Burning Bush

The first thing you notice about a “Death to America” rally here in Pakistan is the smell: burning Bush. A certain sort of Pakistani loves torching effigies of the U.S. president. A demonstration I went to last week in Rawalpindi featured at least three flaming George W.’s. Guys in turbans were tossing them in the air, dragging them behind ropes, and beating the stuffing out of them with sticks. “Bush, dog! Bush, dog!” they yelled.

Pretty soon, someone produced an actual Bush dog: an unhappy-looking mongrel with pictures of Bush taped to his coat. A crowd formed as a man tormented the animal with shots from an aerosol can. The dog howled. The crowd laughed. Both the crowd and the dog seemed to have done this before.

In Pakistan, as everywhere, demonstrations generally unfold according to a strict choreography. A bearded mullah screams into a microphone. The crowd screams back in response. The colloquy continues until everyone is whipped into a frenzy of screaming. At this point, the protesters, many swinging bamboo sticks, sprint forward as a group, stopping just short of the police line.

It can be scary if you’re not used to it, but under most circumstances it’s less threatening than it looks. During the stampede, I watched a cameraman stumble and fall backward into a pile of burning straw. Two demonstrators immediately stopped, grabbed his arms, and pulled him up. (The cameraman, who had the look of someone who’s not sure if he’s on fire, loped off without saying “thank you.”)

In two hours, I had only one physical encounter with the crowd, when a kid of about 12 bonked me on the head with a Palestinian flag. It didn’t hurt, though, and I don’t think he meant any harm. A couple of cops saw it happen. They looked amused.

There’s a belief that the Pakistani government welcomes a certain amount of public protest against the U.S., because it siphons off discontent that might otherwise be directed at the Army, which runs the country. This makes sense. Almost anywhere in Pakistan, you’re far more likely to hear someone savagely attack Jews (a completely theoretical group here) than criticize India, which has been more or less at war with Pakistan for 50 years over Kashmir. The difference is, India is a real threat. An anti-India demonstration might evolve into criticism of the government’s Kashmir policy – why, exactly, are so many Pakistanis dying for a strategically pointless piece of land? – whereas an anti-Semitic demonstration pretty much ends with lots of shouting.

If you were to choose the two groups you’d least like to have in charge of a country, you’d probably pick the military and an angry mob. This is roughly Pakistan’s choice at the moment, between General Pervez Musharraf and his soldiers, and the mullahs and the thousands of brainwashed young men they command. At this point, Musharraf has the strong advantage. Any cabdriver will tell you that the country’s armed forces consume 70 percent of its GNP.

This is almost certainly inflated (there’s much dispute over the numbers), though from the look of it, not a ridiculous guess. Every fifth person in Islamabad seems to have a gun and a beret. Army installations are easily the best-tended properties in the country. Many look like college campuses, with fresh paint, green lawns, and professional landscaping. ISI, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, is credited with almost supernatural powers by much of the population. (When I asked about ISI at a dinner party the other night, the hostess, an affluent, educated woman who spent many years living in the U.S., rolled her eyes and made gestures, but refused to say a word out loud.) Fiery as they are, the mullahs are no match for the government.

Afghanistan could change that. The official government line is that religious extremists constitute only 10 to 15 percent of the population. This is probably right, perhaps even overstated. But it’s not religion that threatens the government as much as immigration. Millions of Afghan refugees have arrived in Pakistan since the early eighties. Most still live in mud-walled refugee camps that stretch for mile after depressing mile along the border. The refugees are widely resented by the Punjabi majority, both for economic reasons (they have taken over much of the trucking industry and other low-paying sectors of the economy) and for cultural ones. Afghan refugees are blamed for bringing crime, drugs, and guns into the country. They’re considered fierce, hotheaded, and primitive.

Some of this is bad stereotype. Some of it isn’t. There’s no question that the refugees are a volatile group, particularly unsympathetic to Musharraf and his new alliance with the United States. When they scream “Bush, dog!,” they mean it.

A friend and I were in the North-West Frontier Province the other day, about ten miles outside Peshawar in an area heavy with refugees, when our car got a flat tire. Our driver pulled into a rural service station to change it. Within minutes, a group of men gathered around the car and accused us of being spies from the CIA. One of them held a long, rusty knife. Despite our driver’s assurances that we were not from the “secret agency,” and Canadians in any case, the men became increasingly agitated. Our driver looked scared. We left quickly, and drove all the way to Peshawar on three tires and a rim.

A few days later, I was back in Rawalpindi with the same driver. There was a general strike in progress, designed to coincide with Colin Powell’s visit to Pakistan. Virtually every store was shuttered. I asked the driver why the shopkeepers, most of them moderate Punjabis like himself, had gone along with the call to close their businesses. “They like Taliban,” he said. “Everybody likes Taliban.”

Everybody? Until this moment, I’d never considered the possibility that our driver, a decent, cheery guy who had displayed no hostility to me or to the U.S., who had just moments before asked me to buy him bootleg scotch, might be sympathetic to the long-beards at the demonstrations.

But he was. Over the next ten minutes he regurgitated it all: Islamic solidarity, the Jewish conspiracy (with “al-Gore” in a prominent role), the immorality of the United States. He didn’t call anyone a dog, but I could imagine him doing it. And for the first time, I could imagine Musharraf being overthrown.

Burning Bush