Category Archives: Nawaz Sharif

Pakistan votes to end military rule under shadow of violence

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Pakistan’s 2008 election came soon after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and saw more murders and bombings. But voters turned out. The result was historic. A military ruler democratically removed and his supporters accepting the result with more good grace than they were generally given credit for, leading to the first peaceful transition from one civilian government to another in 2013, although not, sadly, to the end of the violence and corruption that continue to dog the country. Here’s my account of polling day in Lahore.

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The old city of Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

Lahore 18.02.2008

A stretch of Cooper Road is cordoned off by the police and the polling stations, one for men and a separate one for women, have to be approached on foot.

The parties have set up stalls to check off their voters’ names as they arrive, often delivered by vans driven by political activists. Lahore is the Muslim League Nawaz’s stronghold and the PML-N is doing brisker business than the People’s Party, the PPP. But, at 9.30am, voting is slow, as is also reported to be the case in other areas.

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PPP activists check voters’ names Photo: Tony Cross

PPP party worker Farhat Hussein believes that people are afraid there will be bombs or shootings.

“Violence is the main problem,” he says. “You know, one candidate was killed and the people of Lahore is afraid.”

Last night in the city, PML-N candidate Chaudhry Asif Ashraf was shot dead, along with his driver and secretary, while three other party workers are still in a serious condition in hospital. Voting in four constituencies has been postponed because of the death of a candidate. One of those constituencies was to have been contested by Benazir Bhutto, whose assassination sparked fears of a major bombing campaign.

During the campaign most of the violence was restricted to the tribal areas and North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where the secular, Pashtun-nationalist Awami National  Party has been the  principal target.

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PML-Q activists on polling day in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

The worst attack was on Saturday in Parachinar, in the Kurram tribal agency, where 47 people were killed and many more injured. Most of them are reported to have been PPP supporters who were attending an election rally.

In NWFP dozens of public employees tried to get out of their obligation to man polling-stations. They’ve been told that they must find replacements or face disciplinary action. And many retired police and soldiers are reluctant to take up the offer to help with security. They consider the pay – one-and-a-half euros a day – insufficient compensation for the risk.

Here in Lahore police claim to have arrested 37 would-be bombers over the last three months, while in Hyderabad, Sindh province, they claim to have caught three yesterday.

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Voting at a women’s polling centre in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

No wonder the desire for peace is on many voters’ minds. A chatty group of women, some wearing hijab, say that they voted PML-N. Razia Mumtaz says that she and her friends want change.

“We want to elect people who work for our country and for better system, change the system, for the safety of the people,’ she says. “First of all, for the safety of our country.”

Most voters seem to expect some electoral fraud by the outgoing government. PML-N supporter Osama Ahmed is typical.

“They have already said in the newspaper ‘We have won’. What else I can say? Everybody knows there’s going to be something fishy-fishy.”

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PML-N supporters parade a lion on the back of a lorry – and RFI tries to record its roar – during the 2008 election campaign in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

Aref Lateef, who also supports Nawaz Sharif – “he lies less, the others lie more” –is resigned to the idea.

“Pakistan has a tradition of vote-rigging, it was always rigged. Except once, I think that when East Pakistan broke away [to become Bangladesh] at that time it was not rigged but they did not give the power to the party who was in majority.”

Throughout the day, people report that they or their families are not on the electoral register, although it’s impossible to tell if this is due to their negligence or official malpractice.

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Inside the old city of Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

If the PPP is to be believed, there’s also a danger that voters will turn up and find that their polling station isn’t where they expected it to be. In Punjab the party has complained about 398 “ghost” polling stations, moved to between four and seven kilometres’ distance from where they were initially sited. The PPP claims they will be used to provide over a million fake votes.

If there’s a Benazir cult in PPP strongholds, like Faisalabad and Sindh province, the principal object of veneration in Lahore is Nawaz. The PML-N’s symbol is a tiger, often transformed into a lion by the party faithful who wear big-cat badges on their shirts or waistcoats. Yesterday the party sent a truck with a lion in a cage on the back touring the city. The wild beast can stand equally for the party and its leader, so Osama Ahmed, who seems to have a penchant for natural history, declares: “Better a man-eating lion than cannibals!”

Another PML-N supporter, Sayed Shaufiq Hussain, sees Nawaz as a local boy persecuted by Musharraf.

“We have our hero from our society – number one – from our region – number two – and he was competent. One thing was very bad when he was sent in Saudi Arabia forcefully. So that’s why people are still with him. He had done a lot of jobs for our society, especially for the Lahori people, so that’s why we are with him.”

More than one Nawaz-admirer praises his backing for Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons programme. In a poor area far from the city centre, Liaquat says that the bomb is essential for the nation’s security, although he doesn’t see any immediate threat.

“Nobody will attack on Pakistan because we are safe,” he declares. “And we are brave. And we are Muslim.”

Musharraf’s collaboration with the US war on terror also comes under fire. Sitting astride a motorbike, Sohel Iqbal refuses to say who he voted for. But it certainly wasn’t the president’s party, as becomes clear when he explains his top priority for the new government.

“Independent foreign policy, independent. Not to depend on America or things like that. All the decisions should be taken within the country.”

Voting picks up as the day progresses. By the evening the opposition are convinced that they have won. Their supporters take to riding around the city cheering and, in some cases, firing into the air, a form of celebration which leads to several arrests.

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Moghul-era lattice-work in Lahore’s old city Photo: Tony Cross

To hear my radio report for RFI on election day in Lahore click here

Military ruler Musharraf’s party bows out ‘with grace’ after 2008 election defeat

Credit where credit’s due, it was historic that the PML-Q, a party that was not overburdened with principles, accepted the 2008 election defeat and that General Pervez Musharraf didn’t hang on much longer. Musharraf is still being dragged through the courts but Pakistan, for the moment at least, no longer seems under danger of a new military coup, following one elected government succeeding another in the 2013 election.

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Mushahid Hussain concedes defeat Photo: Tony Cross

Mushahid Hussain knows how to make a virtue of necessity.

His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, has suffered a humiliating defeat in the election. It has gone from government to an isolated minority in the National Assembly. Its share of the vote may not have fallen much but its share of seats in parliament has been slashed.

Several party leaders, such as party president Chaudhry Shujat Hussain and his brother Pervaiz Elahi, are no longer MPs. Former Railway Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmad, a key figure in the previous government, managed to lose two seats, Pakistani law permitting candidates to stand in two constituencies in one election.

But Mushahid Hussain handles interviews with the aplomb of the journalist-turned-politician that he is and assures reporters that the PML-Q will be the first party in the history of Pakistan to “accept the election outcome with grace”.

Let the PPP and the PML-N form a government, he says. “We want to play our democratic role in the opposition, as a vibrant and robust opposition, an issue-oriented opposition.”

Apart from the press, the PML-Q’s rather scruffy headquarters is largely empty now, after a meeting of the party’s MPs and its more numerous failed candidates earlier today.

“The mood was upbeat, the morale was high,” Mushahid Hussain insists, although Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, who is hovering in the background, doesn’t appear to be brimming over with joy.

Mushahid Hussain is a Senator and Secretary General of PML-Q. Before the election he predicted that the PPP would invite his party to join a coalition, an option that Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, flirted with for a brief moment. Now it’s clear that PML-Q is banished from the ministries.

Hussain warns the new government against confrontation with President Pervez Musharraf, whose coup against Nawaz Sharif in 1999 gave rise to the split between the N and the Q and the latter becoming the governing party.

“We don’t want any destabilisation. We don’t want any polarisation. We don’t want any new fronts opened between parliament and president.”

Although Hussain says he hopes the new government will last its full tenure, the PML-Q clearly hopes to profit from the political turmoil that is likely to hit the new government, both in its relations with the president and in relations between the biggest parties in its ranks.

Meanwhile, PML-Q needs to hold onto its members. Its leaders have appealed to the PPP not to poach from its ranks.

“This has been a tradition in Pakistan. We hope the norm has changed now because let’s not repeat old mistakes,” says Hussain but he laughs when reminded that his own party wasn’t shy of the practice in the past.

So far as government policy is concerned, Hussain doesn’t expect big changes. He calls for a “consensual” foreign policy. Musharraf’s collaboration with Washington may be unpopular with the voters, but that doesn’t mean that the new government will change it.

“That foreign policy has not been criticised by the opposition, as yet. The People’s Party and PML-N have not criticised the fundamental contours of Mr Musharraf’s foreign policy,” he points out with a courteous smile.

Lawyers fight on for chief justice Chaudhry’s reinstatement and Musharraf’s departure

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Pakistani lawyers demand the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry, fired by Pervez Musharraf Photo: Tony Cross

Another question on which the government’s supporters may face disappointment is the fate of the judges sacked by Musharraf last year.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry’s dismissal, last March the ninth, started a long battle between the president and the legal profession. Chaudhry was later reinstated … and then sacked again.

Later, when Musharraf declared a state of emergency, the president sacked about 60 judges who refused to take a new oath of office.

Nine months of noisy and emotional protests, usually ending in black-suited lawyers being teargassed and beaten by the police, played a major role in discrediting Musharraf and his allies in government.

But the PPP has not committed itself to reinstating Chaudhry or the other judges. Nor has Zardari made any promises to that effect since the election, even though one of his party’s best-known members is lawyers’ leader Aitzaz Ahsan, who’s still under house arrest in Lahore.

So the lawyers are still demonstrating. At Islamabad’s district court, a group of them sit in front of a giant photo of one of their colleague’s suffering the attentions of a zealous police officer.

They say they’re optimistic, especially since PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has said that the judges must be reinstated immediately. Since the election, Sharif has made surprise appearances at lawyers’ demonstrations and even proposed direct action to place the judges back in office. Now he says he wants an executive order, like the one that dismissed them, to reverse the damage.

Nobody seems too clear as to how this would work, however.

Should they argue that the order which sacked the judges was unconstitutional, on the grounds that Musharraf didn’t bother to consult parliament about it?

Or does the president have to issue a new one? And does that necessitate getting rid of the present incumbent?

The demonstrators’ legal training doesn’t seem to be much help in this case. But there’s no doubt what Islamabad Bar Council member Malek Lateef Kokar favours from an emotional point of view.

“A new president might come,” he hopes. “This president, better sense may prevail on him just at this right moment. Better sense may prevail and he may do what the people of Pakistan like and what they want. They have given a clear mandate against the President Musharraf. The honourable way is that he must restore the judiciary and quit.”

The lawyers, who by now must be as adept at chanting as pleading a case, segue from slogans in support of the judges to “Go, Musharraf, go!”

To hear my radio report for RFI on the lawyers’ protests click here

To read and listen to my report for RFI from Pakistan in 2007 and 2008 click here

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Family business – Pakistani powerbrokers the Gujrat Chaudhrys plan to stay in the post-Musharraf game

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As the PML-Q – a party that split from Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League N – faced defeat in the 2008 election due to its support for military ruler Pervez Musharraf, one family was confident of keeping its grip on its homebase, the Punjab town of Gujrat, and thus in the national political game. On a visit to their home I found out about the origins of their hostility to the Bhutto family and the PPP and their intention of staying in Pakistani politics. Portrait of a dynasty, written after that visit. 

Gujrat 15.02.2008

In a small room at the back of a vast, white building in the centre of the Punjab city of Gujrat, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, former Interior Minister, president of the outgoing government party and leader of its group in the National Assembly, meets visiting journalists, party activists and family members.

A large, hawk-faced man, with a broad, bitter-looking mouth, he’s showing signs of age. He wears sunglasses indoors, presumably to protect sensitive eyes, and speaks in a faltering voice.

He says that his local party workers told him to attend to national party duties, rather than campaign in his own seat, so confident are they that he’ll be reelected.

The confidence flows from the Chaudhry family’s notorious hold on the town and its surrounding district. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain’s brother, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, is also an MP and expects to be prime minister if his party wins. Chaudhry Shufaat Hussein, who’s also in the room, is the district administrator, the nazim. “Me being the youngest brother”, he didn’t get a National Assembly seat, he explains. Pervaiz Elahi’s son, Moonis, is standing for a seat in Lahore.

“People like us, they keep electing us. What’s wrong with that?” says Shufaat. He puts that  support down to their good administration of the town.

Shujaat agrees.

“I don’t want to boast or anything but for the last five years my brother was the nazim of Gujrat. He’s worked very hard. I’ll give you one example, Gujrat is the only city where in each and every village there’s electricity, roads and all the amenities.”

Shujaat’s son, Salik – yes, he’s in the room, too – explains that the family’s influence goes back to before the creation of Pakistan.

His great-grandfather went into politics before partition, while his great-uncle looked after the business side by running a handloom factory in India.

For the next generation, Salik’s grandfather, Zahur Elahi, carried on the political tradition. That was then the family’s hostility to the PPP seems to have begun. Zahur was jailed when Benazir Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was prime minister.

“He was an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience,” both Salik and Shufaat report with pride.

Zahur was later murdered.

The Chaudhrys blame the Bhuttos for that, too. Benazir’s brother, Murtaza, was running a radical armed group at the time (“the first terrorist organisation in this region,” says Shujaat). They say that he claimed responsibility for the killing the same evening. Murtaza himself later fell out with his sister and was gunned down near his home in mysterious circumstances – a killing that his daughter, Fatima, blames on her aunt.

But Shujaat insists there’s no bitterness. As Interior Minister in the 1990s, he says he refused to bend the law so as to get her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, extradited to Britain and that he went so far as to allow Benazir and Zardari to stay together when they were jailed under Nawaz Sharif.

“After four or five days, the President of Pakistan Ghulam Issaq Khan, he called me in his office and he asked me that ‘Chaudhry Sahib, since when you have started this business of honeymoons?’.”

After the coming election, there could be a coalition between the two parties. “If they win, they should cooperate. If we win, we should cooperate.”

For my reports for RFI on the 2008 Pakistani election click here

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Lions, tigers and tight security as Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) builds on Punjab base

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Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, not to be accused with the breakaway PML-Q, had to wait until 2013 to profit from disillusion with the PPP and take over Pakistan’s government. But they were on the ascendant in the 2008 poll, especially in their power base of Punjab, the province that dominates the country in many ways. But they were worried about election fraud, as well any Pakistani politician may, since almost all of them have an intimate acquaintance with the phenomenon. A report I wrote up after a PML-N rally in 2008.

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Shahbaz Sharif (C in scarf) waits to address the Sheikhupura rally Photo: Tony Cross

Sheikhupura 16.02.2008

Sheikhupura is not far from the motorway between Lahore and Islamabad, which Nawaz Sharif reportedly feels is one of the three great achievements of his time as Prime Minister.

The other two are the “green tractors” scheme – cheap loans for farmers to buy tractors – and the yellow cab scheme – more cheap loans, this time for prospective taxi-drivers.

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Sheikhupura welcomes Shahbaz Photo: Tony Cross

The nation’s cabbies still remember this last measure and the chairman of the Pakistan Yellow Cab Federation, Najam-us-Saqib, along with several other taxi-drivers, accompanies the caravan that drives from Lahore to Sheikhapura for an election rally which will star, Nawaz’s brother, Shahbaz.

Shahbaz is president of the Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League N, and a former Chief Minister of Punjab province, which is the PML-N’s heartland and has 54% of the seats in the National Assembly. He wants his old job back.

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“No fear” – Police guard the platform Photo: Tony Cross

Security at the rally is as tight as at the PPP meeting in Faisalabad two days ago. The PML-N leaders are protected by the party’s own stewards, the Punjab police (wearing jackets bearing the slogan “No Fear” on the back) and the national police, all armed. As at the PPP rally, the podium is surrounded by an empty space fenced off from the audience, although the crowd shows no sign of evil intent towards Shahbaz or his comrades.

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Tiger, lion … any big cat will do to show your support for PML-N, sometimes they even bring the real thing on the back of a truck Photo: Tony Cross

Quite the contrary. Young men wear lion T-shirts to recall the party’s symbol, which is actually a tiger but any big cat seems to do so long as it’s sufficiently rugged. Older men brandish placards welcoming Shahbaz to their town and a small group of women, most of whom wear cover, file in to take specially designated seats. A portly gentleman in a flowing robe, orange turban and wooden necklace shouts slogans and goes into ecstasies when leaflets are dropped from above.

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“Do you have such zeal?” supporters show their enthusiasm for the PML-N Photo: Tony Cross

An enthusiastic local journalist asks how this compares to election rallies in Europe. “Do you have such zeal?”

The PML-N takes the firmest line on one of the key questions in the election campaign – Musharraf’s sacking of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry and 60 judges who refused to take a new oath of office after the president declared a state of emergency.

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Women enter the reserved section of the PML-N rally Photo: Tony Cross

Nawaz Sharif has promised that they will be reinstated, although the party programme is a little vaguer, promising only “a coherent strategy” to get them their jobs back. The PPP’s programme makes no commitment at all on the question.

Last night, on the way back to Lahore from Gujrat, student Wasim Bhatt was among villagers letting off fireworks to welcome the PML-N candidate for their areas. He cited his belief that the party is “struggling for our judiciary” as the main reason why he supported it.

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A relatively restrained part of the crowd Photo: Tony Cross

At the rally, party member and housewife, Rafiyal, has the cost of living on her mind.

“Skyrocketing prices are disturbing now. At the time that Nawaz Sharif was prime minister I bought attar flower at only six rupees per kilo. Now it’s 40 rupees per kilo.”

When he speaks, Shahbaz Sharif seems to have difficulty complying with security needs. Hands flailing and jabbing in various directions, he seems desperate to escape from behind the bullet-proof glass that protects the rostrum. He must be one of those Pakistani politicians who, I’m told, are unhappy about the distance from their supporters imposed by the fear of bombs and assassination.

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Drummers give their hands a rest Photo: Tony Cross

The party seems seriously worried that fraud will rob them of seats. Shahbaz promises polling officials that the party will make their lives a misery if they give in to pressure to cheat.

Later PML-N press attaché, Khawaja Aamer Raza, says they have already uncovered several cases of trickery by the PML-Q, which split from the PML-N and supports Musharraf.

“PML-Q candidates have been supported by government funds and government machinery,” he claims. “And the establishment and the police and the other agencies, they are supporting openly and they are asking for the votes for the PML-Q.”

But he hopes that the “ratio of hatred” against Musharraf and his allies will save the day, by making it impossible to rig the vote sufficiently to give them victory.

For an audio report of the PML-N’s election campaign click here. and for my reports for RFI on the 2008 election click here.

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Pakistan’s Islamist parties – a legacy of military dictators and Afghanistan’s wars

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In 2007 the rule of General Pervez Musharraf was drawing to an end. His seizure of power in 2001 had encountered little opposition but his failure to tackle corruption and poverty and his support for the US’s post 9/11 War on Terror, which gave birth to a dirty war in Pakistan itself, meant that he was unpopular and under political pressure in 2007. Now the man he kicked out, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistani Muslim League (PMLN) – not to be confused with Musharraf’s PMLQ – was coming back to Pakistan after living in exile as a guest of Saudi Arabia. I was sent to cover his return – which didn’t happen. But I was able to report on the state of the country ahead of Musharraf’s fall in 2008.

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Mounted police prevent journalists gaining access to Islamabad airport as Nawaz Sharif arrives, only to be sent back to Saudi Arabia Photo: Tony Cross

Sharif touched down, only to be sent back to Saudi, Musharraf quite rightly fearing the reception he would have received … and did when he finally returned in 2008. The press was prevented from covering his arrival, we sweated in the sun on the road leading to the airport, while TV showed footage of a visibly shaken Sharif being escorted back to his plane by police.

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Future prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (2nd L, front row) prepares to announce that Benazir Bhutto will return to Pakistan at a hastily organised press conference in Peshawar Photo: Tony Cross

In Peshawar the PPP proudly announced that their leader, Benazir Bhutto, would soon return. She did, to a rapturous reception, only to be assassinated as she campaigned against Musharraf.

Unfortunately, the account I wrote at the time has vanished into the guts of a computer, as have others on the Palestinian presidential election in 2005 and the Turkish presidential election in 2007, but I have managed to reconstitute this report on the religious parties’ alliance, the MMA, a minority but an influential one, thanks largely to the manoeuvring of various military rulers, the failures of Pakistan’s education system and the fallout from the Afghan wars. An account of the 2008 election campaign will follow.

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Waliat Khan, who makes rabobs – a traditional musical instrument – in Peshawar. His business survived despite a MMA ban on public musical performances Photo: Tony Cross

Peshawar, September 2007

Peshawar is capital of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), separated from Pakistan by the self-administering tribal areas, Pashtun country, like much of Afghanistan, and much affected by the Afghan war.

It has hosted millions of refugees since the Afghan Communist Party, the PDPA, took power in the 1970s and has continued to do so in the decades of war that have followed.

Since 2002 the province, and the city, have been run by an alliance of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, (MMA).

Shortly after taking over, the MMA passed a law which decreed a strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law throughout the province.

Music for amusement was banned in public places, barbers forbidden to shave their customers, the two alcohol licences permitted to hotels frequented by non-Muslims were withdrawn, women were ordered to wear the burka and women’s bodies on hoardings covered up.

Musicians found ways round the law by simply moving to different places away from the authorities’ gaze, while bootleggers made it known that they would deliver booze to your door – cheaper, since they didn’t have to pay for licences.

But the law proved unpopular, as did the religious police set up to enforce it.

Anwar Kamal is a local leader of the Muslim League, PMLN, which is allied to the

MMA at national level and voted for sharia in the province.

Sitting in his comfortable home in a middle-class district of the city, he seems to regret the vote now.

“At the instructions of the present [provincial] government, you see, these people would come out on roads, stop your vehicle, pull out your cassette-player, break it there, pull out these billboards that would carry ladies’ photographs,” he says. “I’m not the one that disapproved of that but the common man also disapproved of that.”

Taking on music – a favourite amusement of all Pakistanis apart from the most puritanical of religious activists – appears to have cost the MMA and their religious police a lot of support.

The MMA claims to be more concerned about social justice than the Moslem League.

But in North West Frontier Province, and in Baloochistan, the other province where it is part of a governing coalition, it hasn’t got far in wiping out poverty.

Kamal argues that deprives it of the right to be too strict in introducing sharia.

“Islam says when somebody commits a theft crime you chop off his hand,” he concedes. “But there’s a precondition and that precondition is that you provide him an opportunity so that he can earn his own living. But if the government or the state fails to provide him that opportunity of earning, then you cannot punish him under Islamic law, that is chopping off his hand, you can put him in jail.”

Confronted by the federal government, which dubbed its actions “unconstitutional”, the provincial government has dissolved the religious police.

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Pupils at the Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa Photo: Tony Cross

Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa, south of Peshawar, is one of thousands of religious schools in Pakistan which take up the slack left by a resource-starved public education system.

It’s one of the biggest, with about 3,000 students, and one of the most radical.

Haqqania’s head, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, was a friend and admirer of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and sent students to fight for him.

Ul-Haq also leads a breakaway faction of the Jamaat-Ulema-Islam, the country’s second biggest Islamist party, which has split from the MMA.

“They did not go on the road that we had decided,” explains Syeed Yusuf Shah, who teaches at the madrassa and is the faction’s North-West Frontier Province general-secretary. “We made some contents but they did not even work one per cent on that contents. For example, one of them was that we will not help America. But we helped. So we showed to our nation that we would do this-this-this contents but we didn’t do even zero per cent for them. That’s why MMA is unsuccessful.”

The maulana makes no secret of his support for the Taliban fighting the current Afghan government and his contempt for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose cooperation with George Bush’s War on Terror has strengthened the religious parties, especially in NWFP, most of whose people are Pashtun like the majority of Afghans.

For a fuller report of my visit to Dar-ul Uloom-Haqqania madrassa click here 

The violence of the Afghan conflict often spreads over the border.

But Pakistan hasn’t suffered the decades of civil war which brought the Taliban to power in Afghanistan.

The MMA mayor of Peshawar. Cahulam Ali, claims that gave the Taliban a mandate for sharia which his party didn’t have.

“Taliban government was supported by the people there,” he argues. “They were happy with that government. They obeyed Islamic rules but the Taliban did not impose their will on them. If you impose people here with the sharia bill in this area, people will oppose and people did oppose this bill. They say that at that time there was no gun, there was no fight between them – why do you impose us to do it?”

In areas where they haven’t won a majority, some hardline Islamists still try to enforce their views – trying to destroy statues of the Buddha in the Swat Valley, for example, threatening to kill barbers who shave of beards or bullying a woman who had acid thrown in her face not to go to an NGO because NGOs are supposedly agents of the infidel West.

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Barbed wire around the Lal Masjid after it was stormed Photo: Tony Cross

In Istanbul two brothers used the city’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) as a base to send madrassa students out to close down Chinese massage parlours, claiming they were really brothels, enforce bans on alcohol and other measures.

After several months the army stormed the mosque, resulting in as many as 400 people being killed and enraging the religious parties and alienating part of the population.

I visited Qazi Hussein Ahmed, the leader the largest party in the MMA, Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), in his home in Islamabad, where he was under house arrest for his opposition to Musharraf, whom he blamed for the bloodshed.

“Nobody can understand why did he resort to the use of force,” he told me. “We can disagree with the people of Lal Masjid … but there were so many ways in which they could have been controlled and they could have been evacuated. But they resorted to very inhuman killings, indiscriminate killings of the people.”

JeI opposed extrajudicial attempts to impose sharia, he said, but insisted that the Western mind has been “poisoned” against Islamic law.

“The objectives of sharia are not understood,” he argues. “The basic objective of sharia is that man should be related to the creator and he should be God-conscious and he should have the sense that he is accountable before God for all his acts and this makes him a responsible person. We want that the life, the property and the honour and also the mind of a citizen should be protected … this can be done through persuasion and through education and through training.”

Westerners think it is simply a question of “chopping off hands or chopping off legs” but these are these are a “final resort” if people are “bent on creating corruption in society”.

The MMA’s difference with the PMLN was that they wanted social justice and disagreed with liberal, free-market economics, Ahmed said.

At national level, the religious parties don’t have enough support to rule alone and the secular PPP accuses them of being inconsistent in their opposition to Musharraf.

The MMA is also accused of whipping up sectarianism, especially against the Shia-Muslim minority, despite the presence of Shia religious parties in its ranks.

In the massive port city of Karachi, Shia politician Abbas Qulemi told me that sectarian violence was high in areas where the MMA is high, including in Dera Ismail Khan, the constituency of MMA leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman and in NWFP.

“They have miserably failed in controlling the situation there [in NWFP], particularly in the killings of Shias,” he said. “You see, lots of Talibans are there … When they go to Afghanistan they fight there, when they come back they kill the Shias and, more surprisingly, the Shias are being killed and their relatives are being arrested.”

Both the religious parties and the Muslim League gained influence under the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq in the 1970s and 80s. A strict Muslim himself, he built them up to counter the PPP, whose leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he had executed after toppling him from power, and he was a key figure in helping Islamist mujaheddin fight the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan.

The MMA still has support, especially as opposition to Musharraf grows, but they can only hope to be part of a coalition, probably with the Muslim League which is unlikely to go along with their wish to impose sharia law. But they still exercise considerable influence on Pakistani politics and everyday life.

For an audio report on Pakistan’s religious parties click here 

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