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

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    Hajji Khalil Khan (l.), in Peshawar, says he voted for the secular Awami National Party because "they are concerned about the community." While Hajji Ali Akbar (r.) believes Islam should play a big role in government, he was displeased with the religious parties in power and voted for their secular rivals.
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    CHANGE: Voters in the North West Frontier Province overwhelmingly voted out an Islamic government for a secular one.
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    Gul Khan, of Peshawar, is ready to see the mullahs leave office.
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Hajji Ali Akbar wants his country to be governed by Islamic law.

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 Moreover, they have been replaced by the secular Awami National Party (ANP).

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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."

Yet as a party founded on the principles of nonviolence, they are likely to use what influence they have against the military solutions supported by the US. "On a case-by-case basis, we will be talking to [the Taliban] to bring peace," says Mr. Afridi. "We want peace in FATA because we are the same people [Pashtuns] – and if there is no peace there, there is no peace here."

The notion of negotiation is ingrained in the Pashtun mind – a legacy of the jirgas, or councils, that have ruled Pashtun tribes for centuries – and it has great popular support here. The MMA's mullahs ran afoul of public opinion by abandoning such principles, residents say.

Sweeping to power in 2002 on a wave of anti-American sentiment after the invasion of Afghanistan, they were not sincere in their efforts to infuse politics with the tenets of Islam, residents say. One perception is that they used politics to get rich.

In 2002, "they used to go out canvassing on bicycles," says Ali Jan, pushing his shopping cart through the aisles of a Peshawar supermarket. "Now, they're driving around in Land Cruisers."

"They are hypocrites," adds Gul Khan, pausing for tea on the other side of town.

To him and others, Monday was a victory for Islam – driving corrupt mullahs from power in favor of a party that truly intends to help the people, it is hoped.

"[ANP] is not a religious party, but it is not the enemy of religion," says Lal Shah, while having a shave at a local barber shop. "I like the people whose job it is not to hate America or to hate Russia or to hate China, but to help Pakistan."

It is this sentiment that is at the heart of residents' desire for Islamic law in politics. To many Pakistanis, that would represent an infusion of Islamic values and justice in a government in dire need of both.

"We want real sharia rule, not the kind that the Taliban would try to enforce," says Akbar. "If sharia were enforced, there would be no corruption, no obscenity, no adultery, there would be no unbalanced economy between the rich and poor."

Not having seen this in their secular governments so far, they have put their hope in sharia as a means to elevate politics. "The people want social justice, and they want access to justice," says Bushra Gohar of the ANP, who will take one of the seats reserved for women in the National Assembly. "But it has to be for all."

The challenge, she says, is for the new secular government to prove they can do that without imposing religious codes. With 33 seats in the provincial parliament – 16 more than the nearest competitor, the Pakistan People's Party – ANP has that opportunity, and, for the moment, the trust of the people.

Says Haji Khalil Khan, sitting beside Mr. Akbar as horse carts clatter by: "I voted for ANP because they are concerned about the community."

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