NPR (National Public Radio)’s Morning Edition just started broadcasting a really fantastic series on the Grand Trunk Road, which stretches across the subcontinent from the Bay of Bengal to the Hindu Kush mountains. It is one of South Asia’s oldest and most historic highways, ultimately linking India and Pakistan together, and NPR correspondents are making the journey and delivering interesting news reports along the way. According to Morning Edition‘s Steve Inskeep, who joined the team in Pakistan for the second part of the series (the first part traveled GT Road in India), “a new generation is growing up along the ancient road” and the show aims to tell the stories of those young Indians and Pakistans, their opportunities and their problems.
On Monday, Phil Reeves and Inskeep met at Wagah Border [for my backgrounder on the Indo-Pak Border Ceremony, click here], which separates India and Pakistan, to discuss the Indian part of the journey and “hand off the show” as it begins its Pakistan portion. Reeves, who traveled 1200 miles and interviewed many young Indians, told Inskeep this morning,
They [youth] fall into three broad categories – there’s an enormous body of optimism… who are very well-positioned to inherit this new wealth [in India]…then there’s another lot who are still very much filled with hope that they can get something out of society…to lift themselves and their family out of that position. And then there’s a third grouping who have pretty much given up hope, particularly in rural areas…when you go through that great stretch in north India, which hasn’t changed much over the years, you do meet people there, at age 21 or 22, who have already abandoned any hope that they’re going to get out of their situation. But they are investing in their children.
Throughout the journey, the team has been posting some fascinating articles, essays, and photos on the interactive website, some insightful, others worthy of discussion. In an article entitled, “In Pakistan, A Deepening Religious – Secular Divide,” NPR’s Julie McCarthy noted that the line between religion and secularism among Pakistan’s youth is at least partly contingent on students who are part of the madrassa (religious school) system and those who can go to more “privileged” schools and sit “squarely on the Western side of the divide.” NPR interviewed Rana Noman Haq in Lahore, a young 31 year old who “splurges on European vacations and eats at McDonalds,” who argued that his “worldly lifestyle” is “not incompatible with Islam — and it is not diluting his Pakistani identity.” He said, “That’s what globalization is all about — globally, everybody is coming together. We’re still sticking to our values, but within that we are also comfortable with whatever [is] happening anywhere in the world.”
The religious-secular “divide” in Pakistan is certainly an interesting debate, but it is complex and can’t merely be parsed into black and white. First, what does it mean to be secular in the first place? Secularism ultimately means the division of church and state, an ideal certainly championed in the West, but that doesn’t necessarily mean an embrace of Western culture. Just because someone “splurges” on European vacations or eats Mickey D’s doesn’t ultimately make them secular. Moreover, the right-wing voice in Pakistan doesn’t necessarily pertain just to students of madrassas. Manan Ahmed over at Chapati Mystery wrote a really interesting piece a few months ago called, “Pakistan’s New Paranoia,” where he noted,
The consumers of this narrative represent the largest demographic slice of Pakistan – young, urban men and women under the age of 30. They came of age under a military dictatorship with a war on their borders, and, more recently, almost daily terrorist attacks in their major cities. The twin poles of their civic identity – Pakistan and Islam – are under immense stress. They love Pakistan; they want to take Islam back from the jihadists. But there is no national dialogue, and no vision for the state: no place, in other words, where the young can make sense of their own country. Pakistan is ideologically adrift and headed toward incoherence, unable to articulate its own meaning as either a state or a nation.
Zaid Hamid, who is seen as the televangelist voice of the right wing, has been instrumental in addressing this crisis and reframing this identity. Ahmed noted, “The genius of Zaid Hamid has been to deftly shift the role of Islam from Zia’s strictly performative one to a more flexible mould. His acolytes, who call themselves lal topis (red hats), see a pious man who is less interested in their actual religiosity – whether they pray or not, give alms or not, wear hijab or not – and more concerned with their devotion to the idea of a resurgent, “independent” Pakistan. He calls on Islam mostly to play the role of history.”
NPR quoted Moeed Yusuf, at the U.S. Institute of Peace, who noted, “Because ultimately secularism as a concept is abhorred by most Pakistanis. So if they have to pick a side, it’s going to end up being this right-wing sort of wave that we find in Pakistan today. So again, this may not be religious fanaticism, but this is a very deep-rooted sense of being culturally conservative.”
The debate therefore, is arguably less of a polarized and hard divide, and more of an existential crisis of identity – reflecting a question our leaders have failed to cohesively address and answer – What is Pakistan? This vacuum is dangerous because it leads to extremes on both side of the spectrum who refuse to engage with one another, which in turn exacerbates the issue.
In speaking to youth in both India and Pakistan, NPR is aiming to at least initiate this conversation, which is commendable. It also aims to show how issues on both sides of the border further emphasize our similarities, rather than our differences. Definitely a great series to check out, if nothing else.