One Family Divided on Islam - by Hannah Bloch, Ghulam Hasnain Back   Home  
Inside the sunny flat where Attiya Dawood lives with her family in Karachi's trendy Zamzama district, the TV is on full blast. Her two young daughters are engrossed in a children's show on an Indian channel, giggling and bouncing to the thumping beat of Who Let the Dogs Out. The walls are filled with miniature art by Attiya's husband, colorful paintings that comment on the role of women in Pakistani society. Attiya, 43, is busy cooking lunch in the kitchen. Shelves are cluttered with family photos, art books, novels. It is a joyful home, bustling and alive.

Aslam Larik, 54, Attiya's elder brother, lives about half-an-hour's drive—and an entire world—away. At his apartment in the Karachi Engineering University's staff colony, a simple, sober message printed in Arabic and English greets visitors at the front door: ALLAH IS THE BEST PROVIDER OF ALL. Inside, the drab walls are devoid of decoration, bare but for a calendar. There is no television on the TV stand, but in its place sits a Koran wrapped lovingly in an embroidered shawl. The women are sequestered, and a peaceful silence prevails.

Brother and sister come from the same tiny village in Pakistan's rural Sind province and were raised by the same parents. But they have chosen two radically different paths. Attiya is a poet and women's rights activist. Unlike many Pakistani women, she married the man she loved, the painter Khuda Bux Abro, and is so unconcerned with the trappings of religion that acquaintances sometimes ask if she is even a Muslim. Attiya's thoroughly modern girls, aged 7 and 11, wear T shirts, jeans and short, sleeveless dresses and read Enid Blyton novels and the Guinness Book of World Records. But when they get a rare visit from Aslam and his family, things become tense. Aslam is a zealous member of Pakistan's Tableeghi Jamaat, a massive, well-organized Islamic proselytizing movement. His forehead bears a permanent mark from touching the ground in prayer. His wife, like most Pakistani women, does not work, and keeps her head and face covered by a veil. At Attiya's home, she complains that there is nowhere to pray, because Islam forbids prayer in the presence of human images like those shown in Abro's paintings. Attiya loves her brother, but, she says, "I don't want to meet him again and again." For Aslam, it is equally awkward. On the few occasions when Attiya visits, he always demands that she don a veil before entering his home, and she always refuses.

And so it goes, as it has for decades. Attiya and Aslam are the two faces of Pakistan, a country struggling to reconcile its dueling natures—a majority that is moderate in matters of religion and politics, and a vocal, well-organized minority that can be heavy-handed and obscurantist. Attiya and Aslam represent the two sides of the divide. With university degrees, they are better educated than most of their countrymen—the national literacy rate is less than 40%—but the choices they have made and the paths they have taken in life mirror the choices that a polarized Pakistan must also make. Should the nation move forward and be part of the modern world? Or will it seek answers from the past and retreat into a rigid interpretation of Islam? Can it do both? The sometimes violent clash between progressive moderates and dogmatic hard-liners is increasingly defining Pakistan—when it should be the resolution of that conflict that defines it instead.

Orphaned a year after its birth 54 years ago—when its founder and main visionary, the secular-minded lawyer Muhammad Ali Jinnah, died—the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has always suffered from an identity crisis. Born out of bloodshed, chaos, pride and insecurity, Pakistan was created as a homeland for India's Muslims—its very name means "land of the spiritually pure"—but Jinnah, who favored a pluralistic democracy, never envisioned a theocratic state. His successors had other ideas, and 30 years after Jinnah was gone, the military dictator General Zia ul-Haq shackled the country's fortunes to religion with a decade-long Islamization drive from which Pakistan has never recovered.

After the terrorist attacks on America, Pakistan finds itself at a crossroads. In a country where Islamic radicals have become increasingly bold and influential, President Pervez Musharraf had to choose between appeasing them (by siding with Afghanistan's Taliban regime) or cooperating with the U.S. in its all-out war on terrorism. Either way, the repercussions for Pakistan would be enormous, but Musharraf, who criticized extremists for "holding the country hostage," sided with the U.S. "I know the majority of the people favor our decision," he said in a national address.

Even so, Musharraf had to couch his decision in religious terms, calling Pakistan a "fortress of Islam" and drawing inspiration from the Prophet Muhammad's example. Musharraf and his advisers are well aware of piety's place in Pakistan. There is a groundswell of people turning, or returning, to Islam for answers. Some do so as a rejection of America and Western values; others are seeking hope and a sense of purpose in an ever more dismal and disillusioning national scene. "This is a generation of hopelessness," says former National Assembly member Daniyal Aziz, "and people need hope to get by." Pakistan's institutions are weak, its political leaders are discredited and its economy is a shambles. An explosion of religious seminaries has filled the vacuum caused by a deficient government education system; a million children are enrolled in medressas and emerge qualified only for religious work. Housewives and grandmothers who used to spend their mornings gossiping and getting manicures are diligently attending Koran study groups.

In a country awash in illegal weapons, violence is inevitably part of the picture. And it isn't restricted to the illiterate and the destitute, those most susceptible to the pull of extremism. Even the sons of some wealthy businessmen are growing beards and joining the jihad against India over the disputed territory of Kashmir, often to the dismay of their secular-leaning families. Others sign up for local wars: more than 100 Pakistanis have been killed in sectarian attacks since the beginning of this year. In recent months, minority Shia professionals, especially doctors, have been targeted for assassination. Doctors are among the best educated and most successful Shia professionals in Pakistan, and their murders are particularly intimidating. In July, the chairman of Pakistan State Oil, a respected Shia executive, was gunned down in broad daylight in Karachi on his way to his office. Musharraf's government has promised tough new laws to prevent such attacks—but it has been unable to tackle the root causes of intolerance, including hate-filled propaganda purveyed by many medressas and mosques.

Karachi, the densely packed southern port where Attiya and Aslam live, encompasses all the tensions of Pakistan. At one end of the city, well-dressed young men and women pay $20 on a Saturday night to drink and dance at an exclusive disco. At the other end, an entire neighborhood enforces prayer, bans cable TV and even smashes its television sets in Taliban-style protest. Attiya believes that such pockets of extreme piousness and intolerance will spread more widely. "In a few years, Pakistan and Afghanistan will be the same," she says. Karachi has just brought in a rabidly conservative mayor from the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest and most powerful religious party. The white-bearded, temperamental Naimatullah Khan, who was indirectly elected in August, said his first priority would be to impose Islamic Shari'a law on Pakistan's biggest city (pop. 14 million), although observers tend to regard that as unlikely to happen. Even without Mayor Khan at the helm, things have been uncomfortable for Attiya. Her work has attracted hate mail over the years; some accuse her of being a prostitute and a puppet of the West. Her brother Aslam was furious when she published her first poem as a teenager, and he forbade her to use Larik, the family name. She then adopted her father's first name, but it took her ages to feel brave enough to write again. Three years ago, she received death threats that made her consider staying at home and never writing again. But she re-emerged as outspoken as ever, walking out of a poetry reading that began with a religious verse and arguing on a TV panel discussion that Islam was detrimental to women; Pakistan Television censors chopped out most of her comments.

These days, she is mostly worried about the future her girls will find in an increasingly religious milieu. "The first thing Islam does is remove women," she says. "Islam and the modern world cannot coexist." She was horrified when her daughters' prestigious private school ordered little Suhaee to cover her head with a white veil every Friday, and when 11-year-old Soonha—whose preferred attire is a T shirt and jeans—was punished for refusing to wear a maroon sash across her chest. "When my daughter wore a dupatta (veil), I saw tears in her eyes," says Attiya. She can empathize: as a teenager, she was forced by Aslam to wear the all-enveloping burka whenever she went out in public. In a poem titled I Do Not Accept This, she writes: "Every woman knows/ That respectability is not simply/ Wearing a dupatta on your head/ Which you, Khomeini-style/ Order us to wear."

Across town, Aslam sits at home with his 27-year-old son Nadeem, a gregarious civil engineer who spends his spare time proselytizing. "As teenagers, we always ran away from preachers," Aslam says softly. "We thought if we followed them, they would get God's favor, not us." As Aslam grew older, though, religion became more important. The preachers he followed were his own sons. He had always prayed five times a day but became more devout seven years ago when his youngest son, Masood, then 16, asked permission to grow a beard and join the Tableeghi Jamaat. Nadeem had already done so. Motivated by their example, Aslam entered the movement, which emphasizes the importance of preaching and bringing others into the Muslim fold. "It is in my blood," he declares. He says his increased commitment to Islam makes him feel more at peace, more comfortable with the world: "Money and materialistic things can't give people a feeling of peace." And so father and sons take holidays from work and travel the length and breadth of the country, preaching God's word wherever the movement assigns them to go. They stay in mosques and try to attract more followers. And the followers come in droves. The annual Tableeghi Jamaat convention in Karachi attracts more than half a million people.

As a young Muslim, Nadeem, Aslam's bespectacled son, is coping with the apparent contradictions of modern life. He likes to surf the Internet for Urdu translations of the Koran, and says it would be a tragedy if people were forced to get rid of their computers. But he sold the family's un-Islamic TV a year or two back. He admits to listening to pop music, very quietly, on headphones, but says he feels guilty about it. "Listening to music is wrong," he says, "but I still do it." He and the family deposit their money at an Islamic bank that does not pay interest—which is prohibited by Islamic law—and he forbade photographs at his arranged marriage in August. His new wife is a schoolteacher, but he doesn't want her to work. "Nadeem asked me to buy a burka as a wedding gift for his new wife," says Attiya, "but I said no." Nadeem describes his aunt as his "very, very, very good friend," and he admires her work helping victims of domestic violence. But their different approaches to life—secular vs. religious—have become a running joke. "Nadeem, your job should have been to come to me and make me a good Muslim," Attiya tells him. "I know I can never convince you," he sighs good-naturedly.

But Nadeem has rejected Islam's more military strains. As an 18-year-old university student, he was recruited for training as a mujahedin fighter in Afghanistan. He lasted two days, then returned home. He won't discuss the experience, other than to say: "Their intentions weren't good." In the past 10 years, six of his college friends trained to fight the jihad in Kashmir; all of them died. "They absolutely wasted their lives," he says. "It's all politics. These groups aren't interested in the system of God." He makes no secret of his contempt for hard-line militants. "Islam is against any sort of extremism," he says. "These groups are defaming Islam. Islam never preaches blood for blood."

The signs on the road to Larik, the family's ancestral village 250 km north of Karachi, suggest otherwise. Visiting for the first time in eight years, Attiya is struck by the number of jihad slogans scrawled on the roadside walls. They weren't there before, but Kashmiri militant groups now recruit fighters from all over Pakistan, even in the remotest areas. Sind province is known for its mellowness; Sufism, the most tolerant brand of Islam, flourishes in the numerous shrines. So it is jarring to see the invasion of graffiti along Sind's national highway, which cuts through vast fields of cotton, wheat and sugarcane, exhorting Muslims to kill Hindus and Westerners. VICTORY OR MARTYRDOM reads a sign by Lashkar-i-Tayyaba, one of the most influential Kashmir militant outfits. DEATH TO THE INFIDELS reads another. Attiya laughs. "Their infidels include all of us," she says, gesturing to her husband and young daughters. The slogans, which started appearing a year or two ago, creep up almost to the edge of her village. But for Larik's residents, Kashmir is as distant as the moon. "We feel sad for what is happening there," says one, "but we don't have the commitment to fight." Attiya and Aslam come from a long line of religious scholars, going back at least seven generations. Their forefathers all memorized the Koran, and the house where they were born in Larik, on the left bank of the river Indus, was on Mullah Street, so called because of their family's traditional profession. But their father, a poet, rebelled. He threw off his religious mantle and started a school for girls. As a child, Attiya was surrounded by the rhythms and cadences of his poetry, and she followed in his footsteps, writing in her native Sindhi about the injustices women face in an Islamic society. Her mother was married off to her father at age 13; he was 60. By the time she turned 30, she was already a widow with three children to care for. Attiya knew from childhood that she would only wed for love. She married when she was 31; when Aslam found out, he felt scandalized by her love match and informal wedding.

It has been so long since Attiya has visited Larik that she hardly knows the way. She finally recognizes the blue-and-white-tiled mosque where her ancestors used to preach—and where she, as a child, avoided praying. The village is more congested now, and her old family home is gone, but she knows the way to her niece's house, where she and her daughters receive an enthusiastic welcome. Attiya pays a quick visit to her maternal uncle, Muhammad Larik, a 70-year-old maulana, or religious scholar. He tried to persuade Attiya to attend a medressa when she was a rebellious child but, he says now, "it was not her path." Attiya and the girls are almost immediately ushered into the women's quarters of his home. With money from Saudi donors, Larik recently built a mosque across a small field outside his house. He concedes that relatively few come to pray there—about 10 families in a village of 200—but that does not discourage him.

The maulana frets about his niece's progressive beliefs. "I'm not just worried about Attiya, but about all such people," he says. "It is up to God to forgive her." In turn, Attiya worries about people like her brother and uncle—but it is her own intolerance that troubles her most. She lashes out in one of her poems at those who "brandish religion like a sword." She says, "The mistake made by intellectuals and the learned class, including myself, is that we avoid meeting religious people. I myself am very rigid and I don't like meeting them." Coming from the same family helps keep Attiya and Aslam from open conflict—but their troubled country lacks such a mediating force. As Pakistan aids the U.S. in the coming weeks, its vocal hard-line minority—already urging a jihad against the U.S. and openly warning of civil war—will surely try to drown out the moderate majority. In doing so, it threatens to upset the delicate balance of the nation, and that of families like Attiya and Aslam's.
This article was published in Time magazine.