The political situation in which Pakistan finds itself on its 60th independence anniversary, unlike that of India, is one of fear, and the question urgently being asked is if the country has the timber to withstand assaults of the organized religious extremists.
The fierce opposition of Taliban-supporting religious extremists against General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime came to a head in the July showdown at the Red Mosque in Islamabad, the nation’s capital.
The extremist vigilantism of the pro-al-Qaida clerics and students of the Red Mosque in the weeks before the bloody confrontation revealed the tip of the problem that has pushed Pakistan to the precipice of a possible new meltdown.
From the outset of Pakistan’s creation the political class—primarily elites from the military and civil bureaucracy—has ridden the tiger of religious extremism for its own narrow authoritarian interests.
Indeed, the country’s birth in August 1947 was a result of religious-sectarian bigotry exploited by Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Pakistan’s founder) and supporters of the Muslim League to force Britain to partition India.
Sixty years following the partition, the dreadful aftermath in Pakistan of Britain’s policy of appeasing religious bigotry continues without an end and cries out as a cautionary lesson to those who propose glibly or mendaciously—as does the U.S. Senator Joe Biden seeking Democratic nomination for the 2008 presidential election—in partitioning Iraq.
For 60 years religious extremists like white ants hollowed out the timber of the Pakistani society, and now there barely exists stable foundation on which a modern democratic state might be built responsive to the people’s needs while eschewing military confrontations with its neighbours.
The problems of rampant graft and corruption in the political system, and religious extremists so emboldened that they could mount an armed operation out of a mosque at the heart of the nation’s capital, were not merely inherited by General Musharraf when he came to power by dismissing the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif in 1999.
General Musharraf is the fifth military dictator in the country where the armed forces view the state as its preserve. The military has ruled Pakistan for nearly two-thirds of its history and presided over the country breaking apart in 1971.
Pakistan’s problems are symptoms of an ill-functioning society increasingly exacerbated by military rule.
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, Benazir Bhutto observed there are two fault lines in Pakistan.
Bhutto said, “One is dictatorship versus democracy. And one is moderation versus extremism.” She should know as a former prime minister living in exile, and daughter of a prime minister hanged by the previous military dictator.
The test of how serious Musharraf is in eliminating religious extremists will be disclosed by the military’s resolve to clean out the al-Qaida and Taliban infested tribal lands of Waziristan on Afghanistan’s borders.
Here, it is alleged, Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri have found safe haven with the knowledge, if not the connivance, of the Pakistani military intelligence.
The future of Pakistan remains bleak. But ironically the failed conditions of a nuclear-weapon state could still guarantee the West’s continued support—prudent, yet deservingly disdainful—for the general and his soldiers in preventing Pakistan’s rapid descent into the Taliban-type hell with a frightful terrorist headache for the region and beyond.