Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Something Good in Pakistan

From Ali Eteraz, on the landslide victory of the moderate ANP party over the Taliban-supported MMA party in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Provinces:
The story of the ANP's resurgence, in the face of blatant intimidation by hard-line groups (ANP leaders were bombed even on election day), is significant.

Tarek Fatah, formerly a left-activist in Pakistan, summarizes the ANP's success succinctly:

"Leading up to the elections, the jihadi extremists targeted the ANP and assassinated a number of their candidates. ANP activists - highly visible for wearing their red caps - became the Taliban's primary targets. There was a reason: The Islamists had managed to convince the Pashtun population that their historic national struggle was the same as the international jihad of Osama bin Laden. The ANP, however, stood in opposition to this jihadi ideology. Deeply religious and practising Muslims, ANP supporters have their roots in the kind of secularism where religion and state are kept apart and the use of Islam as a tool of politics is considered an insult to Islam itself."

A close look at the ANP's platform confirms their political philosophy, which begins with a homage to the party's founder, Bacha Khan, whom the British called Frontier Gandhi. The manifesto highlights the ideas of separation of religion from state as well as the emancipation and empowerment of women. The resurgence of the ANP is also a potent reminder to analysts who tend to characterise Pakistan as constantly on the brink of theocracy to not be so simple-minded. In fact, to people (including me) who were paying attention, the ANP's success is not altogether surprising.

The success of the ANP in the face of the Islamist programme is illustrative and instructive. It shows that one way of defeating Islamism is to offer a potent and viable alternative narrative. The ANP does that in the form of Pashtun nationalism. The ANP represents the elevation of local ethnicity over pan-Islamic rhetoric. Their local focus gives them a powerful appeal among people hankering for the essentials of life.
We really need to get to the bottom of why free elections in Pakistan have led to liberalization and why the same thing didn't happen in Iraq, at least to begin with. The answer may be as simple as the fact that a big chunk of Iraq was fighting an occupier, while Pakistan isn't in that bad a shape yet. It may also have to do with a fairly strong liberal tradition in Pakistan, left over from colonial days. Whatever it is, we need to bottle it and sell it to the Egyptians and the Saudis and the Iraqis and the Iranians and a whole bunch of other countries.

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