The Musharraf era is rife with contradictions when it comes to dealing with Islamist extremists: ban the Lashkar-e-Taiba, but let its alter ego, Jamaat-ul-Dawa, flourish; hound the secular PPP, but cut a deal with bearded politicos; jail reporters rather that the Taliban they report on.
Pakistan's political elite have a painful habit of dismissing the past. 1971, a monstrous war that ought to have been seared on our collective conscience, elicits no more than a shrug. The senseless Kargil war has been forgotten even during the rule of its architect, Musharraf. The Afghan war only stayed on the radar because of the devastation it wrought on Pakistani society in the form of guns, drugs, and Islamic extremism.
9/11 was a major blow to the Americans, but it was also a stark warning to Pakistan: slay the dragon of Islamist extremism or else it will destroy you. Musharraf decided to play with fire instead. As a result, 5 years on, Pakistan is a more dangerous place.
The future looks bearded
From The Economist print edition
Islamist militancy is alive and well
ON OCTOBER 8th 2005, earthquakes rippled across northern Pakistan and the area of Kashmir it controls, opening mile-wide fissures and sending mountain villages clattering into the valleys below. Over 70,000 people died in the debris and 3m more were made homeless. The army took days to deliver much relief, and the civil administration proved ineffective. But from one direction help came fast: hundreds of bearded Islamists, including armed guerrillas already in the area to infiltrate the nearby border with India, pitched tents and began dispensing aid.
The cartoon that turned serious
They are doing so still, long after most foreign agencies came and went, and Kashmiris are indebted to them. The interior minister, Mr Sherpao, has called them “the lifeline of our rescue and relief work”. The biggest Islamist charity, Jamaat-ul-Dawa (JUD), has supplied the army with medicines. After the quakes, JUD's fundamentalist helpers ferried NATO soldiers across angry rivers. Yet in April America banned the charity, which is a front for the biggest Islamist militant group in Indian-held Kashmir, Lashkar-i-Toiba. Founded by JUD's leader, Hafeez Saeed, it is banned by Pakistan, America and the UN because of its close links to al-Qaeda, and because it tried to kill General Musharraf. But Pakistan refuses to ban JUD.
There are dozens of militant groups in Pakistan, including several, like JUD, that are banned under other names. Most, including JUD/Lashkar, have roots in the Afghan jihad of the 1980s, when General Zia's intelligence agents armed them to fight the Soviet Union with American and Saudi cash. After the Soviet army withdrew in 1989, Pakistan sent the jihadists to Indian-held Kashmir to help wage an insurgency estimated (by India) to have claimed over 40,000 lives.
Pakistani governments also used them to fight their wars at home. They armed Sunni militants to kill Iranian-backed Shia groups, for example, and turned a blind eye when these assassins also killed Christians, Hindus and members of other Muslim sects. Some 4,000 Pakistanis, mostly Shias, are estimated to have died in sectarian violence in the past 15 years, especially in poor, swollen Karachi.
From the start, General Musharraf seemed to realise that this was a mess. He denounced extremism shortly after his coup and has campaigned against it since, but selectively. He has caught scores of al-Qaeda members and handed them to America, including Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, designer of the attacks on New York's twin towers. He has turned his back on the Taliban government in Afghanistan, but arrested few of its members when they fled to Pakistan. He has sent Pakistani troops into the northern tribal areas to fight the foreign jihadists who have found refuge there (see article). He has stopped, or at least greatly reduced, support for the militant groups in Kashmir. But he has not dismantled the biggest group, JUD/Lashkar, or arrested its leaders; and sectarian murders continue. Justice rarely catches up with the killers. Though a few dozen are currently on death row, the supreme court's judges are too frightened of a deadly reprisal to hear their appeals.
There are two explanations for General Musharraf's reluctance to crack down harder, and probably both are correct. The first is that, unlike America, he distinguishes between truly dangerous militants, such as members of al-Qaeda, and those that he thinks he can control.
The second explanation for General Musharraf's half-measures is that he is afraid of the extremist groups. There may be only a few thousand active militants, but their potential support is much greater. The biggest jihadi newspapers, including several banned under different names, have print-runs of up to 100,000. Islamic extremists are the only political force in Pakistan easily able to rally a crowd. On February 14th, after JUD's Mr Saeed denounced cartoons of the Prophet published in a Danish newspaper, a mob rampaged through Lahore, burning hundreds of cars and foreign businesses as well as the Punjab provincial assembly. JUD thugs were in the thick of it. “They have to be squeezed systematically,” said a senior intelligence official. If confronted suddenly, “they will kill the president, the prime minister, a couple of generals, a couple of chief ministers; there will be bomb blasts all over India.”
The militants would pose a security threat to Pakistan and its region even if deprived of the state support that they have enjoyed for so long. There is no question, however, of them taking over the country soon. A heavy majority of Pakistanis, certainly outside North-West Frontier Province, are politically secular. The Islamic parties have never won more than 11% of the vote—and that was with considerable help from General Musharraf.
But Pakistan is a bigoted place, and becoming more so. That may be true of all countries with a Muslim majority, yet few have hurtled towards the Islamist edge as fast as Pakistan. Its leaders are at least partly to blame. Almost all of them, civilian and military, have pandered to the mullahs. In 1977 whisky-swigging Zulfikar Ali Bhutto banned alcohol. Under General Zia, the only sincerely pious leader, Pakistan introduced draconian sharia punishments, made blasphemy a capital offence and ruled that unless rape victims could produce at least four male Muslim eye-witnesses they would be held guilty of fornication, a serious crime. Ms Bhutto did not seriously attempt to repeal these laws. Nawaz Sharif tried to introduce full sharia law. And General Musharraf helped the mullahs to unprecedented power. The Islamic parties, it should be noted, are not much better than any other extremist group in Pakistan: their ends are the same, and so, often, are their people.
Islamists have an influence in Pakistan far greater than their vote-count suggests. Take education. At the time of its creation, Pakistan had a couple of hundred Islamic schools, or madrassas. Now, having failed to build a decent education system, it has accumulated between 10,000 and 40,000 madrassas—up to 20% of which, according to a World Bank study, teach fighting skills. The national curriculum for regular schools is infected with religious and sectarian bigotry; until recently, ten-year-olds had to learn to “make speeches on jihad and shahadat (martyrdom)”.
Pakistan's impoverished public universities are largely controlled by the youth wing of the biggest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islaami. At the University of Punjab, in Lahore, these ambitious religionists have banned Coca-Cola, which they call “Jews' drink”. Last year, they broke the legs of a student accused of flirting with one of his female class-mates. In Islamabad, Quaid-i-Azam University has three mosques but no bookshop. One of Pakistan's handful of serious academics spoke yearningly of the liberal scholarly atmosphere he had recently enjoyed at a conference in Tehran.
Without deep reform to Pakistan's laws and institutions, a young and rapidly growing population seems likely to continue drifting towards extremism. An increase in public disorder and in electoral support for the mullahs would logically follow. Evidence from other countries suggests that economic growth would not prevent this. Nor will elections alone: indeed, Pakistan would perhaps be more Islamist but for the pervasive influence of its most undemocratic force, the feudal landlords, who keep rural mullahs in check.
After nearly seven years in charge, General Musharraf has overseen a few minor changes to the inflammatory school textbooks and promised a more thorough revision. “There will be no hate or teaching against any caste, sect, nationality or whatever,” says the education minister, Javed Ashraf Qazi. But given the president's lack of progress on repealing General Zia's Islamic laws, there is cause for some scepticism. True, the law ministry recently proposed changing the burden of evidence in rape cases, but its suggestion was not a liberal triumph: still four eye-witnesses, but only three of them need be Muslim males. As for madrassas, General Musharraf has introduced laws to bring them under closer supervision, but extremist institutions have ignored them.
The president also vowed to expel a couple of thousand foreign Islamic students, but he has not done so. The Jamia Binoria, a madrassa in Karachi, run by Deobandis, the sub-continent's home-grown extremists, has 4,500 students, including 500 foreigners. Sitting under whirling fans, during a break from the Koran, youths from countries including Britain, America, Canada and Australia said they had received notice last January to quit Pakistan, but the police had told them to ignore this.
Some liberal progress may yet emerge from General Musharraf's rule. If he fulfils his promise to improve regular schools, he may put many of the madrassas out of business. He has also liberated the media, prompting a proliferation of television stations that are giving Pakistanis more and better information about the outside world. Mullahs feature in many televised debates, and some of them sound quite sensible. One such pundit, Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, is no liberal: he supports the use of Islamic punishments, including amputations in extreme cases. He is scathing about America's recent foreign policy, but also about his own country's Islamic laws and Islamic parties. Having received death threats from JUD's Mr Saeed, he has only recently emerged from hiding. But unlike General Musharraf, Mr Ghamidi is a passionate democrat. “Pakistan should be a democratic state, neither secular nor Islamic,” he says.
Across Pakistan, roads are being excavated and optical-fibre cables laid. Television viewers can increasingly receive foreign stations, including Indian ones. Pakistani television stations are already putting out lots of Indian music videos, and in May for the first time broadcast a couple of carefully selected (and not terribly good) Indian films. Pakistan's beleaguered liberals are hoping for a cultural return from the Middle East, where General Zia dragged them. According to Khaled Ahmed, a Pakistani columnist: “If we lost our culture through Talibanisation in the west [of the country], we can get it back from India, where our culture is still alive.”