Winds of change?

Published March 5, 2005

IN AN issue of this newspaper last week, General Musharraf was quoted as saying at a press conference: “Extremist forces were out to take the country back to the dark ages which needed to be checked with the support of all moderate political parties and forces of the country.”

Finally, it seems, the penny has dropped. Some of us have been repeating this mantra for years. Although I hate saying “I told you so”, I really, really, did. But I make no excuse for droning on about the need to combat the cancer of extremism and intolerance that are threatening the very survival of this country.

Soon after the president’s remarks, the National Security Council met in Islamabad to consider how to promote religious tolerance and curbing the spread of hate literature’. How about simply enforcing the law of the land? And how about delivering on what the president has repeatedly promised?

For instance, according to the press release issued after this meeting, the participants “noted with concern the slow progress on madressah reforms...” Slow? How about imperceptible? It is now over three years since General Musharraf made what was then termed his historic pledge’ to fight the forces of obscurantism. On January 12, 2002, he vowed, among other things, to bring the country’s mushrooming network of madressahs in line with the 21st century. His government would ensure that they were registered, and their curricula approved. Their accounts were to be audited, and they would henceforth teach modern’ subjects like science, maths and English.

And what has happened on this front these last three years? Exactly zilch. As soon as Musharraf had made this historic pledge’, a few mullahs growled that they would not permit the government to come anywhere near their madressahs. And that was enough to make the government back down. Time and again, Musharraf has shown us that he is more than capable of talking the talk. But when it comes to walking the walk, he is careful where he treads.

Somehow, he sees no contradiction between avidly seeking the political support of religious parties to perpetuate his rule, and then talking about controlling the madressahs these very parties are running. The recent parliamentary vote in which the ruling party and the fundamentalist alliance blocked legislation to crack down on honour killing is a case in point. It is hardly a secret that a lot of the money that supports the lavish lifestyle of many clerics in this country comes from what these religious seminaries collect from pious, rich Muslims, both in Pakistan and abroad. This is equally true of the jihadi outfits that infest the country, and are also sources of income for religious leaders and parties. Given this nexus between money and extremism, simply wishing the problem will go away on its own, and making the occasional speech simply aren’t enough.

I am sure that while studying physics at high school, and then at the Military Academy, future officers of the Pakistan army must learn that nature abhors a vacuum.’ As the social and political institutions have crumbled over the last three decades, ethnic and sectarian forces have been emboldened to fill the vacuum thus created. President Musharraf and his colleagues must see that the uprisings against state authority from Wana to Dera Bugti are a reflection of this law of physics.

At a lower level, this disregard for authority is visible every day around us. Drivers routinely ignore the red light at crossings; the walls of public buildings are plastered with graffiti and posters; and the streets are full of rubbish. There are more than enough laws prohibiting these minor infringements: what is required is the will to enforce them.

And when small misdemeanours are overlooked, people go on to commit bigger crimes in the reasonable expectation that they will go unpunished. This is especially true of religious and ethnic parties that have a lucrative sideline of extortion and hold-ups to finance the lifestyle of their leaders, and the activities of the parties.

How did we come to this pass? To a large extent, repeated army intervention into politics is to blame. By not allowing political institutions to develop, by subverting the popular will, and by making the Constitution irrelevant, the army has helped create the vacuum that is now increasingly filled with tribal private armies, jihadi groups and ethnic gangs.

President Musharraf has finally started talking about the need to include moderate politicians and parties in a future political set-up. Some of us had been arguing for such a dialogue long before the last general elections. But at that point, Musharraf’s henchmen were busy cobbling together an arrangement with the turncoats of the Muslim League. And when they failed in their attempts to fabricate a parliamentary majority of their choice, they curried favour with the religious parties. The religious alliance’s electoral success was a direct result of the marginalization of the very moderates Musharraf now seeks to woo.

But better late than never. The army must see that if it’s change of heart towards Afghanistan and India is strategic rather than tactical, it does not need the political support of the MMA domestically, or the armed support of the jihadis for cross-border adventurism. The problem at present is a lack of clarity of purpose. Any successful military commander will tell General Musharraf that unless the goal is clear, the planning of a campaign will be faulty, and its execution messy.

At the NSC meeting, President Musharraf “stressed the need of taking concrete measures to bring about a societal change by curbing the scourge of terrorism, extremism and sectarianism...” If he is really serious about this, the laws are there. What has been lacking so far is the political will to enforce them.

While raking up the past is not always helpful, it is nevertheless worth recalling how the genie of extremist terrorism got out of the bottle in the first place. When the Shias refused to accept Zia’s Zakat law, he encouraged the establishment of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi that has now morphed into many extremist Sunni outfits. Its wave of killings made the Shias set up their own underground militia.

And after the anti-army MRD movement of 1983 was spearheaded by the PPP, Zia sought to neutralize the influence of the party in Sindh by blessing Altaf Hussain and his MQM which came into being in 1985. The role of intelligence agencies in these developments has been ever-present and poisonous.

So if President Musharraf is serious about reining in the madressahs and the jihadis, he might find he has to start with the agencies that are supposed to safeguard our security, but have done so much to damage it.

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