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Islamic stronghold in Pakistan goes secular

Residents in the northwest signaled their frustration with Islamic parties' poor governance.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 2008

Rich Clabaugh

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Peshawar, Pakistan

Hajji Ali Akbar wants his country to be governed by Islamic law.

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Yet in Monday's elections in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), he and many others voted for a party that rejects religion in politics. It has led many to herald these elections as a victory for secular democracy and as a sign of the failure of Islamic parties' governance.

The religious parties that held 46 of the 96 provincial parliamentary seats won only nine this time. Moreover, they have been replaced by the secular Awami National Party (ANP).

It is an important development in the province nearest Pakistan's tribal areas, known to host Al Qaeda and the Taliban and the new focus of US antiterror policy. The ANP is expected to marshal all the province's resources – police, politics, and the law – against extremism, whereas the mullahs had refused even to condemn suicide attacks.

For this, Mr. Akbar gave them his vote. Yet he, like many others, says his vote was not a veto of Islamic politics. He wants a government that is fair and ethical, and he will vote for anyone to get it. That meant ousting President Pervez Musharraf's allies – in this case, the mullahs loyal to him. "They wanted a vote in the name of Islam," says Akbar, sipping tea by the roadside outside the Old City. "But it was not for Islam, it was for Islamabad," the capital and seat of Musharraf's government.

As the US adjusts its Pakistan policy, taking into account the huge loss inflicted on Mr. Musharraf's supporters by voters throughout the country, the new situation here in the NWFP is particularly relevant.

As a province, it cannot set military policy – that is the job of the National Assembly and the Army. Nor does it play a direct role in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where militant warlords rule much of the territory; FATA policy is determined in Islamabad.

Yet the NWFP is the first bulwark against the spread of terrorism into the heart of Pakistan, and under the mullahs' watch little was done to check it.

"Everyday you hear about a music store being bombed or such-and-such a place being attacked by the Taliban," says Lateef Afridi, a member of the ANP's central executive committee, explaining why he believes his party supplanted the coalition of Islamic parties known as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). "That created a panic in the minds of the people," he says. The ANP will be much better situated to deal with the threat, say experts.

"The police need to be reorganized and motivated … and the ANP will be able to organize civil society much better," says Mahmood Shah, former FATA secretary in the Musharraf government. "They will be able to limit militants and further pressure the tribal administration to be effective."

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