In Pakistan, a beardless man doesn't fit in

After 10 years in the West, Ali Iftikhar came home to Pakistan to test the waters.

His father, a schoolmaster, wants him to stay in the village, get married, and settle down. But that isn't going to happen. Not now, anyway.

It isn't just that Mr. Iftikhar, a large man with a great laugh and a graduate education, can't find a decent-paying job. Nor is it just that the women here seem too conservative.

For Iftikhar, the deeper problem is a clash of cultures inside Pakistan.

Remembering the cafes and the women friends in Dublin where he lived, he wants a more open life than the one he leads here. But as one of three people in Shahdand who uses the Internet, for example, and one of the few men without a beard, Iftikhar doesn't quite fit in.

"I love my village and I love Islam, but I feel trapped between two worlds," he says.

When Gen. Pervez Musharraf took control of Pakistan in a popular coup last fall, he promised to end the increasing polarization of Pakistani society. Tensions between secular and conservative forces are high in a poor country already fragmenting along ethnic and regional lines.

Those tensions have thwarted the rise of a real middle class, the part of society Iftikhar wants to belong to. They also have meaning in a country that two years ago tested nuclear weapons, and where border skirmishes with India occur regularly.

Popular Islamic movements and anti-Western sentiments are at odds with liberal goals such as literacy and modernization. Born partly from a feeling of abandonment by America when the war in Afghanistan ended - leaving a million Afghan refugees, a new culture of jihad, or holy war, and a drug trade fueled by poppy fields - there's suspicion of aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

General Musharraf, now chief executive, is himself caught in a clash of values and world views. Last October he appointed a secular, West-leaning "think tank" of professionals and internationally recognized economists to guide the country. With Pakistan's two mainstream parties in shambles, Musharraf, somewhat ironically, is using the military to reestablish a civil society.

Slow reform

Yet reforms have been slow. For the past several months, until President Clinton came to Pakistan last month, Musharraf stoked the cause of Kashmir as the way to unify the country and to gratify growing Islamic forces that want to end India's military occupation of the Kashmir valley. President Clinton issued a warning to Pakistan not to solve Kashmir through a cross-border jihad, with India.

Yet whether Musharraf will stop the popular jihad, or wants to, will be seen in coming months. Liberal voices in Pakistan worry that in September, when the US State Department issues its list of "terrorist nations," Pakistan could be included.

"Musharraf is suddenly in a different context," says Ayesha Jalal, a historian at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., who was visiting Lahore. "He is looking at the international scene, looking to shore up the economy, concerned about Washington. But the generals ... are thinking about Kashmir and India. Don't forget, the last of the pro-US generals was fired in 1996."

A people's divide

Yet despite what Musharraf does, the real internal culture clash is closer to the ground, among ordinary people.

A trip to Shahdand, for example, starts in dusty Peshawar, a center of Pashtun culture just south of the Khyber Pass. Pashtuns, who feel pushed out of jobs in Pakistan by other ethnic groups, particularly the dominant Punjabis, are a fiercely proud ethnic group that spreads into Afghanistan and makes up the bulk of the ruling Taliban. Driving out of Peshawar, a new monument appears in the shape of the Chagai Hills, where nuclear tests in Pakistan took place in June 1998. Next to the monument is an outdoor market where barbers sit cross-legged on rope charpoys, or cots, trimming beards.

In Shahdand, located equidistant between Kashmir and Afghanistan, there are two dirt roads and extended-family compounds hidden by high mud walls. Visitors meet elders in a hujra, a guest area that each family builds as a room of honor. At midday, families return from the fields and men relax and talk over roasted chicken and kowha, a thick green lemon tea. In the Iftikhar hujra, Ali and two Islamic law students, a cousin, three elders, Ali's father, and the head of the local mosque are talking in what amounts to a friendly clash of cultures about Ali's future.

They joke with him about not having a beard. "My Islam is not in my beard, it is in my heart," Ali says.

As a young man, Iftikhar graduated from an English convent school 50 miles away, and then got a medical degree in Ireland, along with a dual passport. Today, as someone willing to work for a leg of mutton rather than cash, he is the temporary village doctor and held in good stead. But he knows that would change if he began to openly disagree with any number of local traditions. "Here, you must remain obedient to tradition. If my wife does not hide her face [in Muslim tradition], she will be in trouble. And I will be in trouble."

What's more, he says, the local pressure to conform to a militant Islamic position on Kashmir has grown very strong in the 10 years he's been gone.

Signs and graffiti on the road to Shahdand say, "We will take Kashmir with the sword." A message from the Hizbul Mujahideen, one of four groups recruiting young men, reads "Get your training from us!"

"Afghanistan ruined us. When I was going to school we never talked about jihad," Iftikhar recalls. "But the war in Afghanistan translated jihad to this side of the border. I am a religious person. But I don't want to take a gun and spread Islam by force."

Voices not heard

In Pakistan, the secular and conservative sides of the divide accuse each other of having all the power and means of expression. "The Islamic groups have rallies, recruiting literature, and Friday prayers, and the message of tradition has enormous power on the street," says a leading journalist in Islamabad. "Since there really is no organized 'liberal' force, there is no voice for a moderate mainstream. The last voice we had, that of [former Prime Minister] Benazir Bhutto, was a betrayal of the middle class."

By contrast, Mohammed Khan, an Islamic law college graduate who runs a small shop, argues that popular feeling is one of "more and more hate toward those who look to the West for economic assistance, because they are corrupt and the ones who bankrupted Pakistan. But people who feel this way have no representation in the media."

The cultural clash in Shahdand is magnified by poverty. Unemployment among men is more than 50 percent. Iftikhar's cousin Ahmed, a civil engineer, has not worked for eight years. Last month, a job listing for a subengineer in Peshawar got 7,000 responses. A vacancy in the police force got 40,000 applicants.

Young men from north Pakistan have been traveling to countries like Nigeria and Indonesia to take low-paying jobs just for the work. The demoralization has turned "a lot of people away from the government as having an answer," says Iftikhar. "If you can't have a civil society, what have you got?"

At bottom is the issue of Kashmir. The men in Shahdand feel that if the West demands that Pakistan give up its claim, the feelings for a jihad will increase. That will further isolate Pakistan, they admit - but they don't know what to do about it.

"A Pakistan that is isolated and has no international friends will become an Afghanistan," says Iftikhar. "That's one reason I'm taking a job in Saudi Arabia. I don't want to live there. But the pay is high, and I can't live here right now."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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