Secular resurgence in Pakistan

Secular resurgence in Pakistan
Ali Eteraz, February 20, 2008, Guardian

Election results are in from Pakistan. The late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistani People's Party (PPP) and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) won roughly 40% of the seats each. President Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League Quaid (PML-Q) barely won 11%. US senators Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry all signed off on the authenticity of the elections, and a suddenly meek Musharraf conceded quickly.

A major story in the elections is the rise of the avowedly secular Awami National Party (ANP) in the heavily traditional and conservative North Western Frontier Province. The NWFP, bordering Afghanistan, has long been a stronghold of the hard-line, pro-Taliban clerics, a sort of cudgel with which they beat the rest of the country. In the 2002 elections, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) - an umbrella of Islamist parties - essentially ran the table in NWFP. The ANP didn't win even one seat. The MMA then used that momentum to try and pass the Hisba Bill, a public morality law based on Saudi Arabia and Iran's virtue police (the supreme court struck it down on constitutional grounds).

This time, though, the MMA won only seven out of 96 seats. The ANP won 31, and the left-leaning PPP won 17. As a result of having the majority, the ANP is in a position to form the provincial government.

The story of the ANP's resurgence, in the face of blatant intimidation by hard-line groups (ANP leaders were bombed even on election day), is significant.

Tarek Fatah, formerly a left-activist in Pakistan, summarizes the ANP's success succinctly:

"Leading up to the elections, the jihadi extremists targeted the ANP and assassinated a number of their candidates. ANP activists - highly visible for wearing their red caps - became the Taliban's primary targets. There was a reason: The Islamists had managed to convince the Pashtun population that their historic national struggle was the same as the international jihad of Osama bin Laden. The ANP, however, stood in opposition to this jihadi ideology. Deeply religious and practising Muslims, ANP supporters have their roots in the kind of secularism where religion and state are kept apart and the use of Islam as a tool of politics is considered an insult to Islam itself."

A close look at the ANP's platform confirms their political philosophy, which begins with a homage to the party's founder, Bacha Khan, whom the British called Frontier Gandhi. The manifesto highlights the ideas of separation of religion from state as well as the emancipation and empowerment of women. The resurgence of the ANP is also a potent reminder to analysts who tend to characterise Pakistan as constantly on the brink of theocracy to not be so simple-minded. In fact, to people (including me) who were paying attention, the ANP's success is not altogether surprising.

The success of the ANP in the face of the Islamist programme is illustrative and instructive. It shows that one way of defeating Islamism is to offer a potent and viable alternative narrative. The ANP does that in the form of Pashtun nationalism. The ANP represents the elevation of local ethnicity over pan-Islamic rhetoric. Their local focus gives them a powerful appeal among people hankering for the essentials of life.

ANP's electoral success also suggests an interesting trend within Pakistani politics. It appears that regional parties based on ethnic or linguistic commonalities tend to adhere to secular principles. For example, the MQM, which is essentially a party limited to the city of Karachi, has long been secular in its outlook. (Last year the MQM held a rally of a few hundred thousand people opposing extremism - great pictures). These regional secular parties - in alliance with the secular PPP, which has revealed itself to be Pakistan's only truly national party (it is the only party that won seats in all four provinces) - seemingly creates a massive secular block in Pakistan.

These regional parties do have their downside. Aside from the corruption that seems to be rampant no matter what party one belongs to, these parties can be seen as divisive. The ANP, for example, has what is essentially a secessionist clause in its manifesto: "Federating units which wish to reorganise on the basis of cultural, linguistic and geographic similarities shall be free to do so." Many Pashtun people of Pakistan - who became geographically split between Pakistan and Afghanistan when the British left - not only consider the border to be artificial, but essentially meaningless. The ANP has already said that one of the first things it will do upon coming to power is to change NWFP's name to something like Afghania or Pakhtunkhwa. Whether or not this gesture is a harbinger of explicit secession or is simply an exercise in pride remains to be seen.

This is why the discussion about Pakistan in western intelligentsia cannot just limit itself to mosque and military. Ethnic and linguistic groups are an immensely powerful force in the country. If the ANP initiative to rebrand the NWFP is successful, it will mean that all four provinces will be named after the dominant ethnicity in the region. The challenge for future Pakistani leaders is to find a way to negotiate these ethnic groups in a conciliatory and respectful way. Historically, this has been nearly impossible for Pakistanis to pull off, and ultimately the problem is one of economic monopolisation by Punjabi interests in the military and industry (as well as the feudal landlords in Sindh and Punjab). Islamists tend to try to use the frustration these oligarchs cause as a way to provide their utopian solutions. However, people are becoming wise to their tricks and trying out other, potentially more results-oriented alternatives.

In my opinion, the secular resurgence has far more to do with material concerns than ideological ones. Ordinary Pakistanis didn't vote for the ANP because they suddenly became hip to Thomas Jefferson or because they became persuaded by some blogger in Birmingham. They voted for the ANP because they want clean water. If the ANP fails to deliver the essentials of life - and simply uses nationalism the way Islamists use Islam - then they will be replaced. If western interests want to maintain the secular resurgence, they are going to have to make sure that these groups do not fail. At the moment, though, I don't see any discussion about this in our press.


Anonymous said…
The last paragraph says"western interests want to maintain the secular resurgence, they are going to have to make sure that these groups do not fail"

for heavens sake stop counting on the West!

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