Pakistan: Many Identities, Insecurity Shape A Nation

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Many American history students learn of a concept called the Frontier Thesis, the idea that the American experience on the frontier shaped the American character. Pakistanis have their own common experiences, from mass migration to war. NPR wanted to know how those experiences affect the country, and posed the question to two Pakistani thinkers: Najam Sethi, a leading newspaper editor, and Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani writer and development consultant.

Pakistani editor Najam Sethi i

Pakistani editor Najam Sethi Mahesh Kumar A/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Mahesh Kumar A/AP
Pakistani editor Najam Sethi

Pakistani editor Najam Sethi

Mahesh Kumar A/AP

Sethi tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that his compatriots are both hospitable to visitors and suspicious of them.

"When you go to someone's house, they lay out the red carpet for you," he says. "But you will never be able to discern what's going on in their minds. So you will be wined and dined and feted ... but you will not know what they are thinking."

This is true, he says, especially when it comes to trusting superpowers. And, he says, the country is given to conspiracy theories.

Pakistan, Sethi says, is a largely rural country where links to the village are strong even in the cities.

"Modernity in a sense is stretched on a historical rack," he says.

Sethi, editor of the Friday Times newspaper in Lahore, says the Pakistani population is constantly under strain: On one hand, there's the village and the lack of modernity; on the other, daily life, which creates uncertainties.

"There are constant strains on this population," he says. "We're part tribal, part modern. We're part Pakistani, part Muslim. There are so many identities in this country."

Mosharraf Zaidi, a writer and development consultant in Islamabad

Mosharraf Zaidi, a writer and development consultant in Islamabad Jim Wildman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Wildman/NPR

Zaidi, a writer and development consultant in Islamabad, tells Inskeep it's an insecure time in Pakistan: People don't feel safe while going to buy bread because of terrorism, and they fear that the U.S. and Afghanistan are ganging up with neighbor and rival India against them.

"I think there's a domestic problem in terms of security and there's an international problem in terms of insecurity," Zaidi says. "And when you have all this insecurity and you compound that insecurity with incompetence, with the inability of the Pakistani state — the government and the military — to do their job, to protect the lives and the property of the Pakistani people, when you combine those two things, all you get is a cloud of amorphous nothingness.

"You don't get any answers. When you don't get answers, you make up answers. And so the paranoia and the conspiracy theories that a lot of Americans have been talking about, it's got less to do with America and more to do with the situation here. It's a constant state of not knowing."

Zaidi says people don't know who killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, how the U.S. raid to kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, took place, or why the country's leaders keep getting killed.

"There's a lot of questions that just never get answered," Zaidi says. "And it's not the job of Hillary Clinton or President Obama to answer those questions. These are Pakistani questions, that the Pakistani people are asking.

"The only people who can answer these questions are the Pakistani government, and they don't have any answers."

Zaidi says it's not an exaggeration to suggest Pakistanis suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Comparing the situation in the country to the war in Iraq, he says Pakistan has been the victim of thousands of suicide attacks — except, he notes, there's no actual war in Pakistan. Still, he says, there are drones in parts of the country and police check posts everywhere.

"There's a constant feed of suicide attacks coming in on people's Twitter, on their Facebook accounts, on their televisions," Zaidi says. "All you get is blood and gore."

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