Sunday, 15 July 2007

Pakistan. Again.

Pakistan. Do recent events at the Red Mosque really matter to observers in the UK? I mean, the internal politics of a distant and not very influential country is hardly a matter of major concern for the 'West' no matter how violent and unsettling they might turn out to be.

Aside from the links between Pakistan and successful and failed terrorists in the UK (and, of course, the US), I think Pakistan is of major importance because it marks an interesting three way battle between liberal democracy, military dictatorship and fundamentalist religious rule. It also, to me, marks a major failing of UK/US foreign policy. Well, I would say that, wouldn't I?

I'll confess as to not knowing anything whatsoever about day to day life in Pakistan. But, like Iran, and indeed Afghanistan, to caricature Pakistanis as a bunch of backward Islamic freedom hating terrorists. While this may seem like a ridiculous statement, some clearly hold the view that all Arabs (and one would assume, by extension, Pakistanis and Persians) are terrorists. For example, this story from an Egyptian born serving US Marine

"Then she asked me where I was from. When I said, 'Egypt', she had this look on her face and she said, 'you're a terrorist.' And that was in a Marine Corp uniform. "

Weird.

The view of Muslims in Muslim countries as extremists, however, extremely useful to a number of people. I'm sure Al Qaeda would love us to believe they have 100% support in Pakistan, Egypt and Iran (Of course, if you think all Iranians are terrorists you're hardly likely to understand the different between Shia and Sunni) and I don't need to point out that if you want to invade a country it's useful to portray the natives as sub-human and/or evil.

In truth, the newspaper response to the Red Mosque conflict (both before, and after the final confrontation) shows an interesting and diverse range of opinion. (Dawn, one should note, is an English language daily with circulation of over 138,000) These articles have not been written for a nation of foaming at the mouth religious fundamentalists. Liberal opinion seems to be widely held, although it is impossible from these headlines to judge how widely held it is in a country of 156 million or so people. (The PPP, the second largest party in Pakistan, is democratic, with I guess, by definition, makes it against religious law)

So, I hold that Pakistan is a diverse and complex country that is currently at the centre of a battle between democracy and totalitarian Islamic rule where, ironically, neither group holds political power. That is held by Musharraf. Very much the secular dictator (now where have I heard that before?)

UK/US policy has been to support Musharraf. This, of course, follows a well trodden path. Saddam was a stalwart opponent of Shia Islamism in the 1980s, which is why we supported him at the time, irrespective of his faults. This stance is understandable. A strongman to take on the terrorists. And now that Musharraf has taken the step of confronting militants in the Red Mosque I can't imagine the US or UK administrations criticising him for his anti-democratic ways any time soon.

I'm not going to suggest that Musharraf's actions over the last few weeks are due to a cynical desire to hang on to power. However, the idea that Pakistan needs a dictator to deliver liberal democracy to the country is nonsensical to me. By alienating a significant proportion of the population by seizing, then holding on to power (and trying to squash any dissent) the General has weakened the very institutions in Pakistan that stand against fundamentalism. And 'The West' is, quite rightly, seen by a lot of Pakistanis as totally uninterested in their problems. We will, they perceive, support Musharraf whatever he does. Unsurprisingly this drives anti-Americanism in both the Islamic and Liberal wings of the Pakistani population.

So, what? I offer no easy answers. But by confronting the militants in the Red Mosque Musharraf has started a civil war in his country. He understands this, and he understands it is what the militants want, which is why, up until now, he has been reluctant to confront armed militias in his own country. There can be no backward steps now. He must utterly defeat Islamic militancy throughout Pakistan, or lose power (and probably his own life). However, Civil war cannot be an excuse to suppress democracy. It may seem naive to call for free and fair elections in Pakistan at this time (the election is scheduled for October this year. Whether it will be free and fair is anybody's guess) but without democracy, how can we win?

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