November issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

The 2002 national and provincial assembly elections marked a watershed in the history of Pakistani democracy. For the first time in the nation’s fractured political existence, a combination of five Islamic parties — united under the banner of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal — swept the polls to become the third largest political force in the country. With 45 out of the 272 National Assembly seats, coupled with another 10 FATA seats, going to MMA candidates, indicating an overwhelming mandate for the alliance in NWFP and Balochistan, MMA’s pre-election promises — hitherto dismissed as a lot of sound and fury — have engendered raging debates across the spectrum. What has brought about this unprecedented victory? Are the MMA policies in line with the teachings of Islam? What does the future portend if the MMA manifesto is implemented? And what do the people who are likely to be affected by some of the MMA’s more controversial policies have to say about it all? While some in the upper echelons of power prove too reticent to comment, Newsline speaks to the more outspoken thinkers, policy makers and professionals of the media, law, social policy, theocracy, education, development and defence to ascertain their views on the ramifications of Pakistan’s new political realities.

Dr Riffat Hassan, religious scholar

riffat-hussain-nov02Q: Given that religious parties have always been sidelined at the polls, are you surprised by the election results? Do you support the party?

A: I am surprised by the election results because in the past religious parties have never been able to secure a significant number of seats in the National Assembly. I do not subscribe to any political party in Pakistan.

I can foresee that the primary agenda of the religious parties — whether they are in the government or in the opposition — is going to be to try to put women in the ‘chadar’ and ‘chardewari.’ Since the 1970s, the conservative religious leadership of Pakistan has regarded women’s presence in public space and the evolution of women’s groups in Pakistan as the most serious threat to what they call, ‘The integrity of the Islamic way of life.’ An emancipated or educated Muslim woman, especially if she is both visible and vocal, is considered the most dangerous and disturbing symbol of what these self-styled custodians of Islam call ‘westernisation.’ I feel certain that the religious parties will try to capitalise on the current anti-US sentiments in Pakistan to reverse the progress of women by linking it to, ‘The mass influx of western culture into Muslim societies.’

This is a time when progressive leaders of the women’s movements and groups in Pakistan must organise to resist any effort by the religious parties to create a segregated society (e.g. by outlawing co-education in educational institutions). Segregation of women is always the first step toward confining them to traditional sex-roles within the ‘chardewari’ and thus limiting their development and participation in society. What Pakistan needs is educated women who are strong and confident and able to protect their own honour and dignity without having to wear the kind of ‘hijab’ advocated by Farhat Hashmi and others like her, and abdicate from visible participation in nation-building activities.

While women and minorities certainly need to be particularly watchful of the emerging political alliances and coalitions, it needs to be borne in mind that nothing much has been done for women and minorities by earlier governments which did not include religious parties. Women and minorities have continued to be disadvantaged under all governments especially since the 1970s. I do not see this situation changing without a strong grass-roots movement toward reform of the prevailing culture in which the powerful prey upon the powerless.

Q: To what do you attribute their success?

A: Pakistanis have always reacted strongly when the battle-cry of ‘Islam is in danger’ has been raised. The attack on Islam and Muslims, exemplified by right-wing Christian leaders like Franklin Graham, Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell who made slanderous statements about the Prophet of Islam (p.b.u.h.), and Zionist Jews like Daniel Pipes who is continually vilifying what he calls ‘militant Islam,’ is undoubtedly, a very serious matter and it is not surprising that many Pakistanis have reacted to this attack by electing religious parties. I see the vote more as a protest vote against the U.S. and pro-US policies than as a vote in support of the total agenda of the religious parties.

Since the 1970s there have been two groups that have been extremist — one religious, the other, anti-religious. The religious extremists who generally have a very narrow and rigid understanding of Islam and are strongly patriarchal hijacked the discourse on Islam. The anti-religious extremists who see Islam negatively hijacked the discourse on human rights. The vast majority of Pakistanis is in the middle. The challenge for Pakistani leaders and thinkers is to strengthen ‘the silent majority’ so that it reclaims the discourse on both Islam and human rights and starts working toward creating an open and enlightened culture that conforms to the ethics of Islam as well as the universally-accepted principles of human rights.

Q: What does the future hold in terms of the enforcement of Shariah Law, given that the party leadership has suggested that the recommendations of the Islamic Ideology Council would not be imposed on the country?

A: I do not support the imposition of ‘Shari’ah’ law as this term is commonly understood in the contemporary Muslim world because it refers to a selective interpretation of what Islam means by a particular group of persons that happens to wield political power. Whereas the spirit of the Qur’an is so open, inclusive and universal, the understanding of ‘Shari’ah’ in modern times has tended to be narrow, exclusive and rigid. Here it is of interest to note that the word ‘Shari’ah’ comes from the root ‘shar’a’ which means ‘to open, to become clear.’ Allama Iqbal spoke out passionately against the absolutising of the ‘Shari’ah’ and stated in his lecture on ‘Ijtihad’ (which he called ‘the principle of movement in Islam’): ‘Our modern Ulema do not see that the ultimate fate of a people does not depend so much on organisation as on the worth and power of individual men. In an over-organised society the individual is altogether crushed out of existence. Since things have changed and the world of Islam is today confronted and affected by new forces set free by the extraordinary development or human thought in all its directions, I see no reason why this attitude of the Ulema) should be maintained any longer.

Sheema Kirmani, classical dancer

sheema-kermani-nov02Q: What is the first thought that springs to your mind when you think of a possible future federal government with a substantial MMA presence?

A: I am very wary of the MMA, as they are a fundamentalist religous grouping. I am against any sort of radical organisation — whether it be the Christain far right or a party of Hindu or Zionist fundamentalists. I strongly believe that religion should not play a role in politics.

I am very apprehensive about the future, as I see society becoming increasingly polarised between the liberals on one side and a close-minded religious guard on the other. Pakistani women have struggled over the past decades, trying to play their rightful role in society and gain a modicum of their rights. Now, with a religious party playing a significant role in state polity, I fear that the gains women have made over the years will be significantly reversed to the detriment of the whole society. What Pakistan desperately needs today, is a pro-women environment, not the opposite. With respect to the MMA’s attitude towards culture, the future portends disaster. The performing arts will not be allowed to develop.

I believe that the mullahs’ victory is totally based on the people’s antipathy towards America. I also believe that the US is possibly the biggest terrorist of them all — you need only look at the oppression of Muslims all over the world, Iraq and Afghanistan in particular. Unfortunately, it’s the only party that has taken a strong stance on the US issue.

Given that the MMA has come in on a strong anti-US vote, I am scared because even if a country like Iraq cannot afford to take on the US and survive, how can Pakistan? The MMA will, therefore, try to balance their impotence on changing the course of foreign policy by enforcing a strict code of morality.

ayesha-siddiqa-nov02Ayesha Siddiqa, defence analyst

Q: Analysts believe that the recent successes of the MMA in the polls is resultant of an interplay of five factors, and not because of their stance on morality/religion. These factors are a) the vacuum of leadership in the country, b) rigging on certain seats, c) the rise of nationalism, d) the strong anti-US sentiment in the border areas and e) the disillusionment with the tried and tested mainstream political parties. Which of these opinions do you agree with and why?

A: Sometimes, simple and linear tactics can bring about highly complex results. Although it would be too early to give a judgement on the direction that Pakistan’s society is taking, it would be fair to suggest that a reduction of religious-right-wing influence in the US would generate a ripple effect with right wing in other countries losing its comparative influence.

One of the things that one needs to look at is the number of votes polled for each party to ascertain what the voting pattern was. This is not so clear at the moment. But at this point, I would like to subscribe to all of the points pointed out about the reasons for the success of the MMA. Moreover, the government’s intervention in the election process (as opposed to the day of the election), led to a situation where the other parties were sidelined. Hence, the result was complex and we now have a greater representation of the right-wing forces. Also, a number of moderate people did not come out to vote that decided results in a number of places including the capital city, Islamabad.

It has to be said that none of the political parties are represented by liberal elements as party politics revolves around interest groups. The other parties will find it difficult to take a holistic view of social changes that coalition politics would bring. So whichever way one looks at it, it is going to be a fairly unpredictable situation.

Q: What will the local and international ramifications of the ascent of a religious party in the post 9/11 world order be?

A: In the local sphere, my first thought was that there are going to be more restrictions on women and on the moderate-liberal forces in the country. The feeling is that although the MMA’s top leadership might not be extremely restrictive, their followers will exploit their popularity with greater force and this may have unpredictable and unpleasant consequences for the society at large.
I believe that the problem will get resolved in the long run. With the MMA in the government, the western countries would be watching Pakistan’s military activities even more intently than before. However, what the MMA must realise is that Pakistan cannot do much with its clipped wings – total dependence on foreign countries for economic survival. Over the coming months, the MMA will be going through its experience of learning about what issues hamper the sovereignty of a state. As for nuclear weapons, these are controlled by the military that will not allow a lot of intervention by the MMA or another political leadership.

Let’s suppose that the US does plan to take out Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, then what are the options available to a bunch of right-wing mullahs than to get more angry. Idon’t think the Americans would be extremely worried about the MMA since Washington would already be negotiating solutions with the military. It might be under the table but it would take care of their interests. So, why worry. In any case, with the National Security Council in place, American interests are well taken care of. Also, within days of being elected, the statements of the MMA leadership regarding Afghanistan seem to have undergone a change. The MMA leadership has links with the US as well. Qazi sahib, for instance, has friends in the US establishment and people understand him quite well. The worrying part is relations with India. This is where the MMA and the military might take a similar line. The real problem will begin when the MMA starts to distance itself from the promises it has made to its electorate or when there appears a gap between what they have said and what they deliver. My fear is that this kind of a failure would lead to greater fragmentation of the society.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, professor, Quaid-e-Azam University

pervez-hoodbhoy-nov02Q: Were you surprised by the massive support the MMA received at the polls?

A: I am deeply dismayed by the success of the MMA, but not surprised. The religious parties were the only ones with a clear agenda. On the other hand, the manifestos of the secular parties stopped at shallow rhetoric that nobody really believed. These parties say little that makes sense about how to approach Pakistan’s gigantic problems — the constant threat of war with India, a parasitic military establishment that has emaciated the country, growing poverty and mal-distribution of wealth, an education system that collapsed long ago, shrinking water supplies, environmental degradation and much more. Why should people vote for parties that have nothing to offer? Public apathy will remain until people can clearly see a party that can bring about the right kind of change.

Q: What is the first thought that springs to your mind when you think of governments with a substantial MMA presence?

A: Women will be hit the hardest because, for mullahs, all evil begins with women. Maulana Fazlur Rahman and Qazi Hussain Ahmad are already talking about banning co-education in schools, colleges, and universities. Working women will be targeted next, honour killings of women will go unpunished, and hijab could be made compulsory in government offices. Television will become still more conservative and cable-tv is likely to be restricted further. Blasphemy laws will be more vigorously applied, the minorities will come under greater threat, and the country will regress into a deeper state of primitivism and barbarism. Relations with India are unlikely to improve, and could well worsen because the army and the MMA have identical views on Kashmir. Both believe in jihad, although the Americans have twisted Musharraf’s arms and forced him into pragmatism.

Q: To what do you attribute their popularity?

A: If Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif had resisted the urge to plunder, we could have had a vibrant political culture. But, being congenital kleptomaniacs, they laid the ground for the Pakistan army to take over and destroy the foundations of democratic rule. Today we have a barren landscape with no concept of peoples control over vital institutions, no accepted rules of political discourse, and no credible political leader in sight. Subsequent to 9/11, the mullahs stepped into this political vacuum. They were the only ones who could effectively capitalise upon the deep resentment all Pakistanis feel in relation to US policies on Israel and Afghanistan. Hence the massive victory of the MMA in the Frontier and Balochistan. But there is yet another level of explanation — the MMA is a Pakistani manifestation of a globally emergent Islamism that stresses jihad and imposition of the shariat. Anger at US imperialistic policies, difficulty in accepting modern ideas and values, visions of a golden past, and the failure of Muslim political governments all combine to make a lethally explosive mixture. This is to be seen as much here as in most Arab countries together with Nigeria, Indonesia, and elsewhere. So we are not alone.

The conflict between orthodox and liberal values goes way back into history, and even into the Golden Age of Islam, 9th -13th centuries. Baghdad around 840-850 was the scene of bloody confrontations between the orthodox (Asharis) and the rationalists (Mutazilla). Fortunately liberal caliphs like Harun-al-Rashid and Al-Mamun were able to keep the mullah in his place.

Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worked together and later taboos on music and dancing did not then exist. But once the mullah triumphed, the greatness of Islamic culture and science crashed to an end. Seven dark centuries have now passed since the last great Muslim intellectual figure, Ibn-Khaldun. Today, Muslims are nowhere to be seen in the world of science, knowledge, and ideas. This situation will not change as long as orthodoxy continues its vice-like grip on Muslim society.

Q: The MMA has been very vocal about protecting the control of Pakistan’s nuclear capability from hostile American forces. Maulana Noorani for example has stated, “When Iraq, Libya and Iran can stand up to the Americans why can’t we, the lone superpower of the Islamic world”. Qazi Hussain Ahmed states, “Pakistan is a sovereign state and capable of handling law and order and fighting terrorism without external help and there is no need for American troops to stay.” Will the MMA be forced to be flexible, as their more recent statements seem to indicate, or will Pakistan’s defence policy be affected in the current scenario?

A: It will not be affected in the short run. The army, through the National Security Council, will continue to make all key decisions such as the control and custody of nuclear weapons. But the Americans are keeping a close eye on Pakistan’s nukes because they know that Pakistanis harbour a deep resentment towards the US and Israel. Today Pakistan and the US are allies, but the alliance is exceedingly fragile. In the event of Musharraf’s departure, or a right-wing coup in the army, the US will move fast to secure these weapons before they are dispersed. I think the MMA understands this, and their fears are probably correct.

The Americans are powerful and ruthless, so I suspect that the MMA will substantially dilute their anti-American rhetoric. They are already equivocating on the issue of American bases in Pakistan. Plus, like most generals of our army, many of their leaders have close relatives living in the US. So, although they will not purr as sweetly as General Musharraf, they too will move down the pragmatic path. But the MMA will undoubtedly vent its spleen against the defenseless. This includes women, religious minorities, and those who want freedom of speech and expression. The mullahs want one of their own as education minister. If they succeed, we will see still more hate-material in school curricula and poisoning of children’s minds. Rough times lie ahead.

I am too sceptical of these elections to worry about election rules, procedures, fraud, etc. I do not think that any real issues faced by the country are going to be addressed — the total dominance of the military, the constant state of war with India and Kashmir, deprivation of the poor, reform of the justice system, etc. To my mind, choosing between thieves, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, and miltary dictators does not constitute democracy.