Pakistan: An Islamist Challenge?
By A. R. Siddiqi

The US media and quite a few of their intelligence experts almost untiringly keep repeating their prognostications regarding 'Islamist' zealotry in Pakistan as a challenge to President Pervez Musharraf's 'strategy' of 'enlightened moderation'.
The latest to join the ranks of the Cassandras happens to be the Director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, Vice-Admiral Lowell Jacoby. The Admiral told the Senate Intelligence Committee recently that the 'extremist Islamist' politicians would gain greater influence in Pakistan.
The Admiral was of the view that the 'majority of the population' in Pakistan held a 'favorable' view of Osama bin Laden. Interesting. Osama bin Laden, who?
Not many in Punjab or the interior of Sindh would have even heard of Osama not to speak of the threat he is supposed to pose to global peace. Pakistan's problem province Balochistan has trouble enough.
This is overwhelmingly political and economic without any religious overtones. None of the Baloch sardars invoke Islam while spitting fire against the government's mega projects like the Gwadar port and the coastal highway.
Trouble in and around the Sui gasfields and elsewhere and the periodic flare-ups between the Bugti, Mengal and Marri sardars remain a part of the endemic center-province tussle.
It does become a matter of national shame and gross violation of human rights when it comes to the rape of a lady doctor on duty in a Sui hospital and the official prevarication in dealing with it.
As for the NWFP, the Pathan, despite his popular image as a fanatical jihadi fighter, in the tradition of the Mehdi of Sudan, remains firmly wedded to Pakhtunwali, his traditional code of honor and life. In the matter of local laws and customs, he would rather adhere to Pakhtunwali than to the canon law. Women are disinherited under the Pakhtunwali contrary to the Sharia, which allows them one-fourth of the family property.
Pakhtunwali, in spirit, underscores the basically secular character and customs of the Pathans. Its three main pillars are: badal (revenge), nanawatae (sanctuary) and melmasti (festivity).
In fact, their jihadi spirit in essence is germane to their traditional code of chivalry and tribal hubris. They must have a duel with a friend or foe on a matter of honor when wise counsels fail.
As for Al Qaeda and Taliban, the origins and emergence of both owe to external factors -- essentially mercenary and foreign-inspired -- than Islamic. But for the US-aided and armed proxy war against the Soviet Union (1979-1989), Al Qaeda and Taliban would have been either totally non-existent or a minimal force hardly to be reckoned with.
As for the 'fundamentalist' threat to Pakistan, it has historically drawn its strength from patronage by a politically weak government of the day rather than from the people at large. The mullahs suffered the military regimes of both Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan. Hardly any religion-based party, whether Barelavi or Deobandi, is known to have raised a finger against Yahya's plutocracy or Ayub's undisguised secularism, at least until his use of the Kalima in his address to the nation on Sept 6, 1965, the day India invaded Pakistan. The Jamaat did not hesitate to certify the Islamic contents of Yahya Khan's draft constitution framed by Justice A.R. Cornelius.
The 'Islamists' since Zia's 11-year theocentric rule have become a part of Pakistan's socio-political landscape. However, the MMA's great compromise in accepting the Seventeenth Amendment underscored their ideological flexibility to meet their political ends.
The Musharraf regime may not have turned the corner in Pakistan's transition from a theocentric to a politico-economic order based on his 'strategy' of enlightened moderation. There should be little fear or concern, however, for Pakistan ever going the Taliban way. Pakistanis as a whole are good Muslims backed by a long record of an essentially secular political order unlike Afghanistan.
After Musharraf who sounds more like a rhetorical than a rational query? The American Admiral would still maintain that Musharraf "remains at high risk, although no known attempts on his life have occurred since December 2003" - a typical example of a fixed idea or perception attaining a kind of pathology, an obsession not easy to shed.
In Pakistan, an Islamic Republic, the 'Islamist' element must stay as a political force. However, to conjure up the prospect of its ever becoming a decisive, defining force in the affairs of the state would be paranoid, plain and simple.
(The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army. Courtesy Dawn)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.