FaithWorld

Pakistan bucks apparent Islamist trend in elections

Pakistani voters in Karachi, 18 Feb. 2008/Athar HussainAn 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.

We expected the Islamists to lose but that doesn’t make the result any less interesting. The Islamist parties won only about 1 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, a Maulana Fazlur Rehman, 3 March 2006/Asim Tanveerprecipitous drop from the 17 percent they scored in the 2002 vote. One crucial factor here is that opposition parties like the PPP of the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League were allowed to run, in contrast to the 2002 poll that the then soldier-president Pervez Musharraf restricted to”friendly” parties. The conspiracy theory in Pakistan was that Musharraf made sure the Islamists advanced in order to make himself indispensable to the United States, the argument being “if you drop me, they’ll take my place”.

In NWFP, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance of Islamist parties won only 11 of 99 seats in the provincial assembly after governing there with a majority in the assembly for the past five years. One of the most prominent Islamist leaders, the Taliban-friendly Maulana Fazlur Rehman, was defeated in his NWFP home town of Dera Ismail Khan in his bid for re-election to the National Assembly. In Baluchistan, the other province with Islamists in government, the MMA won only five of the 65 seats in the provincial assembly.

Election poster for the Awami National Party, 16 Feb. 2008/Mian KursheedThe big winner in NWFP was the Awami National Party (ANP), which went from 7 to 31 seats. The ANP was founded by Wali Khan, a secular left-winger whose father Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a legendary figure among the Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as today’s Taliban. Known as the “Frontier Gandhi,” he was an ally of Mahatma Gandhi who opposed the partition of India and creation of a “Muslim homeland” in Pakistan. A suicide bomber killed at least 16 people at an ANP rally in Charsadda, near Peshawar, only days before the election. In short, this party comes as close as could be to the opposite of the religious parties.

The greatest achievement of this transition to democracy is the rout of religious extremists who wanted to plunge Pakistan into anarchy,” wrote Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times. “It is the rise of liberal democracy … that will help solve the problem of religious extremism in Pakistan.”

Islamist parties face drubbing in Pakistan vote

Supporters of Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami party rally in Peshawar, 28 Jan. 2008/stringerAn 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.

Zeeshan Haider, senior correspondent in our Islamabad bureau, visited the NWFP capital Peshawar to gauge the voters’ mood. Here’s what he found :

Pakistani voters are expected to succeed where President Pervez Musharraf has failed, pushing back the Islamist tide and throwing out of power political clerics governing Pakistan’s violent northwest.

Spokesman says Karzai has last word in Afghan blasphemy case

Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 24 Jan. 2008/Wolfgang RattayReports 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.

Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak has said he doubts Kambakhsh will be executed. There has been a demonstration in Kabul demanding freedom for the young journalist, whose brother Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi wrote an article for IWPR about it.

This new twist comes a few days after the Afghan Senate withdrew its statement of support for the death sentence on blasphemy charges for Kambakhsh. A spokesman said simply that the publication of the statement was “a technical error.” Actually, the Senate has no authority to approve or reject a court decision, so it had no business commenting on the verdict in the first place.

Q&A: Karen Armstrong on Pakistan, Islam and secularisation

Karen Armstrong at an interview with Reuters in Islamabad, 3 Feb. 2008/Mian KursheedKaren 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.

Q:You were last in Pakistan in 2006. What brought you back this time?

A: There is a really poignant hunger here, as well as in other parts of the Muslim world, to hear a friendly Western voice speaking appreciatively of Islam. It is a sad thing for me that this should be such an unusual event, but given the precarious state of relationships between so-called Islam and the West it seems something that is important to do.

Q: Pakistan seems to be a crucial place for the future of Islam at the moment. How do you see the impact of events in Pakistan in terms of developments in Islam as a whole?

Looking past the blood at Ashura

A Pakistani Shi’ite at Ashura rituals in Lahore, Pakistan, 20 Jan. 2008/Mohsin RazaAshura, 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.

Stakes rise in Afghan journalist’s blasphemy case

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 upper house, known as the Meshrano Jirga (Elders House), has issued a statement backing the death sentence passed by a court in Mazar-i-Sharif and strongly criticising the international community for putting pressure on Kabul over the case. No excerpts from the statement have appeared online yet but sSibghatullah Mojadeddi (R) and President Hamid Karzai, 4 Jan. 2004/Ahmad Masoodome reports say it was signed by the house leader Sibghatullah Mojaddedi. He was the first president of Afghanistan after the fall of communism there in 1992. During his exile in Peshawar in the 1980s, he was the head of the so-called “moderate alliance” of three mujahideen parties that were believed to be less Islamst than the seven-party “fundamentalist alliance”. However, these two labels were relative, as are many terms and titles in Afghanistan.

The upper house has no legal role in this but, by speaking out, it puts pressure on President Hamid Karzai not to pardon Kambakhsh at any point during the appeals process. It also sends a signal to the appeals and supreme court.

Where does the Afghan blasphemy case go now?

Sayed Perwiz KambakhshThe 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.

First, it looks like this could drag on for quite some time. His brother Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi tells us the family has appealed the decision at a court in Mazar-i-Sharif and will take it to the Supreme Court in Kabul if the appeals court upholds the original verdict.

More information has emerged about the case being made against Kambakhsh. We knew some university classmates had accused him of mocking Islam and the Koran and of distributing an article saying the Prophet Mohammad had ignored women’s rights. According to RFE/RL, the article came from a website based in Europe and run by an Iranian exile whose pen name is Arash Bikhoda. “Bikhoda” means “godless” in Persian.

Back to the blog — first impressions after a break

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:

Bhutto’s upcoming bookBenazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”

It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.