It was always a matter of time before Iraq came to Pakistan. In a week of murder and mayhem to rival the bloodiest carnage of the Sunni-Shi'a war, it did. The massacres that Pakistanis had hitherto seen from afar they have now witnessed near at hand.
The Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) siege - after which police stormed the Islamabad complex on 10-11 July 2007 and overcame resistance from the intransigent militants inside, at the cost of an unknown number of deaths (102 according to official figures, several hundred according to other observers) - has confirmed the mullahs' view that the affair was a beginning not an end. Their supporters and sympathisers are now seeking to make sure that the pattern of polarisation is extended nationwide (see "Pakistan's peril", 19 July 2007).
An already horrendous death-toll in the days after the siege - covered in gory detail by twenty-four-hour TV coverage - leaves Pakistanis simultaneously numb, fearful and seeking scapegoats. The 289 killed (as of 23 July 2007) include seventeen at a rally on 17 July in support of the country's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Choudhry (suspended by Pervez Musharraf on 9 March, and reinstated by the supreme court in a historic decision on 20 July); and police and army victims of attacks in the regions bordering Afghanistan, principally North Waziristan.
Maruf Khwaja was born in India, was raised in Pakistan, has travelled and worked around the world, and now lives in England. He has been a journalist for forty years, and is the author of an unpublished autobiography, Being Pakistani.
Among Maruf Khwaja's writings on openDemocracy:
"The suicide of fundamentalism" (August 2001)
"The past in the present: India, Pakistan, and history" (August 2002)
"Becoming Pakistani" (August 2004)
"Terrorism, Islam, reform: thinking the unthinkable" (July 2005)
"Muslims in Britain: generations, experiences, futures" (August 2005)
"Pakistan's mountain tsunami" (October 2005)
"The Baluchi battlefront" (February 2006)
"The Islamisation of Pakistan" (April 2006 The Iraq comparison is not fanciful. The bombs are the same as those designed to kill and maim the maximum number of people in Kirkuk or Baghdad; the bomb-makers and campaign-planners appear to be core al-Qaida; the genre of suicide-bomber (the dedicated Islamist, whether Pathan, Chechen, Arab - or even German) is familiar; the objectives familiar (after Iraq and Afghanistan, the destruction of the Pakistani state and the creation of yet another base for the creation of the super-caliphate).
The al-Qaida killing machine plans to sweep down the hills of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) into the Punjab plains, then into Sind and the happy hunting-ground of Karachi where targets - police post, army truck, checkpoint, bazaar - will find themselves rather than the other way round. Pakistan may have been born in the name of Islam sixty years ago, but al-Qaida is determined that it should now die in the same cause.
The political battle-lines
At the same time, there are key differences between the situation in Iraq and what is emerging in Pakistan. Even a diminished Pakistani president wields far more power than Iraq's prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, and his fate remains tied to his senior generals: the military elite's considerable economic assets would disappear if Pakistan does (see Ayesha Siddiqa, "Pakistan's permanent crisis", 16 May 2007). Moreover, the Pakistani army is better trained and organised than its Iraqi counterpart and can recruit vast (and largely homogenous) manpower resources; the Punjab's Potohar plateau provides footsoldiers and the urban middle classes the officer cadre, while most of the army's Pathan element originates among the traditional recruiting-ground of the Hazara, who have generally been more loyal to the concept of Pakistan than the fickle, purchasable Pathan "tribals".
But if the outcome of the crisis is uncertain, the political momentum is with the Islamists and the forces of destruction. Who will be able to stop them?
The Pakistan army? Mirza Aslam Baig (who succeeded Zia ul-Haq as head of the army after the dictator's death in 1988, and who admittedly sees an Indian hand in everything) has warned the army that to chase after the Pathans in their own territory is to enter a quicksand. The evidence of earlier military setbacks in the region bears this out; and in any case, there are endemic suspicions that a rogue element in the army (especially military intelligence) follows its own agenda and has never been under Musharraf's control.
Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party (PPP)? The former prime minister has announced her intention to return from exile amid persistent rumours - just as often denied - of a deal with Pervez Musharraf. But the chances of reversing the Islamist dynamic wouldn't necessarily be better if Benazir were in the fray. The PPP may have the best election-fighting apparatus in Pakistani politics, but electioneering is no match for suicide-bombing. Her endorsement of the crackdown on the Lal Masjid may not have cost her much public support, but the mullahs' violent reaction to her comments guarantee that places like the NWFP will be difficult if not impossible for her and her party. Meanwhile, the Americans seem to have counted Benazir out and - notwithstanding spats over unilateral US military action against al-Qaida inside Pakistan's borders - reposed all their hopes for a secure Pakistan onto Musharraf.
The rest of the secular opposition? It does not seem to matter. Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister who heads a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), looked hesitant, lost and quite ineffectual at the all-parties conference in London on 7-8 July 2007. He seems too beholden to the mullahs to be of any use to the secular struggle.
The religious parties? Even if they are prepared to be part of an electoral alliance in the polls likely to be held before the end of October 2007, their role may be only to sustain a pretence of commitment to the Pakistani state and constitution while effectively corroding it from within. Their reaction to the suicide-bombing at the rally for the chief justice (aimed directly at a PPP stall) should quash any illusions Pakistanis may have about their real intentions and loyalties.
If, then, the battle-lines have been clearly drawn between Pakistan and militant Islamism, it doesn't look good for the former.
Pakistan today faces a different kind of threat from (say) 1971, when it was pushed to the brink by a long-suppressed, secessionist Bengali nationalism; or from 1998, and the nerve-wracking nuclear standoff with India. Now, a fundamentally fascist force seeks to destroy the structure, even the very idea that a Muslim polity can be part of a modern nation-state. The new form of Islamist extremism - using modern communications and porous borders to extend its reach worldwide - seeks to render the country's constitution and (admittedly already shrivelled) democratic norms redundant.
In this, Pakistan is only the most unstable and dangerous example of a wider phenomenon: the unobstructive accommodation of political Islam into the mainstream of Muslim countries with relatively free political structures and institutions. The forces concerned are able to exploit people's emotional attachment to religious customs, push secular parties onto the defensive (where they respond by "Islamicising" their own agendas), and disrupting public order and confidence with narratives of conspiracy and victimhood.
A striking feature of the Islamist mindset evident in the Pakistani convulsions - one that has echoes of the ideology's fascist and communist predecessors - is the wilful denial of reality. It is remarakable to witness the mullahs' constant repetition of the blithe, pious lie (that there was no large cache of weapons inside the Lal Masjid, that madrasa students had not kidnapped Chinese workers or smashed video shops, for example).
The longstanding indulgence or collusion with the Islamists by Pervez Musharraf and his regime, and its chief (if, from Islamabad's viewpoint, often overbearing) ally the United States, is a key part of the background that has brought Pakistan to its current pass. Pakistan's own troubled political inheritance, as well as American support for the ISI and a generation of jihadis during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan - as well as crucial commitments and choices made in the post-9/11 years - all play their part. There are no angels in Pakistani politics, and only tough choices from now on. But the peril of an al-Qaida state with access to a nuclear arsenal is no longer unimaginable. Pakistan's crisis belongs to the world.