Countrywide riots have left scores dead, property worth millions destroyed and fuelled fears of Pakistan’s imminent collapse. Last night, I met a wealthy young businessman at a Lahore party. “Do you know what’s going to happen here for the next three years?” he mused, gazing gloomily into a champagne flute. “New Year’s eve will fall in Muharram” (the Muslim month of mourning). “Ah well,” he said, draining his glass, “we’ll just have to party in New York or London.” Life, for some, does not change.
All over the world, rich people eat, drink and think differently from the majority. But in Pakistan the disparities are not just economic; the cultural alienation of the rich is increasingly marked. Social immobility and a sense that government—whether civilian or military—is by the rich and for the rich provides an increasingly fertile breeding ground for Islamists. The enduring appeal of Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s party stems from the populism of her father. Fundamentalists are increasingly well positioned to argue that mainstream political parties have failed the poor.
Whereas in the past, the wealthy in Pakistan had a more upscale version of the lives of the poor—silk shalwar kameez instead of cotton; partridge instead of rice and dhal—nowadays the symbols of Pakistan’s elite are not only qualitatively different (private jets, Porsches and security-guarded compounds) but also jar with the core cultural and religious values of many of their compatriots. Alcohol, designer drugs and a hedonistic private party scene are not just beyond the means of the vast majority, but are for many a sign of moral and spiritual decay.
When I was growing up, although I was privileged, my identity was nuanced. I spoke Punjabi, Urdu and English, and my best friend was my gardener’s daughter. Today, the children of many of my friends are fluent only in English; when I asked a friend’s daughter why she did not answer me in Urdu, she replied, “it’s a servant’s language.” In a country where the circulation of the largest-selling English newspaper is less than 10 per cent of its Urdu equivalent, an inability to share language leads to increasingly divergent attitudes and aspirations.
A friend of mine, the principal of a private school, reports of having to reject applicants because the parents appear too religiously inclined. When I suggest this is discriminatory, she agrees but says she admitted on merit in the past but is now frightened. It had been impossible to insist on a secular outlook, as “religious” parents objected and threatened her for being anti-Islamic. “You can’t mix oil and water. I am too much of a coward.” I feel for her, but cannot help think opportunities for dialogue are being lost.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with a continuing sense of the west’s anti-Muslim bias, have created distrust and antipathy among many. At this moment, when Pakistan is engaged in its own “war on terror” and Benazir, a potential secular balm, has been assassinated, the inability of the Pakistani ruling classes to find common cultural currency with the majority is dangerous for Pakistan and the rest of the world.