Islamist Tide Has Risen in Pakistan

By Sadanand Dhume

It's time to bury the myth of moderate Pakistan.

You know the one: the notion, repeated ad nauseam in magazine articles, think-tank reports and congressional testimony - as though saying it often enough will make it true - that Pakistan is an essentially tolerant country threatened by a rising tide of fundamentalism. Here's a news flash: the tide has risen.

The most recent reminder of this came last Wednesday in Islamabad, when suspected Taliban militants shot dead Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's 42-year-old minister for minority affairs and the only Christian in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation's cabinet. His crime? Supporting the repeal of a barbaric blasphemy law that makes insulting the prophet Muhammad punishable by death.

The law is often used to settle scores with hapless religious minorities, especially Christians such as Asia Bibi, an illiterate peasant sentenced to hang last year after she allegedly badmouthed the prophet during a row with Muslim co-workers. Bhatti's assassination comes two months after a bodyguard murdered Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer for visiting Ms Bibi in jail and speaking out against abuse of the law.

To be fair, Pakistan's claim to relative moderation has been kept alive thus far by more than just wishful thinking. Overtly Islamist parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami have rarely commanded more than a fraction of the national vote. Women enjoy freedoms in the public square that their counterparts in Saudi Arabia and Iran could only dream of. At great personal risk, a small but courageous group of activists, intellectuals and politicians speak out publicly against bigotry and religious intolerance.

Scratch the surface, however, and a bleaker picture emerges. Islamist parties may not garner large-scale electoral support, but Islamist ideas are widely tolerated by mainstream political parties. The major opposition party, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, flaunts its closeness to sundry Islamists, including Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent organisation of the international terrorist group Lashkar-e-Toiba.

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Ostensibly secular, the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party supported both Kashmiri militancy and the Afghan Taliban in the past. In its current incarnation it appears permanently cowed by the country's legion of vocal fundamentalists. President Asif Ali Zardari failed to attend the funerals of either Taseer or Bhatti. His government has made it clear it will not touch the controversial blasphemy law. Interior Minister Rehman Malik declared he would personally kill anyone who dared blaspheme Muhammad's name.

As for Pakistan's undeniably brave activists and intellectuals, unfortunately they appear to have more admirers overseas than among their compatriots. Hand-wringing in the pages of Dawn and the Friday Times, two of the country's leading English-language newspapers, has not prevented Mumtaz Qadri, Taseer's murderer, from becoming a national hero.

Not surprisingly, anti-American sentiment - often a reliable shorthand for a society's paranoia and self-loathing - is rampant.

On the streets, bloodcurdling yells for the execution of alleged Central Intelligence Agency operative Raymond Davis, accused of killing two Pakistanis in January, have prevented the government from granting Davis the diplomatic immunity that the US claims he is entitled to. This despite personal pleas by President Barack Obama and senator John Kerry.

By now, the reasons for Pakistan's predicament are well known. They include the intolerance embedded in the nation's founding idea of a separate "land of the pure" for Indian Muslims, the malign shadow of Saudi Arabia on religious life, blowback from the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s and the overwhelming influence that the army and its thuggish intelligence wing, the Inter-Services Intelligence, wield on national life. The army's very motto, Jihad-fi-Sabilillah, or jihad in the path of Allah, is an exhortation to holy war.

For the international community, the long road to fixing Pakistan begins with the simple recognition that the country's true face is not the urbane intellectual making reasoned arguments but the frenzied mob showering rose petals on a murderer for his services to the faith. Over time, Pakistan can be saved only by rearranging the basic building blocks of the country.

This means backing provincial autonomy and linguistic identity as an alternative to the centralised pan-Islamism used by the military and its supporters to weld the country together. It means deploying social networks and satellite television to open the door to reasonable discourse about religion. It means channelling aid to ensure that children are no longer taught to glorify Islamic conquest and reflexively mistrust the West and India. It means accepting that the most poisonous madrassas must be shuttered if they can't be reformed.

Needless to say, none of this will be easy. But the consequences of the alternative - pandering to fundamentalists while blaming outsiders for all the country's ills - can be seen in the freshly turned soil of Bhatti's grave.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com.

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