Are Pakistan and Islam really inseparable? | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 01.05.2013
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Are Pakistan and Islam really inseparable?

At a time when the world was hoping to see a shift in Pakistan's policies towards Islamism, its military chief Kayani made sure that nobody should be under any illusions. Pakistan and Islam cannot be separated, he said.

The Taliban have proven time and again that they can attack anybody anywhere in Pakistan, with impunity.

They have not only targeted civilians but, over the years, have also killed thousands of Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani military is still battling with the Islamist militants in northwestern areas close to the Afghan border. The protracted Islamist insurgency has shaken the Islamic republic, whose economy is already in a shambles.

As the country gears up for the next parliamentary elections on May 11, the Taliban have increased their attacks on the members of liberal parties.

Experts are apprehensive whether the elections will take place on time. They might be postponed for an indefinite time - something the Islamists are believed to want.

Yet, the head of the Pakistani military General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani - arguably the most powerful man in Pakistan - told the world that Pakistan was not ready to change its decades-old policy of supporting the religious right.

Pakistani men wheel an injured blast victim on a stretcher in a hospital following a bomb explosion in Karachi on April 27, 2013 (Photo: ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The Taliban have increased attacks on the members of liberal Pakistani parties

"Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and Islam can never be taken out of Pakistan," Kayani said to his cadets at a military training academy in Kakul last month.

Experts say that Kayani's statement is a reminder to secular Pakistanis and also to the West that his country will not abandon its support to religious groups with which Islamabad seeks to take leverage in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

More Islamization

Liberal Pakistanis were hoping that the Pakistani military would openly criticize the Taliban and their supporters and act against them. To their dismay, the army chief chose to tell them again about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics.

"Kayani's statement should be looked at in the context of how Pakistan sees itself in the future," Farooq Sulehria, a London-based Pakistani researcher and political analyst, told DW. "It seems that the ground is being laid for a de-liberalized democracy in Pakistan where you can vote but can't challenge the Islamic foundation of the state. The fact that the Islamist militants can easily attack liberal parties is an indication."

Sulehria said that, although Kayani - whose institution architects the major policies of the state - reminded the Pakistani people of Pakistan's "ideological foundations" repeatedly, his recent statement was a signal that the Pakistani military establishment was holding on to Islamic ideology even more firmly.

"The military wants an elected government which can unite the country in the name of Islam and follow its dictation on domestic and foreign policies," Sulehria said. "They look inspired by the Egyptian model of democracy with a strong flavor of shariah. In other words, Kayani is telling that world: 'You want democracy in Pakistan? Okay, we want it too, but it will be an Islamic democracy.’"

Syed Munawar Hasan (L), head of Islamic political party Jamat-e-Islami, greets supporters during a protest rally against the US drones attacks, in Peshawar, Pakistan, 07 September 2012 (Photo: EPA/ARSHAD ARBAB pixel)

The Pakistani right-wing is stronger than ever

Yasir Dildar, a Canada-based Pakistani researcher, told DW that the Pakistani right-wing would be certainly pleased to hear such statements coming from one of Pakistan's most powerful men. "It reinforces the perception that the military establishment always supports Islamic groups."

Experts fear that Pakistan would plunge into a deeper turmoil, if it pursued its support for the right-wing.

"You expected Pakistan to abandon its support to the Taliban and other Islamists? Forget about it. The military is going for more Islamization of the state," a journalist in Karachi told DW on condition of anonymity. "You are talking about an army which did not change its policies after massacring millions of Bengalis in the former East Pakistan in 1971. What is happening in Pakistan now is nothing in comparison to that."

Legitimate concerns?

Apart from the Pakistani military's focus on maintaining its control on domestic politics by using the Islamic narrative, experts also say that the army is rightfully concerned about the regional situation in which India is emerging as a dominant force. They say that until the regional dynamics undergo a transformation, it would be unrealistic to expect that Pakistan would change its policies. Pakistan, they say, feels threatened by growing Indian influence in Kabul and believes that it can use groups like the Taliban as a bargaining chip while dealing with the West and India in relation to Afghanistan.

Siegfried O'Wolf, a political science expert at Heidelberg University, said he was convinced that several elements within the Pakistan security apparatus still believed that the Taliban could be used as a strategic tool to counter Indian presence in Afghanistan.

"On one hand, Pakistan's recent rapprochement efforts with Afghanistan and the possible cooperation between the Afghan and Pakistani forces look quite promising, but on the other hand, the recent statements of the Pakistani military chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani about the vitality of Islam in Pakistan's policymaking can be interpreted as an indication that Pakistan will pursue the same old policies in future too," Wolf told DW.

That the US and Afghanistan now want to negotiate with the Taliban without Islamabad's involvement is also not going down well with the Pakistani government, say experts.

A Pakistani Taliban militant holds a rocket-propelled grenade at the Taliban stronghold of Shawal, in Pakistani tribal region of Waziristan along the Afghanistan border (Photo: Ishtiaq Mahsud/AP/dapd)

Pakistani officials are reluctant to hold the Taliban responsible for bombings and killings

The US is winding-up its operations in Afghanistan after a decade-long war against Islamist militants. NATO troops are scheduled to withdraw from war-torn Afghanistan in 2014. For more than a year, the US and the Afghan government have been trying to engage in "peace talks" with the Taliban to ensure a smooth transition of power in Afghanistan. They have so far been unsuccessful. Pakistan is not cooperating, some analysts believe.

"Washington and Kabul want to take the Taliban on board, and there are reports that they are already conducting secret talks with some of their factions, but they want to exclude Pakistan from these negotiations. That, in my opinion, is the biggest hurdle in US-Pakistani relations and why Pakistan is sticking to its Afghanistan policy," Dr. Naeem Ahmed, professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi, told DW.

Pakistan rights activists and liberal analysts, however, have an alternative theory: that the regional threat is merely an excuse for the Pakistani military to maintain a firm grip on Pakistan's domestic politics.

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