One small step forward for Nawaz Sharif, the new election winner, but one big step forward for Pakistan. The Islamist parties and their militant, sometimes violent, followers have won so few votes they will play no significant role in parliament. The overwhelming majority of Pakistan’s ethnically disparate population has made it clear that they be identified with secular politics.
Hussein Haqqani writes in his insightful new book on Pakistan that “Most Pakistanis would probably be quite content with a state that would cater to their social needs, respect and protect their rights to observe religion and would not invoke Islam as its sole source of legitimacy.”
If Pakistan’s democracy were allowed to play a central role - as seems to be happening at the moment- hopefully the Islamist tail will no longer be allowed to wag the Pakistani dog. For years, particularly under military rule, the Islamists, not least the militant, dogmatic part of them, have been allowed to set too much of the agenda. In foreign policy issues, such as the argument with India over the possession of Kashmir and support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, they have long acted outside the Rule of Law, but with the support of the military’s intelligence service, the notorious ISI.
As in eighteenth century France when the revolution consumed its own children, so have the Pakistani militants become not just the country’s nightmare but the army’s too despite all the support the ISI has given them. When General Pervez Musharraf was president, leading a military government, he narrowly escaped assassination by militants three times.
Musharraf was never able to get on top of the paradox, the military over decades had created for itself- supporting the Islamists while being threatened by them.
He was in many ways a liberal - pursuing an agenda of increased women’s rights including some protection from rape in a society that has traditionally blamed the woman not the rapist, freeing the press, pushing for improved education, including the curriculum of the Madrasas, the religious schools, and promoting the Sufi school of Islam (more given to mysticism than violence). He also allowed the courts more freedom.
Yet these moves were all cautiously made, and he constantly looked over his shoulder at the militants, who he allowed to be supported by the ISI because of their activities in Kashmir and Afghanistan- in the latter not because he supported the Taliban but because he wanted to maintain some degree of leverage with them. He always presumed the Americans and NATO would be compelled to withdraw.
Musharraf also wanted to use the militants as a line of defence against the non-religious parties which constantly manoeuvred to displace him. He recognised the religious parties as the main opposition in parliament despite them having won only 11% of the vote in the election of 2002.
Nevertheless, he bravely took the Islamist parties head-on when he opened up negotiations with India on Kashmir. He dropped many of Pakistan’s previous positions and gave India most of what it wanted. In the end it was India that refused to consummate what looked like a deal. And once he was turned out of office, by the threat of impeachment, the one man who could have made a deal stick in Pakistan was no longer at the helm.
The militants returned by trying to wag the dog with their audacious attack in 2008 on an important hotel in Mumbai that took 164 lives. The democratically elected government headed by President Asif Ali Zardar, the husband of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto , was so intimidated by the extremists that it dithered over the extent it would cooperate with India in bringing those behind the attack to book.
Islamists and their militants are not new. As a power they go right back to the Bangladesh war of independence from Pakistan in 1971 when the military supported Islamist groups to keep secular leaders out of power in East Pakistan (as Bangladesh then was). In the late 1970s, following a military coup, General Zia ul-Haq took the country in a more Islamist direction, basing the country’s legal and educational system on Islamic law. Zia wanted Pakistan to become the centre of a global Islamic resurgence. This was the beginning of Islamist militants travelling to Pakistan to be at the centre of the action, which then was aimed at repulsing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The US, for its part, prior to 9/11 did little to dissuade Musharraf or his predecessors from turning towards the Islamists. They were particularly useful in the war against the Soviet Union and many of the groups that US military aid was funneled to via the ISI were those that later backed the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and fought in Kashmir.
This is the Pakistan that Nawaz Sharif inherits. He has a mandate from Pakistan’s secular majority. Can he stay the hand of the Islamic militants?