Turning on the news these days, one is likely to be inundated with coverage of newly-minted Speaker of the House Boehner’s proclivity to cry on cue, Republican tensions with the Tea Party, or myriad other examples of inside-the-beltway political drama. This cycle has been broken lately by the terrible shooting of Representative Giffords in Arizona. While mostly insignificant DC stories tend to dominate the news cycle, as well the rare but extremely relevant one, the world is facing an extremely volatile and significant problem in Pakistan, and there is very little coverage in the mainstream media.
I recently had a long conversation with a close family friend from Pakistan who has strong ties to the Bhutto family and in-depth knowledge of Pakistan-US relations. We discussed the Pakistani government’s long and proud history of a moderate relationship with Islam. While we sometimes see television images of angry youth in Pakistani streets and ungovernable regions controlled by the Taliban, the percentage of radicalized Pakistanis is relatively modest and that despite what the Western media leads one to believe, Pakistan is very stable and the impression of rampant extremism is more of a media distortion than a reflection of reality. Indeed, the most recent issue of The Economist notes that religious parties garnered fewer than 5% in the last parliamentary election.
Unfortunately, things have rapidly changed over the past year or so. For the first time, my friend has forbid his family from visiting their homeland for fear of violence. This was a painful admission of how far his beloved Pakistan has drifted. A nation with a proud history of a passionately secular military and a moderate application of Islamic law and customs has been on a slow drive toward radicalism, and recently on overdrive. The result is a nation at the brink of existential crisis.
As a parliamentary democracy, Pakistan faces the very real possibility that a coalition supported by radical Islamic groups will sweep to power, putting the nation’s vast military and nuclear power in dangerous hands. The future of their democracy itself is unclear, as Islamic extremist groups could theoretically gain political strength through an election, and then work to replace Pakistan’s democratic tradition with an Islamic-based governing system.
It is difficult to mark the exact point where this process began, but there is no question that the Islamic revolution in Iran played a significant role. The global human rights community and then-President Jimmy Carter failed to take any substantial action while Muslim radicals overthrew the Shah of Iran, partially because of the Shah’s tenuous relationship with human rights. In doing so, they naively ushered in a wave of Islamic hardliners that make the Shah look like Mahatma Gandhi. According to my Pakistani friend, not only did the Iranian revolution make the human rights situation much worse for the Iranian people, it also inspired Islamic extremists in Pakistan and throughout the world.
Furthermore, Pakistan’s traditionally secular political and military leadership has cultivated extremist Islamic warriors to fight in Kashmir against India. These are some of the hardest of the hardcore Islamic fundamentalists. With the Indian threat lessening in recent years, these extremists are beginning to turn their anger toward the secular aspects of Pakistan’s society. This coupled with US success pushing Taliban fighters into Pakistan as they flee Afghanistan and US drone strikes in the region has dramatically exacerbated the situation.
The recent assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab province, by Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, his own bodyguard, marked a low point in modern Pakistan’s history. Mr. Taseer was killed because he voiced his support for pardoning a Christian women condemned to death for blasphemy. If such a humble position cost a man his life, why would other reformers in Pakistan risk their life, or their family’s lives, to advocate for women’s rights or larger Islamic structural reforms? Indeed, other than the rare individual, there is no Islamic reform movement to speak of in Pakistan at this time.
The fact that a political assassination occurred in Pakistan does not, in itself, signify a deteriorating nation. We have seen painful assassinations in the USA, Israel, India, and other free democratic nations. However, following these terrible events, we saw a robust backlash against the violence. In fact, the recent shooting of Representative Giffords in Arizona has prompted cries of disgust and revulsion from all sides of the political aisle.
Today there is no backlash in Pakistan. The silence from voices of moderation is deafening. Indeed, Mr. Qadri is being treated as a folk hero by a surprisingly and disconcertingly large number of Pakistanis in all levels of society. My friend notes that there is not necessarily a shortage of Pakistani society outraged by this and other acts of violence against political reformers. Rather, the small but steadily growing groups of radicalized citizens have become comfortable in using violence with little fear of backlash. Unfortunately, my friend’s analysis is a distinction without a difference. The outcome is the same, a rapidly deteriorating and radicalized nation.
Some will say that in a worst-case scenario, the usually secular military would seize control of the nation. However, the Pakistani military and even some aspects of their storied intelligence agency (ISI) have been infiltrated with radical Muslims.
Generations of Pakistani leadership have been riding the tiger for a long time – an expression describing tolerating and even nurturing terrorism for so long that it eventually eats you alive, much like riding a tiger. At some point, the tiger is going to bite back. Unfortunately for the majority of the Pakistani population, and indeed the West, the tiger is biting back hard and not only are there a dearth of courageous voices fighting back, but no one will even speak out against the tiger.