January 10, 2008 — "The war on terrorism will be won or lost in Pakistan," said Richard Barnett, who for 25 years has taught a course on the history of that country at the University of Virginia.
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistani People's Party, has again thrust Pakistan into the international spotlight.
The nation is in great flux, Barnett said, and no "experts" can credibly predict its future. There is no consensus. "Some people say that [President Pervez] Musharraf is finished, that he has painted himself into a corner, but then he announces that the election is postponed and that he has invited Scotland Yard to assist in the investigation of the Bhutto assassination."
Barnett said that Pakistani Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif, one of Musharraf’s primary opponents, "is no walk in the park," and added that it is a tragedy that Bhutto's will named her 19-year-old son, Bilawal Zardari, to lead the Pakistani People's Party, leaving Bhutto's inexperienced husband, Asif Ali Zardari, as the party's regent.
"This not a situation where you will have happy people," he said. "Whatever happens will be dire, lugubrious and frustrating. And the White House cannot change it."
The West waits for civil society to assert itself in Pakistan, he said, noting that there have been many opportunities when this could have happened. He said many Pakistanis, including even Islamic radicals, are lauding the efforts of the lawyers who first marched against Musharraf — one of very few hopeful signs.
"Right now the lawyers are very important to the reassertion of civil society, because there are no professional historians in Pakistan who are free to research and write what they want," he said. "This is what comes of having the military-run governments."
Barnett believes his course, "Pakistan: Islamic Frontier" is the only one offered in the United States that focuses exclusively on the history of that nation, though "there are a lot of courses that deal with the politics of Pakistan, or with the history of South Asia," he said.
Barnett, who has lived in Pakistan and speaks Urdu, said he does not think Pakistani studies receive the emphasis they deserve in academia.
When he started the course, a first- and second-year seminar, three students enrolled. As Pakistan's importance has risen in world affairs, students are turned away every year.
Though the nation was only formally established in 1947, "we first look at Pakistan in the 18th and 19th centuries to see what makes it what it is today," he said.
The course's content includes a heavy dose of current events as well. Barnett follows developments in Pakistan through friends there, keeping in touch via visitors, telephone and e-mail. He also monitors various Web sites about Pakistan, some operated by academic friends he trusts.
"Over the years, the course has become more sophisticated and focused," he said. "We look at the lives of everyday people, and the interfering powers, such as Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and India."
The "Islamic Frontier" referred to in the course's title has many meanings, he said, from how many Muslims are on the ground — Pakistan has the world's second-largest Muslim population, behind Indonesia — and what this means for historical national boundaries to "the inner human frontier, the beliefs and core values that the people have and how that determines their view of the world, especially their views of the roles of fear versus love in their spiritual lives."
Outside of his academic activities, Barnett also serves as a "country expert" before the U.S. immigration courts, working with Pakistani applicants for political asylum. He recounts some of their stories to his students.
"These can be the most compelling moments in the classroom," he said. "It is real life impinging on academia."
The class meets once a week for three hours, and all the students get to participate. Barnett bases 50 percent of the student's evaluation on classroom discussion and the remainder on three papers.
I get a big kick out of teaching this course," he said.