Musharraf and his discontents

There is little doubt that those allies of the Bush administration who have signed up to the "war on terror" were quite relieved when they heard that General Pervez Musharraf had managed to suppress the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) revolt in Islamabad, even if that meant that dozens of students had to be killed in what appeared to be a rather unbalanced shootout. For most politicians and mainstream commentators in Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, the event was yet another footnote in the global war on terror, a successful campaign against al-Qaeda "jihadists" by a steadfast ally. Ironically, however, it is exactly the perception of General Musharraf as a subservient enforcer of American interests in the region that is eroding his legitimacy, not only among the neo-fundamentalist Right, but also among leading figures of Pakistani civil society.

In Pakistan–as in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and elsewhere in the Muslim world–religiously legitimated political activism is not primarily about "global jihad" but about domestic politics. The rich imagery and potent symbols of Islam are repackaged (sometimes beyond recognition) and employed by a range of political associations, religious sects, liberal grassroots organizations and fundamentalist terrorist movements in order to protest the abominations of the state on the one side and real and perceived dependency on the politics of the White House on the other. The ongoing crisis in Pakistan has a lot to do with the misguided policies of the Musharraf government; with the suspension of the chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who was only recently reinstated after vehement protests by the country’s intelligentsia; with the mishandling of the transnational tribal unrest in Balochistan and North Waziristan; and with the corruption in Pakistan’s intelligence services.

One of the reasons why Musharraf was not able to defuse the Red Mosque crisis even after employing a policy of appeasement for a few months, is that he does not have an "organic" domestic constituency that could coat his policies with an ideology that appeals to the masses. The secular Left despises him because of the dictatorial powers he has arrogated to himself and his cronies, and the neo-fundamentalist, religious Right battles the secular tenets of his policy of "enlightened moderation". Moreover, both strata of Pakistani society are highly critical of his pro-American stance and the impact of the "war on terror" on the country’s domestic and international politics. I would go one step further. Even before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but more exponentially after them, any state in the Muslim world that associates itself too closely with the foreign policies of the US threatens to open itself up to systematic domestic dissent; Pakistan is no exception to this increasingly salient dialectic, which posits pro- American states against oppositional societies.

Here it does not help Musharraf that the US has embarked on the construction of its third military base in Afghanistan, in close vicinity to the Afghani-Pakistani border and well-situated to conduct and supervise military operations within Pakistani territory. After all, the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) has set out that al-Qaeda has successfully regrouped in that increasingly anarchic border area, and that the transnational network constructed by the organization is functional enough to conduct terrorist operations in the US itself. The record of the Bush administration shows that it has needed much less incentive to transgress international norms and violate the sovereignty of independent nation- states. Indeed, Musharraf himself deemed it necessary repeatedly to stress that the Pakistani national army is able to pacify the borders with Afghanistan and that a mixture of deal-making and military pressures could be conducive to that end. Yet, the Bush administration has still not ruled out military operations within Pakistani territory.

But to his opponents the very fact that Musharraf has to react to US policies in the region is an indicator of his weakness. The nation-state of Pakistan emerged out of massive upheaval that caused immense human suffering. Its foundational ideology was inspired by the political expediency of Muhammad-Ali Jinnah, the poetic exigencies of Muhammad Iqbal and the Islamist activism of Abu-l-Ala Mawdudi. It was in many ways the original "Islamic Republic", at the heart of which its founders placed the struggle for independence. That the neo-fundamentalist activism propounded by Taliban-type sects confronting the Musharraf government from the Right are now at the forefront of the struggle against the state, is largely due to the systematic suppression of the legitimate, oppositional activities of Pakistan’s civil society. It is one of the many ironies of contemporary US foreign policies in the Muslim world that the Bush administration has implicitly contributed to this radicalization of Pakistani society.