Three Driving Issues of Pakistan

Going to business school can be expensive.  Luckily, business schools such as IMD offer scholarships based on an essay competition.  I was fortunate to win the $28,000 Shell and IMD MBA Alumni Scholarship based on an essay competition.

I am obviously grateful to Shell and IMD MBA Alumni for the much needed financing of my MBA.  Just as these guys partially financed my education – I will be donating that same amount ($28,000) to The Citizens Foundation over the next decade  of my life to finance a few other peoples education.  That amount is equivalent to sending 243 kids to school for a single year in a developing country.  The play it forward works!

Essay question and answer:

“What are the top three driving issues (political, economic, social, etc) of your country? Explore one of them in depth, drawing upon professional and personal experiences to discuss how you would address it.”

Three major issues facing Pakistan are the country’s relation with India, its rapid population growth and the emergence of radical Islamic elements in the country. The dispute with India over Kashmir carried the region to the abyss of nuclear confrontation a few years ago; the rapid population growth neutralizes much of economic progress and radical Islamic elements pose a destabilizing threat to the country. The first two factors have a bearing on the last one, and after a brief account of them, I will explore the last one – the emergence of radical Islam – in some detail.

In many ways the dispute with India has shaped the policies of the country since its birth in 1947. Pakistan spends over 20% of its budget on military compared to less than 3% on education and 1% on health. It has gone to three wars over Kashmir and returned from the brink of a fourth and a potentially apocalyptic one. It was in the context of the relations with India that the country developed nuclear weapons and as a result faced international sanctions and all the economic harm that would entail. The atmosphere of animosity did not allow the two neighbors to benefit from mutual trade and cooperation. In an era when regional trade blocks are the order of the days, commerce between the two countries is virtually non-existent, except through third countries. Recently some progress has been witnessed in improving relations but there is still a long way to go before mutual suspicion gives way to trust.

The second issue is that of rapid population growth. At the present rate of growth of 2.1% per annum, Pakistan will overtake Brazil to become the fifth most populous country by 2020. High unemployment among youth, a growing crime rate, inadequacy of infrastructure and shortage of water and electricity are exacerbated by this rapid growth in population.

The third issue driving issue is perhaps the most intractable – that of the emergence of radical Islamic elements in the country. Pakistan has an overwhelming Muslim majority, and the people are moderate and tolerant. Unfortunately a small minority of radical Islamist have assumed a disproportionate influence, causing great harm, not least because the country has started being identified internationally with radical Islam. The fact that this perception is erroneous is irrelevant; it still affects the image of the country, makes it less competitive for business, travel and external investment. Extremism in religious matters entails intolerance of opposing views even when they are espoused by other Muslim. This has lead to violence between Shia and Sunni Muslims. These events are not common, but the headlines they generate internationally are damaging.

Perhaps the greatest damage these groups do is to thwart any progress at modernization. Because these groups are vocal, they exert an influence on policy makers far beyond their numbers. The various governments in Pakistan over the past 20 years have been paying lip-service to creating a liberal society with enlightened laws, but they have always bowed to pressure from Islamist. A case in point are the so-called Hudood laws and anti-blasphemy laws, which were imposed by the military government of Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980’s for his own political ends. The former are a set of laws that are discriminatory towards women and the latter provide for stiff penalties for blasphemy. The present government, headed by the self-proclaimed enlightened President Pervez Musharraf has so-far failed to repeal any of these laws, because of the fear of a reaction from Islamist, even though among the population in general, these laws don’t have a wide support.

In my opinion, Islamist can be exposed by a number of steps, the most important among which are:

  • Use the mass media to bring liberal ideas to people
  • Introduce reforms in the system of education
  • Bring structure and direction to the way that Islamic preachers preach

Pakistan already has an open policy towards media. International TV channels are widely available and satellite television brings world-wide ideas into millions of home. What is needed is an explicit and bold message that radical Islam is a distortion of true Islam. The true face of jihadists has to be exposed. The harm that radical Islam has done to the reputation of the religion has to be publicized. At present what is not emphasized is that the founding fathers of the country were forward-looking leaders, who stood for gender equality and personal choice in matters of religion and who opposed any role of religion in making laws of the country.

The second change that is needed is to introduce reforms in the system of education. This would involve an overhaul of the curricula is schools. This process is already underway, but it has to be accelerated. In addition to the state and private schools, Pakistan has numerous “madrassahs” or religious schools, where poor children get free room and board besides religious education. The curriculum of these religious schools should be modernized and a study of science and computers should be introduced.

Religious leaders, or “Mullahs”, do not need a license to preach. There is no formal training or certification and they can make up the messages of Islam as they please. Just as any corporate brand would suffer if it did not have leadership or centralized control over its messages, Islam suffers from the same. I would ensure that these Mullahs have some sort of licensing from the government and also be trained not to preach hate or promote gender inequality. Saudi Arabia has a centralized model and uses the Mullahs to send coherent messages which support the royal family. A lead “mullah” would be appointed for others in the country to follow.

With these steps, the influence of the radical Islam can be checked. Pakistanis have always been a tolerant people and they have rejected religious bigotry time and again whenever they were asked in elections. There is no reason to be pessimistic now.

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Amir Anzur

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