islamabad -- american dissi-dent professor Noam Chomsky has a cult following in Pakistan among the political and academic establishment whose American counterparts shun him, and he's often quoted here in the kind of respected newspapers that ignore him in his homeland. Dawn, this country's largest English-language daily, sponsored Chomsky's gala speaking tour of Lahore and Islamabad this week with the kind of fanfare usually reserved for pop stars.
The paper pictured the Cold War warrior and MIT prof on the front page Tuesday, November 27, affording him more play than the meeting of Pakistani president General Pervez Musharraf and Japanese foreign minister Makiko Tanaka.
The gala Chomsky affair a day earlier was as close as this conservative Muslim capital gets to a rock concert. People in traditional shalwar kameez dress lined up outside a glittering convention centre, a cross between a concert hall, parliament and an Islamic shrine. No tickets were available for the invitation-only event, a privilege of the elite of this military-run nation.
"We have been waiting for a long time for this," says Mehr Shah, daughter of a retired colonel. "We don't often get visiting professors here." Indeed.
The audience of about 1,500, including cabinet ministers, professors, colonels, journalists, students and nuclear scientists, took this afternoon off -- during the height of the Afghan crisis, no less -- to hear Chomsky pontificate on the news of the day.
Pakistani cricket-legend-turned-politician Imran Khan was also in attendance. Organizers, seemingly lacking a sound technician, fumbled to correct the annoying acoustics.
When they could finally hear him, many a wrinkled nose and raised eyebrow were evident. They were baffled, no doubt, by Chomsky's ramblings into irrelevant tangents and hasty conclusions based on thin evidence, dubious statistics and official statements taken out of context.
Instead of leading opinion about contemporary issues, Chomsky dusted off his tired 80s commentaries about the Cold War arms race and American bullying of Nicaragua. At a time of unprecedented urgency, his academic abstractions had the intelligentsia yawning.
He spoke more about Reagan and Schulz than about Bush and Powell, more about the U.S. Civil War and the history of massacres of indigenous peoples in America and Mexico than about the carnage next door in Afghanistan.
Asked whether the world was giving Pakistan strongman President Musharraf a blank cheque, Chomsky rambled for 10 minutes about the crimes of U.S.-backed former Indonesian dictator Suharto.
On how to solve the India-Pakistan conflict, which threatens to evolve into nuclear confrontation over Kashmir, Chomsky shocked the audience by suggesting the two countries form one state, which is as likely as Iran joining Iraq.
Later, Chomsky admitted what many in attendance had gathered -- that he had only been studying the politics of the region for the last month.
"He doesn't seem to know about our history," said disappointed lecture-goer Shahrazad Shah.
Chomsky completely overlooked gender issues, which have been a hot topic on campuses here since the Taliban imposed traditional Pashtun village culture on urbanites and other ethnic groups. He also shed no light on how to bridge the gap between rich and poor. He stayed on the vague side when asked if the military could restore democracy here.
In a country where hundreds of Islamic extremists have been jailed in recent weeks for protesting the killing of Muslims by American infidels, where mothers are mourning the massacre of hundreds of Pakistanis who crossed the border to fight in Afghanistan, where students idolize the soft-spoken preachings of Osama bin Laden, Chomsky said there was no clash of religions.
Not long after, a disappointed crowd filed out to break their Ramadan fast and sink deeper into introspection. The slow-moving processes of academia seemed left behind in a world where news is breaking by the hour.