One of the more surprising items in Nicholas Schmidle's "To Live or to Perish Forever," a sometimes harrowing account of two years he spent in Pakistan, is the subversive use of cell-phone ringtones.
Shia businessmen, for example, have downloaded extremist preachers' diatribes disparaging Sunnis for not "recognizing Imam Ali's right to lead the Muslim community in the seventh century." It's just another annoying way to keep passions boiling in a contentious religious battle that will certainly outlive all of us.
Three years ago, the Institute of Current World Affairs chose Schmidle as a Phillips Talbot Fellow, a writing fellowship to support journalists under age 35. Schmidle, a 6-foot blond American, faced a steep learning curve upon his arrival in Pakistan, including the realization that Karachi was not the "bloodiest city in the world." Indeed, the blotches of red he saw everywhere were simply the spit of betel-chewing residents.
Schmidle was hardly a veteran journalist, and at times the writing reads like a white paper instead of narrative reportage, but his instincts for ferreting out the most controversial Muslim leaders in the far-flung and dangerous parts of Pakistan are keen.
Many of the leaders are decidedly pro-Taliban. Schmidle's interviews and objective observations are helpful to understand in a very topical way why our alliance with this nuclear nation is tenuous at best and fraught with disaster at worst.
Still, the sometimes amateur and naive nature of Schmidle's reporting is evident throughout the book. Chillingly, and perhaps foolishly, he uses the same intermediary (Khalid Khawaja) that slain journalist Daniel Pearl used to meet pro-Taliban leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the leader of the Red Mosque in Islamabad. The Red Mosque is the site of the infamous 2007 siege between extremists and the Pakistani government, an important historical event that Schmidle witnesses and then chronicles in colorful detail.
The interviews with Ghazi are revealing for anyone who still believes that American democracy will translate well in this region. Ghazi tells Schmidle, "The ideal form of governance is Islamic governance, and it was in Afghanistan under Mullah Omar. I don't like democracy.
"Islam is not about counting people. In democracy, the weight of one vote is the same for a man who is taking drugs and doesn't care about his country as it is for the man with a vision for the future. The majority of people are ignorant. This doesn't bring us a good system."
Yet in the strongest sections of the book, when Schmidle travels to Taliban-controlled South and North Waziristan and witnesses the weaponry, fear and poverty in those breakaway regions, it's impossible not to imagine a better form of government.
Stephen J. Lyons writes from the wilds of central Illinois. His book on last year's floods along the Mississippi River will be published in the fall of 2010.