Published: September 2007

Balochistan Woman

Struggle for the Soul of Pakistan

Sixty years after its founding as a homeland for India's Muslims, Pakistan straddles the fault line between moderate and militant Islam. Its dilemma is a cautionary tale for the post-9/11 world.

By Don Belt
National Geographic Staff
Photograph by Reza

If there is an address, an exact location for the rift tearing Pakistan apart, and possibly the world, it is a spot 17 miles (28 kilometers) west of Islamabad called the Margalla Pass. Here, at a limestone cliff in the middle of Pakistan, the mountainous west meets the Indus River Valley, and two ancient, and very different, civilizations collide. To the southeast, unfurled to the horizon, lie the fertile lowlands of the Indian subcontinent, realm of peasant farmers on steamy plots of land, bright with colors and the splash of serendipitous gods. To the west and north stretch the harsh, windswept mountains of Central Asia, land of herders and raiders on horseback, where man fears one God and takes no prisoners.

This is also where two conflicting forms of Islam meet: the relatively relaxed and tolerant Islam of India, versus the rigid fundamentalism of the Afghan frontier. Beneath the surface of Pakistan, these opposing forces grind against each other like two vast geologic plates, rattling teacups from Lahore to London, Karachi to New York. The clash between moderates and extremists in Pakistan today reflects this rift, and can be seen as a microcosm for a larger struggle among Muslims everywhere. So when the earth trembles in Pakistan, the world pays attention.

Travel 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers) across this troubled country, as I did recently, and it becomes obvious that, 60 years after its founding, Pakistan still occupies unsettled ground. Traumatized by multiple wars with India, a parade of military strongmen (including the current president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf), and infighting among ethnic groups—Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi, Pashtun—Pakistan's 165 million people have never fully united as one nation, despite being 97 percent Muslim. To hold the country together, successive governments have spent billions on the military, creating a pampered and self-serving monolith of mostly Punjabi generals while neglecting the basic needs of the people, for justice, health, education, security, and hope. Lately, these grievances have spilled onto the streets, as lawyers and other opponents challenge Pakistan's military government and demand a return to civilian, democratic rule. Meanwhile, six years after 9/11, the forces of Islamic radicalism are gaining strength and challenging Pakistan's moderate majority for the soul of the country.

It's not just the surging homegrown Taliban, which in one two-week period this year scorched and bloodied the streets of half a dozen cities with suicide bombs. Or the al Qaeda fighters who prowl the western mountains of Waziristan, butchering anyone suspected of being an American spy. Just as chilling are the "night letters" posted on public buildings, warning that all girls, upon threat of death, must wear head-to-toe burkas and stop attending school. Or, in a rising tide of intimidation, the murders of teachers and doctors and human rights workers accused of "crimes against Islam." But perhaps the most telling evidence of all was my encounter with a 22-year-old woman named Umme Ayman, who seemed all too eager to die.

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