The outbreak of sectarian violence in Karachi in May 2004 is a testimony to the volatile conditions still prevailing in Pakistan. And while Pakistani forces cooperate with coalition troops to subdue a stubborn resistance in South Waziristan, the country struggles to strike a balance between extremism and reform. Last month’s killing of Naik (Nek) Mohammad, a leading al-Qaeda supporter in the Waziristan region, no doubt enhanced Pakistan’s credentials as a commited partner in the war on terror, but Islamabad still faces serious problems throughout its tribal belt. The Islamic parties of the Pakistan’s Pushtun-dominated Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) have proved their ability to stick to power for already a year and a half. Militants in the region may well use the death of Mohammad to trigger another spurt of anger and violence.
The political process in Pakistan may be analyzed at three levels: sub-national, national, and transnational. If we assume that the current phase of Pakistani national politics started with the October 2002 elections, then the national political situation may be described as an uneasy alliance between the military and the mullahs. Crucial to General Pervez Musharraf’s success as president following these elections was the tacit support of Islamists, who formed a party bloc under the name of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA, the United Front of Action) and succeeded in winning one fifth of the seats in the National Assembly. Moreover, in the first days of this year, the MMA helped secure parliamentary approval of Musharraf’s stay in office until 2007. But the uneasiness of this alliance is reflected in the differences in policy approaches. While Musharraf attempts to adhere to a more liberal line, not only in economics but in the legal sphere as well, he comes into conflict with the orthodoxy of the mullahs who have supported him.
In mid-May, Musharraf announced the establishment of the country’s first officially sponsored national rights commission. Speaking on that occasion, he called for a review of the Blasphemy Law, which imposes the death penalty for defiling the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an, and also the Hudud, which mostly deals with crimes of adultery and rape. Although these laws are widely regarded to be misused, often victimizing innocent people, Islamists have firmly supported them. Despite Musharraf’s protestations that Islam teaches reaching a solution through consensus rather than the imposition of rules, many Islamists have rejected the mere idea of discussing the laws.
In analyzing sub-national politics, the same collision of moderate and radical trends can also be found. The latter is embodied in the experience in the NWFP, where, upon gaining a formidable majority in the Provincial Assembly, the MMA has formed the government. Some policy measures adopted by the new MMA administration gave rise to speculations over the possible “talibanization” of the border region. Steps were taken to further segregate the educational systems for boys and girls and curtail the participation of women in the public life. Bans on street advertisements and rules against moral ills were enacted. Though many of the announced measures proved to be cosmetic, Islamists did promote the Shariat Bill, which won unanimous approval by the Provincial Assembly. The MMA persuaded other parties, some of them secular and even leftist, to support the imposition of the religious code, Shariat, as the supreme law in the province. Its success was significant, as previous attempts to impose religious law on a provincial and even national scale had failed. The southwestern province of Baluchistan followed suit, although the MMA controls a modest number of seats in the Assembly and is a junior partner in the provincial government.
It should be noted that the central government tried to moderate the radical fever of the NWFP administrations. Last June, during the inauguration of the Kohat Tunnel project, President Musharraf emphasized that Pakistan did not need “a Taliban-style government.” He stressed that the country may fall prey to “backward Islam,” adding that the MMA’s thinking could be a hurdle to development. Speaking with some emotion before NWFP Chief Minister Akram Khan Durrani, the Pakistani President made a call to improve the country’s image and the image of Islam by proving that Muslims and Pakistanis did not support extremism and terrorism.
But Muslim moderates and the Islamists in Pakistan have their own policy agendas which differ in almost every respect, including the very important issue of the country’s role in the international arena. It is quite symptomatic that the government and the Islamists parted ways this spring over the issue of Pakistani forces fighting in the vicinity of Wana, the capital of South Waziristan. Islamists accused the government of capitulating to the Americans and violating the traditional freedom and independence of the local Pushtun tribes. The MMA decided to withdraw support to the Central Government, headed by Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali until the end of June.
Irrespective of this fact, the Pakistani ruling elite has continued to woo Islamist elements. In May, prominent MMA parliamentarian Maulana Fazlur Rehman was arbitrarily chosen by the Speaker of the National Assembly for the slot of Leader of the Opposition. With this appointment, the military-bureaucratic elite secured Islamists an important representative position in the newly created National Security Council (NSC), comprised of 13 members including provincial Chief Ministers and the Leader of the Opposition. The gift, however, did not alter the pressing tactics of the MMA, which has decided to boycott the NSC’s first meeting.
Finally, with regard to the transnational level, it is worth emphasizing the links between Pakistani extremists and their international counterparts. The operations in Wana in March-April 2004 resulted in the death and capture of more than a hundred foreign militants associated with al-Qaeda. Links between Uzbeks hiding in the hilly regions of Pakistan and the acts of terrorism committed by Islamists in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent at the end March, point to a connection between radical movements in Central Asia and Pakistan.
Hopes were high that prominent al-Qaeda operatives were among the encircled terrorists in Wana this spring – if not Osama bin Laden then his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Officials were also optimistic that Tahir Yuldashev, the founding member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, would be among those arrested. Though none of these prime targets were captured, there seems to be little doubt that at least some prominent Islamists fighters were hiding in the mountainous region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Aided not only by the rugged terrain, but also by the benevolent attitude of the local tribes living on both sides of the frontier (known as Durand line), radical fighters may well have slipped into Afghanistan during coalition operations in Pakistan. The sympathy of both Afghani and Pakistani tribal Pushtuns for the Taliban is among the most important factors in explaining the long-lasting resistance of the extremists. Transnational terrorism has bedeviled the continental heart of Central Asia for some time, with the potential to seriously undermine stability in many of the countries in which it occurs – Pakistan is no exception.
The resignation of Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali on June 26, demonstrates once again the precarious state in which Pakistan finds itself today. Appointed by Musharraf following the October 2002 elections, Jamali acted as a true representative of his class, the landed aristocracy and tribal chiefs. He was slow to table several parliamentary bills, including ones on women’s rights and improvements in the religious Hudud laws, and was simply not the right man for a liberal and urbane President. While some hailed the move as progressive, others expressed reservations and even outrage when Jamali was replaced by former Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz. Critics lambasted Aziz as “not Pakistani,” referring to the more than 20 years he spent abroad (mainly in the United States), where he managed to climb to senior positions in international financial organizations. Musharraf apparently decided to move more energetically in transforming the Pakistani economic and political system from a traditional to a modern one. In this process, he can rely upon the support of the U.S. and its coalition allies but he may at the same time face growing opposition in his own country.
Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan, represented by mainstream political parties, clearly differ from extremist organizations practicing terrorism. However, both express a form of ideological radicalism that one day could unite these disparate groups in an effort to seize power in Pakistan.