Pakistan is losing the fight against fundamentalism - Guardian, UK
Pakistan is losing the fight against fundamentalism
Sharia law is back - and spells disaster for Musharraf's secular vision
Thursday May 29, 2003
When Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, gave his support to the US in its war on Afghanistan 20 months ago, he took a calculated risk: he was confronting his country's conservative religious lobby in a stand-off that would determine whether Pakistan became a modern, outward-looking democracy or a reactionary Islamic republic. There were protests as the war began, but on the whole Musharraf seemed to get away with it: when it came down to it, it seemed, even devout Muslims in Pakistan had doubts about government by mullah.
Today, with religious parties dominant in Pakistan's parliament and the introduction of sharia law imminent in the North-West Frontier Province, the question seems less clear-cut: is the NWFP a harbinger of more general religious militancy, or a special case, unrelated to the rest of Pakistan?
The NWFP has always been beyond the reach of central government. The British failed to subdue it and left it as a political no-man's land, a buffer between the Raj and the uncertainties of Afghanistan. The Pakistani state did no better, adopting almost unchanged the British policy of neglect and a tacit acceptance of the limits of federal law.
The result was a backward region that remained poverty-stricken. Outside the cities, government investment was negligible, and social and economic structures remained tribal. In the absence of economic development, people survived as best they could, dealing in arms and drugs, smuggling people and goods. Until last year's election, though, even this deeply conservative province had not elected a religious government. Two things changed that: the war in Afghanistan and the manipulation of the election by Musharraf himself.
For the Pashtun people in the NWFP, the war in Afghanistan recalled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - another example of outsiders trespassing on Muslim tribal territory. The volunteers who flooded into Afghanistan to fight on the Taliban side testified to the fact that Pashtun people have, in their view, the historic right to rule Afghanistan, and have never forgotten that Afghanistan once ruled in the NWFP.
When the Taliban collapsed, the fugitives - as Afghan President Karzai still complains - found ready shelter in the NWFP. Even if traditional codes had not dictated the provision of sanctuary, clan feeling would have. Even so, Pashtun people are fairly pragmatic. Had Afghanistan flourished after the overthrow of the Taliban, the appeal of fundamentalist parties might have paled before the example of secular prosperity. But the victors in Afghanistan seemed perversely disinclined to learn the lessons of history.
In the early 1990s, the US lost interest in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. The chaos of warlordism and civil war eventually gave birth to the Taliban. After the Taliban collapsed, it was meant to be different. Afghanistan, though, is last year's story. The return of the warlords, the weakness of the Karzai government, the disaffection of Pashtun people who have been marginalised from power, the failure of the reconstruction effort to effect any material improvement - none of this seems important in Washington. Once again Afghanistan is lawless, its roads are dangerous and western promises have not been honoured.
In the NWFP, Musharraf's support of the US was taken as betrayal, and nothing has altered the conviction that the Afghan war was a war against Islam. For the western television viewer, that war is over - replaced by images of victory. On the ground, in the NWFP and in southern Afghanistan, armed confrontations continue between Pashtun fighters on both sides of the border and US-led forces who are still trying to subdue what they characterise as al-Qaida and Taliban resistance.
With every armed encounter, local resentment grows. If Pashtun people felt betrayed by Musharraf's support for the US, they had their revenge in the elections. Musharraf wanted to ensure the continuation of his power and banned the main secular opposition figures, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. For months his government tried to create alternative parties more friendly to a new constitution that gave the army and president a hold on power in perpetuity. Their efforts backfired and resulted in the largest showing ever for religious parties in Pakistan.
There was never any ambiguity about the ambitions of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the religious coalition that won in the NWFP. One of its first acts in provincial government was to ban music on public transport. From those modest beginnings, it has hacked through a small forest of personal liberties: police squads tearing down cinema posters depicting actresses; raids on cinemas; videotapes and music cassettes burned; bars with permits to sell alcohol to foreigners closed down. Religious fanatics in the provincial congress compete to introduce measures to restrict women: one MP is trying to make purdah compulsory; another has targeted sport for women and schoolgirls.
Encouraged by this, vigilantes have been operating unchecked. In January, cable TV operators shut down in protest at the provincial government's failure to offer protection after 40 men rampaged through the premises of one operator in Peshawar, destroying millions of rupees worth of equipment. Later that month, Fazal Wahab, well known locally as the author of books attacking Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, was shot dead in Mingora.
Now, with the formal introduction of sharia law, the path is clear for official religious vigilantes. If these measures have struck horror in Peshawar's liberals, they are crowd-pleasers to a province that already largely lives by a conservative clan code of justice.
The actions of the NWFP provincial assembly have symbolic importance in a wider struggle for values in Pakistan. The central government can challenge any legislation proposed by a provincial assembly if it conflicts with federal law, but how vigorously will Musharraf fight for the secular values that he appeared to proclaim 20 months ago? He would have been better placed to resist the encroachment of religious parties in Pakistan's public life had he not been so determined to consolidate his own powers - and those of the armed forces - at the expense of secular democracy.
When Musharraf began this confrontation with fundamentalism, in the wake of September 11, he had a historic opportunity to reverse decades of creeping encouragement to Pakistan's religious lobby and belatedly to build a secure, legitimate and secular democracy. Now he is locked in a dispute over the extent of his powers with the national parliament. Several parties want him to give up his post as head of the army. He is resisting. The religious parties have enough power in the parliament to give Musharraf victory if they wished, but a favour like that is bound to have a price.
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