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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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Street-kids, poverty, pollution … Jakarta after the 1997 financial crisis

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Jakarta is one of the world’s most heavily populated cities, its kampongs swelled by migrants from the overcrowded Javanese countryside and from the rest of the Indonesian archipelago. The city took a hit in 1997 and its people had to find ways to survive … not all of them pleasant or, for that matter, legal. I wrote this when I visited in 1999.

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Jakarta, not in 1990. Public domain

A lot of Jakarta’s buildings are having a bad hair day. Their sexy steel-and-glass bodies soar up to a mess of girders and concrete pillars. Others haven’t even got the glass and cladding. As in the rest of south-east Asia, building stopped when the crisis hit.

Jakarta is hot and humid. Millions of lorries, buses, cars, motorbikes, mopeds, tuk-tuks fart into the atmosphere  and what doesn’t go straight into your lungs rises to hang in a greyish pall above the city,  for consumption at a later date.

For all the business boulevards, Jakarta’s people ensure that it remains an Asian city at street level: street-stalls crowd virtually all available pavement space, selling  fried rice, boiled rice, fried noodles, boiled noodles, fried chicken, chicken soup,  meatball soup,  fried catfish, fried tofu, smoked tofu, fried bananas, fried tapioca, sate, tripes in sauce, cow’s stomach in sauce, cow’s skin, won ton,  durian,  papaya, pineapple, coca-cola, tea, coffee, fanta, a strange luminous green liquid served with another brown liquid and white noodles that look like worms… and more, if you dare to try.

The crisis means an increase in the number of beggars and street-hawkers. Some literally grovel in the gutter as traffic rushes past them; being as wretched as possible is their professional qualification. Boys play guitars at the crossroads. Others appoint themselves unoffical traffic-police at the many points where motorists make U-turns, occasionally picking up a tip for their pains. A sign that they are aware of the years that they’re knocking off their lives is the fact that some wear bandanas across their mouths in an ineffectual attempt to keep out the fumes from a thousand exhausts.

A city official says that the number of street-children has swollen from 12,636 in August 1998 to 68,688 in June 1999. Parents who’ve been laid off from building sites and factories apparently send their children out on the streeets to beg.

Meanwhile, we foreigners lock the taxi doors and tell each other the story of the woman who was stabbed in the leg by a man who jumped in her cab demanding money.

Some people find Jakarta peaceful at night. I find it sinister. Perhaps it’s just the bad street-lighting and the looming trees. Drive around town after dark and you whisk by the skeleton of unbuilt or burnt buildings,  a crossroads peopled by about a hundred hookers,  turned to caricature by make-up and headlights, gangs of men or boys loitering, people who sleep under overhead roads and railways, and the flames of the last of the street-vendors frying the last of the street-food.

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A feeling of liberty – Jakarta votes after Suharto’s fall

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Jakarta Photo: Open access/Ume momo

In 1999 I watched Indonesians in Jakarta’s red-light districts, Chinatown and other areas cast their ballot in a mood of elation – for many, at least – after the fall of Suharto, the corrupt repressive president who had staged an anti-communist coup in 1965. Here’s what I wrote at the time.

It’s 8.20 am on Monday 7 June 1999 and the first voter in Prawabungga steps forward.

Watched by a hundred or so other residents of this Jakarta shanty-town, he picks up ballot-papers with the names and symbols of 48 parties on them, goes into the booth to make his mark, comes out, holds the papers above his head with a flourish and places them in the urns.

Then, with a shaking hand  … thanks to the unaccustomed public attention, or is it just the close contact with officialdom? … he dips his finger into a bowl of ink, so that he is marked as having voted and can’t go round for a second shot.

For the next couple of weeks, about 100 million Indonesians will walk around with that brown-black stain on one of their fingers, a sign that they participated in the historic first election since the fall of President Suharto.

The elaborate voting procedure involves queueing until your name is called out and tackling ballot-papers as big as maps for parliamentary, provincial and district elections. It’s taking place at 320,000 polling stations throughout the vast archipelago of Indonesia, which has more than 7,000 inhabited islands and over 112 million registered voters. It’s difficult not to get carried away when quoting figures about Indonesia. They’re usually large: number of languages spoken (over 300), total population (about 203 million),  amount of money salted away by the former president’s family (US$ 73 billion, according to Time magazine).

Prawabungga’s residents probably don’t have much in the way of savings. They are street-stall-holders, pedicab-drivers or just plain unemployed.

Many of them are sex workers, and there’s evidence of the district’s raunchy night-life in the lurid film-posters that hang just above the polling-station, which appears to be in front of the local cinema.

Our party of three foreign journalists is guided by Indonesian journalists  Rin and Has. As we leave the area, I ask Rin if the prostitutes’ clients are Indonesians or tourists.

“They’re mostly lower class Indonesians,’’ she says, “lorry-drivers and the like.’’

We cross the main road and walk along the side of  a scrubby piece of waste-land in a fork in the roads. ‘That’s where they go to play,’’ she says, indicating inverted commas around ‘play’ with her fingers, Hillary-Clinton-style.

Next stop is another red-light district, although this one obviously aims for wealthier customers. Kramat Tunggak’s bars (Marco Polo, Valentinos, Adam Ayem) are closed. A few girls loiter with the cats behind the iron-work, which is painted lime-green, mauve and other catchy colours. Over 100 are dutifully queueing to vote. Others have got to the head of the queue and have the privelege of sitting under the canvas roof of the polling station, along with official observers and local dignitaries. The local dignitary in charge of the urns, decked out in flashy shirt, chunky ring, baggy trousers and pointed shoes, looks suspiciously like a pimp.

The play-hard architecture can’t disguise a pervading stink that rises from open sewers full of a thick black liquid which run alongside the dirt streets. The girls queue dutifully, most of them in tight jeans and colourful tops. There’s a scattering of older women and men. A name is called and an old woman in a shabby dress starts to shuffle across the floor, more or less in the direction of the polling booth. Her eyes are milky with cataracts. One of the observers helps her. An old man, with another of those chunky rings on his finger, waits for her outside the ropes that mark out the polling station. They shuffle off together down a grey lane.

A girl who has just voted tells us this is “Mega” territory and that during the campaign the whole area was covered in red, the colour of  the Democratic Party of Struggle, PDIP. Mega is PDIP leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s founder and first president Sukarno, who has become an idol for millions, especially the urban poor.

Just as I’m beginning to fear that our guides suffer from brothel-fixation, an impression which is backed up by Has’s dubious jokes about coming back when the voting’s over, we’re off to another district. This one’s a strongly Muslim area, not far from Tanjung Priok where soldiers shot up to 200 people during a riot in 1984, turning it into a stronghold of the United Development Party, the PPP, which was the officially-created Muslim opposition party under Suharto. But now, a young observer tells us, this area too is Megawati territory.

And in Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, where voters wait in order in a well-swept schoolyard with a cock crowing somewhere nearby,  businessman Jun Han switches from bahasa Indonesia to English to tell us that the vote is free and then back to say that he has voted PDIP.

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A mob destroys ethnic-Chinese property in Jakarta in 1998 Photo: Public domain/Arsonal

The Chinese have special reasons for voting for a party that is seen as secular and nationalist. Along the main road scores of buildings still have all their windows smashed, like empty eye-sockets which allow a view in on scrubby boards or  smoke-blackened walls. And one large space is almost flat, apart from the broke skeleton of a concrete structure. It’s the site of a commercial centre which has been razed to the ground.

Other shops nearby are untouched. Anxious owners have often painted ‘Muslim’ and ‘pribumi’ (literally son of the soil – a “native” Indonesian) on their shutters.

Glodok was the scene of anti-Chinese riots, shortly before Suharto fell. Riots that may not have been as spontaneous as they at first seemed. Suharto’s son-in-law. Prabowo Subianto, is widely believed to have sent members of his Kostrad units to guide the outraged pribumi citizens in their destruction. Prabowo has fled this and other controversies concerning him,  reportedly to represent his brother-in-law’s firm in the Middle East. He is based in Amman, where he can always pop in to visit his personal friend, King Abdallah of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan.

That’s just part of the Suharto legacy. A legacy that means that Golkar, the party that the former president founded after the army seized power in 1965, is despised in Jakarta and the big cities of Java. A legacy which is sweeping Megawati into the lead, mainly because she was one of the old régime’s best-known enemies.

I arrived in Jakarta on the Thursday before polling-day. It was a day of action in support of the PDIP, so it was a bad choice from a transport point of view. But a good one for atmosphere.

I knew something was up when I met that old reporter’s standby, the taxi-driver who drove me from the airport. This one wasn’t the garrulous know-all of caricature, perhaps that was just because his English wasn’t up to communicating with me.

But his vehicle was pretty communicative. A red pennant fluttered from the aerial. A red flag with buffalo was draped on the back. And during the journey the driver took a PDIP T-shirt and fixed it the window beside him.

As we entered Jakarta, I realised that our vehicle was not the only one that was flying the flag.

Thousands of other cars, pedicabs, vans and lorries sported the party’s colours. Convoys carrying shouting and singing youths clogged up the city’s streets. Mopeds sped by in a blur of red. As on the two previous days of action, the city’s traffic moved a crawl all day. Young party supporters took over traffic duty, as the police looked on.

At one point we  trailed a lorry bearing a huge model of a buffalo,  as hundreds of people chanted the name of their heroine … “Megawati, Megawati!”

There were perhaps a million people on the streets of Jakarta,  feeling that for the first for decades someone thought they mattered. There was passion; there was sincerity; and even if there were also illusions, it was still refreshing after the stage-managed blandness and generalised cynicism of a rich-world election campaign.

There was passion again when Golkar’s cavalcades hit the streets the following day. It shared its day of action with two other parties but their combined efforts came nowhere near the PDIP on the traffic-disruptionometer.

To add to the humiliation, residents of one poor area pelted a cavalcade with stones, attacked Golkar supporters, tore their banners from them and burnt them. Previous incidents of this kind had already made party leaders loath to appear on the city’s streets.

The woman they want to be president comes from a very different background to that of most of her supporters. She is the wealthy heir to the Sukarno dynasty, who has the charisma to reduce a crowd of thousands to silence … but is reported to be haughty with her collaborators. Megawati’s party is way out in front so far. But it will have to form a coalition, probably with two reform-minded Islam-based parties.

Indonesia’s people have reawakened to politics. The residents of Prawabunga feel that at last they have a chance to make their voice heard. But how will they vent their disappointment, if Megawati lets them down?

Maybe the official election commission is overwhelmed by the sheer scale of a poll which must collect in results from sprawling cities, jungle villages and far-flung islands . Maybe it’s the unaccustomed outbreak of democracy which is proving too much. Under Suharto there were only three legal parties and one of them was wrecked by a government-engineered split, because Megawati became its leader.

But many Indonesians fear that the Golkar party, through which Suharto ruled for 32 repressive years, is up to its old tricks, bullying and bribing voters to back its ticket and stuffing or losing ballot-boxes where that doesn’t work.

Most foreign observers say that the election has been relatively free and fair, although there has been a successful boycott in Aceh, orth Sumatra, where there are calls for a referendum on independence.

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