What do you know?

Perspectives. Experience. These are what shape societies and worldviews; and the fact of the matter is, until you really explore the guts of an issue, what do you know?

A good friend from my university days in England paid me a surprise visit in Vienna last weekend. His name is Mohammed Afridi, but we always called him ‘Mo’.  Mo is a British national with Pakistani immigrant parents. In addition to being a stellar friend, he also happens to be one of the smartest people I know. It never takes long before we find ourselves knee-deep in some socio-political conversation over drinks – and Mo’s insights usually tend to be incendiary.

One evening though, I found myself at a loss for words. Mo and another Pakistani friend, Ali, were discussing the current state of Pakistani governance. Now, I’ve always been passionate about the Middle East, barreling though dozens of books on the topic each year, but here I felt like a rank novice. Both men solidly agreed that Musharraf and the military dictatorship were better for the country than the current civilian regime under Zardari.

What? After all I had read, this was fascinating; the generalized Western contention of Pakistan is as a harsh dictatorship and failed state, and all the news reports championing Zardari and the new government as a break from the brutal past and a chance for real democracy and civil rights – here were two people with a radically different take.

Yet their backgrounds were so different: Mo – an Anglophone Pakistani with degrees in international relations and international political economy – and Ali, a born-and-bred Pakistani from a military family. Yet, they shared what to me was a controversial view on how Pakistan should be governed.

The point wasn’t whether they are right or wrong, the point was, why didn’t I know about these views before? They posed such a strong argument based on realism, pragmatism and cultural insight that I suddenly questioned the whole Western analysis. There is always a deeper level to the debate, and in the age of armchair generals and so-called experts who’ve learned all they know from the confines of libraries, exposure to the real places and the real people are indispensable to a real understanding to a country and its society.

Anyway, Mo had a great trip, and while he is now in Ghana saving the world, I’m stuck with a whole new discourse, which I’m desperately trying to come to grips with…

– Justin McCauley

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