A Pakistani Speaks Out
A three-way conversation about the United States and Pakistan with Shaykh Kabir Helminski, Rabbi Michael Lerner, and Abbas Bilgrami, the director of a natural gas distribution company in Pakistan.
Michael Lerner: Our revered friend and Sufi teacher Kabir Helminski, recognizing the growing hostility to Pakistan in the United States, started this conversation by sending us an interview with Abbas Bilgrami, the director of a natural gas distribution company in Pakistan. That original interview took place before the killing of Osama Bin Laden by U.S. forces. The conversation deepened after bin Laden’s assassination, when Tikkun asked asked Kabir Helminski to pose a series of provocative questions to Mr. Bilgrami that might address the myths being spread in the U.S. media about Pakistan. We start with the voice of Kabir Helminski who introduces the voice of Bilgrami. Please note that this complex three-way conversation has been edited and adapted for clarity and ease of reading.
Kabir Helminski: A debate is currently raging about Pakistan’s cooperation, or the lack of it, with American military and security objectives. What we hear in the media is framed from a typically American political perspective, and we hear little or nothing of how American drone attacks, for instance, are perceived and experienced in Pakistan, especially from a moral and spiritual perspective. America is officially indignant and suspicious, questioning Pakistan’s trustworthiness and loyalty to our agenda. The truth is the number of innocent civilians killed in our drone attacks (according to the New America Foundation & The Conflict Monitoring Center) is fast approaching the number of people killed in the 9/11 attacks. For every 1 alleged militant who dies 10 civilians are “collaterally” killed.
Legendary Cricket star, now Chief of the PTI Party, Imran Khan, has recently been staging protests on the Pak-Afghan highway in Peshawar against U.S. Drone strikes and NATO supply, taking steps toward a Parliamentary bill that would block all NATO supplies to Afghanistan.
Recently in South Africa I asked Abbas Bilgrami, the director of a natural gas distribution company in Pakistan, what message he would like to communicate to the people of the United States. He conveyed to me that Pakistan is at a tipping point, its people dismayed, if not enraged, by the drone attacks that weekly kill numerous innocents. Here is what he said…
Abbas Bilgrami: In this global “war on terror” which is being executed in places like Pakistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, we have lost 10-12,000 soldiers. None of the other partners in this war on terror have committed so many people. In addition 25,000 civilians have died because of drone bombing and other acts of terror. 10 people are killed in a village and maybe one was a jihadist, or just as likely none. This has created a huge amount of ill will against the Americans. Pakistan has always been the ally of the United States. Even today there is a huge amount of latent goodwill towards the American people. It is ironic that the Pakistani people always feel that America will leave the Pakistani people in the lurch. This has happened at least three times.
Regarding these people who the Western media refer to as jihadists, extremists; there have always been a small percentage of people with extreme views; they are part of the Islamic milieu, as they are in all societies and religions, but of course there are many more who are moderate. These particular people believe that this war that they are waging against America, and against Pakistan, should ultimately lead to an ummah, a unified people beyond nation states; so nation states and nationalities are immaterial to them. You have people from Tajikistan, from Saudi Arabia, from Palestine; they have all been in Pakistan because of this war that they have been waging at the behest of the Americans who wanted to get rid of the communists in Afghanistan. So those foot soldiers who learnt the art of war are very much here. They are battle-hardened, extremely savvy, and they have all the tools of the trade, because they were taught by the best, which was the CIA. So Bin Laden and other Saudis were primarily the leaders because they provided the money. These people have an axe to grind — they have been all over, to Bosnia, Chechnya, Palestine. These people are fired up by a world-view and have the skills to try to implement their world-view on the rest of the world. In Pakistan these people are on the margins of society. In a population 170 million people if you have even 2-3 million people who may be sympathetic to this, that is enough to create chaos. And we are seeing the chaos.
The jihadists have always been there, but they’ve never had the wherewithal to do anything significant against any country, really. If there is to be support for that great majority of people who feel goodwill toward the United States, they mustn’t be marginalized by further violence. This is not a war the American people want, but a war that has been thrust upon them through lies. The message to the people of the United States, from the people of Pakistan is: we are friends, we want to be friends, there’s a lot we have learned from the United States, but equally there is a lot that we can offer the United States, and that brings me to the question of spirituality.
Pakistan is a melting pot. It is neither the Middle East nor is it India. It is a place that people have always come through. Since Alexander the Great, armies have come through. India has been Mother India has accepted and embraced all that has come through and has made it her own. The land that is now Pakistan has the graves of some of the greatest Sufi shaikhs like Ali Hujwiri, Baba Farid, Rahman Baba, Shah Latif. And these people were in a sea of non-Muslims planting the flag of Islam, but they did it with love. They created the great Qawwali music, they healed and fed the people. Some of them just danced their way into people’s hearts. This is what I would like to share with my friends in the United States.
There is this ferment that is happening now in the Muslim world. But we were in the forefront. We got rid of three dictators, one after the other; we have not tolerated this in thirty years. In Pakistan, every one is an individual. We have a media that is constantly lambasting our own people, and our state. Self-criticism is at the forefront.
By and large Pakistanis have not been radicalized, but you must reach out today. You need to hold your government responsible. What are you giving money for — for armaments or for education? Instead you send seeds that become infertile; you promote technology that creates dependency. This creates hunger and illiteracy. Thousands of years of constant work is being destroyed by corporations. Why haven’t you given aid for health services, why haven’t you given it to those people who deserve it?
So the message I would send to the American people is that there is much latent good will, because we recognize that there is genuine goodness in America. When there was an earthquake, the largest amount of aid came from America, and that aid had far more impact than the billions of dollars spent on armaments, and which ultimately goes right back to the U.S. After the earthquake there were field hospitals set-up and ultimately presented back to the Pakistani people.
Over decades many people have come here from America and the West, and they have been changed by this rough, hot, difficult land. And yet if you speak to them about Pakistan, they will speak with great affection about the people, about their affection, their generosity. Pakistanis have developed an incredible ability to tolerate the most difficult conditions, and yet whatever little they have they will share with a guest. And that generosity of spirit is what I would like to offer to my friends in the U.S. because that is all that we have. We have nothing else. Stop the drone bombing. Send people.
Michael Lerner: This message was written before Osama bin Ladin was killed by U.S. forces in his hideout in a home near an army installation in Pakistan. Given the level of hostility toward Pakistan that was being displayed in the U.S. media, let’s address some provocative questions in hopes of calming down the concerns and anti-Pakistani rhetoric that have been flowing in U.S. media.
Abbas Bilgrami: After May 2-7, the shouts of “USA” have been drowned out by the stream of inane news pumped by the media monster of President Obama in Ireland, UK and then in Europe — empty and hollow words from a consummate performer whom we thought was the chosen messiah who would come to fix this world.
Michael Lerner: The question of why the government doesn’t object more to the drones is a good one. Except that Imran Khan and others are objecting vociferously.
Abbas Bilgrami: Osama… whether he was truly captured or was already dead we will never know. Since the gentleman in question was killed in somewhat dubious circumstances and the body disposed off in even stranger circumstances one cannot really comment on the rights and wrongs of the way this whole affair was handled. It would have been far more useful to have captured the man alive so he could be tried and then be dealt with for the heinous murders of many innocents. The trial would have been a very important catharsis and means of defaming the al-Qaida supporters who are now howling for murder and creating mayhem in Pakistan. Pakistan is not the perpetrator of the September 11 events it is a victim of this monster. The state the leadership is in the us, I believe it is creating greater belligerence amongst the Pakistanis through its breathtaking arrogance and stupidity. Again as I speak 14 more civilians (some young children) have been killed in Afghanistan through bombings, which were meant for the Taliban but innocents die. More collateral damage. How tragic that the death of an afghan or a Pakistani child is collateral damage. The same story unfolds many times over in the drone attacks in Waziristan. Whether the Pakistan government is complicit in turning a blind eye to this whole sordid wholesale massacre of innocents and Taliban once again it is difficult to assess. Imran Khan has his own opinions on the subject of drone bombing. He is an individual with supposedly a charismatic personality and a glamorous past. However I will tell you a little story here. Many years ago I traveled to the Zawiya of a Shaykh for a gathering to which i had been invited. We traveled from London in a group accompanied by a couple of friends. A friend brought along with him a gentleman from Belgium. A rather imposing individual of some stature and physique. We landed at the Zawiya of the Shaykh and after a blessed time in dhikr and dizzying heights of the talks we finally had our time with the Shaykh. Since we had come as a group from London we were seen as a group by the Shaykh. We sat and we talked for a while with the Shaykh who questioned us as to our trip, our welfare and whether we were comfortable in our accommodation etc in the end as we were leaving the Shaykh asked me to stay on as he had a message for Shaykh Fadhlalla. I held back while my companions left. The shaykh wrote a brief letter for Shaykh fadhlalla and then sealed the envelope and gave it to me. He smiled and asked me where I had found the said Belgian gentleman. I said that he was a friend of one of our companions from the halqa in London who had invited him. I apologized to the Shaykh about any imposition or break in our courtesy towards him and his Zawiya. He laughed and said not at all and then asked me what do you think of the Belgian chap. I said he was quiet and not very communicative so I had very little to say about his person. The Shaykh said sidi abbas he is like Victoria station… An imposing edifice but all the trains have left. Meaning he is this imposing shell with nothing inside it. Imran khan is just that magnificent edifice. But very little meaning and content. The anger of the people in Pakistan is over the slaughter of innocents. The war on terror which should have been focused on al-Qaeda and its leadership but has been turned into a wholesale massacre of people in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Michael Lerner: Today it seems as if many Americans are particularly distrustful of Pakistan after discovering Osama bin Laden living in a Pakistani town a short distance from major Pakistani military installations.
Abbas Bilgrami: Sadly there are Pakistanis who are as distrustful of the U.S. as some Americans of Pakistan. However you must remember Pakistan is a country of 180 million souls. Why are the actions of the few resulting in the chastisement of the whole society? Pakistan is a large country. If Osama bin Laden was supposedly holed up in what has been described by many in the media as a mansion, but what is in actuality a half finished dump, and didn’t ever leave the house, for what is again several years, then it is unlikely anyone would have known of his whereabouts. The major military installation is actually the Pakistan military academy and is a very insular and self-contained community. Why would they know who lives in a semi rural area in what was supposed to be a buffalo dairy farm run by two cousins. Recently Ratko Mladic the butcher of Srebrenica was discovered in Serbia after sixteen years. A man who killed thousands and was well recognized but was able to melt into the Serbian landscape. Serbia a much smaller country and one much more closely monitored. Sadly the truth is Osama bin Laden has many admirers in not just Pakistan but throughout the Far East, Middle East and North Africa. The question is why? While he is a figure loathed amongst the majority of Muslims he is remembered as a symbol of resistance against the soviets during the afghan war. During this time Osama bin Laden was might I point out trained alongside a whole host of other misfits from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Pakistan by the CIA. None of these people forgot that once the soviets had been ejected the U.S. packed up and left with undue haste. Leaving behind a shattered society and country and a ruined neighbor, Pakistan. This neighbor housed at one time 8 million refugees. The largest refugee population in the world. The U.S. is considered by many amongst these refugees and Pakistanis to have left a broken and dysfunctional country behind. The U.S. was able to extract what it wanted, a bloodied and broken soviet union and then without any hesitation upped stakes and left the neighborhood. The price that Pakistan had to pay as a country was way too high for supporting its ally.
Rabbi Michael Lerner: The accepted explanation here is that Pakistanis are far less concerned about terrorism than they are about having enough power to counter India, and that the struggle between Hindus and Muslims is far more pressing in that area than serving the interests of the U.S.
The question is why should Pakistan serve anyone’s interest other then its own? The U.S. like all other nations follows its own interests. Why? Just because Pakistan gets military and financial assistance? Aid that rarely reaches Pakistan, since most of it is tied to U.S. supplies of military equipment or services. The benefit of this assistance is nominal and palliative. A country which some economists claim has suffered well over us$ 60 billion in economic damage because of the war on terror is supposed to be grateful for a U.S. $ 7.5 billion worth of aid under the Kerry Lugar bill. In the past twelve months, of the us$1.5 billion that was supposed to flow to Pakistan, only us$ 875 million was released. The payments that have been made to the Pakistani military were rental for using air bases to provide assistance to the effort in Afghanistan. In an economy where the GDP is well over us$ 170 billion aid of us$ 1.5 billion (if that ever reaches the intended beneficiaries) is a fraction of assistance needed to fix the mess the highways the infrastructure is in due to delivery of heavy armament, fuel and other supplies to the Isaf in Afghanistan. As to India and the unfinished business of partition. Why does Pakistan feel so insecure? Let me explain. At partition Pakistan was to receive its share of assets. It didn’t receive these. Within five years of partition waters that flowed into Pakistan from India and Kashmir were diverted and blocked creating chaos in Pakistan’s agriculture sector. It is not about Hindu or Muslim it is about a tragedy in which a land was carved up by a colonial power that wanted to leave in a hurry, drawing borders that left behind millions of people on the wrong side of the border who needed to move en masse to the other side. Muslims were massacred by Sikhs and Hindus and Hindus and Sikhs massacred by Muslims. It is estimated that several million died and injured in what was the largest movement of population in modern times. Do you think this might be the cause of Pakistan and India’s ongoing sibling rivalry? Pakistanis cannot forget that the creation of Bangladesh occurred at the hands of a hostile India midwifed by Indra Gandhi. 50,000 deaths and 20,000 rapes have happened in the Kashmir valley since 1989. A war that may have been forgotten by India ‘shining’ economically, however none of these facts have been forgotten by Pakistanis. You may remember that India tested its nuclear device years before a nuclear program existed in Pakistan, once again a gift courtesy of Indra Gandhi.
Michael Lerner: We at Tikkun could easily understand why that might be the case, but the way this guy talks it sounds as if he doesn’t seem to know about this deepening suspicion about the Pakistani state and army and what its real goals and values are and whether those might lead it into conflict with the U.S.
Abbas Bilgrami: What are the real goals and values of the Pakistan state and army? I am quite aware of the deep suspicion that has been created in the minds of the U.S. government. However you need to remember what I said in the main text of the article. There may be some Pakistanis who do not like the U.S. government and its policies. Since they are part of this nation they have a political voice and a right to voice it. More then likely these people are represented in the armed forces as well. However the vast majority who despite the fact that they are dismayed by the lack of U.S. government support for a real and sustained engagement, remember the support over the last fifty years to Pakistani dictators and despots. The talk of democracy and human rights rings singularly hollow. The litany of ‘do more’ is one that we have become fed up of. Because if do more is kill more then this is not the solution. A political solution is what is needed. I doubt that there will be open conflict with the us. However Pakistan as a nation will continue to be chastised by the U.S. to do more. This will further disenfranchise the people of this country. This will make the extremist fringe who have constantly said that the U.S. will leave once they have achieved their objectives in Afghanistan, leaving behind a bigger mess then when it entered the fray, seem prescient. An unstable Afghanistan will lead to greater instability in Pakistan. There is a whole debate underway about the balkanization of Pakistan. There is talk of de-weaponising Pakistan. The taking into safe custody of its nuclear weapons. There is great suspicion because of all these matters. Yet amongst the simple folk speak to them about what they admire most of the U.S. and its people and they will talk about the hard work, honesty and their good heartedness. Satellite TV, mobile telephony and the Internet is leading to a revolution in Pakistan and elsewhere in the world. This is where the future battles and peace resides.
Michael Lerner: From the tikkunish standpoint, the drone attacks on Pakistan are totally illegitimate, but again it’s hard to understand why Pakistan allows that or doesn’t make more noise in public forums about that.
Abbas Bilgrami: There has been a huge uproar in Pakistan and internationally the government has voiced its protest. However a drone operating at 40,000 ft. and which can operate up to 40 hours flying time is a difficult target to bring down. This means that Pakistan or for that matter any other nation is vulnerable to such attacks. There is very little that can be done. The hegemon will do what it wishes.
Michael Lerner: So something is happening there that is beneath the surface that doesn’t make this sweet account of good vibes quite ring true. I hope you’ll try to address that or get [Abbas Bilgrami] to address it.
Abbas Bilgrami: [I am] very much aware of the bitterness and resentment that has been caused due to the so-called global war on terror. People are not stupid in Pakistan — they do know what is going on. Often they may be suspicious and think that there are conspiracies being hatched against them. But to an extent this suspicion is warranted. However despite all this bitterness and suspicion you have to merely scratch the surface and you will find in the poverty and illiteracy the strength and fortitude that comes from spirituality.
I don’t think Shaykh Kabir can address these issues. Even my discourse I believe is inadequate as well… Pakistan is a land of Sufi saints, diversity, tolerance and generosity. It is not by nature a homogenized pasteurized land of Wahabi/Salafi adherents. As a Pakistani I am under no illusion that the actions of the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan have played into the hands of the al-Qaida (Wahabi/Salafi) types. Further drone attacks will lead to further reaction. We have seen in Pakistan so far 150 deaths since the death of Osama bin Laden through suicide bombings and attacks on military installations. This is the reality we live on a daily basis. This is where the U.S. can and should help. Stop lecturing U.S. and start helping us. Stop bombing Waziristan, undermine al-Qaida by assisting social, economic and educational programmes that do deliver. Let the economic zones promised by the bush government but blocked in congress by the textile lobby be set up, let people be employed and let them provide for their children an education, healthcare and see how the Taliban and al-Qaida will disappear like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland.