U.S. in Dangerous Territory!

NEWS ANALYSIS: An attempt to create unnatural polarisation
By Zaffar Abbas; Dawn, August 18, 2007

THE US administration, in sheer desperation to contain what it sees as a rising tide of Islamic extremism in Pakistan, has started treading in a dangerous territory. The admission on Thursday by the White House deputy press secretary, and later by a spokesperson for the State Department, that they have been encouraging moderate parties to cobble together a grouping, led by President Pervez Musharraf, to take on the forces of extremism, shows how little the policy-makers in Washington know about Pakistani society, or for that matter about most of the Islamic world.

It’s dangerous because such thinking, and its public acknowledgement, means an attempt is being made to create an unnatural polarisation in an otherwise pluralistic society. And if not handled with care, such a move could be counter-productive to an extent that it would even further strengthen the Islamic conservative movement in the country.

The why and how of such a proposition are quite simple, provided someone is listening.

The talk of secret negotiations between People’s Party chief Benazir Bhutto and General Musharraf had been doing the rounds for nearly two years. Despite repeated denials by the two sides in recent months, such ‘rumours’ turned out to be true when Gen Musharraf flew to Abu Dhabi last month to meet Ms Bhutto, who had herself left a crucial party meeting in London for the unannounced meeting with the military leader.

No major announcement was expected and none was made. But it was a clear indication that the two sides were inching closer to working together in a future political set-up.

For Ms Bhutto it means a lot in terms of getting the corruption cases either quashed or shelved, and her return home guaranteed, possibly to steer the party in the next general election.

For Gen Musharraf it’s the best, if not the only way, to avoid an early exit from the political scene. But for the Americans, and their British allies, it is the best combination to attract some other smaller groups of ‘moderates’ and ‘liberals’ on a single platform to take on the forces of ‘religious extremism’.

Most people were already convinced that it was Washington that had been pushing this thesis of a moderate-extremist divide in the country. Now with some of the official statements in Washington, and their more detailed explanation in the New York Times, has left little doubt about the level of their involvement in the matter.

This may certainly be embarrassing for the two Pakistani leaders. But more important, it is going to provide more ammunition to the Islamic parties and other anti-American groups to question the legitimacy of any future alliance of moderate forces in the country.

Perhaps what the so-called South Asia experts in Washington have not been able to figure out is that there is much more to Pakistani politics than the increasing gulf between what are perceived as ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ forces.

In fact in Pakistan, as in most other parts of the world, anti-Americanism is not synonymous with Islamic extremism. The religious militants taking on the Pakistani security forces in the tribal region, or blowing themselves up in other parts of the country, have a clear anti-American agenda.

But they are not the only ones who are opposed to US policies. Many liberal and moderate groups in the country, and a large section of civil society, remain opposed to American policies ranging from its invasion of Iraq to its intervention in Afghanistan, its policy towards Iran, or its support for dictatorship in countries like Pakistan, or even its push for the establishment of a free-market economy.

And most of these groups or individuals have nothing to do with Islamic militancy. In fact, many of them openly advocate the separation of religion from politics, and have been taking on the forces of religious extremism at a heavy price.

But has anyone in Washington realised where these groups and people will go if at the time of the next general election, a ‘pro-America’ tag gets attached to any grouping of ‘moderates’ parties? And what will then become of the groups that are not necessarily Islamist, but are also not inclined to the idea of joining an American-backed grouping, or are opposed to allying themselves with General Musharraf?

Since neither Washington nor Gen Musharraf wants anyone to sit on the fence, or adopt a middle path, should these groups or people be expected to side with the forces that are perceived as ‘extremists’?

The problem emanates from the assumption that in the current political situation in Pakistan, the only fault line is between the so-called ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. Those following developments in Pakistan know well that Pakistani society is divided in several different ways. Some of the fault lines of Pakistan politics are between the haves and the have-nots, or between supporters of democracy and military dictatorship, between progressive- minded social democrats and religious democrats.

And there is a clear difference between the religious groups like Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), or for that matter the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), which believe in and support democracy, and the Islamic extremists who, like their Taliban brethren from Afghanistan, regard democracy to be a concept alien to Islam.

So by playing this dangerous game, the Americans just might be pushing everyone from Nawaz Sharif to Imran Khan, and some small Baloch nationalist groups, towards the religious political parties, and a host of other big and small pressure groups, into one big anti-American camp.

The way religious extremism is spreading its tentacles from the tribal region of Waziristan to Pakistan’s settled townships is disturbing. These people certainly have many sympathisers in the country, but even today, and by any standard, they are a very tiny force.

Observers are of the opinion that such an attempt to polarise Pakistani society between forces of moderation and extremism could be taken as a divide between pro-American and anti-American forces. And given the current geo-political situation and its impact on Pakistan politics, this kind of polarisation could prove to be disastrous for the genuine moderate and liberal forces in the country.

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