The assassination of Salman Taseer, Punjab’s outspoken governor, on 4 January 2011, abruptly broke the deceptive calm that had surrounded Pakistan’s capital Islamabad and its neighbour Lahore since the devastating floods of August 2010. These two of Pakistan’s three main urban centres had been left relatively unscathed by the harsh conflict with militants unfolding in the tribal areas, with partial exceptions such as (in Lahore) a string of blasts that targeted a religious procession in September 2010, and (near Islamabad) an attack on tankers carrying fuel for Nato troops in Afghanistan a month later.
The assassination, motivated by Taseer’s support for reform of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws, shows that religious extremism in Pakistan is still on the rise. Its proponents seek to use an array of tactics, especially violence, to penetrate and influence society. In this sense, the killing of a high-ranking politician from the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) cannot be regarded only as the work of an isolated fanatic. Rather, his extreme gesture is yet another alarming signal of the deep religious and sectarian cleavages that mark Pakistani society.
The Islamisation of the Pakistani state, actively pursued during the military dictatorship of General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, now broadly permeates society as a whole. Its radical discourse has entered and begun to polarise relations among various sectors of the society. In addition, the religious right has co-opted the Islamisation agenda from the state, and by coupling a religious perspective to issues of social and economic marginalisation, it has managed to strengthen its legitimacy, influence and recruiting power.
This political project, in the context of Pakistan’s feudal and elitist society, already offered religious extremists fertile ground for recruiting new followers. The electoral victory of the PPP, the country’s main secular party, in February 2008 - and the subsequent choice of the reputedly corrupt Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, as the new president - provided religious extremists with even more ammunition for their campaign.
The radical appeal
Since the declaration by the George W Bush administration of a “global war on terror” in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001, Pakistani society has experienced a gradual spread of religious zealotry in public life. Most of the population at that time was mainly preoccupied with the daily effort to make ends meet. Now the majority finds itself squeezed between a liberal and distant elite on one side, and the religious right on the other - and it is the right’s offering of an egalitarian populism on earth and just rewards in the afterlife that is winning converts. Almost a third of Pakistanis live below the official poverty-line, and it is no surprise that many in this position are receptive to the radical message.
A broader rise in religious conservatism is also visible in major cities such as Karachi and Lahore, once known for their liberal views and customs. The credibility of the “westernised” liberal elite has been further diminished by its alleged association with the west’s values and hegemonic aims, making this sector even more isolated from the rest of society. A opinion-poll among Pakistanis in spring 2010, conducted by the Pew Research Centre’s Global Attitudes Project, found that roughly 60% describe the United States as an enemy.
A consequence is that the space for behaviour targeted by sectarian zealots as “un-Islamic” has been severely reduced. But this broad category tends in practice to include issues identified as “western” values and precepts, such as human rights, minority rights and religious freedoms.
Pakistan’s religious extremists view the secular pedigree and liberal inclinations of the PPP, the dominant party in the coalition government, as emblematic of its moral turpitude. To them, Salman Taseer became the personification of a religiously deviant party and government. Sherry Rehman, a former minister of information and PPP member of the national assembly, has also been repeatedly threatened for sponsoring of a bill that seeks to modify the anti-blasphemy laws.
The deeper problem
This context further compounds the enormous difficulties the PPP has recently faced in trying to keep the coalition together. Two components of the coalition in fact, in the weeks preceding Salman Taseer’s killing, chose to withdraw their support, ostensibly on issues related to economic reforms advocated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
First, the religious Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Fazal (JUI-F) left the government in mid-December 2010; the given reason was a dispute over efforts to pass the reformed general sales tax (RGST) bill in the national assembly, though the PPP prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s sacking of one of the JUI-F’s three cabinet ministers seems also to have been a factor.
Second, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) quit the governing coalition in early January 2011; the alleged cause was the government’s decision to raise fuel prices to “unbearable” levels, though the defection followed a squabble with the PPP over the Sindh interior minister’s strong criticism of the MQM’s role in a series of targeted killings in Karachi, Pakistan's commercial capital, in 2010.
The prime minister responded to the defections by agreeing to rescind the fuel-price increases, convincing the MQM (without which the PPP would lose its majority in parliament) to rejoin the government; he also indicated that the other major economic reform, the RSGT, would be suspended.
The coalition splits also reflect popular opposition to austerity measures promoted by the IMF. The IMF is in the eyes of many Pakistanis simply another appendage of American hegemony, a perception voiced by JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman in December 2010, when he declared that the RGST bill was “being moved at the behest of the US and IMF”.
In this sense the international community’s criticism of Pakistan over its failure to undertake substantial economic reforms (led by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton) underestimates the fact that in Pakistan internal power dynamics are more important for political survival than international pressures, even those emanating from the US. In its domestic negotiations, the Pakistani government has opted for short-term internal stability and - for the moment - is willing to absorb the international community’s reproaches.
In any case, political divisions within the governing coalition are not the only or even the most important current obstacle to the implementation of reforms. The deep institutional and identity crisis that has afflicted Pakistan since its inception in 1947, of which contemporary politics is only a surface manifestation, is fundamental. This decades-long crisis accelerated when militant forces, heretofore focused on fighting foreign troops in Afghanistan and Kashmir, decided to turn against their former supporter: the state itself. In the near term this profound challenge to the idea of the Pakistani state will prevent the country from moving ahead.
The state’s prospects
Pakistan is in desperate need of restructuring, but current uncertainty has reduced the space for reforms. Two major topics, which have been overlooked in the focus on implementing standard neo-liberal policies, are education and public information. Because international actors are security-obsessed and the major Pakistani parties tend to focus on exploiting those ministries with the biggest portfolios, there has been neglect of policy in these areas.
But this is not true for religious parties such as Jamaat-e Islami, which have, since the Zia ul-Haq era, consistently tried to control the ministries of education and information. They have gradually moulded the curricula to conform to their ideological positions. In a country where half of the population is under 20 years of age, there is a huge reservoir of people who can be swung either towards literacy and the expectation of decent employment, or abandoned to ignorance, disillusion and vulnerability to radical ideas.
It is difficult to predict whether the religious, ethnic, economic, social and political forces now pulling Pakistan apart will succeed finally in doing so. The only apparent unifying forces are linked to two pillars of Pakistan’s original identity: Islam, and the need to prevent annihilation by the country’s eastern neighbour. A lot will now depend on the capacity and willingness of the leaders of the main institutions to go beyond their group interests and pursue truly national, unifying and progressive policies.
It is unlikely, however, that the present political and institutional environment will produce an enlightened ruling class of this kind. If the Pakistani state is unable to restore hope in a decent future for the majority of the population, the country may very well face disintegration along sectarian, ethnic or party lines and ultimately, the intervention of backward-looking military and religious elements.