I wrote this last week as an introduction to my trip to Pakistan and my feelings toward the trip before I got word from the State Department that the trip had been postponed. The trip was postponed for “general logistical issues” though, in light of recent protests against the French comic magazine Charlie Hebdo in the region (in which journalists were targeted), it seems likely there were security concerns.
There is no timeline for the postponement, but I think this piece will be as relevant now as it would have been a week before my trip. (The trip has officially been rescheduled for the beginning of May.)
Pakistan was founded in 1947 as the first Islamic state in the history of the world. The conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India finally reached its breaking point that year and, to the chagrin of some on both sides, millions of Muslims packed their bags and moved across the newly formed borders. It was one of the largest migrations in human history. In the first years of the country, there was an East and West Pakistan, separated by a hostile peninsula of India. But in 1971, East Pakistan seceded to form the secular country of Bangladesh. Now there is only Pakistan, nudging against the Himalayas to the north, the troubled governments of Afghanistan to the west, and nuclear rival India to the south and east. All of these facts I have discovered since I learned I was traveling to Pakistan. The country, its history and customs, feels like the other side of the world because, quite literally, it is. Pakistan is 13 hours ahead of Portland, making it the veritable night to my day tucked away in the Northwest. What other open society—that is, not a tribe located deep in the rainforest or aboriginals in Australia—is more foreign to our American sensibilities? And, just as importantly, what deeper rift has the modern world revealed than the rift that exists between the Islamic world and the western world? (Heritage-wise, we are the Christian world of course, even if we don’t identify with the religion.) We know much more about modern Pakistan in the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s death. For many Americans, that event may have put Pakistan on the map. A decade after the September 11 attacks, America’s largest manhunt in history focused on the mountains that border Afghanistan and Pakistan. I doubt the defense department was surprised to find Bin Laden hold up in a compound in the northeast Pakistani town of Abbottabad. The Taliban has for years run roughshod in the northwest tribal areas of Pakistan. It was only during the massacre of 145 people—including 132 children—last month that the government of Pakistan has taken a harder look at its relationship with the Taliban. The massacre took place in Peshawar, 90 miles from where Bin Laden was shot by Navy Seals. However, I don’t want to give the wrong impression of Pakistan as a whole. And American is no innocent chicken in the region. There were 25 reported drone strikes on Pakistan in 2014. The Investigative Bureau of Journalism reports that between 114 and 183 people were killed in these strikes. The Obama administration claims that no civilians were killed in these strikes (the second year in a row our military has had such impeccable results), but journalists are banned from the area so the accuracy of these numbers is not verifiable. All this to say that, no doubt there is animosity toward America in the region, and that some of it may be justifiable. Here, the story emerges for me on a personal level. During a recent trip home to Orlando over Christmas, I had the thrill of telling family, friends, and family friends I’d been selected by the International Center for Journalists to travel to Pakistan. The program is something of an exchange program for journalists. Media that had hosted Pakistani journalists in 2014 are returning the favor for those agencies that did the hosting. KBOO Community Radio, the progressive radio station for which I volunteer writing, reporting and occasionally anchoring the news, was one such station. I was not fortunate enough to meet Sadia, the journalist who came to our station, but I hope to do so while I’m in Lahore. The news was very exciting for me. It is perhaps one of the leftfield decisions family and friends have come to expect from me. For that reason, I was interested how people would react to the news of my trip. My parents of course were supportive but obviously a bit worried. After all, this is the land of the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden and gruesome attacks on children. Other friends and acquaintances said to me, “Wow, good luck!” beneath arched eyebrows. It was a look that meant to question my sanity. Why is it that I would voluntarily travel to such a hostile place? These reactions I understood too. Did I have a clear, good reason for doing this? Simple human curiosity seemed an insufficient answer to the question. I was mildly shocked by other reactions to my trip. Some asked in there funny but concerned way, “what the fuck is wrong with you?” Then there was the downright despicable response that Pakistan, or perhaps Islam at large, elicited. The place, as far as some were concerned, should be wiped from the map. Pakistan, with a population approaching 200 million, sixth largest in the world, should be flattened by American bombs, its name erased from maps and globes. I was horrified. Still, one person in particular went on, advising me to arm myself when I got there. What inspired such blind hatred for a people halfway around the world? Maybe I could find the answer: How do we un-blind ourselves? Plenty of world events have contributed to the schism between the west and the Islamic world. In light of this, I can understand some of the skepticism toward visiting Pakistan. I can also understand the reactions as those of recalcitrant old men not flexible enough to change their worldviews. That is why this trip has taken on new dimensions for me. The events at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, the massacre in Peshawar, U.S. drone strikes across the Islamic world. All these are creating webs of perceptions on both sides, though we may not be looking at the same web. It seems important now as ever to start the dialogue.