What Does Egypt Mean for Pakistan?
One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received for my work was when a Pakistani journalist, a young woman, told me I’m not afflicted by what she called “Have pen will write syndrome.” I write when I have something to say, or a story to tell, that I believe others will find helpful and worth reading. Lately I’ve been itching a little to write about Egypt, but so far I’ve concluded that the world doesn’t need my gratuitous drop in the ocean of commentary, particularly given that I’ve never been to Egypt.
But I have been to Pakistan, many times since 1995, and I’m going there again for three weeks starting February 18. And I can’t help wondering what kinds of conversations I might have there in the wake or context of the Egyptian revolution.
This will be my first trip to Pakistan since the visit almost exactly two years ago that resulted in my book Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. I flatter myself that, whatever its other merits, my book has a well-chosen title. As Zaka Shafiq, a young man I met in Karachi, told me at the end of the trip and the start of the book: “It’ll be out of date by the time it’s published.” But I’m not worried about being overtaken by events, because I’ve resigned myself to it as a condition of being alive in this world, especially these days. I figure my job is to listen, pay attention, and take notes. There’s a lot to be learned about where we’re at and where we’re headed, if you stay alert.
My coming trip hasn’t even started, and it’s already been overtaken by events. When I began planning it several months ago, its purpose was to witness and write about the grossly under-reported effects of last summer’s historically severe flooding – and that remains an important goal. But then, in early January, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated and, in a shockingly parallel incident, US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson. And, now, Egypt is in upheaval.
But what does Egypt have to do with Pakistan? Well, I’m hoping you can help me answer that question. Particularly if you’re Pakistani, but even if you’re not, I invite you to post a comment on this article or on my Facebook page or, if you prefer, to write to me privately with your thoughts. And please forward this article far and wide. I want to read and hear as many voices as you can help me gather about Pakistan’s future and the implications – for Pakistan, for the Muslim world, and for all of us – of the Egyptian revolution.
My starting point is that, in what I’ve been reading, Western writers are starting to speculate – ominously and/or hopefully, depending on their loyalties – on the wider implications of Egypt for the Arab world. Even factoring in the Western public’s fuzziness on the distinction between Arabs and Muslims, it’s striking to me that few seem to be wondering, in this context, about Pakistan. The American public has had a lot on its plate lately, what with Egypt, severe winter weather, and the Super Bowl all happening at the same time, but Frank Rich’s bracingly unsparing February 6 column acknowledges the stakes:
The consequence of a decade’s worth of indiscriminate demonization of Arabs in America — and of the low quotient of comprehensive adult news coverage that might have helped counter it — is the steady rise in Islamophobia. The “Ground Zero” mosque melee has given way to battles over mosques as far removed from Lower Manhattan as California. Soon to come is a national witch hunt — Congressional hearings called by Representative Peter King of New York — into the “radicalization of the American Muslim community.” Given the disconnect between America and the Arab world, it’s no wonder that Americans are invested in the fights for freedom in Egypt and its neighboring dictatorships only up to a point. We’ve been inculcated to assume that whoever comes out on top is ipso facto a jihadist.
Rich notes the release of Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir and remembers that, like the events in Cairo, the bombardments of Iraq that Rumsfeld ordered
were spectacular to watch from a safe distance — no Iraqi faces, voices or bodies cluttered up the shots. We [Americans] lulled ourselves into believing that democracy and other good things were soon to come. It took months, even years, for us to learn the hard way that in truth we really had no idea what was going on.
So there is a lot of work to do, to continue educating the American public – I include myself – on our steep learning curve about the Muslim world in general and Pakistan in particular. What do Americans need to know about Pakistan? And, most pressingly at the moment, what are the similarities and differences between Pakistan and Egypt? And what might the events in Egypt portend for Pakistan?
ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010). He is currently writing Bearing the Bruise: A Lifetime of Learning from Haiti, to published in fall 2011, and collaborating with filmmaker Naeem Randhawa on a collection of stories by and about Muslims living in America. Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans