Pakistan’s Yuppies in Danger After Osama bin Laden’s Death
Pakistan’s small middle class is vulnerable and exposed to the growing violence between al Qaeda and the government. Novelist Lorraine Adams on why this vital group cannot be forgotten by the U.S.
Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise, I’ve been worried about PUPPies—Pakistani Upwardly Mobile Urban Professionals. They’re a vulnerable and endangered species, despite their Twitter accounts, iPhones, and Facebook pages. College-educated Pakistan (roughly 4 percent of the country’s 170 million people) may be much smaller than Egypt’s, and may have different gripes with their government, but its members share many values with their Arab counterparts. As the news broke over Twitter last week, PUPPies had plenty to say about the death of the man hiding in an ugly house in a town most of them remembered as a decidedly uncool childhood vacation spot. (Think of the Adirondacks or Catskills, if you’re a New Yorker.) They know that terrorists keen on retaliatory strikes for bin Laden’s killing will be looking for them.
Some writers—among them my friend the novelist Mohsin Hamid and the Guardian’s Declan Walsh and Jason Burke—are familiar with this sliver of Pakistan’s middle class. But most, including Salman Rushdie, who called for declaring Pakistan a terrorist state, sometimes seem to believe in a monolithic Pakistan sympathetic to terrorism, intolerantly Islamic and anti-West. They say the military, which represents the largest component of the middle class, is guilty of harboring bin Laden. If they have their way, the Pakistanis who are most like Westerners—English-speaking folk who carry Blackberries, watch Fashion Week on YouTube, twittered against the murder of anti-blasphemy law crusader Salman Taseer, and obsess about grades for college or medical school—will be thrown to the terrorist pack.
Since 2006, I’ve been traveling to Pakistan to research my last novel and the novel I’m currently writing. I’ve spent time in the border town of Torkham, the Swat Valley, the garrison town Ralwapindi, but mostly in cities—Peshawar, Islamabad, and Lahore. When I first started visiting these were tranquil places. But in 2008, Lahore exploded with its first suicide bombing. Pakistanis from all walks of life became vulnerable, but terrorists have targeted places where tolerant Muslims gather, such as urban shopping centers, Sufi shrines, and cricket fields.
“This day marks mixed feelings of triumph and fear—triumph over the death of a common enemy but fear that darker times marked by fundamentalist backlash and the withdrawal of American support may have begun.”
Rushdie and others, perhaps rightly, blame the Pakistani military for hiding bin Laden, but side by side with this possibility is the statistical reality that middle-class families have born the brunt of the extremist attacks. Officers and soldiers at military training grounds, employees at the federal investigative agency that probes terrorist attacks (comparable to our FBI), and individual police officers have been victims of fatal bombings. The military is not monolithic. One of my Lahore friends is the daughter of a high-ranking officer in the Frontier Corps who is Pathan. If stereotypes were a guide, both her ethnicity and her father’s career mark her family as bin Laden sympathizers. But her uncle, a police chief, was killed by a suicide bomber in Peshawar because of his anti-extremist work. Plus, her sister-in-law’s family is longtime military, the family patriarch an Army general who hails from Abbottabad. Yet whenever both these young women are on Facebook, their updates decry these attacks.
Monday, less than 24 hours after the bin Laden operation, a couple of my Pakistan friends in their 20s—an orthodontist and a medical school student—were far more sober than their American counterparts. These women are devout Muslims (they adhere to virginity before marriage and never drink), but like their counterparts in Tahrir Square, are enlightened observers. One wrote: “We got Osama! But remember that this justice has come at the cost of a decade of war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While America, by virtue of its 'wealth and power' may be relatively immune, for Pakistan, this day marks mixed feelings of triumph and fear—triumph over the death of a common enemy but fear that darker times marked by fundamentalist backlash and the withdrawal of American support may have begun.”
Said another, “It shows that our military is either incompetent or complicit. Either way, the world is unhappy with Pakistan. We're sitting in the corner wearing a dunce cap yet again. The Taliban is unhappy with Pakistan. If anything, we'll be seeing more blasts in the coming months. If they had kept him alive, that would have helped fight them. It's too soon to say for sure what's going to happen next. At the most, this is a moral victory for 9/11 families. But my 2c—it doesn't help fight the terrorists which are multiplying by the day.”
Just how much support Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and the military gave to bin Laden or any extremists is the subject of government investigation, and has been debated ad nauseam among analysts. Most American commentators quote the highly respected Ahmed Rashid, who recently wrote in The New Republic that they give terrorists enough help to keep “the pot boiling but not overflowing.” Others such as Anatol Lieven, in his new book about Pakistan, argue that military support for extremists in Kashmir and Afghanistan exists but inside Pakistan is thin.
Either way, life for Pakistan’s educated—because the government is such a corruption-saturated institution—is not much better than it is for its poor. Except for one, yes one, hospital in Karachi, medical care is far below international standards. Country-wide, the lack of utilities, even in urban areas, leads to absurdist predicaments. One of my friends, the mother of a 4-month-old, was trying to give him a hot bath in January. An absence of natural gas for the water heater led her to innovate. She got an electric kettle and plugged it in, transferring a teapot of hot water into the tub. But then, the electricity was cut off—Pakistan doesn’t have enough, and major cities regularly have 16 hours a day without it—and the tub was far from full. “Oh crap,” she said in frustration. I remember looking over at the bedroom bookshelf visible from her bathroom; there was an Orhan Pamuk, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and others. For all her thoughtfulness and spirit, she was living with problems plenty of slum dwellers in the United States rarely face. Later that day, talking about the situation, she told me, “It’s not for me to question. If I question I create problems. Why do that? It’s better to accept it.”
In these days after bin Laden’s killing, I hope her stoicism continues to keep her sane. Whether it keeps her safe is up to leaders, worldwide and in Pakistan, for whom she is largely invisible.
Lorraine Adams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and reporter, is the author of Harbor and The Room and the Chair. She lives in New York City.