Monday, September 9, 2013

To Be A Citizen In The Most Dangerous Country In The World

I was coming home yesterday from Stansted Airport after ten days in lovely Copenhagen - there is simply no other word to describe that quirky, charming, magical city - and caught a cab from Liverpool Street tube station in London to get back to my place. The cab driver and I had a long conversation, as you do whenever you're in a black cab, about the state of Britain today, and then he asked me about life in Pakistan. "I read this article that said Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world," he remarked. "What do you think about that?"

I knew which piece he was referring to: this one in the Daily Mail, where Liam Fox, the former British Defence Minister stated that Pakistan stood out from the rest of the world in the risks that Pakistan presents to world peace and security.

This is not as a result of any malign intent but as a consequence of its inherent political instability, the unpredictable and sometimes malevolent behaviour of its intelligence services, the ISI, its willingness to share nuclear technology with rogue states and others, and its potential to export terrorism

Yet despite the grim prognosis, Fox admits that the West needs Pakistan in order to collaborate on the security issues it still faces in Afghanistan and regional peace with India, and that punishment and ostracism will not work with us because we have too much in common. In Fox's simplistic analysis of Pakistan's present position as Enemy No. 1, it's clear that he's placing most of the blame on Pakistan rather than looking at the root causes of Pakistan's problems with terrorism. He has to shy away from analyzing how the Western powers' strategic interests contributed to pressuring Pakistan into participating in first the Afghan-Soviet war and then the War on Terror because he's writing for the Daily Mail, obviously, but this is intellectual dishonesty which nobody who understands Pakistan and its history will fall for.

Fox also names the struggle within Islam between Shia and Sunni (I still haven't figured out why Westerners call them "Shiite") as one of the most significant ideological problems of our time, and I'd say he gets this one right. I would agree that this struggle has affected Pakistan's integrity in huge and unpleasant ways. There is a war on against Shias in Pakistan, and they are being murdered steadily in a systematic plan to eliminate them from the country that would be a national outrage in any other country, but in Pakistan is seen as "business as usual". Thanks to the power struggles between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have affected Pakistan for at least the last thirty years (and are now raging in Syria with repercussions yet again in Lebanon and beyond), we are not pawns but willing participants on both sides of the conflict. Armed militant groups plan the death of Shias in mosques, on buses, in groups, in single file, one after the other; retaliation comes from the other side, and so it goes, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, generation after generation.

At the same time that this piece appeared in the Daily Mail, another article in Foreign Policy magazine appeared on how dangerous Karachi is - not because of terrorism, but because of the drug trade, specifically the emergence of Karachi as a center for the production and export of crystal meth. The piece, called "Cooking in Karachi", was researched and written by Taimur Khan, and provides a fascinating insight into a different side of Karachi's (and Pakistan's) criminal underground, the one that in my mind eclipses the security issues provoked by the War on Terror: the fight for influence and territory amongst Karachi's myriad criminal gangs, supported and abetted by both political groups and the police and other security forces. In many ways I find this article to be much more accurate in the picture that it draws about the megacity, and pinpoints the real roots of its instability and volatility.

The truth is that there is so much money to be made in Karachi, and such poor implementation of any sorts of laws against criminal activities, and so much corruption, that it's been almost too easy for these criminal gangs and groups to take control of the city. I see more parallels between Karachi's plight and the way the Mafia held Italy hostage for years until the Italian government decided to crack down mercilessly on their activities. And if you remember that struggle, you know how bloody it was, how judges were assassinated and had to go into hiding, how it had to be an all-out war until the Mafia was broken. I suspect that Karachi (and Pakistan) will have to go through a similar crackdown, but we are light years away from that right now.

And going back to the cabbie's original question, the one that prompted this blog post: "How do you feel about that?" How do I feel about being a citizen of the world's most dangerous country (it feels like that phrase should be trademarked now), an inhabitant of the world's most dangerous country's most dangerous city? I can't tell you how many times I've been asked this question, so maybe it's time to try to answer it:

You are not a human being when you live in Karachi. You become an animal in so many ways, a scurrying creature only able to think of immediate survival, with no breathing room, no peace of mind to be able to think, to plan, to expand.

You can't think of walking on the street, of sending your children out to play in a park. You learn to negotiate terrain laden with land mines: a riot in this neighborhood, a bomb in that one. This time is safe to go out, that time is not safe. Stepping out at the wrong place in the wrong time can be fatal.

You have to be ready to stop your normal activities at a moment's notice, to stay at home, to watch the television for updates on safety, to check your cell phone for texts from friends that will alert you to the danger.

How can you be normal in this kind of atmosphere? You're on high alert all the time. Your body is flooded with stress hormones: fight or flight, that condition that is only supposed to last for a few brief moments while you confront a dangerous animal or flee from it, is your constant condition all the time. As a result, everyone's either taking blood pressure medication or hooked on tranquilizers.

We live with that dangerous animal all the time. It's our household pet.

I've said this before: we live in Pakistan, in Karachi, the way you would live with an abusive lover. We stay despite the beatings and the intimidation because we love it. and we constantly hope it will change and get better. We are deluded, perhaps. Maybe we all have Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe because we are Muslim, we believe that God will save us from the inevitable. Maybe because we believe in fate, we accept fatalism and fatality.

Nobody is normal when they live in the most dangerous country in the world. The stakes are just so high, all the time.

All the time.

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