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The storming of Islamabad's Red Mosque by security forces has intensified the debate over the future of Pakistan.
The crisis has been brewing for several months, and in hindsight President Gen. Pervez Musharraf should have taken action much sooner, but various political considerations discouraged him from dealing with the problem.
Pakistan is facing a volatile future as it came to terms with decades of Islamization, which will have tremendous implications for the region, as an Islamist Pakistan would pose a clear and immediate threat to India, as well as to Pakistan's other neighbors: Iran and possibly Afghanistan and China.
The father of modern day Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Quaid-e-Azzam, Great Leader) envisioned the creation of a Muslim state for British India's Muslims. Jinnah did not seek to create an Islamist state. However, Jinnah died within months of Pakistan's independence, and the country experienced a great change as the elite, with the support of the military, placed the country on the slippery-slop of Islamism (a system that embraces Islam and politics) as a way to ensure their dominance. (Strict Islam calls for obedience, as seen in Saudi Arabia, where the House of Saud struck an alliance with Wahhabism, one such strict interpretation of Islam.)
As time passed, Pakistan increasingly adopted a more Islamist stance, which reached unparalleled level under Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988), who had two passions: Islam and Afghanistan.
Under Zia, tremendous sums were spent on educating Pakistanis to be more Muslim, leading to a proliferation of Muslims schools (madrassahs) that churned out thousands of radical Muslims who went to Afghanistan to partake in the jihad against the Soviet Union. Zia reportedly had close relations with Maulana Abdullah, the former head of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), and the father of the mosque's chief cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, arrested last week, and of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the pro-Taliban cleric who was killed during the final assault.
The Red Mosque crisis represents the culmination of a failure by the Pakistani state to deal with the continuous Islamic radicalization of society. The decision by President Musharraf to sign a series of peace agreements with tribal leaders in the border areas of North and South Waziristan in 2005-06 ensured that the provinces where Taliban and Islamic indoctrination were strong remained outside government control. It also showed the Islamists that if they continue to fight the government, eventually the government will relent, sign a peace agreement and permit them to continue with their way of life and proselytizing activities.
When looking at the current situation in Pakistan, it is clear that Musharraf is between a rock and hard place. The Islamists are on the rise across the country, posing a serious threat to Musharraf's and Pakistan's survival. Liaquat Baluch, a leader of Muttehida Majlis Amal, an alliance of six Islamic political parties, recently declared, "He [Musharraf] is now become [sic.] a threat to national security and has to be removed."
At the same time, Musharraf is coming under tremendous pressure from the West and especially the United States to introduce democracy and political reform, which would ensure that the Islamists contest elections and will mandates; with enough seats in Parliament, they might even elect their sort of president, as the president is elected by Parliament.
Musharraf is largely responsible for many of the problems that he currently faces, as he has worked very hard at alienating his domestic supporters. The is best seen with the "chief justice case."
Musharraf suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary in March over allegations of corruption and nepotism, leading to a major anti-government and pro-democracy campaign that has seen secular parties working together with Islamists. It has also led to Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, two former prime ministers, to use Musharraf's policies to galvanize support in Pakistan and outside.
Ironically, people forget that it was under Bhutto that the Taliban emerged, while under Sharif, Pakistani successfully tested its nuclear missiles (Sharif is known to have a good ties with elements within the Pakistani Inter-Service intelligence, a nefarious government agency that promoted the Mujahideen and Taliban Islamist groups.)
Musharraf has also permitted a clamping down on the media, because it has been highly critical of some of his policies. Finally, there has been an increase in ethno-nationalist tensions with organization such as the Balochistan Liberation Army carrying out more attacks against the Pakistani state as they strive for concessions and, arguably, an independent Balochistan.
The truth of the matter is that the only way to deal with the Islamic threat in Pakistan is by neutralizing those in the military and the security services who support the Islamists, whether on doctrinal or on realpolitik grounds. A second requirement is improving the socioeconomic conditions of the majority of Pakistanis, of whom around 60 percent live in poverty.
Many Pakistanis choose to send their children to Islamic schools because at least in those places, their children receive some food and basic education. Ultimately, the only way to defeat the Islamists is by taking away potential recruits, which means embracing socioeconomic and political reform, and reducing the tremendous power wielded by the military and its agencies.
The author is a lecturer on international relations at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.