Potential Consequence of Bhutto-Musharraf Deal - Increased Support for Religious Right?

VIEW: Strengthening the religious right —Dr Ayesha Siddiqa
Daily Times, September 17, 2007

The general conception among some of the liberals in Pakistan is that President Pervez Musharraf is essential for reducing the influence of the religious right. An essential corollary of this argument is that the Pervez Musharraf-Benazir Bhutto partnership will save the country from extremism. Both leaders are considered liberals who will not tolerate religious extremism in the country. In a recent statement, Bhutto claimed that her return to power was necessary to fight Talibanisation of the state and society. Let’s analyse some of the issues that arise from this argument.

First, how come the two forces directly and indirectly responsible for injecting Talibanisation into the state and society are now being considered a bulwark of liberalism? This is because both Musharraf and Bhutto are culturally and ideologically less conservative than a number of other players. Musharraf represents an organisation which a lot of people believe is secular in character. Bhutto, on the other hand, represents a secular tradition denoted by her father’s party.

Technically, this makes them different from other options available to the country such as Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan or Qazi Hussain Ahmed. While Sharif is basically conservative and Qazi Hussain is religious, Imran Khan has not been able to firm up his ideological position. However, can anyone in today’s Pakistan do politics without engaging with conservative forces?

Years of authoritarian rule and the use of Islam as a tool for political legitimacy have brought a certain level of conservatism to Pakistan. It is hard to imagine how after five years of the Musharraf-Bhutto partnership, it would become possible to change the basic dynamics of social discourse. Religious parties are a part of politics and have become more relevant not because of better electoral performance, but due to the fact that other powerful forces in the country have made the society conservative.

Conservatism cannot be fought until and unless there is a more structured discourse on the type of Islam we would like to have in the country. Talking about moderate enlightenment is one thing, but there needs to be a discourse on: (a) which shade of Islam we intend to use, and (b) finding a way for political forces not to use religion as a tool for legitimacy. The issue of ideology refers to conducting a debate at different levels on what will be a preferred standard. Conducting this discussion and then winning this debate is the test of the ability of seemingly liberal forces.

Second, how do liberal forces plan to disentangle religion from politics, especially when the national ideology is heavily laced with religion? The very argument that Pakistan is the fortress of Islam with the desire to be a leader in the Islamic world makes religion relevant for the state and its politics. Therefore, the religious right cannot be the only entity blamed for encouraging conservatism.

But let’s move away from the ideological issues for a minute and consider the more tactical aspects of the potential Musharraf-Bhutto partnership which will ultimately encourage greater conservatism and strengthen the religious right. First, there is no evidence that this marriage of convenience proposes a divorce between the religious parties and the army. Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the MMA are part of the present government and would like to have a share in the next political dispensation as well. They cannot be ignored especially when it comes to Balochistan where the Maulana is partnering with the government in fighting Baloch nationalists. There is no evidence to suggest that the partnership will be ruptured, at least in Balochistan.

No political party in the country today has a clear cut agenda on how to implement provisions in the 1973 Constitution which empower the federating units. This means that they will need forces and partnerships to control subversive elements in the smaller provinces and impose central control of the state. There is very little inclination to devolve power to the provinces and further below. The obsession with centralisation can only foster greater conservatism in politics. This is because a replay of the past where resources were selectively distributed to cronies will increase resentment of the centre and force people to consider ideologically conservative options.

Second, the idea of deal-making is not popular in the country. September 10 did not bring violence to the streets but it did create a certain image of the leaders. The threat then is that the demoralised supporters of the PPP might not even be motivated to come and vote for their party. Unlike the PMLN and PMLQ, the PPP has ideological moorings and it is difficult for its committed workers not to react to the news of their party coming to power by dealing with a dictator. It would be tragic to see the PPP shed its ideological instincts.

What Pakistan needs today is principled and ideological politics to counter conservatism. There will be long-term problems if the ideological component is downgraded in the name of pragmatism. In any case, the religious right is a direct beneficiary of the current political plan. They are the only other segment with an ideology. So, if the PMLN (for whatever it is worth) is not allowed to contest elections and the PPP is engaged in deal-making, this only leaves the religious parties to capture the imagination of the masses.

Third, the impression that the deal has been facilitated by the US complicates matters even further. Given the US’s growing unpopularity in the country, such a deal would damage the PPP’s reputation as an ideological party. There is also the perception that Washington’s muted response to the Nawaz Sharif deportation was not because it was Pakistan’s internal matter, but because Sharif’s re-entry would have created problems for the ‘deal’.

What is worse is that such an image will be exploited by religious-extremist forces which do not subscribe to an electoral discourse. What Bhutto proposes is bringing about a situation where the civilian-political and military-political forces are not opposing each other in fighting a battle against extremist elements. But the problem is that she does not have any mechanism to ensure that she will be party to decision-making on the Taliban issue or the army’s battle against extremist forces. Moreover, deal-making is bound to strengthen extremist forces which will use American involvement as an excuse to win greater support.

Conservative and extremist forces can only be countered by freeing politics from pragmatic deal-making. Otherwise, it is difficult to see liberal politics restored.

The writer is an Islamabad-based independent defence analyst and author of the book, Military Inc, Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy


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