The Secular Roots of Islamism

by Joshua Foust on 11/13/2007 · 1 comment

Shikha Dalmia, A senior analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation wrote an interesting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the role of secularism in society:

If anything, the longer Mr. Musharraf is allowed to suspend democracy, the more politically powerful Pakistan’s religious extremists are likely to become. Those who doubt this thesis should peer across Pakistan’s southern border and examine what happened during India’s two-year flirtation with emergency rule in 1975…

A similar political mainstreaming of radical Islamist groups might occur in Pakistan if Mr. Musharraf is allowed to prolong his power grab. In fact, the situation could be worse, given that, unlike India, Pakistan has never been a secular country and Islamists have always exerted considerable behind-the-scenes influence on government. They have infiltrated the Pakistani intelligence services and are well represented in the ranks of the civil bureaucracy. And there has always been close cooperation between Pakistan’s generals and mullahs because of their common interest in cultivating Pakistan’s Islamic identity and playing up the threat that Hindu India poses to it. The one government institution where Islamists have only a minority presence is the Pakistani Parliament.

But that might change if Mr. Musharraf continues to postpone elections and crush political opponents. Under such circumstances, Jammat-e-Islami (JI), Pakistan’s oldest religious party with ties to the Taliban — and an organization that harbors a long-standing desire to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, on the country — and its sister organizations might well become useful to secular parties such as former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party. JI and its cohorts command even bigger powers of mobilization than Jan Sangh did during India’s emergency. They run madrassas, or religious schools, publish newspapers and have sizeable cadres that can be quickly deployed for street protests. These resources might prove vitally important in resisting Mr. Musharraf.

If Mr. Musharraf were prodded to call off the emergency and honor his commitment to hold genuinely free and transparent elections in early January, would that lead to an Islamist victory, or at least significant gains, as the Bush administration fears? Not at all.

Islamist victory at the polls is not a real threat in Pakistan right now. The Bush administration should not allow that fear to deter it from applying maximum pressure on Mr. Musharraf to hold elections posthaste. The U.S. can, for instance, threaten to cut off Pakistan’s supply of F-16 fighter jets and other nonterrorism-related aid.

India’s example shows that even one vacation from democracy can be a huge setback for secularism. Yet another prolonged suspension of democracy will leave Pakistan few resources to beat back its Islamists. This is one instance where the Bush administration’s avowed commitment to democracy is not just the more principled — but also the more practical — way of countering the threat of Islamic extremists.

It is very much worth reading. Ms. Dalmia argues the same essential point I have for years: that the best way for Pakistan to guarantee the permanent marginalization of radical Islamism is to hold open, free, fair, transparent elections. The process of regular, systematic, open representation is vital to the health of a state—especially one as dynamic and diverse as Pakistan. That increasing regions of the country are reaching out to radical Islam as the only outlet to resist a despotic overlord is deeply worrisome, but it is also understandable: tyranny is at the root of violent extremism in the Middle East as well.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Alanna November 16, 2007 at 10:36 am

I’ve been making that argument about the Central Asian countries for years, and never thought fo the obvious fit with Pakistan before. I feel like a light just went on in my head.

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