No Comment, Six Questions — June 25, 2008, 2:34 pm

Six Questions for Mohsin Hamid

American interest in Pakistan has grown since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto last December, as recent developments have increasingly put Pakistan’s democratically-elected government on shaky ground. The bombing of Pakistani troops by the United States, economic crises, and a popular movement to impeach President Musharraf have all tested the coalition government’s fragile unity. This turmoil carries significant implications for U.S. policy and the presidential elections. Less frequently remarked upon, but by no means unnoticed, Pakistan is also experiencing a cultural renaissance of film, literature, and art, in part fomented by a growing middle class and independent media. It seems appropriate to turn not just to the conventional punditry, but to a star among this rising group of artists for some insights. Mohsin Hamid was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan and attended Princeton, where he studied writing with Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. He went on to law school at Harvard—though he says he found the law boring—and after a brief career in investment banking, he turned to work with branding firm in London while pursuing his literary talents on the side. His first novel, Moth Smoke (2000, Farrar, Straus & Giroux) was a New York Times Notable Book, won the Betty Trask First Book Award, and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel in America. His second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007, Harcourt), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and was a New York Times bestseller. By any reckoning, Hamid is off to a brilliant start. I put six questions to Mohsin Hamid on Pakistan’s trials and aspirations.

1. The two parties that gained the most in Pakistan’s general elections last February, assassinated former Prime Minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and former Prime Minister and returned exile Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N), both campaigned with the promise that all of the senior judges sacked by President Musharraf before he declared emergency rule last November would be reinstated. After the elections and after both parties signed the Murree Declaration, which ensured that the sacked judges would be reinstated within 30 days of the formation of a new coalition government, the PPP has begun to equivocate on the matter and the “judges issue” seems to be the source of the first fissures in the coalition as differences arise on the means for restoring the judges. How do you see this? Are Western observers right to place so much store in the judges issue? It has been cast as a sort of democratic litmus test?

The judges issue is crucial. Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were widely thought to be corrupt and incompetent when they were in power in the 1990s. The reputation of Asif Zardari, Benazir’s widower and the current head of the PPP, was even worse. So Pakistanis need more than just elections to have any hope for good governance in the future. They need an unfettered media to bring the excesses of politicians to light–this is now in place to a considerable extent. And they need a judiciary that will act on evidence that politicians are breaking the law. This last component is largely absent, and without it, democracy will do little to protect Pakistan’s citizens from venal politicians who have always tended to treat the nation as their own personal fiefdom. Nawaz Sharif, to his credit and to the surprise of many including myself, seems to be standing up for the principle of an independent judiciary. Asif Zardari appears to be doing all he can to oppose this, much to the disappointment of people like me who consider themselves secular and might otherwise be sympathetic to the PPP.

2. The Bush Administration had a Pakistan policy focused on supporting President Musharraf, then a policy split between Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Rice over promoting elections. Now, after the elections, the situation continues to be ambiguous, with Cheney’s office continuing to suggest its strong confidence in Musharraf, notwithstanding his compromised situation. The differences between Rice and Cheney also reflect differing visions for Pakistan’s future. In one there is the prospect of democracy borne by the country’s middle class; in the other the military is viewed as the only stable pillar for the country’s governance. In either vision, however, the focus seems to be on security concerns in the NWFP. Has U.S. policy towards Pakistan been helpful or harmful in your view?

There were positive developments for Pakistan under Musharraf: rapid economic growth, greater independence for the media and the judiciary, progress towards peace and normal relations with India. But over the past two years, Musharraf presided over the reversal of many of these achievements. Moreover, he was also responsible for many deeply negative developments: increased terrorist violence in Pakistan, insurgencies in Balochistan and the NWFP, inflation and unequal distribution of the benefits of growth. Musharraf had both progressive and regressive instincts, and in the end, his regressive instincts won out. I had hoped for better from him. But it has become clear that he is extremely limited as a leader, dangerously deluded, and breathtakingly unpopular in Pakistan today. By clinging to the presidency, he is thwarting Pakistan’s ability to find a better future for itself. And by not encouraging him to go, the United States is doing a great deal of harm and risks undermining the very goal of a stable Pakistan that the U.S. desperately needs. U.S. policy ought to focus less on achieving a pliable Pakistan and more on achieving a predictable Pakistan. A democratic Pakistan might in the near-term disagree with America in the conduct of America’s policies in southwest Asia, but it is also highly unlikely to become the extremist state that is the stuff of American nightmares.

3. U.S. policy towards Pakistan is getting much more public attention than in prior years. Much of that had to do with Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. But the Democrats are coming out with policy initiatives that focus on Pakistan. The Democrats seem oriented towards support of the coalition, but they are also pressing security initiatives in NWFP. And Barack Obama has actually talked about U.S. deployments there. What do you think of this proposal?

Haste and a preference for violent confrontation will backfire against the U.S. Obviously the resurgence of the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the NWFP needs to be resisted. But the Taliban is like a gang in an American inner city. The correct approach to gang violence is not to send the military in, guns blazing. It is to work steadily, over a period of many years, to build allies in the inner city, win over gang members, clamp down on the drug economy and replace it with alternative sources of income. Yes, armed force will be required to deal with the Taliban. But far more important are economic development, ally-building, and patience. Hearts and minds (and stomachs) actually do matter. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain seems to realize this.

4. Many Pakistanis, including you, greeted the election results with a sense of euphoria; although the winning parties and candidates were less than perfect, for once the democratic infrastructure (which was strengthened, ironically, by Musharraf) had been bought into by at least a plurality of Pakistanis. It seemed to be the beginning of durable, democratic civilian rule. The army even withdrew entirely from politics and vowed to stay out of the way. But this euphoria has given way to some anxiety as recent events have exposed the fragility of the Pakistani state. Last month for example, lawyers representing the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and another group of lawyers representing the PPP clashed in Karachi, sparking riots and violence that claimed at least 10 lives and shut down the city as paramilitary forces were called in. Will democracy in Pakistan be able to survive this turmoil for which there is no quick fix?

I think democracy will survive. But the coming years will be very difficult. The important thing is to move beyond a system based on individual politicians (virtually all of those on display are deeply flawed: Zardari, Sharif, Musharraf) to one based on the rule of law. I am heartened by Pakistan’s ability to hold relatively free and fair elections this year, and I am heartened by the growing power of the media. The national desire for the restoration of the judiciary could perhaps be the single most important development in the country’s recent history. But at the same time, Pakistan seems stuck. Musharraf has yet to depart, and the progressive instincts of the PPP are being thwarted by Zardari. These twin roadblocks will have to give way for real change to occur. Hopefully they will give way soon, Musharraf by resigning and Zardari by allowing the judiciary to be restored. Even then, the very serious twin problems of the economy and of militancy will remain. But Pakistan sits between China, India, and the oil-producing Gulf: three of the world economy’s biggest drivers of growth. The country has an enormous work force and vast potential. Opportunities abound for Pakistan, if the current stalemate can be resolved.

5. You have written about a cultural renaissance taking place over the past few years in Pakistan, especially among young middle-class people. In interviews you have also spoken about the differences between the self-conception of India and Pakistan; there is a sense of triumphalism and jingoism in India, while in Pakistan people are much more cynical and ironic about their state and its politics. Do you see Pakistan producing a crop of talented young writers, as India has recently? And how do you see new Pakistani literature differing from its Indian counterparts, do you think it will reflect the more critical worldview you’ve spoken of?

the_reluctant_fundamentalist

Pakistan is producing incredibly exciting literature in English at the moment. Mohammed Hanif’s superb novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, has just been published. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s fantastic short story collection comes out this fall. At least three other internationally-acclaimed fiction writers, Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie, and Aamer Hussein, will soon be publishing new books. And there are many, many others. It’s difficult to compare these writers to their Indian counterparts or even to each other. But there are very few countries in the world whose emerging crop of writers I find personally as exciting as the current generation of Pakistanis.

6. Young Pakistanis who left home to attend college in the United States and Britain are increasingly choosing to return after their studies rather than stay abroad and work, as Changez, the protagonist of your last novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, did. Like Changez, do you think they will become more involved with politics upon their return and perhaps demand more political representation for the middle class which has been kept out of power by the feudal class and the military?

Young Pakistanis who return to Pakistan, as well as the growing numbers of middle-class Pakistanis on the campuses of the country’s top universities, are already getting involved in politics. During the emergency declared last year by President Musharraf, when critical TV channels were off the air, these students organized protests, started blogs, and disseminated information online. Half of all Pakistanis are of college-going age or younger. They have the potential to change the country, and many of them seem to believe that they can do so. I am amazed by the writing, the music and television programs, the energy of this group of people. I grew up in a very different Pakistan, one stifled by General Zia. I see urban teenagers and twenty-somethings in the country today, and I get excited about how far they have come. In this year’s elections, there were many instances of middle-class candidates winning seats that had previously always been won by feudals. Things in Pakistan can change for the better, and sometimes they actually do.

Taimur Khan contributed to the preparation of this interview.

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