Towards a Moderate Front against Religious Extremism
Weekly Pulse
August 10-16, 2007
Even though no future political scenario can be fully predicted in an otherwise volatile politics of Pakistan, developments of the past few weeks, rooted in successive related events of the recent past, are a sufficient pointer to the sort of ruling junta that is likely to assume power in the general elections, whether they are held this year or early next year, and the kind of political and non-political opposition it will face.

Although the moderate front will be born out of a realistic political compromise, its idealistic composition could be Pervez Musharaf continuing to act as President (with or without uniform), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairperson Benazir Bhutto elected Prime Minister for the third time (after the lifting of the relevant constitutional prohibition), and Altaf Hussain-led Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) entering into an alliance with the PPP in Sindh and at the Centre.

Although Pervez Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto and Altaf Hussain hail from three different and diametrically opposed constituencies—all of them have one thing in common: they are all proclaimed rivals of the religiously radical forces. While MQM has been with Musharraf in his fight against extremism, the absence of Benazir’s PPP from this counter-extremism political front has always left a vacuum that the ruling PML (Q) has not filled.

Musharraf-Bhutto Deal: Why Now?

Since September 2001, Pakistan has acted as a frontline state in the US-led War on Terror in Afghanistan and the region, particularly in its own Pashtun tribal belt bordering Afghanistan where 90,000 Pakistani troops are physically engaged in combating the pro-Taliban forces. In recognition of its counter-terror service, Washington has provided billions of dollars in security assistance and development aid.

The United States expects the government of Pakistan to “do more” in its domestic campaign against religious extremism, which, besides a policy of zero tolerance against religious, includes bold reforms such as doing away with Hudood Ordinances, removing religious clause from the passport, and modernizing madrassa curriculum and exercising greater control over their administrative and financial maters.

On all of these fronts, the ruling PML (Q) has proven to be a stumbling bloc. If the PPP under Benazir had been Musharaf’s partner in the government after the 2002 elections, it would not have raised an eyebrow over the elimination of Hudood Ordinance from the Constitution or the removal of religious column from the passport. It would also have made sure the government exercised greater control over how the madrassas’ function, from where they acquire their funding and what syllabus they teach.

Even during the crisis over Lal Masjid, the PML (Q) leadership, especially its President Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Religious Affairs Minister Ijazul Haq, preferred appeasement over strict government action, despite consistent bids by its religious clerics and extremist students to violate the writ of the state in the Federal Capital. Were the reigns of government in the hands of a PPP-led government, then the Lal Masjid crisis might have been resolved well before or in the immediate aftermath of the capture of the Children Library by Jamia Hafsa students.

Given that, Musharraf’s sojourn to the UAE and reported meeting with Bhutto can be easily explained, as it has a genuine political rationale from Musharraf’s point of view. His inability to “do more” in the War on Terror was significantly due to a political force with conservative basis, with whom the army leadership aligned in the run up to the 2002 elections and its aftermath. If the PML (Q) has proven to be the main irritant in this regard, then why not approach a political force that has an ideological and practical track-record of combating religious extremists?

If politics is the art of the impossible, then why not reach a compromise over differences with Bhutto, remove charges of corruption against her, let her come back to the country from exile abroad, and enable her to contest the elections and become prime minister thrice? The same holds true for Bhutto. For the last 11 years, the PPP she leads is out of power, and for a little less than this period, she has been out of the country.

It is within the peculiar intricacies and difficulties of Pakistani politics that a mainstream liberal civilian party can make a difference. Why continue to be out of power, while conservative political elements continue to enjoy the benefits of power for years at a time when the pro-US civil-military establishment of the country is waging a war against radicals? Why expect the party workers to suffer politically under such circumstances? Such are the realistic issues underpinning Bhutto’s new-found desire to make a historic compromise and reach an alliance with a moderate army leadership.

The American Factor

The United States will continue to have a stake in Pakistan, as long as the South-West Asian leg of the War on Terror, particularly with reference to Afghanistan, continues. Washington very well understands the army’s political clout in Pakistan, especially its crucial role in combating extremism and terrorism. It also understands that one of the reasons why the Musharraf regime has been unable to “do more” against religious extremism in the country is because its civilian component, especially the conservative MPL (Q) leadership, dithered on every bold move made by the uniformed President for the purpose.

It is, indeed, true that the United States did want Pakistan’s army leadership not to negotiate deals with the pro-Taliban tribal jirgas in South and North Waziristan and, instead, use force. The Americans also did not buy Musharraf’s thesis about using force only against terrorists but combating extremism with a “hearts and minds” campaign. But the fact remains that, in America’s perceptions, the Pakistan army has been, and will be, the most important component in the War on Terror.

It is sufficiently clear from the campaign speeches of US Presidential hopefuls, from both Democratic and Republicans parties, that there will be no respite in the War on Terror in the near future; and that even if Democrats captured the White House in the November 2008 US elections, Pakistan’s counter-terrorism importance in American eyes will remain relevant. This being the case, the United States would like the Pakistan Army to play its crucial role in this was, and if the army’s moderate leadership is backed by a coalition of moderate political forces, then this surely creates an ideal outcome in the region from American standpoint.

This is not to suggest that, somehow, whatever happens in Pakistan happens with American connivance. Domestic attributes for political change in a country, no matter how much influence a great power exercises over it, are always important. Having said that, however, it should also not be out of place to mention here that when Pakistan is so much dependent on US military and economic assistance and when its leadership since late 2001 has committed to be a partner in the US-led War on Terror, Washington would have a role in the country’s politics.

A coalition of moderate forces ruling Pakistan should be an idealistic outcome in Washington’s eyes, especially at a time when American expectation from Pakistan’s performance in the War on Terror is increasing. The new Congressional legislation will require US President to annually certify Pakistan’s counter-terrorism contribution, and, if the certification is satisfactory, the country will get more US aid. Thus, presuming if Pakistan under a moderate civilian dispensation with an equally committed army leadership continues to “do more,” then it will get more US security and economic assistance.

Leaving Idealism Aside

Since the reported deal between President-General Pervez Musharaf and Pakistan People’s Party Chairperson Benazir Bhutto a few weeks ago, speculations have been abound about the army’s role in politics, the issue of a President with or without uniform, the future of PML (Q), the possibility of a national state of emergency, the probable rifts in the PPP ranks, and the return of the Sharif brothers via a Supreme Court verdict, similar to the one that brought Javed Hashmi out of Adiala Jail.

Voices of condemnation have been raised over the manner in which the Daughter of the East “compromised” her “political integrity” in mending differences with a General-President partly responsible for keeping her out of the country on corruption charges. Some have viewed the reported deal as a stark reminder of President Musharraf’s growing political weakness and isolation. Others have termed it as a mortal blow to the pro-democracy surge during the months-long judicial crisis until the restoration of the Chief Justice of Pakistan through a historic Supreme Court verdict last month.

The reported deal between Musharraf and Bhutto has been shocking to all those who had hoped the restoration of the Chief Justice had led to judicial re-assertion in Pakistan—something that should naturally lead to a full-fledged civilian democratic assertion in the country. But such a revolutionary outcome is applicable to countries such as India which have already experienced a relatively long democratic path. A country that is so hugely dependent on external actors for its very survival—and where religiously radical forces continue to destabilize politics, consequently weakening the economy, and malign national image internationally—can hardly qualify for a radical political transformation overnight.

It is the so-called idealism of the religious radicals among us, whether in the form of suicide bombers or simple extremists, that has defamed Pakistan’s image in the world. It is only by acting realistically in a realistic world that we can see a happier outcome for our country. By definition, the moderate liberal forces, be it the PPP of Bhutto and an army leadership committed to moderation, should be flexible and realistic.

A politically stable, religiously moderate and economically progressive Pakistan is in every one’s interest. And if the path towards such promising destiny is through making requisite ideological and political adjustments, and forgetting past sources of bickering and hatred, then be it.

Remaining Bottlenecks

As stated at the outset, however, predicting political outcomes of current happenings in Pakistan is a next-to-impossible task. What appears to be a likely reality now may not be next month. It is quite ironical that the two mainstream political leaders living in exile for years have almost overnight become politically valuable for the forces at home. Musharraf’s deal with Bhutto may take some time to fully mature, as significant irritants such as the uniform issue, corruption cases against Bhutto, PPP’s ties with MQM, still remain as such. However, President Musharraf should be interested in bringing her back home as soon as possible, so that her crowd-pulling credentials could be fully utilized prior to the general elections.

On the other hand, PML (N) leader Javed Hashmi’s unexpected release from jail by the Supreme Court and the latter’s decision to hear the petition regarding the return of the party leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif from exile in London seem to suggest that it is only a matter of time when the august court issues the orders for their return home.

Given that, we are heading toward a situation where the army wants Bhutto back and the judiciary is interested in giving political relief to the leadership of another mainstream party, the PML (N). Who comes back first is the question. Even if the Sharifs were able to land first, the question that still remains valid is whether Nawaz Sharif will constitutionally be able to contest elections, after being convicted on serious charges of hijacking and serving a short span of life imprisonment—until his release through a mercy appeal by his lawyers to the then President Rafiq Tarar.

Then, there are a host of other uncertain, unsettled issues. For instance, how would the Supreme Court rule on the constitutional prohibition regarding Bhutto’s chance of getting re-elected thrice, or the issue of lifting a two-year ban on a government servant from contesting for the post of the President (applicable if President Musharraf decides to remove the uniform).

Thus, if the role of the army in fighting extremism is crucial, the role of the Supreme Court in determining which way the country’s politics heads will also be crucial. However, it is also a fact that the Chief Justice’s legal team consisted of liberal people such as Aitizaz Ahsan, who are diehard PPP activists. They could at as a moderating force for the purpose of realizing a Musharraf-Bhutto-Altaf alliance of moderate forces.

Already, with her Machiavellian politics, by not participating in the recent All Parties Conference in London, Benazir has helped PML (N) get associated with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an alliance of religiously radical forces such as Jamaat-e-Islami and JUI of Fazal-ur-Rehman, and other provincial-based nationalist forces. Thus, even if PML (N) leadership returns home, it will be beneficial for a future ruling coalition of moderate forces, as in the opposition they will face, the leading PML (N), for being a centre-right mainstream party, will play the role of a moderating force.