Swayed by the Right

Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST

A report of the International Crisis Group warns that the ascendancy of extremist religious groups in Pakistani politics, with the tacit approval of the military, has fuelled the process of Islamisation in the country.

in Islamabad

PAKISTAN was born in the name of Islam and is an Islamic republic as declared by its 1973 Constitution, which has been amended drastically by General Pervez Musharraf. In the country's 55 years of existence, religious parties had enjoyed little following in the brief spells of electoral politics that marked the gaps between military dictatorship. But they maintained a unique relationship with the powerful military establishment, and often, the two sides were seen as `natural allies'. The general (mockingly referred to as General's) elections held in October 2002 changed it all. The spectacular rise of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six amorphous religious groups, stumped political pundits and contemporary historians alike. The MMA's campaign highlights were Islamic and anti-United States. It targeted Musharraf's pro-U.S. policies and pledged the enforcement of the Sharia law. It is now in power in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), with a two-thirds majority. In Baluchistan, the alliance is part of the coalition government headed by the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), nicknamed the king's party. Although the two regions account for 57 per cent of the landmass, they represent only 14 per cent of the population.

Both the provinces are extremely sensitive as they share a long border with Afghanistan and a relatively small border with Iran. The prolonged U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, code-named Operation Enduring Freedom, and the tumultuous events that have taken place in the region over the past two and a half decades, have had a tremendous impact on these two provinces. The mercurial surge of the MMA was attributed largely to the intense resentment among the majority Pasthuns and Baluchs in the NWFP and Baluchistan against the U.S.-led campaign against "international terrorism".

What does the shift of the MMA to the centre stage of electoral politics mean? Is Pakistan poised to witness the type of revolution that Iran experienced in 1979, although through electoral means? Or is it simply a case where the military rulers in Islamabad got their calculation wrong because they were desperate to keep the mainstream parties and political players out of the fray?

These are some of the questions that a new report titled "Pakistan: The Mullahs and the Military", released by the International Crisis Group (ICG), seeks to answer. The ICG is a non-governmental organisation based in Brussels. It works through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve conflicts. The reputed organisation has done some excellent field-based studies in South Asia, particularly in the contexts of Kashmir and Afghanistan.

The picture presented by the latest, 43-page ICG report is not a pretty one. In fact, it has some disturbing conclusions and there are enough reasons for civil society, and the military and political establishments in Pakistan, the international community and India to be concerned about.

The core of the report is about Pervez Musharraf's failure to live up to his pledge to crack down on extremist religious elements and the fact that he made common cause with the military and the clergy on issues such as Kashmir. On several occasions, Musharraf has gone on record about the limitations involved in checking `freelance jehadis' in the face of India's `stubborn' attitude. The argument is perhaps debatable, but the Indian establishment needs to ask itself if its Pakistan policy, particularly since the events of September 11, 2001, has worked.

The ICG report does not mince words when it says that the MMA threatens to undermine civil liberties, freedom of expression, legal reforms and religious tolerance in Pakistan. It says that the situation of women and the minorities is of particular concern. The report points out that the leaders of the MMA have vowed to Islamise state and society.

However, a day after the report was made public, the NWFP Cabinet approved a proposal to bring legislation that is only in accordance with the Sharia law. In Baluchistan, Islamisation has become the objective of official policy. Steps towards Islamisation include a ban on music in public and action against cable television operators and video shops.

The report says that although MMA leaders have tried to allay worries that their governments might adopt Taliban-style policies, their actions indicate that they prefer to impose a strict religious code. The MMA's agenda includes putting an end to the system of co-education as the first step towards the total segregation of women in public life, and the addition of more Islamic texts in school and college curricula. In the NWFP and Baluchistan, the MMA plans to screen and register NGOs. There is official patronage for moral policing by the student wings of parties that constitute the MMA. Similar trends are visible in several spheres of public life.

The report emphasises that Musharraf and the military establishment had failed to confront the MMA's religious zeal. Moreover, Musharraf's recent constitutional amendments have undermined the domestic standing of moderate secular parties.

The report warns that the MMA's extremist zeal might encourage its supporters to take up arms against the U.S. forces or its allies in Afghanistan. In the event, Pakistani troops on the border should be able to contain the threat.

The ICG's South Asia Project Director Samina Ahmed says: "Since the military takeover in 1999, the government has demonstrated neither the will nor the intent to pursue domestic policies opposed by the mullahs such as the regulation of madrassas or changes in discriminatory Islamic laws. The perpetual threat of war with India over Kashmir also brings the mullahs and the military close together." Musharraf seems to be following the precedent set by his military predecessors by "forging alliances of convenience with religious organisations to counter secular political adversaries".

Curbs on extremism and modernisation of madrassas were major components of Musharraf's much-publicised address to the people of Pakistan on January 12, 2002, at the height of the tension with India. A draft ordinance on madrassas has failed to see the light of day owing to stiff resistance from the clergy. An estimated 15 lakh students are enrolled in the madrassas, a section of which has been dubbed by the West as jehad factories. The ICG has produced a wonderful report on the subject.

While moderate sections of Pakistani society are being marginalised, religious parties and their causes are flourishing. The religious Right, jehad and Islamisation have once again gained currency in Pakistan's political life, the report said.

The ICG report has urged donors to channel funding to women and the minorities in the NWFP and Baluchistan through the federal government. It said that funding should be linked to the state of fundamental freedoms.

ICG Asia Programme Director Robert Templer says: "The federal government will have to restrain MMA provincial governments from inciting jehadi sentiments and encouraging the gun culture in the name of local traditions. More pressure from key donors might expedite the disarmament of jehadi groups and end their activities".

Although the leaders of the MMA have deferred to the military with regard to setting the country's foreign and security policies, they may not be able to curb the anti-American sentiments of their followers. Pakistan could then find itself isolated regionally and could become a target, as opposed to a partner, in the U.S.-led "war against terrorism". Already there is considerable speculation within the country that after Iraq it could be Pakistan's turn.

The Jamaat-e-Islami (J.I.) and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), the largest parties in the MMA, have maintained close ties with the military for decades. Although there were signs of a strain between Musharraf and the J.I., his aversion to the mainstream political parties led by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and the military's declared intent to keep the two former Prime Ministers out of power, presented the MMA with an open political field. As a result, religious parties have gained political clout, and religion is again at the heart of debates on public policy.

The ICG report says that the MMA's decision not to join the ruling combine at the Centre could be a tactical one. "This strategy helps it to promote an anti-American agenda while avoiding direct confrontation with the military's support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism," the report said. The MMA is aware of the fact that foreign and defence policies are the military's preserve, and therefore restricts its opposition to rhetoric. In any case, its goal is not to confront the military but to consolidate its political gains.

"By assisting the military's electoral manoeuvres, including formation of suitable governments in the centre and the provinces, the MMA has obtained major concessions, such as the release from jail of party workers and the dropping of several prosecutions," the report said.

According to the report, Musharraf's unwillingness to transfer power could have far-reaching implications within Pakistan. Musharraf's constitutional and political distortions have put a fragile federation under immense stress. In the absence of checks on the military's political powers, ethnic tensions are rising, particularly in Sindh and Baluchistan, where there is growing resentment against the Punjabi-dominated military. Musharraf's efforts to empower religious parties at the expense of moderate and secular groups with an ethnic or regional base have fuelled the resentment.

The report has made several recommendations that could help moderate the impact of the rise of the religious Right. To implement these, Musharraf will have to give up his personal agenda and his negative approach towards mainstream parties and their leaders. The U.S. and its allies, who exploited religious sentiments to settle scores with the erstwhile Soviet Union, need to be more realistic in their Afghanistan policy. As for the Indian leadership, it must rethink its policy of resorting to high-pitch rhetoric, which merely helps the hardliners in Pakistan.

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