Pakistan's Struggle for Modernity

Pakistan's Struggle for Modernity
The country's voters have never endorsed religious extremism.
By FOUAD AJAMI, Wall Street Journal, May 27, 2009

The drama of the Swat Valley -- its cynical abandonment to the mercy of the Taliban, the terror unleashed on it by the militants, then the recognition that the concession to the forces of darkness had not worked -- is of a piece with the larger history of religious extremism in the world of Islam. Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was the latest in a long line of secularists who cut deals with the zealots, only to discover that for the believers in political Islam these deals are at best a breathing spell before the fight for their utopia is taken up again.

The decision by Pakistan to retrieve the ground it had ceded to the Taliban was long overdue. We should not underestimate the strength of the Pakistani state, and of the consensus that underpins it. The army is a huge institution, and its mandate is like that of the Turkish army, which sees itself as a defender of secular politics.

The place of Islam in Pakistani political culture has never been a simple matter. It was not religious piety that gave birth to Pakistan. The leaders who opted for separation from India were a worldly, modern breed who could not reconcile themselves to political subservience in a Hindu-ruled India. The Muslims had fallen behind in the race to modernity, and Pakistan was their consolation and their shelter.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was secular through and through. The pillars of his political life had been British law and Indian nationalism. Both had given way, and he set out for his new state, in 1947, an ailing old man, only to die a year later. He was sincere in his belief that Pakistan could keep religion at bay.

Jinnah's vision held sway for three decades. It was only in the late 1970s that political Islam began its assault against the secular edifice. A military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, had seized power in 1977; he was to send his predecessor, the flamboyant populist Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to the gallows. Zia was to recast Pakistan's political culture. It was during his decade in power that the madrassas, the religious schools, proliferated. (There had been no more than 250 madrassas in 1947. There would be a dozen times as many by 1988, and at least 12,000 by latest count.)

Zia had been brutally effective in manipulating the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. His country was awash with guns and Saudi and American money. He draped his despotism in Islamic garb. He made room for the mullahs and the mullahs brought the gunmen with them.

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