South Asia

Pakistan's mullahs thrive on anti-war fever

By M B Naqvi

KARACHI - The burnings of United States flags and effigies of US President George W Bush have now become de rigueur for frequent demonstrations and rallies organized by the religious parties in Pakistan against the war on Iraq.

Indeed, against this backdrop, the religious right in the country is positioning itself even closer to power.

The loudest critics of US policy on Iraq are the religious parties that have united in the Muttaheda Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), which comprises a third of the national parliament and wholly controls the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), has a dominant share in Balochistan province adjoining Afghanistan and is present in Punjab and Sindh provinces.

The MMA call for general strike last Friday which led to widespread shutdowns throughout the country. It was a success in NWFP and Balochistan provinces, but was only sporadic in Punjab and Sindh.

Religious parties and groups are cashing in on a widespread pan-Islamic sentiment, a characteristic of South Asian Muslims. They see the war on Iraq in black and white, as a clash of religions: Christian America and West - forget the actual facts - against a Muslim country, Iraq.

More pan-Islamic propaganda by mullahs has acquired a lot of paranoia and some xenophobia against the West. It curiously ignores "old Europe's" opposition to America's war and the worldwide demonstrations by millions of people of all religions or none.

Naimatullah Khan, a prominent MMA leader of Karachi who is also city's mayor, enjoys the reputation of being moderate and level-headed. He observed, "This war has no justification; it is against the UN charter and indeed will deal a blow to both UN and international law."

Astute politician that he is, he did not bring in the religious bit at all, realizing that he was speaking to an international audience. The MMA is exploiting the religious sentiments of Pakistani Muslims to gain power. This power drive by the mullahs has posed the secular elements in the country - an influential minority - a dilemma. They, too, object to the war on political and legal grounds, but their demonstrations are smaller. The majority among the West-oriented politicians is secular, but their shibboleths are taken from the mullahs.

Those who lead big, right-wing parties court the United States for support. But their politics, god and country, is heavily garnished with vacuous Islamic rhetoric. They have ended up strengthening the mullahs far more than themselves.

In short, the MMA is having the best of both worlds: On one side, it is cashing in on the widespread anti-US feelings, stealing anti-imperialist slogans from the left and, on the other, is bargaining with the generals. The generals are still the only people who matter in giving a share in power. But they dread the US reaction.

The generals, the silent puppeteers behind the show of the technically democratic government of Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali, and their chief, President General Pervez Musharraf, are at sea regarding what policy to adopt toward the US and the Iraq war they silently support.

Government views are carried by the media. But the generals are falling between two stools of reflecting popular feelings, with genuflections toward the MMA, and the need to remain on the right side of the US, on whose support they depend. In the event, neither objective is achieved, the US takes a dim view of what Islamabad is doing.

Mainstream right-wing parties stand crippled by the generals, except for the turncoat toadies who once belonged to the then Pakistan Muslim League of former Premier Nawaz Sharif, and are now the ruling party as the PML (Quaid-i-Azam).

They are dwarfed under the shadow of Musharraf and are not taken seriously. Their many efforts to woo the MMA to join the government have produced no result. The mullahs are aiming higher and treat the ruling party with contempt. The US, too, remains wary.

The other mainstream party that polled more votes than it got seats in last year's polls, the Pakistan Peoples Party of ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto, is keeping aloof from all anti-US demonstrations, keeping a low profile. It is afraid of annoying the US.

Sharif's PML is also in the dumps with fewer seats in parliament, thanks to the peculiar results in the October 2002 election. Its rhetoric is borrowed mostly from MMA and does not really count today.

The left is only a dim memory from decades ago. Its atomized remnants are found in many non-government organizations. Their old allies, the regional nationalist parties, were never left-wing in texture, are marked by factionalism, and fast becoming inconsequential.

Balochistan continues to live in the Middle Ages and is represented by mullahs and the rich tribal chiefs or sardars. Only one regional nationalist party counts electorally because it emerged the second largest party in the last polls the Muttahida Quami Movement of Altaf Hussain.

But ethnic Sindhi groups regard MQM's nationalist credentials with suspicion because of accusations of its fascist tendencies. It is the backbone of Sindh's provincial government as the largest party of the ruling coalition. It has a deserved reputation of being pro-US.

But one of its leaders, ex-senator Nasreen Jalil, repeated a populist line on Iraq and emphasized the humanitarian factor. "Too many Iraqi lives are going to be needlessly lost. There is no real justification for it. Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, clearly questionable, would not be unique; so many others, especially Israel, have them. Would the US fight against them all?"

Asked about the war, Hamza Alvi, a leftist intellectual, disassociated himself from all that nonsense about a "clash of civilizations" or of religions. He said, "'The US is set on a course of enforcing a new, updated version of imperialism. Bush's immediate objective may be oil and giving Israel more security.

"But the vision behind the current American quest covers most of Asia, aiming at the encirclement of China and putting Russia in its proper place. It has all but secured South Asia and is well on its way to dominate Central Asia," he added. "Their nemesis - popular reactions and struggles - may seem far away. But they might not be all that far away either, including the many fooled Americans," Alvi said.

(Inter Press Service)
Mar 25, 2003

Pakistanis rally to the religious right
(Mar 15, '03)

Between mullahs and mystics
(Mar 12, '03)


Click here to be one)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright Asia Times Online, 6306 The Center, Queen’s Road, Central, Hong Kong.