Pakistan’s religion-rich conflict

bhutto 3The opening sentence in Time‘s guide to the conflict in Pakistan is quite appropriate: “The turmoil in the streets of Pakistan stems from a mercurial mix of history, religion and politics — with explosive results.”

Religion is front and center in this very important part of the world, but are reporters telling the story?

The New York Times scored an interview with embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Tuesday, and while the religious issues don’t pop out at the reader, they are present:

He said Pakistan was suffering from a “disturbed terrorist environment,” and he appeared to be unaffected by calls from Europe as well as the United States for an end to the emergency rule.

Instead, the general, whose government has received more than $10 billion in aid from the Bush administration, mostly for the military, asked for even more support, and more patience.

The Bush administration has called the general the best bet to fight Al Qaeda and Islamic militants, but has also complained that the cooperation of the Pakistani military has been sporadic and often ineffective.

You don’t have to read too deep between the lines to understand where religious issues come into play. But religious issues remained cloaked in vague terms, such as “moderates,” as tmatt pointed out Wednesday.

As for the Time piece, it is a good start and long overdue. However, it is only a start and it largely fails at explaining the various forms of Islam in Pakistan and how they relate to the law and politics.

A helpful way to go about this would be to compare Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries dominated by Muslim politics. Some are comparing the situation in Pakistan to the pre-revolution situation in Iran. Now that is a scary thought. But how does the presence of the highly professional military in Pakistan negate that factor, and what does religion have to do with it?

Speaking of countries highly influenced by the military that also happen to be allies of the United States, how does this compare to the situation in Turkey? An important aspect of this story is that Pakistan is no Turkey in terms of its relationship with the U.S. The country is far more radical, at least in religious ideology. Before September 11, 2001, the country was headed the way of Iran and Iraq as an official supporter of terrorism. But things changed on that tragic day, and the United States needed help of Pakistanis — along with Iranians — in routing the Taliban out of Afghanistan.

Another significant religion ghost that could receive more attention concerns former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. What is the religious significance that the opposition leader in an Islamic country is a woman? What does that tell us about the way Islam is taught and applied in the country?

Just as everyone was caught off-guard by the Iranian revolution, another surprise could be on the horizon concerning Pakistan. Religion will likely be in the center of it all.

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  • Jerry

    The situation in Pakistan is well worth the attention. Religion and politics are siamese twins there.

    The Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, or at least part of it is supporting the Taliban before 9/11 and even now because they see it in Pakistan’s national interest or because of their personal beliefs to have an extreme Pashtun Islamic regime in Afghanistan. And there is some support for the Taliban in the populace as well.

    Then add to the mix the desires of many for a representative government. How often do you see lawyers in the street protesting the lack of rule of law?

    Then there’s the rest of the military which owns a good chunk of business in Pakistan and desires to maintain that profitable setup. Imagine the US military owning 15% of US businesses for comparison.

    And, of course, there are the nuclear weapons Pakistan has. Rather than fretting that Iran might one day get the bomb, we should be very concerned about Pakistan which is very much more unstable and very much more likely to wind up in the hands of al Quaeda. Even if the rulers approved of suicide only for their followers, a likely possiblity, consider the danger of a nuke-armed country sending terrorists all over the world, perhaps with nukes, and threatening to use nukes if we responded.

    Instead we see the specter of the government obsessed with Iraq and now Iran and not paying enough attention to what is going on in Pakistan. God help us all.

  • Will Harrington

    Jerry, Now add India and China into the mix. Yup, India, a nuclear power that has as history of hostilities with Pakistan. Here’s the scenario. Pakistan falls to a radical Islamic regime which launches a nuclear atack on India. India, being India, loses a few cities, but absorbs the damage and effectively ends Pakistans existence, thereby giving Pakistans ally, China, the excuse they need to take out their major military rival in Asia. Thus ensues a truly catastrophic war. The trouble with Pakistan sn’t that it might be another Iran. It really isn’t playing in the Middle East League. Rather its pivotol in the balance of power between China and India without really having the power to play in that league.


  • Tom Heneghan

    While I appreciate GetReligion’s focus on the missed religion angles in news stories, I think it can sometimes be overdone. The role of religion in Pakistan is a case in point. Islam is front and center in many events there, but not always the driving force behind events. The challenge for foreign correspondents is to distinguish between the two situations and describe all operative factors there.

    The central fact of politics in this highly unstable country is the dominant role of the military, the only force strong enough to keep the country together. This domination creates a favored minority and resentment among many other groups. The ranks of the frustrated include the Islamists, but also big land-owners (Benazir Bhutto’s political roots), educated urban middle class types (such as the protesting lawyers), regions outside the Punjab (heartland of the military) and various other groups not benefitting from military rule. All those critics are Muslims, but their complaints are mostly secular. And they are not solid political blocs, either.

    One important factor — being in the military or closely tied to it — can influence a person’s political views. That tie could be as weak as a distant cousin in the army. This is not an important relationship in the U.S., but can be a crucial one in a country where family and tribal ties that are often invisible to outsiders can tip the scales.

    There are various forms of Islam in Pakistan, but the boundaries between them are not always relevant for politics. The clearest connection is between the strictly orthodox Deobandi school and radical political Islam, including the Afghan Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan. It’s hard to get reliable numbers but the
    Deobandis may make up about 20 percent of the population. Not all of them are Taliban supporters. The Barelvi account for about 60 percent and, as a traditional Sufi movement, are less politicized (this is where the word “moderate” is usually used). Their leaders sometimes ally with Deobandis if they want to pressure the military government, but there is no firm coalition there. Then there are Shi’ites (10-15%?), various other Islamic sects and non-Muslim minorities. For the most part, Barelvis, Shi’ites and the other Muslim sects have little to do with the Taliban, but there can be some Islamists among them for other reasons.

    The Taliban, both those in Afghanistan and their supporters in Pakistan, are also not one-dimensional radical Islamists. They are at times a kind of militia of local patriots respected by fellow tribesmen (who are also very orthodox Muslims, although maybe less strict than the Taliban) because they defend Pashtun interests. They can also be a kind of mafia organization that extorts and frightens the local population. Those factors mix with radical Islam in different proportions depending on the groups and areas
    involved, making it hard to know which — or whether — one is dominant.

    Comparing Pakistan “and other Middle Eastern countries dominated by Muslim politics” has limited utility. Pakistan is not a Middle Eastern country. Its main forms of Islam, Barelvi and Deobandi, are South Asian movements. There is certainly heavy influence from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, especially in funding the Deobandi madrassas, and Wahhabi aspects (such as facial veils for some women) are more evident now than 20 years ago. But the societies are quite different in ways that challenge some outsiders’ preconceptions about Islam (and can make some religous ghosts disappear).

    The most obvious difference is that this Islamic Republic has twice had a woman prime minister — both times Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the executed Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Muslim Bangladesh has had two different women as prime minister, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, a widow and a daughter of deceased male mililtary leaders. Mostly Hindu India had Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, daughter of the country’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru. Mostly Buddhist Sri Lanka had a female prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike (widow of the assassinated first PM Solomon Bandaranaike), and her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga served as president. Bhutto would have little hope of any public
    role in most Middle Eastern countries, but this is not the Middle East. She and the other female leaders of South Asia live in a region where the tradition of family political dynasties can trump religion. Even the pro-Taliban Islamist leader Fazl-ur-Rahman supported her when she was in power (and might well do so again if she returns to power). To many Pakistanis, Benazir is effectively a Bhutto first and a woman second.

    One crucial factor left unmentioned is India, Pakistan’s longtime rival. Both countries have nuclear arms and large armies. They have fought three wars and India won them all. Islamabad’s worst strategic nightmare is to be to caught between India to the east and a hostile, pro-Indian Afghanistan to the west. So Pakistan has taken an active role in Afghan politics for decades, playing the Islamist card that it sees as its best option because it can work
    through Afghan allies. It supported Islamists there in the 1980s, the Mujahideen, to fight the occupying Soviet forces. When the Mujahideen waged a civil war in the 1990s, Islamabad backed the Taliban to establish order there (especially assuring security on Afghan highways for Pakistani truckers trading with Kabul and Central Asia). Islam certainly plays a part in all this, but so do defence and foreign policies.

    To add to the confusion, the top brass are not united. Some support Islamists, some are classic soldiers, some are quite political, some play on several chess boards at the same time. The dividing lines are not clearly cut.

    In sum, Islam is an all-present but not necessarily all-powerful factor in Pakistan. The influence of radical Islam is growing and it is a threat to the country’s stability. But Pakistan is a complex society and looking too much for one angle can hide other key factors in the equation. If outsiders get caught off-guard by events there, it may well be because their focus is too narrow.