BY CHRIS SZABLA
“The soul of Pakistan,” observed Zamir Akram, chief foreign policy advisor to Pakistan’s Prime Minister, “is about freedom of choice, tolerance, and liberalism.” In an September 26th event sponsored by the Harvard International Negotiation Initiative and the South Asian Law Students Association, titled “Terrorism: Identity, and Moderation: The Struggle for Pakistan’s Soul,” the Pakistani official spoke on how the country hoped to live up to these ideals.
Akram, however, was challenged by some who wondered whether Pakistan’s attempts to fight religious extremism were being undermined by potentially destabilizing compromises of Pakistani democracy, particularly the unchecked position of President Pervez Musharraf.
Akram, a longtime member of Pakistan’s foreign service, began by discussing the rise of Islamic extremism in the country. While Islamist parties had never before garnered more than 8-10% of the vote in any province, their merger shortly before the previous election resulted in either fully or partially Islamist governments in two provinces. By and large, he noted, these parties were committed to working through existing channels of government, but teach had “extremist fringe[s]” which believed in using extraparliamentary means to impose shari’a law.
Such parties arose, according to Akram, due to factors both internal and external to Pakistan. The lack of educational outlets, he observed, led to many Pakistanis seeking education from madrassas influenced by the “conservative, literalist” Islamic thought of the Deobandi movement, which rarely taught secular subjects.
The fact that 90% of Pakistanis cannot read the Qu’ran, he continued, meant that it was easy for such organizations to influence religious interpretation. Moreover, Islamabad’s decades-long interference in religious organizations had resulted in the perception that “Islam [was] under threat,” and the rise of politicians who promised to modify the government’s secularist course.
The post-1979 assertiveness of Shi’ite Iran and the panicked reaction of Sunni Saudi Arabia also exacerbated the rise of Islamism in Pakistan, which, containing both major Islamic groups, became their proxy battleground. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, seen by Pakistan as a threat to its own survival, led to Pakistan’s support of Islamist resistance fighters in Afghanistan, who later entered Pakistan as refugees, and inspired the foundation of conservative madrassas within Pakistan itself.
Finally, Akram discussed the situation in Kashmir. He said Pakistan supported the region’s “self-determination,” but that its struggle had escalated into a “jihad against India.” The “massacre of Muslims” in Bosnia, and the Palestinian intifada, had also contributed to extremist sentiments.
Akram blamed the United States’ policies for much of the antipathy toward it within the Islamic world. Many “hate [the US] because they hold it responsible for what has happened to the Muslims in Palestine…Bosnia [and] Iraq,” he said. He claimed the sense of “phobia against Islam” and “terminology like ‘Islamic fascists’ add fuel to this fire.” Free speech on such issues “needs to be exercised with responsibility,” he continued, and noted that restrictions on such images as the Danish newspaper cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad were not unprecedented in Western legal systems, invoking the charge of libel.
He would “not suggest…that there is a solution,” but Akram believed that the shutting down of organizations funding violence (referencing the recent operation against the Lal Masjid mosque), promotion of secular subjects in madrassas, and economic development strategies such as microfinance might diminish the influence of extremist Islam in Pakistan.
He also said that he thought addressing external issues, such as Iraq and the “root cause” of Islamism’s rise, the “situation in Palestine,” would be critical.
Still, he acknowledged Pakistan was not its own responsibilities in the wider region, and wondered if helping Afghanistan rebuild after the Soviet invasion would have prevented the rise of the Taliban.
During the question and answer period, students challenged Akram on the effect of the position of President Pervez Musharraf as both president and leader of the armed forces, as well as the internal use of covert intelligence, on the growth of extremism. On intelligence, Akram observed that the CIA and other national intelligence services were not without their own share of controversies.
On Musharraf, he proved more defensive, noting that, during the “tense period” in which Pakistan was dealing with existential threats, it was necessary for the president to assume the role of both political and military leader. He stated that he believed that Musharraf would step down before the next election, since the country will have “moved on” from that situation. Still, he contended, although neighboring India had a “better democracy,” it still had “fundamentalists,” such as the conservative Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party, “coming to power”. Ultimately, Akram declared, “dealing with extremism is … a time-consuming effort…there are no quick fixes”.
In fact, Musharraf has not stepped down as predicted, but has instead sought another term while remaining chief of the army. Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled the move constitutional on September 28th, leading to protests by lawyers and human rights workers across the country.