Pakistan’s attachment to its strategy in Afghanistan is rooted both in the military-dominated political system and also the growing fanaticism of Pakistani society. Indeed there is a vicious cycle between the growth of violent fundamentalism in Pakistan and the army’s support for the Afghan Taliban. This descent can be compared to the trends in Egypt. Much of the world is delighted by the Egyptian revolution. That society also appeared earlier to be headed down a fundamentalist path. Then the real Egypt showed itself. With remarkable clarity of thought a secular, nationalist, and democratic movement swept out a dictator in 18 days. Egypt’s future remains uncertain and it is possible that something short of democracy will emerge. But there are grounds for optimism. In Pakistan, in 2008, a lawyers’ movement forced another dictator, General Musharraf, to quit. But many democratic hopes that seemed realistic after the ouster of Musharraf have been dashed.
The majority of Pakistani society is descending into religious fanaticism. This goes beyond the communalism on which the “Land of the Pure” was founded, and even beyond the fundamentalism that has led to changes in dress and custom. The reaction to the murder of the Punjab Governor Salman Taseer is revealing. Taseer had been campaigning for changes in the law that gives the death penalty for blasphemy, and on behalf of a poor Christian woman who had been convicted under that law on the word of two other women who had refused to accept water from her because she was not Muslim. He was killed by a member of his high-security bodyguard unit, with the prior knowledge of the other members, on the grounds that he was an apostate, meaning that he had abandoned Islam. The killer has become a hero in most of Pakistani society, so intense is the embrace of the blasphemy law. It took weeks to find a prosecution lawyer willing to indict the killer.
Pakistan has been more democratic than Egypt. Ironically, that is part of the problem. Support for Mubarak in Egypt was very narrow. The urban population was overwhelmingly against him. Further, Mubarak ran a rigid dictatorship, censoring the press and repressing all opponents. In Pakistan the state does little to restrict political activities but also little to protect those who fall victim to some of these activities. Religious discrimination, or what is called communalism in India, exists in both societies but recently in Egypt, when a church of the Coptic Christian minority was bombed, some Muslims began to attend Christian services to place themselves as human shields against further bombings. This show of solidarity with another religion was not criticized by mainstream Muslim clerics in Egypt. Instead they condemned the bombings. This showed that ideals of religious reconciliation are predominant in Egypt.
While Pakistan is in the midst of an economic crisis, there are some favorable trends in the Pakistani economy. Exports have shown a sharp increase in the last three months. Exports to China are leading the way. This may not be a political favor from China, since many countries’ exports to China, including India’s, have risen swiftly. The world may be at the start of a new trade boom led mainly by China, but with strong participation by India and other developing countries across continents. The United States and Germany are also improving their export performance. Pakistan can participate in these trends. But sustained export growth in Pakistan would require fundamental changes of governance, and it appears Pakistani politics is too dysfunctional for that at present. But even a narrow boom based on textiles would alleviate its immediate economic crisis.
Such an outcome may be good news or it may not. Economic growth by itself may not reduce fanaticism.
The improved performance during 2002-2008 did nothing of the kind. The Pakistan army may respond to improved economics with intensified militarism. Recent reports of Pakistan’s rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal, while not entirely reliable, are indicative of its sustained effort in this direction.
Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University.