Complacency was the greatest danger I faced in Pakistan last month. I didn’t visit Quetta or Jacobabad, where serious rioting took place and the police shot several people dead, and everywhere else – especially in Punjab, where the fate of Pakistan has always been decided – the demonstrations were small and easily contained. They were also overshadowed by a heavily armed military and police presence.
Everyone was perfectly pleasant to me, not just the elites, but also those I talked to on the street and in the bazaars. I’d expected a rough reception, but people would break off from cursing America and Britain to assure me that this wasn’t directed against me personally, that I was their guest, and would I like a Coca-Cola? There was something puzzling, or even shaming about this friendliness. If I had to live in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Pakistan, I’d be strongly tempted to chuck any visiting Westerner into the local drain.
The response to the general strike called by the Islamist parties on 15 October was mixed. Many areas shut down completely, but where people were better off things carried on as if nothing had happened. Yet even where the strike looked solid, things weren’t always quite so simple. In the relatively run-down G-9 area of Islamabad, where a reeking sewer runs through the middle of the bazaar, almost all the shops seemed at first sight to be closed, and certainly the great majority of the local population were bitterly hostile to the US and British campaign. Some of the shops had their metal shutters only half down, however, allowing customers to duck discreetly underneath. And when I came back that way later in the day, many of them had reopened completely, while their owners firmly declared that they were still on strike.
The influence of the Islamists is definitely spreading, to judge by anecdotal evidence from all over northern Pakistan. At dinner parties in Islamabad, women worried about its effects on their servants; one told me that she had had to get rid of an old retainer after he grew a large beard under pressure from activists in his mosque. Some of the stories were reminiscent of the familiar complaints about Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to the door asking for contributions – except that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t come back to make their arguments more forcefully with the help of a kalashnikov. Many shopkeepers have good reason to listen to Islamist demands, and long before 11 September, a combination of moral and physical pressure had led many mosques to replace their collection boxes for peaceful charities with ones for jihadi groups.
But to judge by the response to the strike outside the Pashtun North-West Frontier Province a good many activists are merely going through the motions of agitation – they aren’t fomenting revolution, or not yet. As a local hotel owner said, out of the hearing of the small crowd outside: ‘You have to remember that while no one here likes what America is doing, in the end we are Pakistanis and the Taliban are Afghans. We are not going to destroy our country for the sake of theirs. Musharraf has warned that an American alliance with India could destroy Pakistan, and people listen to that, even though they might not admit it to you.’ This is indeed the line that President Musharraf has taken again and again, and outside the Pashtun areas it seems to be having some effect.
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