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On the Brink

Interview with Tarik Ali

Tuesday 11 September 2007

On the political situation in Pakistan, religious extremism and the Left
ALI Tariq, SAHI Aoun
9 September 2007
Eminent left-wing activist, writer, journalist and film-maker, Tariq Ali is in Pakistan these days. The News on Sunday had a long discussion with him on religious extremism, the status of Left, the role of NGO’s, judicial crisis, history of Islam and fundamentalism, at his residence in Lahore last week. [by Aoun Sahi]

Excerpts of the interview follow:

The News on Sunday: How do you analyse the present political scenario in Pakistan?

Tariq Ali: We are caught into the rut of a political cycle, which has dominated the country since October 1958. We have had military coups followed by civilian governments. This is what has been going on in Pakistan for 50 years of our history. Now the question is: Why can’t we break through this. I think the one big chance Pakistan had of modernising itself and making a new start was at the time of the break-up of the country. It was a bloody and brutal trauma, especially for the population of the then East Pakistan.

Pakistan had an opportunity to make a new start under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. People were filled with hope; expectations were high with the regime but very little happened. There was a lot of rhetoric. Some things did get done but on the crucial questions facing the country — the institutionalisation of democratic rule, encouraging people to think for themselves, destroying once and for all the power of landed gentry, setting up and establishing a solid educational and health system, cutting down the size of the army and reducing the military budget — nothing happened. That was the only time in the country’s history when it could have and should have happened.

When it did not happen you had the military coming back in again and General Ziaul Haq, on the authorisation of the US, executed the country’s last elected Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Thus began the worst period in Pakistan’s history; the entire political culture was brutalised.

After Zia, Pakistan had roughly 10 years of civilian government, led first by the Pakistan’s People’s Party, later by General Zia’s proteges — the Sharif family — and again nothing happened. Their regimes also led to establishment of a new political elite whose only interest was in making money for themselves and their cronies and enjoying the power of patronage.

Then you had the cockpit coup with General Musharraf taking power in 1999. His first plan of modernisation was welcomed, but then he behaved exactly like previous dictators, went the same way and set up a new political party. You have a Muslim League for every occasion. Then you see pictures of these new leaders with the military general all over the country. It is now a pattern in Pakistani politics. Meanwhile, underneath, the country suffers.

TNS: Your views on religious extremism in Pakistan?

TA: There are two concurrent events going on. One, the religious extremist groups that were sponsored during the period of General Zia’s military dictatorship. These are the jihadi groups, violent, armed, and used by the military in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The number of people in these groups are debatable but are somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000. Then you have the moderate religious parties in the form of MMA. These, in my opinion, are totally legitimate political parties. I may not agree with them. They are conservative parties like those in the west. The MMA and the party currently in power in Turkey are the Islamic equivalents of Christian democratic parties in the west.

Then you have a third phenomenon — the growth of religiosity among the middle and upper middle class within the elite represented by Tablighi Jamaat, organisations like Al-Huda, who take advantage of the fact that there is a deep hole, a big vacuum, in the life of many people. However, in my opinion, it is impossible for religious or jihadi groups to come to power in Pakistan. Impossible, unless the military puts them there.

TNS: How can Pakistan combat extremism?

TA: The answer to religious extremist groups is a series of radical social reforms, including an excellent educational system that is free for the poor. At the present moment, you cannot get proper education in Pakistan unless you have money. The level of education is abysmal and I am not interested in the government giving figures of how many students have been enrolled in schools. Because they can enroll in schools but there are no teachers to teach them and no buildings in which they can be taught. So, that is the only way to combat religious extremism.

There is no military solution; there is a political solution internally and externally. I have to be blunt with you that those liberals from the elite society who think the only way to deal with extremism is to go and kill more people, I find this strategy disgusting, because killing people never solves problems. The problem is deep-rooted in our country’s history and it has to be solved. So far no group has emerged from above which is capable of solving it.

* Tariq Ali interview with News on Sunday was published on Sep 9, 07.