The South Asia Channel

Playing with fire

The market has recently been flooded with books about Pakistan by academics, policymakers, and journalists. Many of these have sought to explain – and to some extent apologize for – contemporary Pakistani society to the western world. Pamela Constable’s Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself is the rare exception that acknowledges this goal, ...


The market has recently been flooded with books about Pakistan by academics, policymakers, and journalists. Many of these have sought to explain – and to some extent apologize for – contemporary Pakistani society to the western world. Pamela Constable’s Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself is the rare exception that acknowledges this goal, and then lives up to its appointed task. Western readers could hope for no better guide to present-day Pakistan than Constable, a veteran journalist who has reported extensively from Pakistan for over a decade with The Washington Post. Her new book is a sound introduction to Pakistan’s contradictions, inequalities, tumultuous politics, and every fluctuating national identity. 

As newspaper headlines about Pakistan policy choices become increasingly shrill, readers seeking context will find much of use in Playing with Fire. The book traces political and security developments across the country, primarily since 2007, that fateful year when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated and the army’s poor handling of a siege at the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad led to a spate of nationwide suicide bombings. In addition to political upheaval and terrorist attacks, Constable documents new laws, corruption scandals, media trends, civil society movements, and more, making her book one of the few holistic backgrounders on Pakistan.

Indeed, Playing with Fire benefits immensely from its author’s journalistic background. The book covers those aspects of Pakistan that are rarely examined in works by political scientists or retired diplomats focused on Pakistan’s security issues or regional geopolitics. Constable includes chapters on women and their divergent experiences in different social classes, upper-class Pakistanis, religious minorities, and life in rural Pakistan (in the interests of disclosure, I read an early draft of one of these chapters while Constable and I overlapped as fellows at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC).

Like good journalism, the book also combines faithful documentation with sharp analysis: Constable bookends extensive quotes from Pakistanis – whether brick kiln workers or land-owning politicians – with her own insights into Pakistan’s problems. These insights are inevitably the best nuggets in the book; for example, Constable observes that the dynamics of landed feudalism have trickled down into the contemporary industrial sector, where factor workers remain indebted to their employers.

Constable’s most profound insight into Pakistan is stated at the outset, in the book’s introduction. She argues that Pakistanis are essentially powerless: "they see the trappings of representative democracy around them but little tangible evidence of it working in their lives." The various chapters of Playing with Fire then show how this powerlessness is manifest: in the vestiges of the feudal system, in the failings of the judicial system, in the endless paperwork of a bloated bureaucracy, in the limited circles of dynastic politics, and in the ‘honor’ codes of a patriarchal society. Through characters, narratives, statistics, and direct quotes, Constable shows how Pakistanis are denied rights and opportunities in a way that perpetuates the status quo. One only wishes that with each example of a powerless Pakistani she offers, Constable reiterated the theme more explicitly for emphasis. 

Interestingly, while acknowledging their powerlessness, Constable allows Pakistanis to speak for themselves in her book. The liberal use of direct quotes provides an insight into Pakistani perceptions of global trends and political issues. Numerous excerpts from newspaper editorials and columns (including one of mine) also give a taste of public discourse within Pakistan. The country is frequently faulted for its head-in-the-sand attitude towards internal security developments, particularly the long-term fallout of cultivating militant groups. But Constable’s regular nods to Pakistani opinion-makers show that a spirited, if convoluted debate about Pakistan’s future and identity is currently underway in the country.

The most interesting chapter in Playing with Fire documents the slow ‘Talibanization’ of Pakistani society. Constable points to the diverse elements that have led many Pakistanis to equate patriotism and religiosity: the content of government-issue textbooks, the successful campaigns of religious political parties, the moralizing rhetoric of student politics, the vitriol of television talk show hosts, and the state’s foreign policy. Moreover, she uncovers how Pakistani society has evolved in a matter of years from wearing its religion loosely to developing extremist sympathies. Constable shows how Islam became "hip" among university students who embraced their religious identity as a way to participate in global trends. She also notes that "poor yet pious" Pakistanis use religious fervor as a way to push back against "errant Muslims of a higher class," introducing equality in what is otherwise a highly stratified society.

This nuanced chapter is bolstered by Constable’s overview of the origins and ideologies of Pakistan’s various militant and sectarian groups. The book also documents major security-related events such as the formation of the anti-state Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the takeover of the Swat Valley in 2009 by TNSM, another extremist organization. With these snapshots of militancy, Playing with Fire becomes a handy user’s guide to terrorism and security for those who have not followed regional developments at a granular level.

One argumentative disconnect does however emerge in the book. Constable’s chapters on the ‘Talibanization’ of society and Pakistan’s use of militant groups as ‘strategic assets’ emphasize that extremism is a top-down phenomenon in Pakistan, perpetuated as a result of state policies. But in other sections of the book, she suggests that extremist tendencies are organic-the expected fallout of widespread poverty, joblessness, and frustration. For example, Constable quotes the bitter complaint of a young man from Peshawar who graduated from a prestigious engineering school but was unable to find a job. He suggests that the lack of opportunity creates terrorists. Similarly, in a chapter about sectarian tensions and violent discrimination against religious minorities, Constable includes a rant by a butcher who denounces rampant corruption, crime, and poor leadership. The decision to include his viewpoint implies that the failure of state institutions is fostering religious intolerance.

There is an ongoing debate about whether extremism in Pakistan is a product of years of state-sponsored militancy and General Ziaul Haq’s Islamization policies in the 1980s, or whether it is a contemporary response to flawed Pakistani and American policies. Given Constable’s intimate knowledge of the region, a direct summary of her perceptions on this matter would have given the book even more substance.

Throughout her book, Constable draws out the clashing ideological and political stances of Pakistan’s liberals and conservatives. She will be aware then that some liberals may find her book too soft on the Pakistan Army. No doubt, the book maps the fallout of the army’s many dalliances with militant groups. But the chapter on the ‘murder of democracy’ focuses on corrupt politicians such as President Asif Ali Zardari, dynastic politics, and the inefficient bureaucracy. Meanwhile, Constable’s analysis of the Pakistan Army delves into the choices made by military dictators Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf as well as the shenanigans of the intelligence agent Khalid Khawaja. This focus on controversial characters (though compelling to read) makes the army’s flaws seem individual rather than institutional. A concise assessment of the impact of military interference in Pakistan’s political and economic spheres over the decades would have served the book well.

Ultimately, though, Playing with Fire is an accessible yet comprehensive guide to a country that is constantly evolving and much written about, but little understood by westerners.  

Huma Yusuf is a columnist for Pakistan’s Dawn Newspaper, and was the 2010-11 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Huma Yusuf is a columnist for Pakistan's Dawn newspaper and a Global Fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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