Balochi by more than Singapore.
Nor is our diversity limited to language. Religiously we are overwhelmingly Muslim, but still we have more non-Muslims than there are people in either Toronto or Miami. We have more Shias than any country besides Iran. Even our majority Sunnis include followers of the Barelvi, Deobandi and numerous other schools, as well as, in all likelihood, many millions who have no idea what school they belong to and don’t really care.
Culturally, too, we are incredibly diverse. We have transvestite talk-show hosts, advocates for “eunuch rights”, burka-wearers, turbaned men with beards, outstanding fast bowlers, mediocre opening batsmen, tribal chieftains, bhang-drinking farmers, semi-nomadic shepherds, and at least one champion female sprinter. We have the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party and we have Porsche dealerships. We are nobody’s stereotype.
This diversity is an enormous advantage. Not only is there brilliance and potential in our differences, a wealth of experience and ideas, but also our lack of sameness forces us to accommodate each other, to find ways to coexist.
Which brings me to our third great asset. ‘Tolerance’ seems a strange word to apply to a country where women are still buried alive and teenagers have started detonating themselves in busy shopping districts. Yet these acts shock us because they are aberrations, not the norm. Pakistan is characterised not by the outliers among its citizens who are willing to kill those unlike themselves, but by the millions of us who reject every opportunity to do so. Our different linguistic, religious and cultural groups mostly live side by side in relative peace. It usually takes state intervention (whether by our own state, our allies or our enemies) to get us to kill one another, and even then, those who do so are a tiny minority.
The ability to hold our noses and put up with fellow citizens we don’t much like is surely a modern Pakistani characteristic. It could be the result of geography and history, of millennia of invading, being invaded, and dealing with the aftermath. Europe learned the value of peace from World Wars One and Two. Maybe we learned our lesson from the violence of partition or ’71. Call it pragmatism or cosmopolitanism or whatever you want, but I think most Pakistanis have it. I’ll call it coexistence-ism, and it’s a blessing.
Over the past 60-some years, with many disastrous missteps along the way, our vastness, diversity and coexistence-ism have forced us to develop (or to begin to develop, for it is a work in progress) our fourth great asset: the many related components of our democracy. Between India and Europe, there is no country with a combination of diversity and democracy that comes close to ours. Other than Turkey, the rest are dictatorships, monarchies, apartheid states or under foreign occupation.
We, on the other hand, are evolving a system that allows our population to decide how they will be ruled. Many of our politicians may be corrupt and venal, but they are part of a lively and hotly contested multiparty democracy. Many in our media may be immature or serving vested interests, but collectively they engage in a no-holds-barred debate that exposes, criticises, entertains and informs — and through television they have given our country, for the first time in its history, a genuine public space. Our judges may have a rather unusual understanding of the correct relationship between legislature and judiciary, but they are undoubtedly expanding the rule of law — and hence the power of the average citizen — in a land where it has been almost absent.
As I see it, the Pakistan project is a messy search for ways to improve the lives of 180 million very different citizens. False nationalism won’t work: we are too diverse to believe it. That is why our dictatorships inevitably end. Theocracy won’t work: we are too diverse to agree on the interpretation of religious laws. That is why the Taliban won’t win.
Can democracy deliver? In some ways it already is. The NFC award and, hopefully, the 18th Amendment, are powerful moves towards devolution of power to the provinces. Too much centralisation has been stifling in a country as diverse as ours. That is about to change. And the pressure of democracy seems likely to go further, moving power below the provinces to regions and districts. Cities like Karachi and Lahore have shown that good local governance is possible in Pakistan. That lesson can now start to spread.
Similarly, democracy is pushing us to raise revenue. Our taxes amount to a tiny 10 per cent of GDP. After spending on defence and interest on our debt, we are left with precious little for schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, water and social support. We, and especially our rich, must pay more. American economic aid comes to less than nine dollars per Pakistani per year. That isn’t much, and the secret is: we shouldn’t need it. New taxes, whether as VAT or in some other form, could give us far more.
Our free assemblies, powerful media and independent judiciary collectively contain within them both pressures to raise taxes and mechanisms to see that taxes actually get paid. This is new for Pakistan. Our number one war shouldn’t be a war on terrorists or a cold war with India or a war against fishing for the ball outside off-stump (although all of those matter): it should be a war on free riders, on people taking advantage of what Pakistan offers without paying their fair share in taxes to our society. Luckily this war looks like it is ready to escalate, and not a moment too soon.
I have no idea if things will work out for the best. The pessimists may be right. But it seems mistaken to write Pakistan off. We have reasons for optimism too.