January 09, 2011

PAKISTAN: A critical mass

Pakistan The murder of a leading liberal politician highlights strains on an elite whose ability to resist the influence of militant Islamism is increasingly in question, write Amy Kazmin and Farhan Bokhari

Islamabad’s Kohsar market is an enclave of affluence amid poverty and conservatism, where wealthy Pakistanis and expatriates buy imported food, browse the shelves at the London Book Company, and idle at caf├ęs such as Mocha and Table Talk.

The easygoing western-style ambience was shattered on Tuesday by the assassination of Salman Taseer, which laid bare the tenuous hold of Pakistan’s elite, typified by Kohsar’s patrons, over the restive country. The powerful governor of Punjab province – a suave, English-educated businessman – had just finished a snack when he was turned on by one of his own bodyguards, outraged by his defence of an illiterate Christian woman sentenced to death under controversial blasphemy laws.

Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a construction worker’s son whose extreme religious views had been noted by his superiors, fired up to 26 bullets into his boss, while at least six other members of the security detail looked on. “People were running in panic,” recalls Mushabir Khan, a taxi driver whose shock at witnessing the scene was deepened by the 26-year-old killer’s calm manner as he was whisked away. “How could a serving policeman kill the governor?”

The liberal elite has been further shocked by the outpouring of support for the killing of Taseer, one of the country’s most outspoken liberals and a close ally of President Asif Ali Zardari. Mr Qadri – photographed after the murder smiling smugly – was showered with rose petals when he arrived at court. Five hundred Pakistani clerics endorsed his act and warned against attending the funeral, held on Wednesday under tight security. It proved a struggle to find anyone willing to lead funeral prayers.

The highest profile political assassination since that of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 has revealed the profound schisms over the place of Islam in the state and society. This battle for the soul of the nuclear-armed country pits western-influenced, liberal Muslims such as Taseer – son of a progressive poet – against a younger, angrier generation of men such as Mr Qadri, products of the failing government school systems or the religious madrassas that have flourished in recent decades.

Many fear Pakistan, a crucial ally in the US-led struggle against Islamist extremism, has crossed a tipping point, whereby liberal voices will be silenced, while Islamists – determined to implement sharia at home, and export jihadi struggle abroad – increasingly chart the country’s future.

“This is a kind of pivotal moment,” says Sumit Ganguly of Indiana University. “We are now approaching a situation that is similar to what happened to Iran under the shah. We are not quite there yet. But if these trend lines continue, that’s where we are

Talat Masood, a respected Pakistani commentator on security affairs, says: “Short of all the main political parties coming together, as well as the military joining hands, to confront this menace, it is difficult to imagine how this situation can be successfully tackled.”

There are also doubts that Pakistan’s rulers have either the capacity or the stomach to step up the battle against growing Islamist militancy. The ruling Pakistan People’s party is already struggling with profound economic and political challenges. To win back an estranged coalition partner, it
was this week forced to reverse a 9 per cent fuel price rise – a move likely to add to friction with the International Monetary Fund, which is withholding loans because of a lack of progress on economic reforms.

“I don’t think Zardari has the intellectual wherewithal to deal with the challenge,” Professor Ganguly says. “Not only are you faced with the problem of governance. How do you offer an alternative vision of Pakistan, besides saying: ‘We are opposed to fundamentalism’? This killing is going to embolden the zealots in the worst possible way.”

Taseer’s death and its aftermath are worrying for America and its “war on al-Qaeda”. Should Pakistan’s civilian authorities request an end to the CIA’s intensified campaign of drone strikes on the group’s strongholds in territory bordering Afghanistan – which are highly unpopular domestically – it would hamper Washington’s chosen method of battling Islamist radicalism. “This is clearly an area where stability and good order are of paramount global interest,” says Michael Chertoff, former US secretary
of homeland security.

General Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief, is already resisting US pressure for a fresh campaign against suspected Islamist militant strongholds in North Waziristan, a border region American commanders see as a haven for militants targeting troops in Afghanistan and a hub for plots against the west. The general cites the prospect of an armed backlash by Islamist sympathisers, fears that
will be exacerbated by the killing.

Pakistan has long been torn between two completing visions. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father, wanted a secular, multi-ethnic multi-religious democratic homeland for South Asia’s Muslims after the end of British colonial rule on the Indian subcontinent in 1947. But others, like Gen Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the late military dictator who seized power in 1977, have sought to Islamise the state and society by creating sharia courts and imposing punishments for a wide variety of religious offences. Secular leaders today court religious conservatives to shore up their popularity, while the army-run Inter-Services Intelligence agency has actively nurtured radical Islamist groups, such as the Taliban and Lashkar e-Taiba, for “strategic purposes” in the long-running tensions with India.

Despite the creeping influence of radicalism, Pakistani elites have tended to see extremists as fringe elements in an essentially tolerant society. Army links with radical Islamist groups are seen as alliances of convenience rather than ideological affinity. Taseer himself – in an interview with the Financial Times shortly before his death – derided the Pakistani Taliban insurgents who last year came close to overrunning the strategically important Swat Valley as “brainwashed, illiterate tribes”, foreign criminals, and bandits with no links to Islam.

“If these mullahs are so popular, why have we never seen them sweep to power in elections?” he asked. “The
reality is Pakistan is neither Iran nor Afghanistan. Pakistan is a state which has problems but it is nowhere near becoming a radical state. Our youth are radicalised not because of ideology but because there are no opportunities. You give jobs to the young people and you begin to overcome the nuisance of the mullahs”.

Yet Taseer’s assassination raises disturbing questions about the penetration of the security apparatus by ideologically committed Islamists. Senior police investigators had declared Mr Qadri “unfit” to protect high-profile figures because of his extreme views but he nevertheless managed to get himself assigned to the governor’s security detail.

“We are trying to find out if this was a wider conspiracy or just a lone warrior acting on his own,” says a senior intelligence official. Mohib Asad, former head of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, says Mr Qadri’s infiltration is likely to be the “tip of the iceberg”.

Nothing highlights Pakistan’s bitter ideological battles as the controversy over its draconian blasphemy laws, adopted in 1980. These make it a capital offence to insult Islam or the prophet Mohammed. Critics say the law is too vague and used increasingly in personal vendettas, especially against religious minorities. Yet religious conservatives have vociferously objected to proposals to repeal it, reduce the punishment or build in safeguards to prevent its misuse.

The law has been at the centre of public debate since the November conviction of Asiya Bibi, a mother of five who was sentenced to death after quarrelling with several Muslim fellow labourers who refused to share a bowl of water with her, saying it would be “unclean” and a sacrilege.

Taseer, a political prisoner himself during Gen Zia’s dictatorship, took up her cause. In a prison press conference with Ms Bibi – swathed in a veil revealing only her eyes – he said she was falsely accused and pledged to raise the case with Mr Zardari, who has the power to pardon her. “Inshallah, her appeal will be accepted,” he said. “Implicating helpless minorities in such cases amounts to ridiculing the constitution of Pakistan.”

Despite protests by enraged hardliners at his office, Taseer was defiant in his opposition to what he described as “black laws”. Shortly before his death, he wrote on Twitter, the social messaging service: “I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. I refused. Even if
I’m the last man standing.”

Many Pakistani liberals are hoping that Taseer’s death will finally galvanise the country’s secular forces, and the fractured ruling elites, to make a more concerted effort to defeat Islamist militancy. According to Saeed Anwar, a lawyer attending a small memorial vigil at the site of the governor’s death: “Salman Taseer’s assassination tells us you just have to take a stand – there is no other way.”

1 comment:

Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall said...

Great post. However the 2 big questions in my mind are 1) how much of Pakistan's instability and violence are directly related to 50 years of covert CIA operations there, and 2) when - if ever - the US public will be told the truth about the real (strategic) reasons for the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many Pakistani analysts believe Pakistan is the real target, citing Pentagon/CIA support for the the secession of energy and mineral rich Balochistan from Pakistan to become a US client state - just like energy and mineral rich Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and the other former Soviet republics. They point to CIA support for the Baloch separatist movement and their efforts to disrupt operations at the Chinese-built Gwadar Port (and the energy transit route for Iranian oil and natural gas destined for China). Including the fact that the CIA is training young Baloch separatists in bomb-making and other terrorist activities. Pakistan's "intability" is just a pretext - created by the CIA to justify a 10+ year multi-trillion dollar war. I blog about this at http://stuartbramhall.aegauthorblogs.com/2010/12/30/the-us-as-a-semi-failed-state/
I have also posted a recent map of Free Balochistan (from their website).