That the Americans used the September 11 attacks as a pretext to install a pro-Western regime in Afghanistan is clear. Many reasons have been touted: a desire to defeat an Islamic regime, a desire to secure the country for oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea, and a desire to establish a pro-Western base on Iran’s eastern border and consolidate their encirclement of the Islamic State. One reason, as important as any of these, that has not received much attention, is that of occupying Pakistan.
The word is carefully chosen; no lesser term will do to describe the role of the US in Pakistan today. On the pretext of "liberating" Kuwait in 1990-91, the US effectively occupied the Arabian peninsula; a decade later it is still there. The Afghan war has caused similar moves into Central Asia and Pakistan, from where the US is unlikely to leave any sooner. This may be partly for geopolitical reasons, but Pakistan is also important as a centre of Islamic activism and fervour. Despite the fact that Pakistan has always been ruled by governments that have been essentially secular and subservient to the West, its people’s commitment has never wavered. Indeed, Pakistan was built by the Islamic ambitions of the Muslims of British India, exploited, unfortunately, by leaders who pursued their own secular agendas. The same pattern has been repeated many times in Pakistan’s history.
The results of last month’s elections in Pakistan, however, demonstrate both that the Pakistanis are again turning to Islamic forces to solve problems created by their rulers, and that this time few are under any illusions about the nature of the established government in Pakistan. The Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA), an alliance of six Islamic political parties representing four very different Islamic trends, secured at least 45 seats in the National Assembly — the best performance ever by Islamic parties. (In the past Pakistan’s masses have tended to express their Islamic fervour on the streets, while showing pragmatic realism by voting for one or another of the country’s secular parties.) The MMA also performed well in several of Pakistan’s provinces, and it is expected to be in government at both national and provincial level.
Unfortunately this prospect does not inspire confidence. The Jama’at-e Islami, Pakistan’s largest and best-organized Islamic party, has a long record of making compromises with secular political forces, and of failure in office, despite being relatively sophisticated in outlook. This is partly because of failures of leadership and lack of long-term vision. Of the other parties in the MMA, none has a good record of rising above sectarian and sectional differences. It is one thing to come together to oppose a common enemy and situation, as happened in the election campaign, but working together once in alliance with other political forces is likely to prove more difficult.
Having said that, the common situation and enemy (the American presence) is not going to go away, and the task facing the country’s Islamic groups is immense. The first step must be to establish the fact that the existing order in Pakistan is un-Islamic, indeed anti-Islamic. Once some of the Islamic leaders are in office, it may prove difficult to hold the MMA together on this point, let alone on anything more substantial. Beyond this, however, lies the even greater task of preparing the intellectual and political groundwork for the establishment of a modern, forward-thinking, broad-minded Islamic polity. This itself is a massive task, without which progress toward Islamic revolution may well prove impossible. Yet without it all Pakistan’s Islamic parties can offer is more of the same: a junior role in the secular system, and the promise — never likely to be fulfilled — of a traditionalist, regressive, Taliban-style ‘Islamic’ regime.
It is difficult to see where an Islamic movement capable of this task might arise from in Pakistan; there are many seeds and shoots in its fertile ground, but little of strength and substance. Yet history has repeatedly shown that when the times demand the emergence of new, bold and unexpected Islamic leaders, movements and ideas, they often emerge from previously unnoticed, unsuspected places. The situation in Pakistan is now ripe for the emergence of a new Islamic force, based on the understanding of many of its intellectuals, students and youth, the fervour of its masses, and the experiences — good and bad — of its established Islamic movements.