The Power of Election

by Joshua Foust on 3/4/2008

Joshua White has a op-ed in WSJ-Asia about the recent elections in Pakistan, and he lends further credence to the undeniable fact that elections have power:

The key to dealing with the religious parties is to continue their integration into the mainstream political process. The good news here is that “democratic Islamists” like the MMA were never quite as dangerous as prophesied. Faced with the stark realities of governance, they watered down their Shariah agenda, crafted a development program that bent to the wishes of international donors, and began more forcefully to disassociate themselves from militancy. One of the governing parties, Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam (JUI) moderated so significantly during its five-year tenure that it found itself both criticized from the left for its illiberal Islamism, and out-flanked on the right by the politically rejectionist neo-Taliban.

The trick, then, will be to continue that moderating process even now that such parties are out of power. Close observers of Northwest Frontier politics had for this reason been quietly hoping that JUI would join the new governing coalition as a minor player. Although for now JUI has announced that it won’t, that could change in the coming days. Its core leadership is already deeply invested in traditional politics, but it is the party’s fringe — scores of young madrassa graduates and disaffected clerics — that needs to be kept engaged. They are the ones who, critically, sit on the blurred boundary between formal politics and militancy.

It is in the interests of Pakistan and the U.S. to see these pragmatic mullahs continue to be co-opted into the formal political process. This means deepening interaction with JUI-affiliated madrassa leaders without appearing to dictate a Western agenda for religious education. And it means selectively engaging the religious parties as interlocutors — flawed as they are — to the militants in the tribal areas.

No one should have any illusions: Islamist discourse and strict Shariah are corrupting to liberal democracy in Pakistan. But the democratic Islamists are not a monolith. They adapt, they compromise, and they absorb a vast pool of young activists who might otherwise turn toward violence. Left alone on the margins, they may more readily adopt a vigorous politics of agitation, protesting progressive social policies and state action against hardline clerics.

Of course, don’t expect any such accommodation from John McCain, who labors under the illusion that Musharraf somehow restored Pakistan to stability after it was supposedly a “failed state”… apparently because they continued electing new governments until Musharraf seized power in a military coup. But don’t think Obama is any better—his genius idea to bomb the NWFP, which is precisely where the Islamists lost their power base in the elections, is doomed to turn the country against us as well.

Indeed, none of the candidates seem to offer much understanding of the dynamics at play inside Pakistan. Which is too bad, since those dynamics have an impact on how many militants stream across the border to harass and destabilize reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Then again, perhaps even mentioning the original war on terror, at all, ever, would be a good start for these hucksters shilling for office.


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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 Registan.net. 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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