Prime Minister and head of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Nawaz Sharif (left) speaks to supporters during an election campaign in Liaquat Bagh. Photo: EPA

A vote to decide Islam's role in Pakistani politics

Shahid Javed Burki says extremist attacks ahead of the polls underline the high stakes involved

Pakistan's moment of political truth is fast approaching. On Saturday, some 40-50 million voters will elect a new national assembly. The outcome is likely to reverberate far and wide.

The vote has been preceded by a spike in extremist violence. Pakistan's terrorist groups know the country is at a tipping point, and are attacking candidates and voters who favour a secular state. Hundreds of people have already been killed, targeted because, if these groups prevail, they would push what is sometimes called the "idea of Pakistan" to its logical - and extreme - conclusion.

Some 70 years ago, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founding father, launched the movement to create an independent state for the Muslims of British India. Today, Pakistan's population is 95 per cent Muslim.

Over time, an increasing proportion of this population has begun to demand the creation of an Islamic state in Pakistan. The upcoming election will determine how far the country will go along this route.

Pakistan is not the only Muslim country seeking to redefine its future. Similar processes are playing out in other countries in the western part of the Islamic world.

The large countries in this part of the Islamic world - most notably Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey - are attempting to address four problems, the most challenging of which is to define Islam's role in politics.

Turkey seems to have found an answer, prodded in part by its wish to join the European Union. A conservative ruling party with deep religious roots is content to leave religion to private observance, with no direct influence on public policy. The issue remains less settled in Egypt, while in Pakistan a small but highly motivated part of the population has embraced extreme violence as a form of political expression.

The role of the military in politics also needs to be resolved. Once again, Turkey has taken the lead. Then there is sectarianism, particularly the growing strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Finally, there is the question of the Muslim world's relations with the West, particular the US. The old post-Ottoman "grand bargain" - Western acceptance of authoritarianism in exchange for the secure flow of oil, use of sensitive sea lanes, and some tolerance for the existence of Israel - has broken down. What replaces it will be determined by the shape of the new political order that finally emerges in the western Islamic world. In other words, more is at stake in Pakistan's upcoming election than just the future of Pakistan.

The election has engendered both hope and anxiety among Pakistanis. It could go either way. And, for good or bad, where Pakistan goes, other Muslim countries could follow.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: A vote to decide Islam's role in Pakistani politics