High up on a Pakistani mountain, a success story for moderate Islam

School in Karimabad, Hunza (Credit: Washingtonpost.com)
School in Karimabad, Hunza
(Credit: Washingtonpost.com)

KARIMABAD, July 22 —Visitors to this stunningly beautiful valley, towered over by five snow-capped mountains, sometimes feel as if they are standing at the edge of the earth — or, maybe, at the middle of it.

Either way, they often don’t feel as if they are in Pakistan, a country that struggles with poverty, pollution, Islamist militancy and a lackluster education system, especially for women.

Once a hardscrabble Himalayan town where residents barely had enough to eat, Karimabad, in the Hunza Valley, is now one of Pakistan’s most idyllic spots — an oasis of tolerance, security and good schools. That standard of living can be traced to residents’ moderate interpretation of Islam as well as the considerable support from one of the world’s largest charities.

Many parents in the valley say that if they had to choose, they would send their daughters to school over their sons. Nearly all families own at least a small plot of land. Residents say they cannot remember the last murder in the valley. And unlike in other parts of Pakistan, streams are not polluted with plastic bags, human waste and decaying appliances.

Such views — and protection of the surroundings — have allowed the Hunza Valley’s population to become a bulwark against Islamist extremism, despite its relative proximity to militant strongholds in Pakistan’s tribal belt and Kashmir, a disputed region that Pakistan and India have fought wars over.

“Here, we have facilities, we study, and there is no terrorism,” said Haider Ali, 18, watching classmates play soccer as the sun set behind Mount Rakaposhi, elevation 25,551 feet.

Not everything is perfect, of course. Electricity deficits can keep the lights out for days at a time. A once-vibrant tourism industry collapsed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Deforestation has led to a shortage of firewood, so families must huddle in one room to stay warm when winter temperatures plunge toward zero.

And some local leaders worry the community has become too dependent on charitable organizations, leaving it vulnerable to a sudden reduction in aid. Such concerns are growing more pronounced as the Pakistani government, which temporarily expelled Save the Children last month, implements strict new licensing requirements for international aid groups

But for now, Karimabad is an example of what’s possible in rural Pakistan when residents accept support from international charities and stand firm against the threats posed by militancy.

“This is the real Shangri-La,” Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, the former European Union ambassador to Pakistan, said in an interview after seeing the Hunza Valley for the first time last year.

Indeed, over the decades, the valley has been cited as one of several Himalayan locations that might have inspired the mythical Shangri-La in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon.” Even if it didn’t, the valley’s enormous cliffs, 20,000-foot-plus peaks and turquoise Hunza River would certainly make a spectacular backdrop for a Hollywood movie.

More than 90 percent of the residents of Karimabad identify as Shiite Ismaili Muslims, among the most moderate sects of the Islamic faith. They are followers of the Aga Khan family, viewing it as directly descended from the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law.

Prince Karim Al Husseini, a billionaire philanthropist who lives in France and goes by the title Aga Khan IV, is the Ismailis’ spiritual leader — and a major benefactor of the Hunza Valley.

Husseini’s Aga Khan Development Network has an annual budget of $600 million and operates in more than 30 countries. Over the past four decades, it has worked with other charities to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the valley, paving roads, opening schools and establishing health clinics and water treatment centers for the 65,000 residents of the Hunza Valley.

About 16,000 of them live in Karimabad, which was the capital when Hunza was an independent state prior to the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

During the 1980s, in a bid to expand the local economy, the Aga Khan network helped persuade farmers to grow cherries and peaches along with the traditional cash crops of wheat and potatoes. Now, much of Karimabad is an orchard.

Husseini is also a proponent of education, and nearly everyone in Karimabad can quote one of his teachings: “If a man has two children, one boy and one girl, you should educate the daughter first. Because, when she is educated, she can educate her entire family.”

According to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, the Hunza Valley’s literacy rate is 77 percent, although Karimabad residents say nearly everyone younger than 30 can read and write. The national literacy rate is about 58 percent, with a sharp disparity between men and women.

A World Bank study published last year concluded that female literacy in parts of the Hunza Valley had reached 90 percent, compared with 5 percent in another mountainous district, Diamer, about five hours away by road.

“When I was in school, few could even speak English,” said Javed Ali, 41, manager of Karimabad’s Hilltop Hotel. “Now, everyone speaks it fluently.”

From settlements at an elevation as high as 9,000 feet, children walk as much as three miles into the valley to get to school each morning.

After middle school, some female students enroll in the Aga Khan Higher Secondary School for Girls, which teaches only math and science. Nearly all graduates go on to college, according to Zahra Alidad, the principal and a graduate of the school.

“Even though it’s a remote area, students are motivated to learn,” said Alidad, noting that girls in other rural areas of Pakistan often stop attending school as early as fifth grade.

Another prominent school in Karimabad, the Japan-sponsored Hasegawa Memorial Public School, bills its teaching philosophy as one that creates “global citizens with a cosmopolitan, ethical orientation so that they can survive in any corner of the world.”

Students and teachers are encouraged to discuss sensitive issues, even those that challenge some Islamic teachings, said Nazim Aman, the school’s principal. Ninth-graders, for example, have been assigned this summer to read “The Kite Runner,” a novel about Afghan culture that touches on adultery, rape and homosexuality.

“We are true believers of pluralism,” Aman said. “We believe you, yourself, have to be authentic. We believe in diversity. We value social justice. We love nature, and you must develop that sense for survival.”

That teaching is echoed by the Sunni Muslim leader of one of Hunza’s largest tribes, most of whose members are Shiite Ismailis.

“A dish will taste better the more you mix it with spices,” said Mashgool Alam, 80, the leader of the Kurkutz tribe. “And if you mix many religions, society becomes a better place.”

Iqbal Walji, president of the Aga Khan Council for Pakistan, said that sort of attitude has helped shelter the Hunza Valley from the extremist ideology that has taken root in other parts of the country.

“When you have communities improving their own lives, and obtaining education, it prevents easy manipulation of communities and allows them to be resilient against external forces,” Walji said.

Some local leaders complain that residents have become too passive and reliant on the Aga Khan charities.

“Ismailis have become absentee stakeholders,” said Izhar Ali Hunzia, a local political leader. “All decisions are centralized and made in France, and people are just waiting for others to solve their problems.”

For his part, Ali Murad, 66, said he is grateful for financial support that helped free his and other families from the isolating grip of mountain life.

When Murad was a child, he recalled, his family struggled to make money and ate mostly food made from wheat. Now he owns eight cherry trees, 35 apple trees and 40 apricot trees. Two of his three sons have graduated from college. One works as a chef in Dubai and the other as a Chinese interpreter, he said.

“I’ve learned it’s better to own your own trees because, when you get money, you can just buy wheat,” Murad said.

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