Interview with Pakistani American Marketer Shahid Butt on the Taliban, Islam, Afghanistan and The Real Pakistan Brand

Shaid ButtI worked with Shahid Butt at Charter Cable years ago, a smart, congenial fellow and accomplished marketer. As I posted interviews from my swing through the Islamic world, and pointed remarks about Pakistan’s role in the emergence of the Taliban, he offered some unique insights. I talked with Shahid over Skype one night from my guesthouse room in Kabul. We began by talking about Pakistan’s role in supporting the mujeheddin jihad against the Soviet invasion in the 1980’s. The interview was transcribed by “War: The Afterparty” book project editor and intern Anaka Allen.

Shahid: In Pakistan right around that time, you could rent AK47s by the hour, there were just so many weapons. There was a military parade in one of the Arab countries; I think it may have been Qatar. As part of that military parade there was these weapons that were on display and as the U.S. was there, you know they were invited.

Brian: Sure. And they were like, those are our fucking weapons. [laughs]

S: And they were trying to figure out where did these come from? And they realized, oh shit, this is stuff that was supposed to go to Pakistan to go over next door to fight the Soviets. And when they found that trail, all of a sudden in Rawalpindi, there was a huge explosion where the munitions dump, in the garrison where people were living. This had to be, Brian, in 1981, yeah. And so people were just syphoning off weapons and selling them to anybody else.

B: You put that many weapons out in the world over so many years, and so many conflicts and the world just becomes a much more violent place.

S: WWII was the only war after which the factories that were converted to make wartime stuff, didn’t go back to making what they were making before. So, now you have this huge production capacity making stuff and if you want to keep people employed you have to sell the stuff and then they have to use the stuff; that’s why we will have wars, otherwise it’s jobs.

Here’s what so bizarre for someone like me, and you know, being a marketing guy, I try to break it down, I try to re-orient the issue. As I see it, we have a branding problem. Because if you look at the brand of Pakistan, the white part of the flag was put there on purpose, I think it’s two-fifths of the flag, to represent that there are minorities in the country who are equal citizens. And what we have basically done is, we fuck with all kinds of — pick a minority, we fuck with it now. So that’s off-brand. If you look at our version of the declaration of independence, I think there’s 230 words in there, and 40% of the words talk about protecting minorities and, again, we’re fucking that up. So, you got that issue off-brand. Second, if you say that the country was created to help the Muslims of India achieve economic prosperity, it was an economic need for a group of people, it wasn’t a religious need. And we’ve moved off of that and become this Islamic state, which is not what we’re supposed to have been. We were supposed to have been a place where the Muslims of India could have economic equality and prosperity and get access to jobs and bank loans and all that kind of stuff, education, so we fuck that up. The third thing is, if you even do convert their thinking to, hey, we’re an Islamic state, the concepts of Islam, you know we’re supposed to, let’s say, follow the teachings of the prophet. The prophet married a business woman, right? An educated, working woman, and if that’s supposed to be who we’re emulating then what the fuck? [laughs] Why do more women not have opportunity to go to school, to work in the workplace? So, we’re off target there.

B: Is that a more of a cultural, national thing than a theological thing?

S: You look at Saudi Arabia, they’re the worse at it. Because at least we’ve had a prime minister who is a woman, at least we’ve had women in parliament. Part of it is cultural, pre-Islam, and part of it is another way to keep minorities down. Women are minorities, let’s keep them down. Number two, if you look at the religion, the first interaction, according to tradition, that the prophet had with Gabriel; the first words that were said to the prophet were, “Read.” And the prophet said, “I can’t read.” The angel Gabriel again said, “Read.” And the prophet said, “I can’t.” So this went back and forth a couple of times and then he was inspired with the ability to read. And again the tradition is supposed to reinforce how important education is and if you look at our federal budget, and the amount of money we put towards education, it’s totally contradictory to the concept of how important education should be in the religion. So, on so many different levels we have missed our brand, we’re just off-brand, and that’s what’s causing some of these problems. And now, this blasphemy law that we have, where if I have a beef with my neighbor, I can go down to the police station, and say, “I heard him say something bad about the prophet,” and the cops have to come up and arrest me.

B: I heard a lot of stories of NATO and coalition troops in Afghanistan selecting certain people as partners, and those people would accuse neighbors or friends as a way to revenge or a competitive business advantage.

S: Exactly! And so the correlation to what you’re writing about, even though the U.S. didn’t directly attack Pakistan, the impact of the Soviet-era U.S. involvement and then how right away, right after the Soviets pulled back, all the funding stopped. Right, Charlie Wilson couldn’t even get a billion dollars anymore, or even 100 million dollars. It just stopped. So you have this country now, completely decimated, no money, the only infrastructure, the only crop that they have is poppy. And then the Afghans, I love those people, but they are brutal to each other as well. They just massacred each other. And then what happened in Pakistan is the blowback of the mujaheddin, the weapons, the drug trade. We may as well have been attacked.

B: Don’t you also acknowledge that there was some opportunism there, where, both at the time of the mujaheddin and then during the rise of the Taliban, there were people in the ISI and the Pakistani military and one or two of your leaders, who saw it as an opportunity to not only make some money, but to dominate Afghan politics and to use that conflict to their own advantage?

S: So, two things. What happens is, so you have a leader like, let’s say Zia with the Soviet problem, and then Musharraf with the 9/11 problem, who, both unpopular, both overthrowing a civilian government, now have lucked into the fact that the U.S. needs Pakistan’s help to go into Afghanistan. And so, these two leaders and their top-level ISI staff or generals, they all did whatever they could to stay in power. It’s all a matter of a few people staying in power. So if that means we fuck up the country with all these weapons, so be it, but we will stay in power. So that clearly happened, there was opportunism there. And then I read somewhere recently that the reason why the Pakistanis are so pro-Taliban in Afghanistan, or the ISI has been, is because they’re Pashto-speaking, we are Pashto-speaking, and the Indians were supporting the Uzbeks and Tajiks from the north. And since they were funding those guys, we felt we had to counterbalance that, who knows what came first, but there was a counterbalance to the support of the other ethnic groups to the north that the Indians were supporting. So to keep India’s control out of the western border, we needed to have the Taliban on our side.

B: Right, it’s a messy situation. What’s your sense of that whole border area with Waziristan and the whole Pashtun area? Is this another situation where Western powers like the British carved up things illicitly and illogically, and you basically have a nation or a tribe of people that, as I understand it, are ⅔ in Pakistan and ⅓ in Afghanistan, and that ultimately, those borders are so porous and the rule of law there is so thin, that you have this perpetual political issue that has been going on for a long time?

S: You have to go find the exact data point, but I think that the British guy who helped create the borders of Pakistan and India, for the new countries, I think he got there, he created the borders, never having been there before, and within 6 weeks he created these borders, and this is without Google. He did not know what he was doing. And so that is exactly why you have these tribes split by a line created by England. That’s exactly what happened.

B: And by the way, why would he know what he was doing? How in the world can any Brit understand 500 years of history and what’s happening in tribes where no Brit has ever walked the earth?

S: There were British folks there for a couple hundred years, right. So, there could be some people who knew, or provided input, but, I don’t think they were used.

B: I’m asking a lot of questions certain provocative passages in the Quran and certain provocative behaviors on the part of groups that are claiming them to be true believers, from the Islamic State to the Taliban, etc. Every Afghan I meet says Islam is a religion of peace, here is the way it teaches me, I don’t want to hurt a fly, here’s all the specific ways that our religion respects other religions and people and forbids bad behavior.

S: I think you have to put a lot of this stuff, in the Quran, into some kind of historical context. Yeah, there were some brutal, bloody battles, but if you look at it in context of what else is going on during those times, this was pretty mild. And, I think you can read the bible, and come up with how violent it is. You can read the Quran and come up with how violent it is. But at the end of the day, that’s not really the teaching, they’re just some stories that happened along the way. The teachings are very similar: peace, don’t hurt your neighbor, that kind of stuff. So the teachings are all really really similar. My father always used to joke, Do you ever wonder why Judaism, Christianity, Islam all came to that little strip of land in the Middle East? And I said, “No Pops, why?” He goes, “They’re the ones that need the most help.” [laughs] But the teachings are all so similar. People, throughout history I’m sure, have taken religion out of context to kill other people and to create fear. It’s just humans being humans.

Another interesting thing that I always try to struggle with is, when the prophet was dying, and he was trying to choose his successor, he could have chosen someone who was his relative, but he did not. He chose someone who was well-experienced, was older, and the learning from there is, leadership is not hereditary. Leadership is based on ability. But, when you look at all of these kingdoms, they are totally repugnant to that teaching. And even when you look at Pakistani politics, the political parties are not really parties. They are family club mafias, really. They keep on passing down from one to the other…it’s a mafia. Again, totally repugnant to that example that we were supposed to follow.

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