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For Pakistanis, mixed feelings on election

For graduate student SherAli Tareen, the University doesn't seem to be such an insulated campus.

Sure, many students care more about March Madness than the March presidential primaries, and the term "effortless perfection" doesn't exactly refer to the reliability of electronic voting.

Tareen, though, is from Pakistan, a critical United States ally that holds parliamentary elections today after eight years of military rule under President Pervez Musharraf. Stuck half a world away, the third-year graduate student in religion can only sit and watch from the calm Gothic Wonderland.

Although Musharraf is not on the ballot, The Associated Press has reported that he could be impeached if enough opposition candidates are elected to the parliament.

Mixed opinions

Pakistanis here are far from unanimous on the merits of their current president. Tareen called Musharraf a leader with "at least some kind of vision" and said he would vote to keep him in power, although he also said he disagrees with Musharraf on many issues.

Freshman Asad Sheikh, however, said he hesitates to even refer to Musharraf as "president," since he is a former military general who was installed in a coup eight years ago.

The Pakistani freshman used to at least respect his president, but some of his recent crackdowns have whittled away that support.

"I'm from a country where the entire opposition was in jail at a point in time," said Sheikh, a Pakistan native. "Some people have lost hope for democracy."

Those dual emotions are common in the country, said Ali Habib, a Pakistan native, Fulbright Scholar and first-year student in the master's of engineering management program.

"There's a time and a place when people in your country don't know what is good for them and you might need a guy with a big stick," Habib explained. "But [Musharraf] needs to go; he's lost the trust of the people."

Low expectations

Pakistan's baby steps toward democracy are a focal point in the U.S.-led battle against extremism abroad.

After former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in late December, pockets of the country saw violent riots, to international media reports.

"I've been in touch with my family and everyone there is anticipating trouble.... My parents are stocking up on food," Habib said.

The country has had many so-called democratic elections without substantial long-term progress, he said.

"Anytime someone loses, they say it was rigged," Habib said.

Sheikh recalled trying to cast a ballot when he was 14-under the legal voting age.

"They told me 'If you vote yes, then you can,'" he said. "It was a disgrace."

Tareen said democracy is not something that begins "in one magic moment."

He labeled as condescending the idea that exporting America's electoral process to the Middle East would fix some of the region's ills.

"Sometimes Western audiences have very unrealistic expectations for that part of the world," Tareen said. "The main goal [for Musharraf] is to show the West that he is invested in the democratic process, and I think that's a good enough reason."

Tareen did his undergraduate coursework at Macalester College in Minnesota and said he was inundated by queries from his peers after 9/11.

Rather than being bothered by the questions, he was pleasantly surprised by the interest in his home country, because young Pakistanis often avoid politics. A wave of youth activism, such as the kind occuring for the presidential campaign of Illinois Senator Barack Obama, would never happen in Pakistan, he said.

"Duke might be apathetic, but this is a whole country," Tareen said. "[In Pakistan,] we have a politically castrated youth. That leads to a morally confused country."

Fitting in

The small Pakistani community at Duke holds tempered optimism for the elections. According to the International House, there are only five undergraduates and 12 graduate students from the country, excluding scholars.

Ten were accepted for the Class of 2011, but only three came, Sheikh said.

"Everyone only talks the Ivy League," he said, noting that he chose Duke over Cornell University. "For some reason, Duke is the one elite college that doesn't have a name in Pakistan."

A self-described moderate-not liberal-Muslim, Sheik said he is here to network but has found himself most at home with the Indian community.

He noted the irony of the situation, because Pakistan and India are often at odds in the international arena, frequently tussling over the disputed Kashmir region.

Arriving in North Carolina was less of a culture shock than he expected, though it may be difficult to return to his native country in three years when he graduates, he said.

"There's a big misconception that Americans are not smart," he said. "There are a few unintelligent people in the U.S., but is that not the case everywhere?"

Both Sheikh and Tareen said the lack of education in Pakistan leads to extremism.

"The key is some kind of stability," Tareen said. "We need to have realistic thinking about the transition to democracy."


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