BU Today

In the World

A Q&A with Husain Haqqani

Ambassador Husain Haqqani has a wide range of experience as a journalist, a diplomat and former Pakistani ambassador to Sri Lanka, and an advisor to three Pakistani prime ministers. A native of Pakistan, he came to the United States in 2002 as a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., and an adjunct professor at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.

Haqqani is now an associate professor of international relations at the College of Arts and Sciences and was recently named director of the Center for International Relations. His latest book, Pakistan from Mosque to Military, has been reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs magazine, and the Boston Globe, and it currently tops the list of best-selling nonfiction books in India. He wrote the book while teaching at BU. “I was burning the midnight oil and came to class bleary-eyed, but could tell my students that they should stay up late studying without any pangs of conscience,” he says. He spoke to BU Today last week in between interviews with the Washington Post and other news media.

How did you hear about the October 8 earthquake?

I was talking on the phone to my daughter, who is 17. She and my son, who is 14, just returned to Islamabad from summer vacation in Boston. (My daughter asked me why the BU Beach is called a beach.) There is a nine-hour time difference. At 9 a.m. there, it is midnight here. Before going to bed, I called and she said, “Dad, I can’t talk — there’s a massive earthquake going on. Our whole house is shaking. I’m rushing out.” She carried her mobile phone outside and told me, “Oh Dad, the building right across from our home collapsed.” So I had a firsthand account of it before I read the news. You can imagine how I felt. Thank God I was able to find out that my family, my relatives, were safe. My family lives in Islamabad, where most structures were safe. It’s a big city and 60 miles away from the epicenter.

Who is most affected?

The people worst affected live in the mountains and remote terrain. Some of the population lives in small clusters, 800 people in one village, 500 in another, 1,000 in another. Secondly, the citizens of small cities, such as Muzafrabad, with a quarter of a million people. Of the towns and cities built in the mountains, some of those mountains go up pretty high. The buildings are made of mud and brick. They just couldn’t withstand a 7.5-magnitude earthquake.

Your advice to the United States has been to reach out directly to the Muslims affected by the earthquake. Why?

Once I heard of the earthquake, I immediately wrote that [Oct. 11] article for the Wall Street Journal. One of the things I’ve learned from being in the U.S. is that Americans usually look upon the world in the context of what the world means to them, so it’s best to frame an argument that way, even as a professor speaking to students of international relations. A lot of people who are interested in international relations are still America-centered. You don’t want to find out about the world just to find out about it. You always want to find out what that means for you. Every day in Iraq there are many casualties, and the American media only talks about the American casualties. [Pakistan] is a critical Islamic country. This is where Osama bin Laden is supposed to be hiding. It’s in the U.S. interest to be a bit quick about responding to this tragedy.

If the U.S., which is the world’s largest superpower and has maximum means, cannot deal with a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina with 100 percent efficiency, how do you expect a country where one-third of the population lives on less than a dollar a day to deal with a catastrophe of this magnitude? [The article] was an attempt to explain that [sending aid to Pakistan] is not just about why are we giving our money.

What drives Muslims’ perception of America?

The U.S. is very worried about its relationship with the Muslim world since 9/11, and rightly so. Rightly so. And it does not understand why this relationship is where it is. One of the factors (there are many), but an important one, is the total lack of communication between the U.S. and the people in the Muslim world. They are powerless, ruled by dictators. They like the idea of getting American assistance and being America’s only hope. How many times have we heard that this or that dictator is “America’s only hope,” [for reaching Muslim people.] He [the dictator] has a vested interest in keeping that country from falling to radicals. It’s a theme we hear again and again.

Maybe what the U.S. ended up doing, maybe inadvertently, is empowering people to be able to act as the intermediaries. It was a requirement of the cold war, but that has now become an albatross. And the U.S. ends up propping up various dictators’ regimes and monarchies in the Muslim world. Even with all the Bush talk about democracy, there’s a long way to go. It’s still more important for the U.S. to take the people into the calculation. In an age of global democracy, think about what American policy means to the man in the street in a different country. There is a chance for the U.S. to reach out to the ordinary people.

What has the U.S. done and what else should it do?

They have announced relief supplies of $50 million, the largest contribution among the international community. The government [of Pakistan] has said it needs more than $200 million immediately, to help dig out survivors, for medical care, for tents, temporary shelters, and food and warm clothing and blankets. It’s getting very cold up there.

The U.S. also provided helicopters, which is very crucial to this effort. They are the only link to these towns, which are isolated in the mountains and whose roads and bridges are damaged. They can only be reached by helicopter, and the injured and sick can only be evacuated by helicopter.

What more can be done? The next stage is rehabilitation, for which there will be more money needed. There is a need for expertise, and some countries have helped with that — Japan, Britain, France. Pakistan lacks expertise in digging people out of buildings and training of people. The U.S. may need to provide engineers and professionals. But the U.S. should start looking at what it can do long-term in aid and rehabilitation and resettling the people who are affected.

If the United States successfully reaches out to the Muslim people, what do you think the results could be?

The U.S. will still have to go through the government to do it, but it has to do it in a way that makes its presence visible. Working with NGOs and individual volunteers would probably have a great impact as well. Maybe the U.S. needs to create a global relief corps like the Peace Corps, but more like a reserve and not just the people who respond on a regular basis. It would be much larger than the Red Cross.

The number of natural disasters increasingly makes us wonder what is happening to the globe. That said, I think there is a political advantage to be had from having an arm of the government, with the help of the citizens, that makes the world see a kinder, gentler face of the United States.