Pakistan is recognizing it's being used as stage for dangerous game
LAHORE, PAKISTAN — "There was a suicide bombing today," my brother-in-law matter-of-factly announced a couple of weeks ago, after the failed assassination attempt on the life of Pakistan's prime minister-designate.
"Did you see the headlines? He's in the game!" my niece quipped. "He's officially in the game."
Neither expressed surprise - or outrage. While Americans are still reeling from the shock of 9/11, Pakistanis have resigned themselves to terrorist attacks and warnings from militant extremists.They've hijacked more than the people's religion; they're trying to rob the people of faith in the future.
In this sun-soaked cultural center of Pakistan that's home to 7 million people, there are no color-coded warnings, no effort to refrain from visiting the bazaar or mosque, riding buses or enjoying high tea at a popular gathering spot. People live in the moment. You walk past armed guards into restaurants teeming with people. Street chefs cook spicy chicken dishes at crowded outdoor cafes long after midnight. Kites, though officially illegal in congested Lahore because of electrocution risks, dot the late-afternoon skies in a show of defiance and a symbol of carefree living.
Stopping by the Pearl Continental Hotel for dinner earlier this month, we were detained by a dozen guards with rifles who popped open the hood of the car and searched the trunk before allowing us to park and walk through a metal detector. When we learned the lame-duck prime minister was due there for a wedding, one person in our party said, "Don't worry. They won't waste a bullet on him."
The US State Department has asked Americans to defer travel here because of a spate of terrorist attacks. We're advised to keep a low profile, avoid crowds, stay with local families - hide out, in other words.
The military government has rooted out and arrested more than 500 Taliban and Al Qaeda supporters and sympathizers.
Terrorist plots detailed on a computer seized in a recent raid here prompted US officials to beef up security at financial institutions in New York, Washington, D.C., and northern New Jersey.
Just hours after the announcement of the arrest of an Al Qaeda suspect sought in connection with the 1998 bombing attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, a young man ran through a ring of security guards into the armored Mercedes of Shaukat Aziz, the prime minister-in-waiting, in the failed assassination attempt my brother-in-law so blithely referred to.
"Your apprehension about coming here can't be ruled out completely," my husband's oldest brother told me when I expressed doubts about this summer's annual trip to visit family. "Even we ourselves feel unsafe in this country."
But people here carry on in the face of uncertainty.
The reverent strains of the call to prayer five times daily inspire the faithful to put their trust in a power greater than themselves. Yet it invokes in others a call to arms.
Pakistanis blame Americans for arming right-wing Islamist groups during the cold war when the Soviets were driven out of Afghanistan. Many of these groups formed Al Qaeda.
Military generals have ruled Pakistan for most of its existence, but even the Army is having trouble overpowering fundamentalists in an impoverished land where more than half the citizens are illiterate.
"Gen. Pervez Musharraf's policies have strengthened the same religious groups that he's fighting against. That's a contradiction," observes Hasan Askari Rizvi, a relative and a political analyst often sought out by the international media for his views.
"He will not be able to change the environment without allowing liberal values. Education is important, but so is the content. Teachers in government schools talk about creating the ideal Islamic society. There is no ideal Islamic society. They should be teaching about human rights, liberal values, and tolerance."
How can a country with faith as its foundation not lose its hope?
I don't have to look very far to see what Pakistan's future could be.
One of my husband's brothers is fighting to restore democracy in the country. Another is writing the country's first handbook on anticorruption legal procedures. A niece teaches literature - from Shakespeare to Toni Morrison - at a private high school because she believes "teachers affect eternity."
Over cups of tea in the homes of educated professionals across this city, Pakistanis are quick to assure the nervous that suicide bombers are not true Muslims.
"This is not our culture," sighed a childhood friend of my husband's who is now the law secretary for the state of Punjab. "These people are the desperate class."
Just as the summer monsoon rains offer respite from the stifling heat and a neighbor's peacock startles you with the sheer beauty of its brilliant blue and green feathers, I want to embrace the possible.
I want to believe that in the dangerous game playing out on the world stage in Pakistan, humanity will trump.
• Teri Rizvi is associate vice president for public relations at the University of Dayton and a freelance journalist. Married to a Pakistani-American, she has written about political and social life in Pakistan since 1982.