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Pakistan’s Two Worlds

Pakistan’s youth confront two stark realities: one that’s ambitious and cosmopolitan and the other radical and inward looking. Oddly enough, young Pakistanis obtain much of their news from international sources like BBC or CNN, even as those same broadcasts focus on violence and radical elements of society. Young, educated Pakistanis are as disturbed as audiences in the West about a vicious attack on Malala Yousafzai, 15, shot in the head for attending school – and also troubled by minimal local coverage. “The impact of foreign channels has altered the very fabric of traditional society, challenging the norm of gender segregation and the institution of marriage,” explains writer Hassan Siddiq. Much of Pakistani society embraces the blend of Islamic values and traditions from a time when the sub-continent was united; most Pakistanis are moderates. Yet many moderates, longing for stability, shrink in the face of criticism from extremists. Liberal and conservative politicians battle over these moderates who will ultimately decide whether Pakistan more closely resembles Turkey or Saudi Arabia. – YaleGlobal

Pakistan’s Two Worlds

A majority of Pakistanis are moderate, but the world media seem to focus on extremists
Hassan Siddiq
YaleGlobal, 30 January 2013
Tale of two worlds: In one Pakistan, the Taliban attack on girls attending school stirs protest (top); in other, audiences embrace a Turkish soap opera with themes of seduction and love

LAHORE: To witness two realities in one country, one needs go no further than a suburban coffee shop in this cultural capital of Pakistan. Among the fashionably dressed men and women sitting there, the news that some radical Muslim has shot a young girl named Malala Yousafzai for the sin of attending school sounds incomprehensible, as if from another world.

The dissonance between the two Pakistans is even more dramatic as the globalized world reports more on Malala than media do in the stable, educated part of the country.

Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, Pakistan has evolved to become one country with two disparate cultures. Former President Pervez Musharraf deregulated state control over media, and ever since thousands of local and international channels have opened up in the country, exposing Pakistanis to a plethora of issues, new cultures and hip urban lifestyles of global cities.

Urban middle class youth are quick to adapt their lifestyles to those of peers in Western cities. Yet the Islamic revivalism wave has not left Pakistan untouched, and various traditional and religious organizations have taken it upon themselves to resist influence of foreign cultures in the country, often in unfortunate and violent ways that get plenty of coverage in international media.

The young urban
middle class of Pakistan, mostly neglected in international media,
are well wired.

The young urban middle class of Pakistan, mostly neglected in international media, are well wired into the world of internet and satellite channels. Managers at multinational corporations, software engineers or customer relation officers by profession, a good number ultimately work for clients and bosses sitting in London, New York and other global hubs. An even larger number of Pakistani professionals maintain active profiles on international freelancing websites, offering services ranging from content writing to iPhone applications development. As a result, Pakistan has been consistently ranked among the top Asian contractors on oDesk, a freelancing website that pays hired workers by the hour. Thousands of young adults who have studied or worked abroad in the Middle East and the United Kingdom returned home to join companies here.

Financially independent, the young Pakistani professionals aspire to a modern lifestyle seen on television or experienced abroad. Until a few years ago, the workday’s end would mean changing into baggy shalwar kameez, traditional dress for  men and women, catching an hour-long episode of a family-centric sitcom like Alpha Bravo Charlie on national television and eating a roti dinner before heading to bed. Nowadays a night out could entail going out, dressed in famous Spanish Mango styles, catching Salman Khan in a Bollywood action thriller at the cinema and eating a hamburger at Hardee’s followed by a frozen yogurt at Tutti Frutti.

The impact of foreign channels has altered the very fabric of traditional society, challenging the norm of gender segregation and the institution of marriage. “Having watched Bollywood love stories, everyone wants to date and find their own soul-mate,” says Mobeen Khan, a native of Lahore a supply-chain manager at a grocery chain in Saudi Arabia. Most young professionals have studied in coeducational institutions where they inevitably end up dating and subsequently marrying classmates. Dating, long considered immoral, has become the norm among the urban middle class, and liberal parents accept it. “Most of my friends in college were dating each other, and are now happily married with their parental consent,” observed a student of Lahore School of Economics, a top coeducation university.

Purists in Pakistan expect strict Islamic values, along the lines
of Saudi Arabian society.

Changing values of a younger generation, in turn, make it feasible for the media to display themes that wouldn’t have been discussed in general public a few years ago. For instance, Turkish soap operas, with Western lifestyles and dating norms, have found immense traction in the country. “I doubt there’s anyone in Lahore who has not watched at least one episode of the Turkish drama,” commented a freelance photographer named Mahrukh, referring to Ishq-e-mamnoo, or Forbidden Love, dubbed in Urdu. Explaining the popularity of the show, she continued, “the fact that an Islamic culture was depicted full of adultery and ample eye-candy for both genders gave quite a shock to the viewers who do not have exposure to such mediums.” Although many Pakistanis were shocked by the sitcom’s themes, it sparked a debate in the population about whether Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, envisioned a Turkey-like country at the onset. “If Pakistan were to adopt a culture as depicted in the drama, it would inevitably also have to adopt the values of tolerance and openness in line with the ideals of ‘secularism’ and ‘tolerance’ held by its founding father,” Mahruk concluded.

Of course, not all sections of the society are pleased by cultural transformation in Pakistan’s cities. Conservatives, both purists and radicals, are opposed to foreign influences for a range of reasons and resist change. Purists expect strict Islamic values, along the lines of Saudi Arabian society, and would prefer an end to cultural accretions. Whether madrassas or high-end schools like Al-Huda, conservative education programs attract diverse students ranging from laborers to upper class women. Pakistani observers attribute some of the success of madrassas to the absence of regular schools for Pakistan’s poor. But success of Al-Huda – an institute that disapproves of photography, festivals, birthday celebrations and other local customs – with urban middle-class women is difficult to explain. Founded by a Scotland-educated woman in the mid-1990s in Islamabad, the school has expanded to 70 locations in urban centers in Pakistan, developed a presence among the Pakistani diaspora in Europe and North America, and produced some 15,000 graduates. Sadaf Ahmed, an assistant professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, has conducted research on Al-Huda and describes its graduates as “very intolerant and judgmental toward people who were different from them.” Still, the institute helps women define their role and identity in a strict Islamic society and in doing so attracts a growing crowd.

Most Pakistanis are moderates. The culture is an amalgamation
of Islamic values
and sub-continental traditions.

Radicals go further in their goal of quashing the trends of globalization. Attributing all social ills on rampant Westernization, they’re willing to incite violence to establish a Taliban-style rule for Pakistan. “Western culture, not abuse, is why women seek divorces,” Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan recently told Reuters in response to a question about rising divorce rates in Pakistan. But radicals do not stop at denouncing the Western culture with hate-ridden rhetoric that helps recruit young men into their ranks. They’re urged to destroy property: “Burn a KFC!” “Burn a cinema!” “Erase billboards!” All foreign influences are fair game in their pursuit of an ideal Islamic state.

Despite the spread of both liberal and conservative values in sections of society, a large majority of Pakistanis continue to be moderate in views and behavior. Their culture stems from an amalgamation of Islamic values and sub-continental traditions that evolved over centuries in a multiethnic India under the Mughal and British rules. Whereas educating women is a natural choice, letting them marry without parental consent is unacceptable to many.  Watching Indian cinema is acceptable, but many support censorship of any show of skin or sexuality. Easily aroused by religious sentiments, the majority are like conservatives in denouncing un-Islamic practices but act more like liberals in day-to-day activities. A comfortable majority, these moderates so far shrink in silence.

The State of Pakistan and majority of its population has been in search of a cultural identity since separation from India in 1947. Since 9/11, both liberals and conservatives have expanded their circles and intensified efforts to win over the silent, moderate majority. If either side succeeds, Pakistan may become a stable society, without internal cultural conflict, mirroring either Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

Hassan Siddiq studied Grand Strategy at Yale College and is a former investment banker. He is the founder of Lahore-based Hillhouse Tech that provides outsourcing services to clients worldwide. 

Rights:Copyright © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

12 February 2013
Just like everyone else , this article is also written in a very careful , tongue in cheek manner. The problem is no muslim, I am a practicing Muslim and live among them so I know, is courageous enough to call a spade a spade because right away he/she will be accused of blasphemy and all kinds of fatwas will be issued against him/her.
The truth is that islamisation, fanaticism, extremism has increased world wide. This Arab style islam has hijacked the traditions and cultures of the rest of the muslims. I am a born muslim and belong to a family that can trace back its ancestry to the Prophet Mohammed (SWAW). I remember my grandmothers and other elders never issuing verdicts or asking us to wear the hijab or cover up. Covering our heads with the doupata was subject to circumstances and the kind of place we were at. No one was told to cover up. Everyone knew instictively when to and when not to. The men went to the moque to pray without a fuss and most of the times without even anyone realising they are gone or they would pray at home. Infact this or that being haram or halal was never a topic of discussion. Being a muslim, praying five times a day, observing and fasting in the month of Ramzan , paying the zakat and other islamic practices were simple, and a compulsary way of life. No one talked about them , every one just did them!
This "Novo-Islam" was first spread by Saudi Arabia all over the Western world in the 70s, 80s & 90s and then from there after 9/11 it was taken by the thousands of American and European muslims
to thier respective countries of origin. It had foriegn currencies' power, a modren western way of teaching with computers and educated justifications to attaract the middle classes of the muslim countries. The Abaya , Hijab and the headscarf became fashinable and beards became a symbol of respectability.
OF COURSE THE BILLIONS OF DOLLARS HELPED TO establish the new "Muslim World Order".
What the western society had encouraged in the 70s and the 80s by welcoming muslims into their societies and letting them practice their religions freely meant less achohalism, less sexually transmitted diseases, less violence. According to one 19 78 FBI report, " Muslims are peaceful , law abiding citizens" . However, what they didnt realise that these muslims are being brainwashed by KSA and its oil money to spread the Wahabi islam. The ultimate form of which is what we now know as extremism and terrorism.
Now you would ask the next logical question. How does that benefit KSA? Well for one, it gives KSA dominance over the rest of the Muslim world. People say Pakistan is a puppet of USA. I disagree, Pakistan is owned by KSA and the rest of the Gulf Countries. All funding for all islamic activities comes from KSA. Mr Imran Khan keeps saying " stop the dollars". I say stop the Saudi Riyals!
-Sophie Mian , Pakistan
11 February 2013
Mr. Siddiq has aptly described the two extremities thriving in the current fight for cultural dominance in Pakistan. The lapse by the ‘moderate majority’ in being recognized as so has certainly contributed to a large extend in the cultural imbalance and security upheaval. Having said so, I do not wish to intrude as another fascist element in the race-to-win cultural supremacy, however I certainly wish to reiterate the fact that Pakistan, by birth, is an Islamic Republic. Its ideology, philosophy and creation is based on the Principle of establishing an Islamic State in the subcontinent region. With the advent of the western ideologies and practises into the region through, mainly, Indian influences and introduction of international media, coupled with mass ignorance; the cultural identity scale has titled. The equation is further marred by rise of numerous politico-religious parties with a varied perspective of their own playing the cultural imbalance game to their favor. Furthermore, religious traits such as ‘Cohesiveness’ and ‘Unity’ which entice feelings of nationalism and brotherhood are fast receding in the showdown of the corruption ridden democratic system which has also disrupted the socio-economic stature of the country.
With the current imbalance in place the law and order situation is certain to worsen with either extremes wanting to claim the upper hand. It is evident that for peace and serenity to precede and sustain in Pakistan the cultural identity scale has to be struck with the CORRECT balance. However, it is up to the masses to accord and register what they deem correct.
-Bilal Farooq , Abu Dhabi, UAE
7 February 2013
Indeed a very accurate depiction of Pakistani society. However, I would not agree on the identity crisis issue which didn't start after 1948 but 1999 once Musharraf a self proclaimed savior but actually a dictator launched his perverted agenda of so called enlightened moderation. Prior to that we had a clear vision that religion and nationalism is our identity. This was evident from the slogans raised to justify the creation of Pakistan. We lost that after Musharraf launched his agenda.
More so as Bernard Lewis puts it, that the seductive allure of the Western materialism is so compelling for the Muslim youth that they eventually adopts it and those Muslims who cherish their past glory see it with deep contempt thus resorting to violent means not only against the West but their fellow Muslims as well who imitate the western culture.
We indeed have to decide, either to remain Muslims to find our lost glory or to get ourselves to be merged in the Western civilization only to be treated as aliens with no identity.
-Shams uz Zaman , Islamabad, Pakistan
4 February 2013
Pakistan? You mean PORKISTAN.
- Gordon Portillo , London UK
2 February 2013
Dear Captainjohann
There is a proverb in Urdu and Hindi, languages of Pakistan and India respectively that says: If you have an ugly face, at least you can talk nice.
You apparently have no clue as to what Pakistani youth say, do or engage in but you display the usual Indian foolishness and prejudices about Pakistani society.
This article is talking about the socio-political situation in Pakistan and telling the world and people like you that most Pakistanis are moderates who practice the culture is an amalgamation of Islamic values and sub-continental traditions.
Anyhow thanks to the writer for a good descriptive analysis. I experienced the same when I visited Pakistan in Nov 2012.
Bashy Quraishy
-Bashy Quraishy , Copenhagen
2 February 2013
The socalled moderates do not stand in Q and vote.They normally support the Army establishment while talking ill of all politicians like Zardari,Nawaz sheriff and ofcourse the religious parties.They like Imran Khan but they will not stand in sun and rain and vote except writing blogs and comments.They are similar to Indian Middle class who support Anna movement
-captainjohann , bangalore,India
31 January 2013
Thank you for an interesting article, Mr. Siddiq. Given that you believe Pakistani society is set up in the manner described above, I would be interested to know what you think about Pakistan's leadership. For instance, where do leaders like Tahir-ul Qadri lie? Is he galvanizing the moderates on behalf of the liberals or the conservatives?
-N , USA