In which the Elegant Bastard becomes fascinated by the similar ways once very different societies go about dealing with leftover children. We will begin with musings on matters geophysical
I must, Dear Reader, ask a question of those living safely upon the normally stable bedrock of the Great Canadian Shield and its lesser American extensions? Did you recently feel the earth move under your feet? You did? And would you like to know why that happened? You would? Well then, allow me to be the first to reveal this to you. (No kudos are necessary but please feel free to support me in the five star Hong Kong hotel of your choice. I will provide my own pole dancer.)
Apparently, what you felt was not simply some great geosexual coupling of tectonic plates. Rumours suggest it was something far more profound. That shudder we felt could have been the seismic consequence of an entire American state picking itself up, dusting itself off and moving itself half way across the world. Naturally the redrawn maps and the new McDonalds menus would not yet be available, so final proof is sketchy, but who cares about that, right? Allow me to introduce you now to that brand new state of being: Arkansistan!
Discussions of flora and fauna will necessarily be left to those more able than I to deal with such trivia. I would instead draw your attention to a startling social similarity now existing between Arkansistan and its close ideological brother, Pakistan. Both apparently have an enormous abundance of male children, so many as to not know what to do with them all. Both are busily designing ways to deal with any extras.
Pakistan, having had a considerable head start, is far more advanced than its new neighbour. Still, the process it uses has been documented and is reasonably portable. What is true of cheap fabric turns out also to be true of male children. There is generally a profit to be made if any surplus can be exported. It’s easier with t-shirts, but imagination makes anything possible.
It helps if large groups in society get enthusiastically involved and Pakistan was fortunate enough to have three, all very motivated. Its upper classes decided that the paying of income taxes was inconvenient, a bit dull and just not their cup of tea. Its military, long the victim of a massive inferiority complex vis a vis India’s nuclear weapons program, decided it also needed a big one and undertook what was essentially the most expensive penis transplant in history. The ISI, Pakistan’s version of the CIA, wanted badly to play games with its neighbours and decided it could best do this by creating chaos in places like Afghanistan and Kashmir – one more example of big toys for little boys.
A financial consequence of these developments was the disappearance of anything even remotely akin to a comprehensive and well-funded public school system and the simultaneous appearance on the streets of hundreds of thousands of poor, illiterate and under-nourished male children wandering around looking for food, employment and shelter. Inconvenient and – given their bedraggled state – decidedly unphotogenic, these children posed a problem. And despite the heroic humanitarian efforts of the owners of Pakistan’s sweatshops, only a paltry few million could be rented from their parents and efficiently utilized in the weaving of cotton fabrics or the manufacture of soccer balls.
The answer to this best-practice conundrum also required the involvement of powerful groups. For Pakistan, these saviors included fairly extreme religious groups. Together, they (and others) created thousands of radical madrassas (schools). These became nurturing agents for tens of thousands of Pakistani boys. Sadly, the word “school” does not always mean what it should.
Life for children in some of these schools is simple: a daily dose of religious and sectarian hatred, unceasing indoctrination, the banning of any “Western influence”, pseudo-military training, minimal and/or poor food, the occasional beating (or worse) and lots of outdoor marching and/or chanting whenever a jihadist leader or a tribal commander or a powerful politician needs a mob or a martyr or a mob of martyrs. These madrassas have helped spawn a number of interesting and exciting off-shoots, among them Al Qaeda and the Taliban, nasty ironies not lost on the Saudi and American governments, both of which were very instrumental in getting this unholy mess started.
Are there madrassas and NGO run schools in Pakistan that try to educate boys and girls and that try to go beyond religious instruction? In fact there are many. But the dark dormitories referred to here are not some desperate but praiseworthy effort to save young people from grinding and dehumanizing poverty. The raggle taggle child armies they send forth are used to serve the political, personal and cannon-fodder needs of those who finance or run them. They have very little to do with anything most Muslims would regard as legitimately Islamic. Nor are they fundamentally focused upon saving or healing or growing the minds, bodies and souls of children.
Instead, they have everything to do with establishing and maintaining the power and honour of innumerable self-proclaimed leaders. They are the real-world occurrence of Jonathan Swift’s satire, A Modest Proposal, in which the writer argues that the starving children of famine-stricken Ireland be fattened and butchered to feed the English elites. The only difference is these lost children of Pakistan do not even experience the pleasure of being fattened first!
(This innovative use of disposable children is not limited to Pakistan. Nations are also guilty but we will discuss those another time. For now, it’s on to Arkansistan and its strange encounter with the Boy Scouts of America.)
A partial list of readings is provided here and at the end of Part 2
- Haqqani, Husain. Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. Washington, D.C., Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2005
- Schmidt, John R. The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
- Tomsen, Peter. The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failure of the Great Powers. New York, Public Affairs, 2011