In a recent NPR interview, National Book Award finalist Daniyal Mueenuddin spoke with arresting candor about Pakistan, using the word “feudalism” to describe the structure of life in the Indus River Valley where his family owns land.
This exchange between Mueenuddin and NPR host Steve Inskeep especially struck me:
INSKEEP: Does anybody think that the system in Pakistan is fair, is just?
Mr. MUEENUDIN: No, nobody thinks that. In Pakistan there’s just such disparities in wealth. There’s so many who don’t have enough and there are few who have way too much.
INSKEEP: Do people widely believe in Pakistan that if a poor person or a poor family works hard, works honestly, and plays by the rules that they could someday get ahead?
Mr. MUEENUDIN: No, they don’t. One of the things I’ve observed in Pakistan is that because people for generations have been living just at the edge of true desperation, they’re very, very averse to innovation.
At my farm, for example, you’ll see a guy who’s, say – I’m exaggerating, but he’s moving dirt from point A to point B and he’s carrying it in a little bucket. And I’ll say, hey, why don’t, like, four of you get together and get a big platform, put all the dirt on that platform and then pick it up and move it over to the other place, wherever you want to move it? And they’re reluctance to do it is puzzling and exasperating. And I think the reason is that innovation is dangerous. If you aspire, you can achieve, but you can also fail, and I think that failure is much more costly in a place like Pakistan than it is in, say, America.
INSKEEP: You have no margin for error.
Mr. MUEENUDIN: Exactly. If you do something new and it turns out to be a bad idea, you could fall very far.
Yet, Pakistan finds itself afflicted by terrorism — some of it carried out by suicide bombers, zealots who embrace a new, bad idea and “fall very far” all the way to death.
Mueenuddin explained the disproportionate power of violent extremists like this:
You see, one thing that you have to understand is that one guy who’s willing to die for his belief is equal to 100 who aren’t. These guys are fanatic, and therefore I think that you can’t underestimate the threat from them, especially in a poor country like Pakistan, where most people are cowed and are unable because of their circumstance to resist.