FRONTLINE/World reporter and producer Sharmeen Obaid is the first woman in her family to be educated in the West. At the age of 23, she produced her first film. Terror's Children examined the plight of Afghan refugees in Pakistan -- and earned her the American Women in Radio and Television Award for Individual Achievement for Best Reporter/Correspondent. In March 2004, FRONTLINE/World interactive producer Angela Morgenstern interviewed Obaid by telephone to find out why she returned to her native Pakistan and brought back "On a Razor's Edge."
FRONTLINE/World reporter and producer Sharmeen Obaid in
You were born and raised in Pakistan but are currently a graduate student at Stanford. What took you from the middle of your studies in Palo Alto back to Pakistan?
I think the story of what's happening in Pakistan right now
is very important. And since I grew up there, and I know the
people and the political climate, I think it's imortant for
me as a Pakistani to tell the story. My generation hasn't seen
this sort of excitement about peace with India ever. And I think
it's a story that's worth telling -- two countries that have
been at odds for 56 years are extending a hand of friendship
to each other. I think that was an important story for me to
bring back to the United States.
Talk about your background. I've read that you grew up in a progressive Islamic society, listening to Guns and Roses and U2 --
There are a lot of people like me in Pakistan. The general
perception of Pakistan as being very conservative is wrong.
People I grew up with had the same Western values as many people
in the United States have; they go on holidays abroad and have
parents who were secular. I come from a religious family in
the sense that everyone prays, but Islam was not forced down
When we were growing up, we were taught that Islam was a progressive
religion, and that really factors into who I am today. I grew
up in an Islamic society, but I have the values of the West
incorporated into me as well. I studied in an English high school
in Pakistan, did my undergraduate work in the United States
and now I'm studying for my master's here. I can tell people
in the U.S. what Pakistan is feeling, being Pakistani myself
and being able to mingle with the people and speak the language.
But I also understand how to present things to the West.
How do you think that your subjects viewed you? Did they see you as a Western-influenced journalist?
Actually, no, they didn't. Most people asked me where I went
to school. And I went to school in Karachi. And they asked me
where my parents were from, and they live in Karachi, so they
automatically viewed me as Pakistani, which I rightly am! Like
thousands of Pakistanis, I've only come to study in the United
States and that doesn't necessarily make me someone from the
You interviewed people with a wide variety of perspectives
on Islam. Did you change your approach in each?
Being Muslim myself, when I interviewed Islamic clerics, I made sure
to cover my head and I tended to speak softly; I couldn't be that
aggressive. I'm not a Western journalist, so I have to respect
a lot of boundaries. First, I'm a woman. A lot of people aren't
comfortable talking to women. So I have to make sure that they
become comfortable being around a young woman who they might not
necessarily want to interact with... .
FRONTLINE/World reporter and producer Sharmeen Obaid interviewing Pakistani politician and religious leader Sami ul-Haq.
How do you do that?
I talk sports. I do that a lot ... . I talk sports with people
to make them comfortable with me.
Just like here in the United States --
Yes, like here. Except there we talk about cricket ... .
I think that one of the other things that I've learned is
that since I'm a young woman I'm not considered a threat. And
that is an important, important tool to have in your hands.
When you are not considered a threat you can get away with asking
questions that nobody else can get away with.
What was it like interviewing General Mirza Aslam Beg, who denied allegations that he was involved in Pakistan's underground nuclear proliferation program?
The interview with General Beg was intimidating. He is very
well respected in a lot of places in Pakistan, and he's very
high up there on the ladder of intellectual/political people
in Pakistan. It was intimidating because I am a 25-year-old
woman, and I was asking him, "Why have you not been arrested
yet?" ... I think that shook him a little bit.
You also met with Sami ul-Haq, best known for his sympathies with Taliban ideology. He said some pretty provocative things about the West and Western designs on Pakistan's nuclear capabilities, including that the West wants Pakistanis "to be tied up like goats and sheep, and whenever they wish they will slaughter us." How prevalent do you think his view is?
I think uneducated people share his view.
People [in the West] need to understand what the nuclear bomb
means to Pakistan. They don't view the bomb as just a bomb.
It's close to people's hearts because they finally feel that
they've been able to achieve something that other more developed
countries have had. Islam was a very progressive, intellectual
religion at one point in time and now nobody associates those
qualities with Islam. And to have ... something the developed
countries in the world have, that an exclusive club of countries
in the world has, is very important for Pakistanis. ... And
that is why there has been such a backlash from people in Pakistan
[about] the nuclear situation.
Ul-Haq also says he doesn't think that the Western world understands the gravity of the Kashmir issue.
Without the issue of Kashmir being solved, there can never be
peace in the Indian subcontinent. Right now the peace gestures
that we are seeing are well and good, and they are very good for
both countries because people-to-people contact is increasing
and trade is finally getting under way. But I think people in
Pakistan and India, including both the Pakistani army and the
Indian army, have vested interests in Kashmir. ...
Obaid in front of a mosque in Lahore, Pakistan.
entire organizations have been centered around Kashmir, including
Pakistan's and India's intelligence agencies. ... I think that
it's not an issue that can just be solved overnight. The West
should push both the countries to put Kashmir on the table as
soon as they can. Because unless the issue is solved, I think
it's going to be a vicious cycle and we're going to go back to
almost lobbing nuclear weapons at each other.
Can you talk about your experience interviewing "Shahzad,"
the clandestine jihadi fighting for Kashmir's independence from
I was lucky to find someone who belonged to a banned militant
organization, who had fought in Kashmir and who recruited people
to go with him, and who actually knew the place inside out because
I got an insider's view of what people like him think. I was
told that I could meet with him if I did not name his organization
and if I would leave my camera behind until I got inside the
building. And also if we could do it in such a way that his
face was covered and there was only limited lighting so no one
could tell where we were. I was a little scared, I would say,
because I didn't know where I was being taken.
Were you blindfolded?
No, but it was really dark. I had no idea where I was going.
I was unfamiliar with the area. I was way outside the city.
We set up and did the interview by candlelight so nobody could
see where we were ... . We weren't allowed to put on any lights.
But from the get-go, he was extremely vocal about his point
of view and very excited to tell me his side of the story.
"Shahzad" said he didn't think that Pakistani fundamentalists were responsible for the assassination attempts against Musharraf.
Yes. And there are other people inside Pakistan who believe
that outside agencies are trying to get rid of Musharraf because
he has a very favorable relationship with the United States.
But the majority of people in Pakistan [think] that it's the
work of Islamic jihadi organizations who are trying to get rid
of Musharraf because his policies have become too hard. He's
cracked down severely on religious jihadi parties. He's cracked
down severely on religious jihadi parties and on militant organizations
in Pakistan. He has had their offices closed down and has had
them arrested. He's making them run out of Pakistan. That's
his goal. ... And I think too many people feel that he is not
serving their vested interests.
The crux of your story is this idea that Musharraf is a changed man after the attempts on his life. Can you talk briefly about the assassination attempts?
I think that having the window shield of your car blown off
hits home the fact that the terrorists have come too close and
that's exactly what happened to Musharraf. I think that Musharraf
has realized that he can't play two games at the same time.
He can't appease the liberals and the people in the West while
simultaneously appeasing the Islamic fundamentalists at home.
He has to choose. And he's chosen to be with the West and to
go after al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. I think
that the turning point was the second assassination attempt
on his own life.
You went on this journey to find out, among other things,
how Pakistani people felt about Musharraf as a leader. Did response
to Musharraf change as you traveled to different parts of the
My first stop was Lahore. Lahore is an old city with a lot of cultural
values, but in the last five years there have been giant steps
toward modernization. People there are a mix -- old and conservative
but not fundamentalist.
Obaid gauges opinions on the streets
of Rawalpindi, Pakistan, about recent assassination attempts
against President Pervez Musharraf.
In Lahore, Musharraf is quite popular, especially with the educated and middle
classes. I think he's also very popular with a lot of the lower
classes, who feel that he is doing something for the country
on the economic front.
In Peshawar, where I went to see the religious leader Sami ul-Haq, people ... view Musharraf as a stooge of the West. And, of course, in the capital city of Islamabad, he's the president and nobody dares to say anything against him. When I was in Rawalpindi, where the bomb blast [one of the assassination attempts on Musharraf] happened, there were some people who said that Musharraf was blaming the nuclear scientists unfairly.
What's your personal impression of Musharraf?
Let me start by saying that when I was growing up we had martial law under Zia [General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq], one of the most intense dictators. And then we had Benazir Bhutto. And [Mian Muhammad] Nawaz Sharif, who came democratically and who messed up the country royally. I've come to realize that Pakistan is not ready for democracy yet.
I feel that President Musharraf is the best leader that we can have, given the situation. I think he's handled the 9/11 pressures remarkably well. I think he's handling the internal Islamic fundamentalist pressures very well. ... I think that he is a man the West can understand and relate to. He has grown up in Turkey, he views Turkey's secular model as a model for Pakistan, perhaps in the future. He's educated, he's well spoken, he knows what Pakistan's needs are right now. I frankly feel that no other leader would have been able to do half as good a job as he is doing.
What kind of support does Musharraf enjoy in the parliament?
A president is just supposed to be a figurehead. He's not
supposed to make important decisions. President Musharraf makes
all the decisions -- foreign policy, domestic policy, trade,
everything. People who have been elected to power by the populace
basically have no power per se because they're just people in
the parliament who are confined to having debates. They can't
really formulate the foreign policy unless Musharraf accepts
what they do. They can't formulate the domestic policy unless
Musharraf supports it. They kind of feel left behind. And they
So he's a really, really key figure in terms of what's going to happen in Pakistan's future.
He is the only figure. I wouldn't even say the key figure.
If something were to happen to him tomorrow, I don't know what
would happen to Pakistan.
You went to Pakistan in some ways looking for a hopeful story. Did you find it?
I was naïve when I went into Pakistan. I thought that peace
was a reality. But when I interviewed "Shahzad," I realized that
even though friendship gestures are being incorporated on both
sides of the border, until the issue of Kashmir is solved, this
peace is a house of cards that is waiting to fall.
Obaid talks with a street vendor in
Lahore, Pakistan, during the spring kite-flying festival
You know, I think for me the most important thing in all of
this was that I bring back a story that people can relate to
here in the West. Why should India and Pakistan relations be
important to the West? I think that's a question many people
would wonder about. Pakistan is not exactly Canada for the United
States, and neither is India. ... I think it's important for
people here to understand that what happens between these two
countries will have repercussions for the rest of the world
-- whether the world likes it or not -- because both these countries
have nuclear weapons along with high levels of poverty and illiteracy
[Editor's Note: This page was modified on April 2, 2004 to
correct a factual error regarding military spending in Pakistan
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