An interesting thing happened in the Pakistani elections this week. A country where radical Islamism has been on the rise in recent years went to the polls and voted Islamists out of office. In North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the most “Talibanised” part of the country, an avowedly secular Pashtun party — the Awami National Party — emerged as the largest party by far. This bucks what seemed to be a trend in the Muslim world, i.e. the freer the election, the more chances the Islamists have. Think back to late 1991, when the Algerian military cancelled the run-off round of elections after the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) took a strong lead in the first round. In more recent years, elections in Egypt, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza have shown Islamists doing well at the polls. In a very different context, Turkey’s “post-Islamist” AKP has gone from strength to strength thanks to the ballot box.
An important question in the Pakistani general election and provincial elections coming up on Feb. 18 is how the Islamist parties there will fare. These parties, which usually scored below 10 percent in the past, shot up to a total 17 percent of seats in the National Assembly at the last election in 2002. They also won power in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and shared power in Baluchistan — the two provinces that border Afghanistan and have been most destabilised by the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in the region.
Reports so far about the death penalty against journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh have said that President Hamid Karzai could pardon him if the sentence is upheld by the Afghan courts. Now, a presidential spokesman has said that the president must confirm or reject any death sentence before it is imposed. So if this case goes down to the wire, Karzai will have to decide one way or the other. That sounds positive for Kambakhsh, because Karzai (no matter what he thinks about the verdict) is presumably open to pressure from Western allies not to carry out the sentence.
Karen Armstrong, the best-selling British writer and lecturer on religion, has given a long interview to Reuters in Islamabad after addressing a conference in the Pakistani capital. A former Catholic nun who now describes herself as a “freelance monotheist,” she has written 21 books on the main world religions, religious fundamentalism in these faiths and religious leaders such as Mohammad and Buddha. Her latest book is The Bible: A Biography. The short version of what she said is in the Reuters story linked here. We don’t publish the Q&A text of our interviews on our news wire, but we can do it here on the blog.
Ashura, the Shi’ite day of mourning for Mohammad’s martyred grandson Hussein, is so marked by bloody scenes of self-flagellating men that news reports about it rarely get beyond the vivid images (like our photo from Lahore on the right). Jack Fairweather has produced a fascinating short video that asks the question usually missed — what really motivates people to do this? — and follows one man who explains his feelings and joins in the ritual. This is the first part of a series on the Washington Post PostGlobal site meant “to challenge our perceptions of Islam as a monolithic and extremist creed.” If Fairweather keeps it as up close and personal as this, it should be very good.
When we wrote about the death sentence for blasphemy against Afghan journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh two days ago, it seemed the case was set to trudge through the appeals system and land up at the Supreme Court in Kabul. That, at least, is what his brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, told us. Now the upper house of the Afghan Parliament has raised the stakes in a way that may turn this into a messy tussle between Afghanistan and the Western countries trying to help prevent it becoming a failed state.
The case of Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, the young Afghan journalist sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, is a classic “clash of civilisations” issue pitting the principle of free speech against that of respect for religion. I’ve been trying to find out more details to understand where this case stands and how it should be reported.
Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world: