Right-Wing 'Thinkers' Reduce Pakistani Politics to Holy War

Simplistic conservative "intellectuals" are oblivious to Pakistan's highly complex internal politics.
In the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Andrew McCarthy at National Review made an astonishing claim: "The real Pakistan is a breeding ground of Islamic holy war." He went on to add: "In Pakistan, our quarrel is with the people." Christian polemicists with little political aptitude were happy to pick up on McCarthy's phraseology and use it as a cudgel to beat anyone who tried to look positively towards the forthcoming elections in Pakistan.

Crucial to McCarthy's analysis was a poll that had found a 46 percent approval rating for Bin Laden. In subsequent days, writers at TNR and Commentary magazine both effectively debunked McCarthy, pointing out that the same poll had a higher approval rating for a secular leader. If these responses were not enough to debunk the facile argument that believes Pakistan to be perpetually poised on the edge of holy war, the recently concluded elections in Pakistan surely do. This debunking is especially stark when one looks at the North-Western Frontier Province, a traditionally conservative region.

In the 2002 elections, the people of NWFP propelled Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an umbrella of hard-line Islamist parties, to power. The group quickly began to consolidate control and began agitating for regressive theocratic policies. One of these moves was the Hisba (Public Morality) bill, considered by many to be a sort of proto-Taliban law. Legislators from NWFP repeatedly brought versions of the Hisba bill to Parliament. However, the Supreme Court -- led by the same chief justice that Musharraf later sacked due to an unrelated matter -- struck down the bill. Despite the fact that the Hisba bill was a bad idea to begin with, the entire back and forth between the MMA and Supreme Court produced very important precedent for posterity. In sharp terms, the Supreme Court wrote: "We are quite in agreement with the contentions of learned attorney general that private life, personal thoughts and the individual beliefs of citizens cannot be allowed to be interfered with."

However, among the contingent of American conservatives who could not conceive of a Muslim majority nation as other than theocratically inclined, such a clear victory for freedom of conscience was nothing more than an anomaly. The proceedings around the Hisba bill and the MMA's defeat -- despite its alliance with the ruling party -- went largely ignored.

Now MMA is involved in another defeat, this one electoral, and perhaps even more significant in understanding the way that the Pakistani public relates to theocratic elements.

In the recently concluded elections, out of the 96 total seats in NWFP, the MMA managed to win only nine. The secular Pakistan People's Party, and the secular-nationalist Awami National Party, won 17 and 31 seats respectively. The godfather of the MMA, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, lost his home seat in Dera Ismail Khan (home to one of the largest pro-Taliban madrassas), to a secular candidate. A victory for the ANP in Dera Ismail Khan is impressive because even in the 1970s, when the late Benazir Bhutto's father, Zulfiqar, won a nearly unanimous election in Pakistan, he was unable to remove the Rahman family from Dera Ismail Khan.

The resounding defeat of the MMA reveals a simple and inescapable fact about voters in devout parts of Pakistan: They don't vote on the basis of ideological versions of Islam; they vote on the basis of their material and social interest.

In a previous article, I had given this awareness among Muslims -- from Egypt to Turkey to Pakistan -- the name of post-Islamism. This is the idea making headway among devout Muslims that religion alone cannot provide for their social concerns. It is the idea that while religion may provide salvation in the next life, politics is what provides for welfare in this one.

It would be advisable if American conservative thinkers could remember that there is more to politics than religion.
Ali Eteraz is an international finance and human rights lawyer.
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