Frontline World

PAKISTAN - On A Razor's Edge, March 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "On a Razor's Edge"

Assessing Musharraf's Predicament

The Brink of Peace

Reporting on the Nuclear Scandal

Background, Government, Issues

India/Pakistan Relations, Islamic Fundamentalism, Media Resources




Interview With Sharmeen Obaid: The Brink of Peace

Reporter and producer Sharmeen Obaid

FRONTLINE/World reporter and producer Sharmeen Obaid in Lahore, Pakistan.
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."

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 your throat.

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 West.

You interviewed people with a wide variety of perspectives on Islam. Did you change your approach in each?

Sharmeen Obaid interviewing Pakistani politician and religious leader Sami ul-Haq

FRONTLINE/World reporter and producer Sharmeen Obaid interviewing Pakistani politician and religious leader Sami ul-Haq.
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... .

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.

Obaid in front of a mosque in Lahore, Pakistan.

Obaid in front of a mosque in Lahore, Pakistan.
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. ...

And 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 India?

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 country?

Obaid talking to men in the streets

Obaid gauges opinions on the streets of Rawalpindi, Pakistan, about recent assassination attempts against President Pervez Musharraf.
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.

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 feel alienated.

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?

Obaid talks with a street vendor

Obaid talks with a street vendor in Lahore, Pakistan, during the spring kite-flying festival of Basant.
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.

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 rates.

[Editor's Note: This page was modified on April 2, 2004 to correct a factual error regarding military spending in Pakistan and India.]

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