Muslim World Today

Friday, May 22, 2009

Growing Islamism In Pakistan

By Supna Zaidi
The Islamists seem set to win in Pakistan. From President Obama's efforts at "Muslim" engagement, to Fareed Zakaria's policy of abandonment, the U.S. does not seem to have the will to fight the Islamist movement in favor of secular democracy.

How else can one explain the Robert Gates' desire to bring in Saudi Arabia to help Pakistan negotiate with the Taliban? This is the same country that foments radicalism across the globe with their billion dollar campaign to convert Muslims to the puritanical strain of Islam called Wahhabism, encourage anti-Semitism, misogyny, and anti-westernism through madrassa education, proselytize in the West and act like partners in the war against Islamism with shallow p.r. efforts to "rehab" jihadists at home.

Moreover, Pakistani President Zardari's only real competition is the equally corrupt politician Nawaz Sharif, who spent a decade in exile in Saudi Arabia after a corruption case against him in the 1990s. It is an open question to what degree Sharif has been influenced by Saudi Arabia's Islamist agenda. His own Islamist sympathies are documented.

In 1998, he presented parliament with Sharia legislation that was rejected, but there was no tangible Taliban threat to Pakistan, itself, at that time. Islamist appeasement is much more likely today given governmental fears of violence and intimidation by Taliban forces in Pakistani society. The latter have only been empowered by civil society's inability to stand up against them. Swat violence resulted in the passing of religious laws called the Nizam-I-Adl. This "truce" did not last, leaving Pakistan proper as a target itself to greater Taliban insurgencies.

US foreign policy exacerbates the fight against Islamism. By only recognizing violence as the problem, rather than the orthodox ideology behind it, we do not support secular Muslims, human rights activists, politicians, and journalists who realize that the ideology itself is the true enemy. Instead, we support the Muslim Brotherhood backed Islamist movement itself so long as they put their weapons down and lobby for Sharia legally as legitimate political parties and politicians.

On the other side, Muslims who are secular democrats must also face paralysis in their own society. Preferring knee-jerk anti-Americanism, most Pakistani's refuse to accept the fact that the war against the Taliban is not America's war, but equally theirs. From its early years, the Pakistani military developed "a strategic commitment to jihadi ideology." It used Islam to mobilize the country and Army in every conflict with India." This has nothing to do with the U.S.

Moreover, with the Islamification of Pakistan under Zia-ul-Haq, peer pressure to be more "Muslim" as a policy entered professional and home life. Suddenly applicants for jobs, promotions, etc were tied not only to actual qualifications, but to visible "piety" as well. Those who prayed or fasted were promoted. Those who did not were demoted. Moreover, sectarian violence increased in the 1980s and 1990s under the government's watch and at times with their tacit consent. These were domestic developments that secular Pakistanis allowed to spread, preferring to look the other way.

Pakistani leadership is another reason for Islamism's growth in Pakistan. Whether it was Benazir Bhutto appeasing Islamists with the Hudood laws, or the bribery scandals against President Zardari, giving him the title "Mr. Ten Percent" for his personal kickbacks in business dealings, no Pakistani politician is above reproach. Pervez Musharaff was a brief breath of fresh air. He envisioned the military following the Turkish model, entering civil society periodically to quell extremists tendencies, but his ego got the best of him too. Embarrassed one too many times by a pro-human rights, anti-corruption judiciary, Musharaff fired them all and declared martial law. His subsequent demise was inevitable.

It is time Pakistanis started owning up to their own problem and accept the fact that have also had a hand in sabotaging Pakistan's potential. It is a time to end the emotional focus on pride and have a rational conversation about accountability and act on their own behalf. It is time that the US began supporting the people instead of corrupt politicians and un-democratic Islamists. The violence of the Taliban merely allows for a cover to the equally Sharia embracing Islamists like the Jamaat-e-Islami party, who have never won a meaningful number of seats in parliament. But with a powerless civilian government and rogue military/ISI, anti-western Islamism is on the rise in Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia sees Pakistan as a sphere of influence to counter neighboring Iran. A Saudi backed Sharif seems like an attractive solution to the US compared to the Afghan Taliban, but Sharif will only push Pakistan further away from the secular society its founder dreamed of, towards an Islamist state that bows to Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism.

(Supna Zaidi is editor-in-chief of Muslim World Today and assistant director of Islamist Watch, a project at the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at

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