For a country of its geopolitical stature, Pakistan remains a mystery to Western nations. On campus, there is little discussion of Pakistan outside of history classes, even at a time when the United States is aligning itself ever closer to the country. For those who view it from the lens of the international media, Pakistan is a land of religious extremism, perpetual violence, nuclear proliferation and the root of global terrorism. But Pakistani students on campus urge others to look at the nation closer and see a country exploring values like democracy and judicial independence and evolving a progressive culture — exhibited by an internationally acclaimed cast of writers, musicians and filmmakers.

To understand Pakistan, one need not reconcile these alternating views but instead view the trajectory of its character from an orphan of colonial India to the nuclear-armed state of today. While many blindly term it a terrorist state, Pakistani students argue otherwise. They see Pakistan as a complicated country of 170 million people, divided along ethnic, linguistic, political and economic lines. It is a country yet to settle on being a secular state — as envisioned by its founder — or a religious one the successive politicians found more convenient. More importantly, it has yet to decide on its system of governance. Its 63 years have been divided among military dictators and civilian democrats — all of whom nurtured a ruling elite that manipulated the masses and shaped a policy that served their own interests.

These trends shape the country’s fragile, but increasingly crystallized, identity. It is nationalist and conservative in terms of country and religion. Beyond that, it is diverse and pluralistic, best personified by the 70-plus television channels that brew a mixture of political talk shows, Hollywood movies and religious programs.

Crucially, Pakistan’s identity is becoming more assertive, perhaps as a result of a growing comfort with its unique nature or with the perceived injustice that the country feels was meted out from the West. Today, Pakistanis criticize the Taliban’s brutality, the incompetence and corruption of successive governments and discrete American operations in their country with equal measure. A dichotomy has emerged: The ruling class looks to the West for support while the lower classes insist focus should shift to domestic problems like electricity shortages and education reform.

The only thing more complicated than this dichotomy is the actual relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. During the Cold War era, Pakistan nestled itself in the American camp, using the relationship as a defensive hedge against India. However, just as the Soviet disintegration signaled a completion of the United States’ short-term interests in the region, the marriage was over. The military hardware and billions of dollars of aid were replaced with suffocating sanctions and international isolation during the 1990s.

Sept. 11, 2001 changed all of that. Pakistan was recalled to reprise its role as the weapon of choice during George Bush’s ‘War on Terror.’ However, two things were different this time. First, the enemy in the region was the Taliban, an entity Pakistan had nurtured to protect its interests in the region during its isolation phase. And second, the Pakistani generals, who ran the country at the time, had learned a thing or two from the time when the Americans had ‘deserted’ them. They played a delicate dance, differentiating between the Taliban who were on their side and those they felt were dispensable. The reward was more than $18 billion in military and civilian aid, which jumpstarted a fast but uneven economy. The price was the development of a domestic insurgency, fueled by an irate section of the Taliban who felt Pakistan had sold them out.

Today, Pakistan stands at the crossroads. The three major issues it needs to tackle are how to reconcile its infant democratic project with the burgeoning economic crisis, counter its domestic insurgency while controlling the ungovernable parts of the country and deal with the U.S. At stake is the potential of 170 million people and the peace and security of the international community.

This Saturday in the Michigan League, for the first time in Ann Arbor, speakers from across the country will come together to discuss Pakistan and its relationship with the United States. Presented by the Pakistani Students Association on campus, the 2010 University of Michigan Pakistan Conference provides a window into multiple issues, initiating dialogue and debate between students and experts in the field. My hope is that this knowledge will enable students to forge a more objective understanding of a country so critical to American foreign policy at this time and provide future leaders greater context as they influence policy related to Pakistan and other developing countries.

Umair Qureshi is the newsletter editor for the Pakistani Students’ Association.

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