How to Keep Pakistan from Descending into Chaos
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The eruption of democratic defiance among Arabs has discredited neoconservatives and al-Qaeda alike, shattering their shared assumption that Muslims need violent prodding to reclaim their dignity. In 10 weeks of protests, Tunisians and Egyptians achieved for themselves what 10 years of bloodshed could not purchase for Pax Americana or its archenemy in Iraq or Afghanistan: a spirit of solidarity among millions -- secularists, mainstream Islamists, young men, old women -- eager to rebuild their countries.
U.S. policymakers should learn from these events that the Muslim impulse for modernity and freedom is hindered, not helped, by Western military intervention. And they should learn soon. The U.S. “Af-Pak” war is accelerating the self-destruction of the world’s second largest, and only nuclear, Muslim country.
Murder and Blasphemy
Pakistan’s lurch toward the abyss is exemplified by the recent murders of two politicians: Salman Taseer, a secularist killed in January, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian killed in early March. Opposition to the ruling party’s proposed changes of the blasphemy law underlay the attacks. The law, created in the 1980s by Pakistan’s military dictator Zia-ul-Haq and later criticized by the United States, was aimed at fostering Wahhabism amid the U.S.-backed “jihad” in Afghanistan.
Consistent with Wahhabi dogma, the blasphemy law reflects the opposite of what the Prophet Muhammad preached. Whereas Muhammad spared the lives of people who tried to poison, starve, and even kill him, the blasphemy law prescribes death for anyone who makes “derogatory” remarks about the Prophet. And whereas the Qur’an explicitly acknowledges the validity of other faiths and decrees that acceptance of Islam is a choice, Pakistan’s extremists target Muslim “heretics” and non-Muslims for destruction.
More troubling than the murders is the soft support for -- if not outright approval of -- the law among the Pakistani public. Lawyers, once hailed by Western media as heroes of Pakistani liberalism, raucously supported the alleged murderer of Taseer. The killer had been inspired by one of the many religious leaders who had railed against changes to the law in protests that drew tens of thousands.
Amid the backlash, Pakistan’s fragile prime minister abandoned the proposed amendments. That did not appease extremists, who then killed Bhatti, the only Christian cabinet member, also for opposing the blasphemy law.
Fearing Psychosis or the Taliban
Following that attack, a columnist in Pakistan's largest English daily opined that extremists had little to fear: “Because who are they afraid of? Not the state, not the government, not the law. All three have simply capitulated in front of the psychosis that is ever so often being presented to us through TV talk shows, mosques and cyber space as the ‘true faith.’”
But why has this “psychosis” taken root in a country home to Sufism, Islam’s mystical branch? Pro-Taliban political parties fared poorly in 2008 national and provincial elections. Even in the tribal north, they received little support. And in a late 2009 poll, national support for the Taliban registered at a dismal four percent after the group launched attacks against civilians.
The answer lies not in any one feature of Pakistani society, but rather in frustration with a war that has stretched the weak strands of that society to a breaking point.
One of those strands is the Pakistani military’s support for the Taliban. Its justification -- creating “ strategic depth” against India -- seems absurd, as it is the radicals who have achieved strategic depth inside Pakistan. But this policy, crafted by Zia’s military regime, went unchallenged because of another national weakness: Pakistan’s democracy.
Benazir Bhutto, the former two-term prime minister killed by extremists in 2008, confided to writer Tariq Ali during her first term in 1988 that she was “powerless” against the military. Her own father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hung by Zia in 1979.