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Pakistan needs more than elections. Only a new political class will do

Stephen Schwartz says that, in this failing state, the ballot box is also a tinderbox. Even if Monday’s election goes ahead, Pakistan might well end up in a worse state than before: exporting terror, spawning confrontation, at war with itself

The most important country in the world right now faces the most dangerous election in recent times. The country is Pakistan, not America, and the elections for parliament take place this coming Monday. Policy experts speak of ‘failed states’, and Pakistan is just about as close to failure as it is possible for a state to be. That’s one reason the world will be watching on Monday. Another and more immediate reason for interest is the assassination at the end of last year of Benazir Bhutto, twice the country’s prime minister and the secularist leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

Bhutto’s death had been predicted as inevitable by many Pakistani and foreign observers once she returned last year from years of exile, but in a sense she was just one more victim of the failing state. There have been many others. In 2002, for example, the American journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in Karachi and decapitated by the al-Qa’eda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Pakistan is the worldwide centre of Islamic terrorism. Osama bin Laden himself is thought to be in hiding on the border with Afghanistan, and Pakistani extremists are operating in Afghanistan, Kashmir and India — and the UK and United States.

Pakistanis have made Britain the most formidable outpost for Islamist extremism in western Europe. The groundwork in the UK is mainly done by the Pakistani branch of the fundamentalist Deobandi sect — which produced the Taleban. This sect recruits jihadists, who are sent from London to Lahore for training, thence to carry out atrocities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and the UK. Funds routed via Pakistan have been used in every Islamist terrorist attack in Britain, from the 7/7 Underground attacks to the recurring Heathrow plots. In this sense, ‘homegrown terror’ is a myth. Islamist terror in the UK is a foreign import from Pakistan.

In the US, Pakistani militants have helped to set up and operate a radical establishment, the ‘Wahabi lobby’, financing mosque construction and capturing existing congregations. The lobby has also backed and helped organise propaganda efforts for jihadists around the world. A single, notorious Pakistani jihadi group, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Righteous, or LET) was linked to the North Virginia network of jihad recruiters, suppressed in the US at the beginning of 2003, and the 2006 Heathrow bomb conspiracy. LET was allegedly banned by the Pakistani government, but the US State Department said that it reformed and continues its activities under the name Jama’at ud-Da’wa — a charitable organisation that denies any association with LET.

A pattern is emerging in the English-speaking countries: money from Saudi Arabia, mainly now private rather than governmental (but still plentiful), and donated via the extremist networks in Pakistan, finances the infiltration of mosques and the indoctrination of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Sunnis, who are thought to make up the majority of Muslims in Britain and the United States.

To Saudi cash and Pakistani agitators may be added another indispensable element in the scheme: the propaganda of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its star personality, the anti-Western writer Sayyid Qutb. The Muslim Brotherhood offensive is based neither on culture nor on local grievances, but on ultra-fundamentalism, which brings together Muslims from differing societies.

Many countries are threatened by Pakistani terrorists, but Afghanistan is obviously the most convenient theatre of fully fledged military operations for Pakistani radicals. For many years Pakistan’s military and intelligence structures have been infiltrated by local Deobandis, others inspired directly by Saudi Wahabism, and, most significantly, adherents of the radical preaching of Abu’l Ala Maududi (1903-79), founder of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), one of the most powerful jihadist movements in the world. JI was launched in British India, but relocated to Pakistan after partition in 1947.

The weak military government of Pervaiz Musharraf has turned a blind eye and maintained a faint-hearted attitude to the Afghan Taleban and its extremist supporters on the northwest frontier. Instead of firmly supporting the defeat of the Taleban, their removal from the border zones, and the complete eradication of al-Qa’eda, including the apprehension of Osama bin Laden himself, Musharraf has presided over a steady course of compromise with the Islamist killers. His conduct threatens his own people, his neighbours — and the troops of Nato’s anti-terror coalition in Afghanistan.

In an outcome that shocked Pakistanis and observers inured to the cynicism of Musharraf, the Islamabad government on 9 February announced a ceasefire with the Taleban and other radicals in the Pakistani frontier region, on the pretext of ‘dialogue’ to make the coming election more secure. Pakistan authorities appeared pleased that a truce had been offered by the bin Ladenite commander Beitullah Mehsud, who had earlier been blamed by Musharraf as the planner of Benazir Bhutto’s slaying. Yet regardless of such deals, the terror continues: while Musharraf temporises, bombs explode, killing and injuring scores of innocents. Between the deaths of Daniel Pearl in 2002 and Benazir Bhutto at the end of last year, blood was shed so freely in Pakistan that it threatened to rival Iraq and Afghanistan as a killing zone for Islamist extremists. Terrorism-related fatalities rose from fewer than 200 in 2003 to 3,600 in 2007, according to the reputable Institute for Conflict Management.

But nobody does anything about it; such is Musharraf’s influence in the West that only the American Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has gone so far as to suggest open foreign military action inside Pakistan itself. I do not support Obama, but I sympathise with his line here, since foreign action inside Pakistan’s borders may be the only means of protecting Afghanistan. Musharraf has been nothing if not shameless in covering for malefactors within his regime. He distinguished himself in 2004 by pardoning Abdul Qadir Khan, the Pakistani nuclear physicist, a day after Khan confessed on Pakistani television that he had turned over secret data on atomic weapons to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
When Musharraf finally seemed to respond to Western demands for democracy, by agreeing to reverse his November 2007 declaration of emergency rule and to hold elections, the general still manoeuvred in the hope that he could remain in power, in defiance of the country’s constitution, which he had twice suspended. Pakistani judicial authorities tried to restrain him, but Musharraf dismissed Chief Justice I.M. Chaudhry, touching off the lawyers’ demonstrations that briefly gave Pakistan and the world the striking image of bourgeois professionals on the barricades of protest.

The ‘lawyer riots’ were most important because they suggested to Pakistanis that the country’s three enemies — the military, the bigoted Sunni clerics, and the feudal landlord class — could be defeated. Tragically, the main opponents of the military ‘enemy’ come from the religious and landlord ‘enemies’. While Musharraf and his Muslim League-Q stand for the soldiers, Nawaz Sharif and the Muslim League-N are aligned with the narrow-minded Sunni clerics, and Bhutto’s PPP, which may enjoy the support of 50 per cent of the people, comes from the landlord class.

It was no accident that Nawaz Sharif, the most important opposition figure, returned to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia, the home of Wahabism. Nawaz Sharif’s father Mohammad Sharif was a leader of Tabligh-i-Jamaat, the fundamentalist mass movement responsible for the controversial London mega-mosque projected for the 2012 Olympics centre.

Nawaz Sharif was overthrown as prime minister by Musharraf in 1999, and some myopic individuals now argue that restoration of a formal succession by voting for Nawaz Sharif is an appropriate response to Musharraf’s usurpation. Sharif had supported free-market reforms, but at the same time expanded the area of Islamic sharia law in the Pakistani legal system. Musharraf may be weak in the face of fundamentalism, but Nawaz Sharif is altogether more dangerous: he is feared by many secular and minority Muslim Pakistanis (the latter including Shias) as an open candidate for radical Islam.

Furthermore, notwithstanding the secular credentials of Benazir Bhutto — her PPP was once considered ‘socialist’ — and as sophisticated as Benazir was (I had met her and found her charming), she did not enjoy a reputation for integrity. Having twice served as prime minister in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she appeared as a positive international advertisement for enlightened policies toward women leaders in a major Muslim country, but there was talk of corruption. Nothing was ever proved against her, but her widower, Asif Ali Zardari, is still known as ‘Mister Ten Percent’ for the demands he allegedly made on those asking for political favours during her years in power. ‘Mister Ten Percent’ now shares control of the PPP with Benazir’s son Bilawil, aged 19. Zardari is a probable but as yet unconfirmed candidate for prime minister.

If Pakistanis go to the polls — it is always possible that the election will be prevented by further chaos — they will face limited and depressing choices, and those choices are as depressing for the rest of the world as they are for Pakistan. Aside from the leading contenders, Musharraf’s Muslim League-Q, Bhutto’s PPP, and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League-N, a coalition of fundamentalists more intransigent than the followers of Nawaz Sharif will also run. This coalition is known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (United Action Council or MMA), and represents the Maududist JI and similar groups.

MMA rules the pro-Taleban and al-Qa’eda-friendly frontier with Afghanistan and aims at a totalitarian Islamic state in which sharia would be the only law, enforced by a Saudi-style religious militia. MMA has already attempted to impose such a system through its so-called ‘Hesba’ or ‘supervision’ Bill. The Bill was declared unconstitutional by Chief Justice Chaudhry (who confronted Musharraf last year).

Is there a sane way out of this situation? To return to my original point, the political confrontation in Pakistan is the most dangerous in the world — and precisely because it offers no solution. Pakistan appears, like Egypt, to be a Muslim country almost beyond repair, as a result of its history of ancient corruption and post-colonial demagogy. Its entrepreneurial and professional classes, which show outstanding talent in such areas as information technology, are struggling against financial, governmental and religio-ideological barriers to form a new, stable Pakistan, based on accountability and genuine popular sovereignty. But the triumph of such a reform movement requires new faces and personalities in the country’s political class. Atrocious though her death was, Benazir Bhutto, like Pervaiz Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif, represented the past.

The rule that has emerged from the successful democratic transitions in, for example, Spain, South Korea and even Muslim Indonesia, is that changes must be implemented by credible newcomers to politics, preferably from the business class, who can transform the frustrations and hopes of humiliated citizens into responsible participation in public affairs. Voting alone, even when clean, is not the sole standard for democratisation of a country, as shown by the Hamas victory in the Palestinian areas. Political goals are more significant than electoral tactics. The Pakistani majority appears to desire a secular state, and to break the chains imposed on them by the ‘three enemies’. But until a substantial civic and secular alternative appears, all indicators point to an election that will leave Pakistan in a worse, rather than a better state. Pakistan will remain a country of gross bloodshed, and first-rank threats to global security.

Stephen Schwartz Is An American Muslim. His latest book, The Other Islam: Sufism And The Road To Global Harmony, will be published In the summer.


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