Pakistan: An InsideView

–John Egan

Stephen Cohen, Benazir Bhutto and Farhana Ali.

Images of Farhana Mahmood Ali

Watch Farhana Ali discuss the fifth anniversary of the war on terror and the search for al-Qaeda on C-SPAN Network's Washington Journal. The C-SPAN video archive also features a speech Ali gave on the topic of "Muslim Women & Violent Jihad."

Farhana Mahmood Ali ’96 has risen to the top of America’s think-tank ranks

“To understand what’s happening on the ground, you have to be there. You have to talk to people . . . To do good, solid research is not just sitting behind a desk looking at the Internet.” –Farhana Ali ’96

During regular journeys to the frequently unstable nation of Pakistan, Farhana Ali ’96 must be on guard at all times. Whether she is in Karachi, a city frequently rocked by terrorist violence, or in Peshawar, where a hand grenade can be purchased for less than $1 at a weapons bazaar, Ali travels with a driver who’s familiar with the area and bonds with Pakistanis who know the local terrain better than she does.

Sometimes—a gathering at the U.S. Embassy, an upscale party at a home—it’s perfectly fine for her to put on an American-style business suit in the heavily Muslim nation. In other circumstances, donning that suit in Pakistan could jeopardize her life. When she wants to blend into the local culture, she’ll wear a traditional Pakistani outfit known as a salwar kameez—a long-sleeve tunic and baggy pants—in muted colors. She’ll cover her head with a scarf. She’ll go without nail polish or lipstick.

“You don’t want to show that you have money. You don’t want to show that you’re from America, that you have American products,” Ali explains. “You don’t want to stand out as an attractive person. You just want to be kind of bland.”

Ali’s job is anything but bland, however. As an associate international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank based in Arlington, Virginia, Ali shares her expertise on terrorism, international politics and Muslim issues with policymakers, military strategists, security experts and others. In particular, Ali examines the ideology and motivations of terrorists, including female suicide bombers; security cooperation of Pakistan; and the Arab-Muslim world.

Ali is fluent in six languages: English, French, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and elementary Arabic. She has published several research papers on female suicide bombers and other topics, and she has been quoted by the BBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and other media outlets. She has written commentaries for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.

Today, Ali is one of the few Muslim women working in the think-tank world. During the course of a workday, Ali may confer with a government official in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, teach a class on Al-Qaeda at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., or speak about the Islamic religion to officers at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. In recent months, Ali’s knowledge of Pakistan has taken on greater significance, following the December 2007 assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, head of the Pakistan People’s Party. Politically volatile Pakistan, located in South Asia, is one of the key U.S. allies in the war on terror.

To deepen her expertise about Pakistan—a country that is about twice the size of California and is home to more than 164 million people—Ali visits her native land for two to three weeks at a time, every two or three months. The 34-year-old Ali was born in Pakistan, but was raised in Texas after her family immigrated to the United States.

“To understand what’s happening on the ground, you have to be there. You have to talk to people. You have to understand the political climate. It’s the only way to understand what I call ‘the man on the street,’” she says. “To do good, solid research is not just sitting behind a desk looking at the Internet.”

So far, Ali hasn’t been a behind-the-desk career woman. After majoring in political science at Southwestern and earning a master’s degree in security policy studies from The George Washington University in 1998, Ali spent five years as a counterterrorism analyst for the U.S. government. In those pre-9/11 days, she was the first Muslim-American woman hired by the federal government as a counterterrorism analyst. Leaving the federal government for RAND in 2005 freed Ali to undertake more in-depth research, travel more frequently and interact professionally with a broader range of people.

Ali interacted twice with Bhutto. The first time was in 2005, when the politician visited Southwestern University for the Roy and Margaret Shilling Lecture Series.

Ali remembers Bhutto as being impressive and articulate. At the same time, Ali says, she witnessed Bhutto’s lack of understanding of Islamic issues. When a female Southwestern student asked Bhutto about the history of women in Islam, the politician didn’t know how to respond, according to Ali. Bhutto turned to Ali at dinner and said: “You answer this.” Ali informed the student that Islamic women have been progressive for centuries. For instance, Ali told the student that Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija al-Kubra, proposed marriage to him 1,400 years ago. “I didn’t know that,” Bhutto acknowledged. Ali was surprised at Bhutto’s reaction, since the tale is a familiar component of Islamic teachings.

Just a few months before Bhutto’s assassination, Ali and her mother, Nargis Mahmood—who campaigned for Benazir’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in his successful 1977 bid for prime minister—met with the politician in Washington, D.C. Ali recalls Bhutto as charismatic, well-spoken, well-educated and courageous. Ali says she admired Bhutto for rising to power in Pakistan in 1988 to become the first female leader of a Muslim nation, and for persevering despite numerous threats against her life. Bhutto was killed last year following a rally in Rawalpindi, where she was campaigning to regain the prime minister’s post.

“She understood the Western mindset. She knew how to woo the American audience,” Ali says. “Because of that, we lost sight of some of her weaknesses.”

Among Bhutto’s weaknesses, Ali cites the ineffective leadership during her two stints as Pakistan’s prime minister in the 1980s and ’90s, the splintered nature of the Bhutto-led Pakistan People’s Party and the corruption scandals that dogged Bhutto until her death. Ali says she was stunned and dismayed by Bhutto’s assassination.

“I certainly was not a fan of Benazir Bhutto, but be that as it may, she did not deserve to be killed in that way,” Ali concedes. “Benazir Bhutto’s loss was a human tragedy but also a political tragedy for Pakistan—a political tragedy because it left this political vacuum in Pakistan . . . and what we’re faced with today.”

U.S. officials, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistani people had expected Bhutto to win the election for prime minister. So when Bhutto was assassinated, her death created an enormous political void; Bhutto’s party and the opposition parties were left in disarray.

“Pakistan has weathered many political storms,” Ali says. “This one might be the low point in Pakistan’s political history.”

Despite the current political storm, Ali says, Pakistanis are friendly toward individual Americans, but not America in general. Anti-U.S. sentiment is escalating in Pakistan, she says, as many people there believe their country is wrongly helping fight the war against terrorism on America’s behalf and that their president, Musharraf, is a puppet of the U.S. government. However, most Pakistanis warmly embrace Americans, she says. Ali says several American friends enjoy living there, never fearing for their lives and consistently being treated well. This kinder, gentler side of Pakistan typically is neglected by the news media, she says.

During her time in the world’s sixth-largest country, Ali has cultivated strong relationships with scores of people—people she turns to for reliable information and people she trusts to help protect her so she can return home safely to her husband, Syed Wasim Ali, a software engineering director who’s originally from Karachi; their 7-year-old son; and their 5-year-old daughter. While in Pakistan, Ali doesn’t carry a gun for protection, although she has pondered it for those times when she’s in sketchy areas. To ensure she’s got an “exit strategy,” she makes a habit of meeting people in public places. “You just have to watch your back,” she says.

She rigidly adheres to the watch-your-back philosophy in Karachi, an overcrowded city with an estimated 16 million residents and horrible traffic. She describes sections of Pakistan’s largest city as being like the Wild West. “I can understand how terrorists can hide in a city like Karachi,” Ali says. According to Ali, Karachi exhibits a split personality: “filthy rich” residents and skyscrapers on one side, impoverished people and slums on the other.

Ali was in Karachi when American journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered by a militant group in 2002. Ali says she was alarmed by Pearl’s brutal slaying. Some people thought Pearl took extreme risks by trusting local Pakistanis he didn’t know very well to guide him through the dark alleys of Karachi, she says. “I was not fearful,” Ali recalls. “After all, I don’t look like Daniel Pearl. I can always hide my face beneath the veil.”

Ali wasn’t in Karachi when two other notable tragedies occurred: the 2002 attack on the Sheraton hotel by a suicide bomber and the hit two years later on the U.S. consulate, again by a suicide bomber. “It’s a city where anything can happen, unfortunately,” Ali says.

It seems that almost anything can happen in Ali’s line of work, too. In her career and her life, Ali views every challenge as an opportunity—her gender, her immigrant background, her Muslim heritage, her minority status, her Arab looks. Although she already has attained prominence in the think-tank ranks, Ali is determined to keep growing as a policy analyst.

“I feel that I have so much more to achieve,” Ali says. “I feel that this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

John Egan is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas, and former editor and managing editor of the Austin Business Journal. John grew up in Olathe, Kansas, and graduated from the University of Kansas. He has called Austin home since 1999.

Benazir Bhutto

Southwestern University recognizes the life of Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, assassinated on the campaign trail in Rawalpindi, Punjab, on December 27, 2007.

Southwestern hosted Prime Minister Bhutto on March 10, 2005, as the Roy and Margaret Shilling Lecturer. Two political science majors, Sarah Jessup ’07 and Kevin Livesay ’06 joined Bhutto on stage for a question-and-answer session. Following is an excerpt.

Jessup: My first question to you is what do you think your greatest accomplishment is as prime minister and what legacy do you wish to leave behind, especially with the corruption charges against you?

Bhutto: I believe my greatest contribution was to demonstrate that Muslim people could elect a woman as chief executive of a country. Pakistan was the first Muslim country to elect a woman prime minister, breaking the myth that Muslims considered women second-class citizens, fit only to live behind the four walls of their home.

My election as prime minister was a catalyst to women everywhere, but especially to Muslim women. And I come across so many of them who said that they went up to their fathers and said, “If Benazir Bhutto can be prime minister of Pakistan, why can’t I work?

Why can’t I leave my home?”

So in that sense they had an example to point to. There were many opponents that I faced. When you take over the elements of the order, and my government was a democratic government, an open government, and for all those who had trained the majority, who had learned to be fanatics, who believed that Pakistan and the Muslim world’s identity linked an interpretation of religion rather than on secular notions, for them I was a threat. And to destabilize my government they hurled all kinds of charges against me, but I never ran away from the charges. I faced each and every one of them. I fought them. I never gave up.

Jessup on her reaction to Bhutto’s assassination: “I remember how excited I was at having the chance to meet her. She was extremely gracious and incredibly intelligent. It was a real privilege to share the stage with her and discuss something we both felt so strongly about. I think her death is a real tragedy for Pakistan. The incredible results of the recent election in Pakistan show how widely respected she was and illustrates the desire for change from the people there.”