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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Asia / Africa / Americas - Carribean / The Pacific / International > Pakistan: Employ extremism, die by it

Pakistan: Employ extremism, die by it

by Dr Ayesha Siddiqa

Monday 14 May 2007

(Source: Daily Times, May 14, 2007)

Pakistan’s military and political leadership have not behaved differently from each other in using religion to win greater political legitimacy. In fact, most leaders tend to revert to religion and religious symbolism as and when they begin to suffer from legitimacy deficit

Pakistan is today witnessing a grave crisis and its political future is becoming highly unpredictable. As the allies of the ruling military-president fight the supporters of the chief justice of Pakistan, attention is naturally diverted from the rapidly spreading threat of religious extremism denoted by the group which occupies Lal Masjid or others in the tribal areas who insist on bringing an extreme form of religion to the rest of the country. Unfortunately, given the political situation, there is no potent liberal force to fight religious extremism.

It is surprising that people should wonder at what is happening in Islamabad and elsewhere and consider it shocking. The onslaught of extremism was inevitable because of a number of endogenous and exogenous factors. Why should we be surprised to see mullahs agitating outside when the writ of the state has steadily been eroding over many years?

The state and its elite were not mindful of delivering justice to people or ensuring a more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities to the common man. In a country where people are randomly picked up by the agencies and made to disappear without any cogent explanation and where resources are only distributed to the cronies of the ruling dispensation, it would be natural for the common man to look towards alternative forms of justice, accountability and ideology.

The sceptics would argue that the religious parties that have been governing parts of the country since 2002 have not done any better in terms of governance. The condition of common man has not improved substantially in Balochistan or the Frontier province where the MMA was allowed to form a government. The proponents of sharia, however, will argue that the MMA governments failed because they were obstructed from introducing the Islamic form of government.

For many, sharia is still the untested and untried method for improving the fate of the common man and for bringing justice and equality to the society. They will continue to demand it because the ruling coalition seems hell-bent on thwarting any other possibility for improving governance. That much should be obvious from the ongoing crisis vis-à-vis the CJP issue.

The ruling elite, which includes the civil and military bureaucracy and their political cronies, wants to get rid of the chief justice because he had begun to question the method of governance. Going by the recently published accounts of the crisis, the main gripe of the government and the bureaucracy was that he had embarrassed the state functionaries by dragging them to the court and questioning their decisions which impacted the life of the common man.

If a state institution like the judiciary cannot be allowed to provide an alternative then the only other method left is to have an alternative ideology.

Despite propagating cultural liberalism, the elite of the country seems to be pursuing the path of greater religious extremism. The key partners of the present government believe in religious conservatism. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the key interlocutor between the government and the Lal Masjid group, is religiously conservative and thus finds no problem in the manner in which the Ghazi brothers have forcibly taken over control of the children’s library or the bunch of women who now manage the library. He represents that part of the national elite which is deeply connected with religious norms and ideology.

In this respect he is no different from Mian Nawaz Sharif or even Benazir Bhutto who were known for using religious symbols during their tenures. Despite Benazir Bhutto’s claims that she will fight Talibanisation in the country, it is a fact that she also used religious symbolism during her tenure as prime minister and even afterwards. The pictures of her with rosary in her hand or tying Imam Zamin on the arm of her husband Asif Zardari before he departed from Dubai for Lahore are still fresh in the minds of many.

Pakistan’s military and political leadership have not behaved differently from each other in using religion to win greater political legitimacy. In fact, most leaders tend to revert to religion and religious symbolism as and when they begin to suffer from legitimacy deficit. Not wanting to improve their system of governance and bringing social change and development, leaders have sought religion as the one method to save their popularity. This approach was inevitably to impact the society. More and more people think that the religion or sharia is the only way out of the crisis of governance.

Add to this the conscious use of religion by the Zia-ul Haq regime and we have the warriors from the jihad in the eighties spilling over the entire region. Fast forward to the 1990s, the political government of Benazir Bhutto also adopted this tactical approach to produce the Taliban which would have ensured better control of Afghanistan. No one seemed to realise the consequences of such policies; even the fact that the Taliban would not remain amenable to Pakistan’s control. For instance, it became impossible for Pakistan to force them to hand over Osama bin Laden to the US after 9/11.

Even more importantly, the policymakers did not seem to think that the Taliban could penetrate the social fabric of Pakistan and conquer Pakistan ideologically. That they did should be obvious from what is happening in Waziristan, and no less in Islamabad itself.

The Taliban’s literalism also dovetailed with the state’s old agenda of ideological purity, disregarding various elements of diversity. It was easy for some sections to lap up such Puritanism. Also, after 9/11 and with the popularity of the clash-of-civilisations agenda in the West and among the Muslims, the acceptability of religious conservatism has become even greater than in the past.

At this juncture, it is the combination of internal and external factors that are driving the society closer to religious extremism. Today, Afghanistan is part of South Asia in more ways than one. The fate of Afghanistan will eventually determine the fate of Pakistan and the rest of South Asia. In case the international forces fail to bring development and security to the country and at some point decide to withdraw, it will be difficult to stop the invasion of Taliban forces from spreading into both Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan.

A glance at the internal situation in Pakistan bears witness to the fact that the influence of the Taliban has spread beyond the frontiers of Afghanistan and is now spreading into the settled areas of Pakistan as well. The domestic political and societal forces, especially those who believe in liberalism, are too weak to counter this and lack the cohesion to devise a viable strategy to counter this threat. Moreover, as long as the political forces continue to use religion as a preferred tactic, it will be impossible to roll back the growing threat of Talibanisation.

The writer is an Islamabad-based independent defence analyst and author of the book, Military Inc, Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy