In search of the real Pakistan

What exactly is Pakistan all about? The international media will tell you it's one of the most dangerous places on earth, beset by sectarian warfare and religious extremism. Well-heeled Pakistanis beg to differ. Their country, they say, is made up of an irrepressible population that likes to buy the latest fashions, listen to the latest music and read poetry about mysticism.

In reality, Pakistan is both of those things and many more in between. The country has spent most of its existence ruled by military dictators, but each of them was regularly lampooned in newspaper cartoons. Today, it has a largely rural and conservative society but one of the country's most popular talk show hosts is a Dame Edna-style transvestite. It has a politically engaged population that tunes into the many current affairs programmes broadcast on more than 70 private channels with enough regularity to make Pakistani news media one of the few in the world to turn a profit. Its largest media group has spearheaded an attack on the perceived corruption of politicians with a ferocity that makes the MPs' expenses scandal in the UK pale in comparison.

Many Pakistanis distrust western intentions, but that doesn't mean helping Pakistan involves battling the country's character. Pakistan's greatest strengths contribute to its most pressing problems. A governing ideology inherited from the British still values a free press and independent civil society. At the same time, a relatively hands-off approach to religion has allowed local extremists to build extensive local infrastructure with outside funding. As the world now knows, that extremism was nurtured and exploited by whisky-loving generals (with the tacit support of western powers) for short-term gain and has now turned against the state.

Extremism is not just limited to the Taliban in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) but is bleeding into the rest of society. In a restaurant tucked away in a corner of Islamabad's upscale shopping district I met a 20-something Pakistani friend with an encyclopaedic knowledge of rap lyrics and Indian movie starlets. After ordering a beer from the restaurant's illicit stash, he told me why he thought his more conservative relatives held the answer to Pakistan's social and economic problems. "In my uncle's family the women cover their faces and they have thrown out their television, banned music and disconnected the internet … They had the strength to follow Islam properly. I wish I had. If we all did, Pakistan would no longer be weak," he said.

Yet many Pakistanis oppose this sort of outlook. And they aren't just the rich, insulated and western-educated. In Attock, a small village on the border of Punjab and NWFP, I met local people who had decided that the growing extremism they were witnessing amongst their young men was down to the serious lack of educational opportunities, social services and proper Islamic knowledge. They are working on building a girls' school, a hospital and a mosque with a teacher capable of challenging the cult of suicide bombings and the ideology of religiously sanctioned hate. However, despite America's commitment to provide $7.5bn to strengthen Pakistani civil society over the next five years, the villagers of Attock – who lack the right connections – have been unable to find anyone to help them with their project.

For the last five months, I have been working in Pakistan on a project to support the many elements of Pakistan's society who believe that hating other religions or different Islamic communities is against the nature of Islam. Our project, Karvaan-e-Amn (Caravan of Peace) has its work cut out, not because its message its alien, but because we are trying to argue against an ideology that has been purposely built up over 30 years with millions of dollars worth of foreign funding.

Pakistan's future is far from decided. It needs help to become a peaceful, prosperous and stable country, and those who stand ready to assist will find allies from across its diverse society. They might also be surprised by a nation that dearly wants to prove wrong its portrayal in the international media.

Amil Khan, a former Reuters Middle East correspondent who now works in London on documentaries.