Staying Cool in Pakistan

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“The Jihadist Threat to Pakistan” by Stephen Philip Cohen, in The Washington Quarterly (Summer 2003), Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1800 K St., N.W., Ste. 400, Washington, D.C. 20006.

It’s a scary scenario that’s sure to figure in a minor motion picture someday: Islamic radicals take over nuclear-armed Pakistan and terrorize the world—or worse. But film is as far as that scenario is likely to get during the next few years in this “deeply Islamic yet still moderate country, “ writes Cohen, a sen­ior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The Pakistani army stands in the way.

Though Pakistan (population: 151 million) was founded by secularists after the 1947 partition of India, and is dominated by a secular oligarchy, the state since 1970 has sporadically used Islamic terror squads to murder and intimidate opponents of the regime. “Pakistani terrorist groups supported or tolerated by the state operate within their own country, in Indian-administered parts of Kashmir, and in India itself,” Cohen says. Despite a pledge to Washington, President Pervez Musharraf hasn’t reined in these groups.

Pakistan’s Islamic organizations range from militant to moderate. Most influential is the relatively centrist Jama’at-i-Islami (JI). Beginning with President Zia ul-Haq (1977–88), political leaders have developed ties to the JI and other religious political parties as a counterweight to more influential secular parties. The JI favors a return to civilian rule (Musharraf came to power in a military coup in 1999) and a strict parliamentary system, and while supporting the Kashmiri “freedom fighters,” has eschewed the sectarian violence that has plagued the country for two decades.

“Support for groups such as Al Qaeda has thus far been limited,” Cohen writes, “but recent reports indicate that JI functionaries provided several fugitive Al Qaeda leaders with safe houses and, of course, the more radical Islamic parties were allied with Al Qaeda in their support of the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Religion historically has not been a dominant issue in Pakistani politics. “Most middle-class and urban Pakistanis” favor “a modern but Islamic state, with the Islamic part confined to just a few spheres of public life,” says Cohen. An alliance of the JI and five other Islamic parties won 11 percent of the national vote in a 2002 election, gaining 53 seats in the National Assembly and control of the Northwest Frontier Province. Cohen doubts that the religious parties can muster enough national support to win power. And there’s no sign that the army is seething with Islamic radicalism.

Still, Cohen isn’t betting on anything after the next five years: “Pakistan’s educational and demographic trends, its enfeebled institutions, and its near-flat economy could produce a situation where even the army would be unable to stem the growth of radical Islamic groups and might even be captured by them.”

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