Driving into Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, there is a sign on the road that welcomes you to "the land of hospitality." This is not what you'd expect to find on your way to Peshawar, gateway to the region controlled by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, where Osama bin Laden is likely hiding. But it's an indication of how filled with contradictions Pakistan is today.Consider Peshawar. It's an extremely conservative city in which cheap drugs and pornography are readily available. Many streets are in a decrepit state, yet the city has one of the loveliest parks I've ever seen.
Violence, both petty and political, permeates Pakistani society as a whole. But then there is Sajid and Zeeshan, one of Pakistan's hottest new rock bands, whose improbably beautiful new album was recorded almost entirely in the home studio of the band's keyboard player -- using vintage synthesizers and guitars bought for a song at the smugglers' bazaar in Peshawar.
Pakistani rock 'n' roll symbolizes the potential of the country to return to its historic roots as a bastion of tolerance and artistic and intellectual creativity. Almost a dozen music video channels beam a constant supply of the country's pop music into living rooms. The head of newly established MTV Pakistan, Wiqar Khan, was raised in England by a father who is the imam at a London mosque.
Perhaps the best hope for the future, though, lies in someone like Junaid Jamshed, one of the biggest pop stars in Pakistani history, who in recent years gave up his rock-star life and became extremely religious. Yet while he has come to believe that the use of musical instruments is forbidden in Islam, his recording of "naats," traditional Pakistani songs extolling the prophet Mohammed, is among the country's best-selling albums. He still supports his old comrades and is adamant that the only way to spread a true version of Islam is through tolerance and "respecting the good in all religions and people, to give more and expect little."
Jamshed is hardly alone in his openness. Among the few optimistic developments in Pakistan has been the reemergence of a more "moderate" Islam. This became clear during my recent visit to Islamabad's International Islamic University, whose intellectually curious students and faculty spent hours explaining how they are synthesizing the best of the Islamic and Western intellectual traditions.
Jamshed has a nuanced view of how to bring about political change; he has come to believe that direct political assaults through music only turn people off. "The Beatles, the Doors, and other bands might have created a counterculture," Jamshed explained to me after returning from one of his preaching trips through the country. "But to really change society you need to have something to hook people into, an alternative that they will want to follow." For Jamshed, Islam is that alternative, and we can hope that his version prevails -- and not the Taliban's.
Yet there is still ample reason for concern. The greatest threat to Pakistan's stability, if not existence, is the vast disparity in wealth that divides the privileged upper class from the mass of the people. Despite Western fears that militant Islam is the main threat to democracy and modernization, it is better understood as a tragic response to the deliberate attempts by the country's elite and its Western backers to stymie both.
And unfortunately, the children of the elite seem disinclined to break this cycle, as I saw at a party thrown by the son of a senior government official. The festivities featured a stage, light, and sound system on which local bands played their best Guns N' Roses impersonations. It also featured a catered buffet and half a dozen heavily armed, poorly paid, angry looking guards.
Many people with whom I spoke fear that without a significant but unlikely change for the better, the Pakistani state and society will fracture beyond repair. Pakistan's news media are generally freer than their counterparts in Egypt or Jordan, and Pakistan's artists have experienced unprecedented freedom. But that cultural dynamism only goes so far. Apart from Junaid Jamshed, most artists are scared to step into the political fray. The West, however, doesn't have the option of sitting on the sidelines to see what develops next. The disastrous repercussions of a disintegrating Pakistan are almost too frightening to contemplate. Iraq pales in comparison.
Mark LeVine is the author of "Why They Don't Hate Us" and the forthcoming "Heavy Metal Islam." This piece is adapted from his blog.
Copyright 2007 Boston Globe