William Dalrymple on Pakistan

William Dalrymple on anything is a much-anticipated event in Reihanland, but “A New Deal in Pakistan” — this is even better than usual, not least because he’s tackling a a badly misunderstood subject, namely the relative weight of religious extremism and middle-class liberal reformism in the politics of contemporary Pakistan, with great clarity and intelligence. Given the depth of ignorance and seemingly deliberate obtuseness that prevails in the Western press (Dalrymple calls out the right-wing press in particular, which strikes me as needlessly narrow) when it comes to Pakistan, Dalrymple has a lot of heavy lifting to do, and of course he doesn’t touch on everything, and he’s slightly more sanguine about, for example, the Awami National Party than perhaps he should be. But by any standard Dalrymple’s essay goes beyond useful corrective and into the terrain of essential reading. And it’s not all business: the piece is beautifully written, and it is full of surprising details (e.g., the cities are teeming with foxy models — reason enough to brave crazed Taliban irregulars, or not).

When I say we get Pakistan wrong, I mean we get it so wrong that the reflexively anti-American Tariq Ali is one of the sounder authorities on the subject.

In fact, the threat of a jihadi takeover of Pakistan is remote. There is no possibility of a takeover by religious extremists unless the army wants one, as in the 1980s, when General Zia-ul-Haq handed over the Ministries of Education and Information to the Jamaat-e-Islami, with dire results. There are serious problems confronting Pakistan, but these are usually ignored in Washington, by both the administration and the financial institutions. The lack of a basic social infrastructure encourages hopelessness and despair, but only a tiny minority turns to jihad.

Here is one of my favorite Ali moments, from his reflections on Bhutto’s assassination.

In 1968, when a right-wing, pro-military rag in Lahore published an attack on me, it revealed that I ‘had attended sex orgies in a French country house organised by [my] friend, the Jew Cohn-Bendit. All the fifty women in the swimming-pool were Jewish.’ Alas, this was totally false, but my parents were amazed at the number of people who congratulated them on my virility.

Speaking of which, I’ve been reading a brilliant history of the Bin Ladens and … let’s just say Cohn-Bendits of the world had nothing on the Sauds.