What’s happening in Pakistan reveals the inner dynamics not just of that country but of all Islamic countries. It’s a question of power: who is to hold it, and by what means? Previous rulers of Pakistan have sought to exercise absolute power, and this means ruling through the army and the intelligence service. Other institutions, including the legal branch, have the primary function of endorsing one-man rule. And like previous rulers in Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf knows how to play the brutal game that this form of government necessarily involves.
It was never going to be easy. Pakistan is a country of some 165 million, well over half of them illiterate. Radical Islam has found it easy to fanaticise them. The Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan, appeal to tribal instincts and to anti-Western prejudice. No doubt Musharraf’s worst error was to believe that he could make a treaty with al-Qaeda and the Taliban and trust them to respect it. In addition, Pakistani Sunnis and Shias murder each other. Suicide bombings are a daily occurrence.
As the situation deteriorates, the West is caught in a horrible bind. The United States continues to back Musharraf with money and weaponry, but cannot condone the methods he has to employ to retain absolute power, instead publicly pressurising him to “democratise.” This opens the way to a vicious power struggle. Former failed and disgraced (and disgraceful) absolute rulers pretend to be democrats, military men plot a coup, and judges led by the dodgy Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, make their bid to end up on the winning side by deciding no longer to endorse one-man rule.
What is Musharraf to do in such circumstances? He could follow the example of the Shah of Iran, throw his hand in and fly into exile. Or he could do what Saddam Hussein and Hafiz Assad and other Arab one-man rulers have done, and murder as many as need be to restore the status quo, however bloody and vengeful. In the event, he has declared a state of emergency, sacked the judicial activists and arrested about 500 opponents. Addressing his fellow Pakistanis in Urdu on television, he broke into English for the sake of Washington and London, pleading, “Please do not expect or demand your level of democracy which you learned over a number of centuries. Please give us time.”
And that’s the nub of it. The political establishment in Washington and London are mouthing the usual mindless clichés about their “grave concern” and the press throughout the democratic West is shrieking that Musharraf has doomed himself, and deserves to go. In reality, it is hard not to feel sympathy for his plight. He has proved to be neither a quitter nor a killer. If anything, his measures are too mild to protect his rule, and he may have to arrest more, and prevent street demonstrations sponsored and paid for by the several would-be one-man rulers striving to replace his person with theirs. The alternative is the continuation of the power struggle by force of arms, the certain talibanization of large parts of the population, and perhaps even the total break-down of the country. The timing of this crunch could hardly be worse. In the near future, both Iran and Pakistan could be in a position to place nuclear weapons at the service of Islamist terror, and what then is the world to expect?
A sample of Islamic wisdom that goes back a thousand years is applicable to Musharraf at present: “Tyranny is better than anarchy.”