Pakistan: Reverse Culture Shock?

Oct 252011

The glorious, several hundred feet tall minaret of Khalid Masjid, in one of Lahore’s peaceful residential areas, looks over a courtyard that once used to be a calm parking space for the namazi (prayer men). But today, it is populated by armed watchmen, posted in different corners of the mosque like flagpoles. The place still appears 'calm' (read quiet), but the presence of guards with their double-barreled guns pointed in the air and the sight of barricades at entry and exit points is menacing, to say the least.

Occasionally, the quiet is stirred by the noise of the engine of a random military jeep patrolling the streets in the distance. This is my first Friday back home from Washington, D.C. — where I went on a 5-week training fellowship with the International Center for Journalists, or ICFJ — and it marks my re-introduction to some of the bitter facts about living in my own country, i.e., Pakistan.

As I see the namazi getting into the mosque through the sprawl of the iron fence and the prying eyes of the security men, I wonder if meditation is still possible when fear is struck in your heart. And, I am reminded how a common Pakistani’s peace of mind has been near-hijacked by an ‘imminent’ threat of a terrorist attack at just about any public venue, a worship place being no exception.

At any given street in the city, you meet a check-post every few yards, with security personnel ready to stop your vehicle and frisk whoever they deem ‘suspicious’ (of possessing illegal weapons or something). But, suspicious or not, it is not possible for you to drive through, without worrying about getting late to work or just incurring an inconvenience.

Unfortunately, the worship places have come to be recognized as having an even greater likelihood of a terrorist incident. Pakistan has a history of sectarian violence that has roots in the basic conflict of beliefs between the Sunni Muslims and the Shia minority in the country. Of late, this has meant life attacks on religious leaders of one community that led to attacks on the leaders of the other community as part of revenge. Last year, we topped our records when a bunch of unidentified militants fired guns and hurled grenades at the namazi inside a prominent Ahmadiyya worship place in Lahore, quickly followed by three suicide blasts in its premises, which killed at least 80 innocent people and wounded many. Ahmaddiya is a religious sect that has been ghettoized by the extremists as “infidels” and also victimized for its claims to Islam.

Khalid Masjid in the cantonment area was never really considered vulnerable, because of its location and also because its imams (prayer leaders) aren’t known to have taken any controversial leads on religious matters. Yet, for the mosque administration to have to beef up security — over just a month’s time — does not bode too well for the common people living in the neighborhood.

Indeed, these are emergency times for Pakistan. Wistfully, my mind drifts back to my visit to the ADAMS Center in Virginia with my group mates, during the course of our fellowship, in early October this year. Nestled comfortably among the Blue Ridge mountains, the mosque looked a complete picture of serenity. And, when its operation supervisor, Mr. Tanweer Khan, told us how the Center receives faithfuls from practically all sects of Islam and that the administration has to organize two Jumma (Friday) congregations every week in order to accommodate a large number of namazi, it all seemed too good to be true.