In Pakistan, U.S. Policies Foster Suspicion and Hatred
“We have failed to listen and we have failed to persuade. We have not taken the time to understand our audience and we have not bothered to help them understand us. We cannot afford such shortcomings.”
-- White House Advisory Group
on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- As he watched the collapse of the World Trade Center on his television screen, Imran Hamid’s mind raced. What was happening to the Indian friend who had lent him a New York apartment a few months earlier? Classmates from the United Nations high school he attended in the 1960s? The Jewish butcher he befriended while studying at Columbia University?
In the weeks that followed, Hamid traded e-mails and phone calls with friends in America, confirming their safety and sharing their anguish.
“I’m as much a New Yorker as anything else,” said the 53-year-old development consultant, sipping a cappuccino in his Islamabad living room, where he surrounds himself with American jazz and classical records and English-language books.
But with each passing day, Hamid’s empathy is eroding. He believes that the Bush administration, by pursuing a foreign policy fixated on security, is turning a legitimate battle against terrorism into a campaign of hatred against Muslims.
Take a look around, he says, and you will see the evidence: In the mountains of Afghanistan, where U.S. troops pursue the remnants of the Taliban; the limestone hills of the West Bank, where Palestinians battle America’s ally, Israel; at U.S. consular offices and airports where Muslims are subject to extra scrutiny before being allowed into the country. And at prisons in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Abu Ghraib, Iraq.
Many Americans might find it hard to recognize their country in the portrait that emerges across the Muslim world. Bush administration officials argue that their military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and the security crackdown at home -- though certain to anger many Muslims -- are a necessary part of fighting terrorism and protecting the United States. In an effort to improve its image among Islamic nations, the U.S. government has offered increased aid and trade privileges. Officials say that they are working out kinks in the visa-processing system and that they have launched new broadcast services to reach out to the Muslim world.
But even U.S. officials acknowledge that Washington has done a poor job explaining its policies, particularly to Muslims. The struggle for hearts and minds is more than a public relations war, and the stakes in Pakistan are among the highest.
Pakistani politicians and business leaders who once looked to America for ideas and support are strengthening ties with the Muslim world and China. Anti-Americanism has become a powerful tool for religious militants. Even well-meaning U.S. efforts, such as aiding schools, are viewed with suspicion.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, one of the Bush administration’s strongest allies in its war on terrorism, has been rewarded with a $3-billion aid package. Though deeply divided by religion and ethnicity, Pakistan -- one of the world’s most populous Islamic countries -- has maintained democratic aspirations that set it apart from many other parts of the Muslim world.
But Pakistan also is home to a strong, militant Islamic movement that has tried to assassinate Musharraf and other high-ranking officials. Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding along its border with Afghanistan, and several leading Al Qaeda figures have been captured here.
The South Asian nation, which has engaged in three wars with neighboring India since 1947, also possesses nuclear weapons. A leading scientist has acknowledged selling nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Hamid said that in a country squeezed between Musharraf, a general who seized power in 1999, and Islamic extremists, there is little room for Western-educated moderates. He acknowledged with colorful hyperbole that his attitude toward the bearded militants had changed.
“A few years ago, if I answered the door and saw a man with a beard, I would have grabbed a shotgun and chased him away,” he said. “Now I would have to hide him under my bed so he wouldn’t be dragged away to Guantanamo Bay and be tortured.”
In this environment, building bridges to the United States is unpopular and politically risky.
“I personally feel Americans are losing friends in Pakistan very, very rapidly,” said Shah Mahmood Qureshi, deputy parliamentary leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, whose exiled leader, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was a close U.S. ally. “When the realization finally comes, it’ll be too late.”
Sami Ullah, a graduate student in international relations at Islamabad’s prestigious Quaid-i-Azam University, jumped at the opportunity to lecture an American on the U.S. presidency. Woodrow Wilson, who pledged to make the world “safe for democracy,” got a thumbs up. But in his mind, President Bush has tipped American values on their head.
“There is no particular sense of morality in American policy today,” said the bespectacled 23-year-old.
Ten years ago, an inquisitive young Pakistani would have been encouraged to apply to a U.S. university, where he could have absorbed American pluralism, MTV, fast food and baseball. Many prominent Pakistanis are U.S.-educated. Bhutto, the former prime minister, is a Harvard graduate, and Musharraf’s son holds a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The State Department lists more than 170 current and former foreign leaders who have U.S. degrees.
“One of the great aspects of American ‘soft power’ is that, around the world, there are leaders who understand American perceptions,” said Stephen Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former State Department official. “When you’re sitting across the table and talking to a counterpart, if he understands America in a sympathetic fashion, you’ve got 50% of your battle won.”
Bush administration officials say that consular officers have been told to expedite student visas and that the Department of Homeland Security has created a team to help students arriving at airports.
“Those of us who are engaged in public diplomacy are very interested in keeping the doors open for bona fide students,” said Larry Schwartz, director of the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
But Sami Ullah plans to continue his studies in Australia rather than the United States. Other beneficiaries are Canada and Britain; last year, the latter enrolled 6,000 fee-paying Pakistani students, triple the number of a few years ago.
The impact of tighter borders extends beyond universities.
Even when official relations have been in the deep freeze, wealthy Pakistanis bought homes in Boston and Washington, and clothing exporters brought their samples to buyers in Los Angeles. Pakistan, like India, has been a leading supplier of doctors to underserved American communities.
But since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has become less welcoming.
“Before 9/11, I had a great fondness for American life,” said Dr. Faiz Bhora, a pediatric heart surgeon at UCLA Medical Center who was stuck in Pakistan for nearly eight months waiting to get a work visa after completing 10 years of medical training in the United States. “That was put to the test after 9/11. I feel discriminated against. I never felt that before.”
Some small exchange programs remain, but over the last two years the number of Pakistanis coming for business, tourism and short-term education plummeted almost by half, to about 31,000.
Regular visitors, including former Pakistani government officials, journalists and businesspeople, are routinely pulled aside for questioning and searches. Many no longer want to make the trip.
Continue down this path, said Foreign Minister Mian Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri, and the United States will be handing the militants a huge victory.
“You should not let this feeling of bias continue,” he said, “because ultimately, that would be the biggest disadvantage, and the perpetrators of the 9/11 crime would have succeeded beyond measure.”
For Pakistanis who couldn’t afford a plane ticket to the United States, there were always American cultural centers stocked with magazines and books, lectures by visiting U.S. politicians and academics, movie nights and musical performances.
But the doors began closing after the Sept. 11 attacks, the January 2002 kidnapping and subsequent slaying of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl, and the bombing about a month after his death of a church in Islamabad, the capital, in which two Americans were killed.
Today, the U.S. Embassy, at the end of a road blocked by concrete barricades, is operating with a skeleton crew. Washington has placed a hold on Americans coming to Pakistan under government-funded programs such as Fulbright scholarships. The four American centers with their public reading rooms are closed.
U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell ventures out to give speeches, paint schools or visit U.S.-funded programs several times a week, her staff said. The U.S. cultural affairs officer in Islamabad holds film nights for carefully screened audiences.
But UC Berkeley’s Urdu language program, which offers instruction in Pakistan’s national tongue and is backed by the U.S. government, has had to quit accepting students. Daisy Rockwell, vice chairwoman of the university’s Center for South Asia Studies, which oversees the Lahore-based program, argues that avenues for people-to-people contacts are being squeezed shut.
“At a time when the government supposedly wants more people to know about places like Pakistan, there are actually fewer and fewer Americans with access to any knowledge about the region,” Rockwell said. “There’s all this noise about encouraging knowledge of South Asian languages, and then they make it absolutely impossible to study there.”
In May, the Voice of America, the U.S.-backed news organization, launched Urdu-language broadcasts to help rebuild the United States’ battered image. But VOA’s programs reach only about 1% of Pakistan’s nearly 160 million people.
The well-off watch CNN, BBC and other international broadcasters. Most Pakistanis get their news from local papers and TV, and were enraged by images of naked, cowering Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison that appeared this year.
Ijaz Shafi Gilani, chairman of the Gallup/BRB research group in Islamabad, says “arrogant” has emerged as the most frequently used adjective for the United States.
The Internet and telephone cards have made it easier for Pakistanis overseas to report home about their experiences in the U.S. After the Sept. 11 attacks, American authorities began canvassing Muslim communities and detaining hundreds of people. There was also a sharp rise in hate crimes targeting Muslims.
Pakistanis here and abroad say that because none of their fellow citizens were implicated in the attacks, they have been unfairly singled out.
In December 2002, Pakistan was added to the list of countries whose male citizens were required to register with U.S. immigration authorities. At least 1,650 people were eventually deported to Pakistan, many on minor immigration offenses, said Mohammad Sadiq, the deputy chief of staff at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. He said that an additional 5,000 to 10,000 left voluntarily, afraid of being caught up in security sweeps.
Fifty-eight Pakistanis were detained at Guantanamo Bay, where U.S. authorities are holding alleged enemy combatants, Sadiq said. All but three have been sent back to Pakistan, where a small number have been detained by the government for further investigation.
“People invariably ask me, ‘Look, our own people are dying on the frontier fighting against Al Qaeda, and look at what the U.S. is doing to us,’ ” said Imran Ali, a Pakistani government official who has accompanied deportees home on chartered flights. “No doubt it creates extreme hostility for the U.S.”
Being one of America’s closest allies in its war on terrorism hasn’t been without rewards. Half of the $3 billion in U.S. assistance is going to schools and anti-poverty programs; the remainder is military aid.
The administration also lifted sanctions that were imposed after Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests and Musharraf’s coup a year later. In addition, the U.S. government forgave $1 billion of Pakistan’s debt and urged other lenders to act similarly.
But most Pakistanis never see direct evidence of U.S. aid. Even if it reaches the grass-roots level, many recipients are reluctant to be identified with the United States.
Pakistani officials and business leaders say the United States could do far more. Their biggest disappointment is the administration’s decision not to provide more opportunities for textile and apparel manufacturers, who produce two-thirds of Pakistan’s exports.
These factories suffered a flurry of canceled orders and a 20% drop in prices after the Sept. 11 attacks. Under pressure from domestic manufacturers, Washington has given Pakistan expanded access in only a few little-used categories.
This month, Pakistan’s commerce minister made an unsuccessful plea to the Bush administration to lower duties on Pakistani-made apparel.
Shahid Kamil Butt, a UCLA graduate and chief executive of Shahkam Industries, one of Pakistan’s leading knitwear exporters, says the U.S. could blunt the appeal of extremists by opening its markets. In addition to employing 3,000 people near Lahore, Butt’s factory supports 180 smaller companies that provide supplies.
“If you put 3,000 people out of work and on the streets, then if even 1% of them join a radical extremist group, that’s 1% too many,” Butt said.
In the search for the underlying reasons for Islamic extremism, many Pakistanis and Americans focus on an educational system that has left millions of children without basic skills.
The Bush administration has set up a five-year, $100-million program to improve literacy, increase educational opportunity for girls, train teachers and help Musharraf reform religious schools, or madrasas. Musharraf has promised to register the estimated 10,000 madrasas and add reading, math and science to their curriculum.
But many Muslim leaders have refused to cooperate. Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the deputy imam at the Red Mosque in Islamabad, said his mosque had “flatly rejected” the government’s money and its reform plan. Muttahida Tulba Mahaz, a religious student organization, has attracted thousands of young people to rallies demanding that the government stop “American agents” from using the educational system to tarnish the image of Islam.
For supporters of educational reform, the key to survival is staying out of the crossfire.
Several years ago, Developments in Literacy, a nonprofit group started by Pakistani American women in Southern California, teamed up with educators in a shantytown of 1.5 million people outside Karachi to support more than two dozen elementary schools.
The payoff can be seen at Saifuddin Halai School, where slender, dark-haired Aisha smiles as she watches one of her classmates pour a clear liquid into a glass beaker being warmed by a flame. She and her friends giggle as they try to explain the effect of heat on liquids.
At 15, Aisha is an anomaly in Pakistan. More than 54% of girls drop out before finishing elementary school, and fewer than 30% of those older than 15 are literate. Aisha dreams of becoming a lawyer so she can help the poor, but the community can’t afford to offer her further schooling.
The Southern California women and their Pakistani partner, the Faran Educational Society, downplay the U.S. grants they have received. “Gradually, people will understand,” said Nesar Ahmad, Faran’s program director. “But you can’t just say Americans are helping us. It might harm me or my organization.”
Darkness has fallen on Lahore, and the evening is buzzing with the sound of insects. Saad Ahsanuddin is enjoying a cigar and a drink on his patio with a few friends.
Feisal Hussain Naqvi is a lawyer and teacher; his wife, Ayeda, is a columnist for a leading English-language newspaper in Pakistan. Mohsin Hamid wrote “Moth Smoke,” a bestseller about youth, lust and ambition in contemporary Pakistan.
Virtually everyone sitting around the candlelit fountain has a pedigree: wealthy families; degrees from Princeton, Yale, Brown, Harvard; careers and friends in the U.S. They have all returned to Pakistan, in part because they no longer feel comfortable in the United States.
Ahsanuddin, who worked for several years on Wall Street, has established a personal security company and is raising funds to open Pakistan’s first American-style cineplex. Ayeda Naqvi writes columns lambasting religious extremism and the oppression of women. Hamid, the recipient of a 2001 Pen/Hemingway award, is writing a novel about a Muslim businessman living in America.
“I always thought New York had a place for me, no matter what stage of life I was at: student, newlywed, writer,” Ayeda Naqvi said. “But I no longer feel welcome there.”
Back in Islamabad, Imran Hamid, the consultant, tries to convince himself that it will only be a matter of time before America rights itself. But he is unsure whether these sentiments are only so much nostalgia.
One of his fondest memories of his time in New York is of a noisy protest he stumbled upon shortly after he arrived. Men in suits and ties, women with babies and long-haired teenagers in jeans and T-shirts all were there.
“The spectacle of Americans opposing their government’s policies -- that is freedom,” he said. But Pakistan’s next generation may be forging its youthful ideals elsewhere.
“I don’t think my son will go to America to study,” he said of his 15-year-old, the older of two children. “I cannot risk that he will become a victim of American extremism. He will go to Australia or Canada.... If it was 10 years from now, I would send him to China.”