The Troubled Heart of Pakistan

· JANUARY 6, 2011


In an interview last month, the late Salman Taseer expressed concern about the radicalization of his country. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told me not to worry.


Lahore, Pakistan

On central Mall road, Governor’s House sits back across a wide lawn. The white, colonnaded mansion, built for British rulers of the Punjab whose pasty portraits hang inside, feels like a refuge and a throwback. A few days before Christmas, I visited Salman Taseer there. Though ensconced in a quiet office with limited powers, the governor of Pakistan’s largest and richest province was deep in battle with religious extremists beyond the house’s high walls.

Wearing stylish glasses and hair slicked back, he looked a youthful 66. Taseer was a local tycoon with unabashedly liberal tastes. He was unusual, too, in his willingness to openly challenge Islamist dictates. "They want to hold the entire country hostage," he told me. Most Pakistanis agree with him, he added, since "they vote for secular parties."

Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer sees off Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani at Lahore Airport, Lahore. Provincial Senior Minister Raja Raiz Ahmed is also present.

In recent tweets and public statements, Taseer had called for parliament to amend Pakistan’s law on blasphemy—a "black law" in his words—that mandates the death penalty for insulting Islam. In our conversation, he saw little room for compromise with fundamentalists who fare badly in elections and resort to violence. "These are not people you can mollycoddle," he said. "These are killers."

So, evidently, they are. After lunch this Tuesday in the national capital, Islamabad, Salman Taseer was gunned down by one of his security guards. The assassin told witnesses that he was angry over the man’s stance on blasphemy.

No politician had as prominently defended secular values in Pakistan since Benazir Bhutto. The former premier, an ally of Taseer, was herself slain three years ago by terrorists allegedly sent from the Islamist hotbeds along the western border with Afghanistan. In a joint statement issued before his funeral at Governor’s House yesterday, some 500 religious Pakistani leaders praised his killer and urged Muslims not to mourn Taseer’s death.

Murder has been a prominent feature of Pakistan’s turbulent politics since independence in 1947. But the recent killings bring home a new reality: Islamism is carving out a growing space for itself. Its sway isn’t limited to the northwestern frontier territories beyond the control of Islamabad, or the unruly southern province of Baluchistan. It has put down roots everywhere—perhaps most worryingly in the Punjab, Pakistan’s heartland.

How deep is a matter of debate. "Punjab is a ticking time bomb," said Taseer, who belonged to the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party. But Punjab is controlled by rivals, the wing of the Muslim League headed by Nawaz Sharif, a religious man who twice served as prime minister in the 1990s.

In an interview last month at his estate outside Lahore, Mr. Sharif was less alarmist. "The very large majority in this country are moderates," he said. "Lots of people, of course, are so-called radicals," which he blamed on years of military rule. "Terrorism thrives under dictatorship."

His Muslim League appeals to pious Punjabi businessmen and competes for votes with religious parties. Mr. Sharif might yet co-opt and defuse the fundamentalists—or his ties to religious groups are naïve and dangerous. He is considered the prime minister in waiting, unless the military stages another coup, or the unpopular Peoples Party government wins another election.

Both the U.S. and neighboring India watch signs of radicalization in Punjab with particular concern. Punjabis make up the bulk—as much as three-quarters—of the powerful Pakistani army and state bureaucracy. For centuries they incorporated practices from an inclusive and mystical Sufism into their spirituality. But whiffs of the militant Islam practiced in the Arab world are now felt here. Sectarian violence is up. Sufi shrines and Shiites are Islamist targets. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of local men are said to have joined insurgent groups to fight in Afghanistan or against Pakistan. People speak of a Punjabi Taliban recruiting force active in the poorer south of the province.

It’s part of a larger national shift. Starting in the late 1970s, Pakistan turned toward political Islam, implementing repressive laws concerning women and blasphemy. In the 11 years in power before his assassination in 1988, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq used religion to solidify his hold on the country. The longest serving leader in Pakistani history, he empowered hardline mullahs in a nation known for its religious diversity. In his novel "A Case of Exploding Mangoes," Mohammed Hanif summed Zia up as "a mullah without a beard, a mullah in a four-star general’s uniform, a mullah with the instincts of a corrupt tax inspector."

Subsequent military chiefs like Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who ran the country from 1999 until 2008, moved to de-Islamicize the armed forces. It’s harder to de-Islamicize a society so ill-served by its leaders for so long. Or to control a monster first created by the military, which recruited Islamists to fight India and in Afghanistan, the latter with American help. The headquarters for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group founded to wrest Kashmir from India, is near Lahore. The links between armed Islamic groups and various religious political parties are indisputable.

The fight over blasphemy, sparked by a recent death sentence passed down against a Christian woman, is really about what kind of Islam and what kind of state Pakistan will have. To liberals like Taseer, Mohammad Jinnah, the urbane founder of Pakistan who favored tweed jackets and whiskey, sought to create "a secular and democratic" state for Muslims. Mr. Sharif, who is prone to cryptic silences and boring discourses, prefers to focus on Jinnah’s democratic vision—at least as long as he’s in opposition and his relations with the military are strained. For him, secularism has become a bad word.

Religious parties don’t mention either democracy or secularism. "Jinnah struggled for an Islamic progressive nation," said Ameerul Azeem, the amir, or head, in Lahore of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party founded in 1941 and modeled on the Arab Muslim Brotherhood. Paint peels in its offices, but the shabby appearance is deceptive. The influence of Jamaat and other religious parties comes from setting the terms of debate.

Mr. Azeem, who speaks good English, didn’t have to defend the blasphemy law. "Anyone who is against it can go to parliament and change it," he said, "but none of [the parties] changed it." Exactly. The Peoples Party and the Muslim League were afraid to touch it. Among leading politicians, Taseer’s was a lonely voice.

Nawaz Sharif is a man of contradictions. Gen. Zia plucked the doughy industrialist from obscurity to lead a center-right alternative to the Peoples Party in the 1980s. He lacks the polish of a Western education and the upper-class manners often found in the civilian Pakistani elite. He can be shy, and ruthless. His governments were considered corrupt and ineffective. They also pushed through a far-reaching privatization program, opened a peace channel to India, and saw Pakistan get a nuclear bomb. Brought to power by the military, he clashed with the generals and was deposed by them. Gen. Musharraf, who forced him into exile in Saudi Arabia before going into exile himself after losing power, tells people that Mr. Sharif has "a beard in his belly."

Mr. Sharif fights this impression, at least with Westerners. In our breakfast talk over fried fish and kahwa, a strong green tea, he noted with irony that he was considered a moderate in power and a fundamentalist only afterward. "Mr. Musharraf kept hammering this rubbish," he said.

Mr. Sharif wants to be seen as a business-friendly pragmatist who’ll make up with India and cut the military down to size. Others prefer to call him a chameleon, an opportunist or a shill for Islamists, even if he’s not one himself. Either way, he’s now kingmaker. A junior coalition partner defected from the Peoples Party coalition this Sunday. Mr. Sharif this week said he won’t bring down the government in a no-confidence vote, but he set out conditions for his support, including the reversal of a fuel-price increase and lower government spending.

It’s a delicate short-term balancing act. He’s not sure to win national elections. He wouldn’t benefit if the military stepped in and doesn’t want to give it a pretext. "Frankly I know that any destabilization will endanger once again democracy," he told me, and he expressed a preference to see the current civilian government serve out its term, which would be a first in Pakistani history.

Larger concerns than party politics loom for the military, the true but unaccountable power in Pakistan. Political and insurgent violence plagues its leading cities. Islamism shrinks space for liberalism. Textbooks drawn up in the Zia era drum hatred into impressionable minds, while the madrassas, or religious schools, are (as Taseer put it) "the swamps amidst which the mosquitos grow."

Optimism is hard to sustain. Syed Babar Ali, a prominent industrialist who founded the country’s leading business college, the Lahore University of Management Sciences, has seen Pakistan grow from birth. "The country is much worse today than yesterday and it won’t be better tomorrow," he said.

On my last night in Lahore, I had dinner with an upper middle class, Western-educated liberal Pakistani. His public prominence makes him anxious about security. He lives in a small compound, surrounded by a high security fence. He raised it to four meters, or over 13 feet, a while ago, and he now plans to add another few meters. "The walls," he said, "keep going up."

Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.


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