Liberal despair at rising tide of Islamist extremism in Pakistan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 August, 2007, 12:00am

The first thing you notice about Mira Sethi is her name - it belongs on both sides of the India-Pakistan border.

Mira is Persian for the 'Star of Bethlehem'. It is also Sanskrit for 'ocean', and the name of a sainted Hindu poet. The family name, Sethi, also comfortably straddles the border, common among both Muslims and Hindus in the Punjab.

'I don't mind the confusion at all,' she says.

'I like the fact that my name can't be neatly slotted into any category - Hindu, Muslim or Christian.'

Ms Sethi is far removed from the image of young Pakistani womanhood that has lately risen to prominence - shrouded in black, wielding a big stick and screaming jihad. Instead, she is the daughter of distinguished Lahore-based journalists Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin.

After spending her summer break at home, she is heading back to the US for her second year at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, majoring in English and South Asian studies.

Ms Sethi belongs to the liberal segment of Pakistani society that has watched with increasing dismay as Islamist extremists have gained in power and influence. This had not been envisioned by the country's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

'Jinnah was a very secular man,' she says. 'In a 1948 speech, he made it clear that Pakistan would not be a theocratic state. It is therefore sad that fundamentalists are now gaining ground and leaders from religious parties get to sit in the national assembly.'

The Islamists first tasted blood in the late 1970s and in the 1980s under military strongman General Zia-ul-Haq. Though today's military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, is a liberal, he has failed to check the Islamist tide.

'General Zia injected this rabid form of Islamisation into the country; he politicised Islam,' Ms Sethi says. 'General Musharraf is a liberal and a pragmatist, and he does not believe Pakistan should be tethered to this singular Islamist identity.

'But he couldn't implement his concept of 'enlightened moderation' because Islam has been so politicised in Pakistan.'

The other major source of concern has been the dismal record of mainstream political leaders during phases of democracy sandwiched between military rule. The last was an 11-year period beginning in 1988, when Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif alternated as prime ministers.

'There was awful corruption during Benazir's time - she and her husband looted the country dry,' Ms Sethi says. 'Nawaz Sharif was a pseudo-democrat, and he did the same.'

Mr Sharif's authoritarian style even resulted in a personal trauma for Ms Sethi. Her father, an editor, was imprisoned for a month in 1999 under a trumped-up treason charge.

'India has had uninterrupted democracy; we haven't. And we've suffered because of that.'

But Pakistan is still blessed with a vigorous civil society - human rights groups, NGOs and a combative media.

'We have a very, very vibrant civil society. The recent lawyers' movement [to reinstate a top judge sacked by General Musharraf] has been extremely heartening for millions of Pakistanis. All the slogans were secular slogans.

'The movement's leader, Aitzaz Ahsan, has become a huge hero. He's so popular that people say he should be the next prime minister.'

Yet she believes Pakistan is not ready for a return to full democracy.

'Undiluted democracy is not the solution right now,' Ms Sethi says. 'Democrats have no political hold over the fundamentalists; only the military can control them. I think that's why Benazir Bhutto is keen on sharing power with General Musharraf. That way, they can also keep each other in check.

'Mind you, General Musharraf still has a lot of admirers in Pakistan. Kids my age say, 'Look at the economy. Look at the annual 8 per cent GDP growth'. Even his policy towards the media has been far more democratic than, say, Sharif's.'

But despite the economic progress made under General Musharraf, people are acutely aware that India has taken much bigger strides.

'Ordinary people don't care about the Hindu-Muslim divide - they feel we're alike, our sensibilities are the same, and that we should do business with each other,' she says. 'Pakistanis desperately want a 21st-century identity, a modern identity.'

Pakistani cinema's latest box office hit is, in fact, a film that dramatises the conflict between extremist and moderate Islam, with the moderates triumphant in the end.

Ms Sethi believes Pakistani society is resilient and will bounce back.

'The reason why I don't feel fearful or pessimistic is because most Pakistanis want to be part of the modern globalised world, like India or Turkey or Malaysia.'