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Pakistan’s Tipping Point

January 8, 2011

It seems that Pakistan is approaching the point at which it will be unable to resist the accession to power of the religious extremists who, by a combination of political and violent actions, are challenging the rule of law and the constitution of their country.

In an article on the BBC website, M Ilyas Khan, commenting on the assassination of the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, asks whether or not Pakistan has not already reached that tipping point:

Political and defence analyst Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi believes that if it has not already, it is nearly at that point.

“The radical element, which uses violence as a political tool, is limited in numbers,” he says.

“But the mindset that sustains militancy, that dilutes or prevents action against it – I think that has become fairly widespread.

“It has seeped into our educated classes, governmental institutions and the armed forces, where you can detect sympathy for militancy, and also to an extent for the Taliban.”

Dr Askari says that both the civil and military leadership of the country appear to be in disarray.

“In a country like Pakistan, which has a large population, it takes just a few organised individuals to cause havoc in a crowded market place, and the government is too weak and insecure to make a strong response,” he says.

Professor Ijaz Khan, who heads the Department of International Relations at Peshawar University, believes that while sympathy for militancy may be on the rise, it is still not popular.

“Although the religious organisations declared participation in Mr Taseer’s funeral a sin, tens of thousands of people held funeral prayers for him in every nook and corner of the country,” he says.

In addition, he points out, the religious forces have never attracted more than 6% of votes in any election.

Pakistan’s government should remember that lack of popularity is no bar to a small and determined group of like-minded individuals seizing power. They should look back at the events of 1917, when a coalition of middle-class parliamentarians forced the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and formed a provisional government under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky. Within eight months that government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky. The Bolsheviks were considered a minority faction within a broad-based socialist group, yet by determination and ruthlessness they established the regime which became the USSR.

Those who look on at the events in Pakistan with horror at the bigotry and savage tactics of the religious extremists should reflect that this outcome was never inevitable. Pakistan has had a turbulent history since partition. Yet it has only been over the past thirty years that the seeds of militant extremism were sown with the establishment of the madrassas teaching a philosophy that easily transformed itself into a creed of hatred and intolerance.

You could also argue that today’s situation is the logical outcome of the birth of a nation that began with massacre. But the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Jinnah, never anticipated anything other than a secular, though predominately Muslim, nation.

I have recently read Tariq Ali’s new novel, Night of the Golden Butterfly. It’s the latest of five novels he has written on the theme of Islam. The narrative is set against the backdrop of Pakistan before and after the rise of the current religious extremism. I doubt if Tariq Ali made any friends among the current crop of extremists with his book. But, like his other novels in the Islam Quintet series, it shows another Islam, more tolerant and enlightened than the harsh creed espoused by the bigots, bombers and assassins in Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim world. It’s well worth a read.

As events in Afghanistan show, violent insurgency is hard to counter if the population as a whole feels a sense of grievance against the incumbent government. The government of Pakistan, a coalition of tribal and feudal factions, needs to take a hard look at itself. So long as millions of Pakistanis live in abject poverty, dispossessed by natural disasters and feeling abandoned by a corrupt bureaucracy, the lure of extremism will continue to be compelling.

The most likely outcome from the present crisis would seem to be yet another military coup. In that event, if factions within the military side with the extremists, the result could be revolution. And the sad thing about revolutions is that in the long term many of them replace one repressive regime with another. As the oppressed of the Soviet Union and Iran discovered.

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