NEW YORK – The recent slaughter of Shiites in Pakistan is another grisly reminder of the perilous condition of its minorities. Indeed, in Pakistan and Indonesia, the two largest Muslim countries, both of which are in the midst of a fraught experiment with electoral democracy after decades of military rule, murderous assaults on Shiites, Christians and Ahmadis by majoritarian Sunni fanatics have become routine.
As a report last week by Human Right Watch claimed, the Indonesian government has shown a “deadly indifference to the growing plight of Indonesia’s religious minorities.” Political leaders in Pakistan, too, are guilty of the same.
Successful mass mobilizations against autocratic rule in Indonesia and Pakistan, followed by free elections, raised hopes of a new civil society. So why have both countries witnessed the opposite phenomenon — the rise of uncivil society?
The exponential rise in violence and bigotry is often blamed on the deep — and very nasty — state within the two countries: army and intelligence officials who helped set up extremist groups and now use them to wield power.
Islam is also held culpable, even though its conservative varieties, denoted superficially by the proliferation of veils and long beards, have long been apparent in both countries, partly as the result of urbanization and the loss of traditionalist Sufi-inflected faiths favored by a majority in the multicultural pasts of both Indonesia and Pakistan.
However, the obsession with the deep state’s incurable malignity or Islam’s menacing sociopolitical manifestations, which actually range from Wahhabi blowhards to relatively sagacious televangelists, obscures how elected politicians, in the absence of substantive democracy, cynically deploy radical groups to practice power politics.
The government in Pakistan’s Punjab province, which is run by the Pakistan Muslim League (N), one of Pakistan’s two main parties, reportedly paid a monthly stipend to Malik Ishaq, who was just detained in connection with a bombing that killed almost 90 people. PML (N)’s arrangements with Ishaq’s banned Shiite-killing outfit, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, are in place for the elections due this year; and, as a likely harvester of votes, Ishaq enjoys near-perfect immunity.
Mainstream politics in Indonesia, as in Pakistan, were free of murderous Islamic extremists well after independence in the late 1940s. It was an insecure dictator, Suharto, who inaugurated the Islamization of Indonesia, a constitutionally secular state, in an attempt to give himself legitimacy and redirect the growing appeal of political Islam, part of a worldwide trend in the 1980s.
But the lifting of restrictions on political activity since Suharto’s fall in 1998 brought other actors on stage, including: the now-suppressed terrorist outfit Jemaah Islamiyah, which was involved in the Bali bombings in 2002; the Islamic Defenders Front, a militia that tries to regulate the morals of Indonesians by attacking massage parlors and nightclubs; and the Justice and Prosperity Party, which won 9 percent of the popular vote in national elections in 2009.
Most importantly, many mainstream parties with secular traditions have gone garishly Islamic in a desperate attempt to distract voters. Local governments have enacted harsh shariah laws while the central government turns a blind eye to attacks by thugs on churches.
One reason for the growing tolerance of intolerance is political fragmentation in both Indonesia and Pakistan. No party enjoys a broad enough base to govern confidently. All are forced to rely on a variety of formulas and gimmicks, including populist welfare programs, promises of regional autonomy and crooked deals with extremists, in a dash for electoral majorities.
It doesn’t help that political parties are basically patronage-dispensing machines for old and new elites, with the capture of state power as their main aim. Ideologies and principles rarely matter in what is seen as a zero-sum game in which votes are aggressively bartered — when not literally bought. In this dog-eat-dog world, standing up politically for the Shiites and Ahmadis can be more trouble than it’s worth; and it’s easier to bet on the possibility that the rabid anti-Shiites might just bring in a few votes in places traditionally dominated by Shiite landlords.
Illiberal politics pays — and not just in an Islamic country. A purely formal democracy, one not underpinned by institutions and notions of justice and fairness, can breed monsters anywhere.
Indeed, India’s prime minister-in-waiting Narendra Modi, whose alleged complicity in the deaths of almost 2,000 Muslims in his state in 2002 seems to help rather than hinder him, is South Asia’s true master of the brutal calculus of sectarian politics; his perfectly calibrated callousness toward religious minorities and the poor is now matched by brimming business- friendliness that endears him to big Indian conglomerates.
Democracy is undermined not so much by Islam, or for that matter Hindu extremism, as by ruthlessly self-interested elites who hijack the political process, using all available means to secure their dominance.
Their old axis of violence, cronyism and corruption is susceptible to challenge by a genuinely social-democratic party or movement. But essential ingredients for such a challenge seem to be in short supply in Indonesia and Pakistan.
For decades their ruling class systematically destroyed all progressive opposition and even the conception of political life, in which nongovernmental organizations, women’s groups, peasant associations, trade unions or empowered local governments patiently create democracy from below.
In their place, the two countries have populist parties and individuals vending miracles, like the Justice and Prosperity Party or Pakistan’s Movement for Justice, led by the famous ex-cricketer Imran Khan, which present themselves as anti-establishment and profess to offer instantly honest and truly Islamic government to both the harried middle class and the militantly disaffected poor.
They are soon compromised by their apparent proximity to the venal establishment. Nevertheless, there are always enough people who, recoiling from everyday experiences of predatory capitalism, graft-ridden political institutions, harsh poverty and joblessness, seek recourse in the practice of “true” Islam.
This would be unremarkable — Islam will never cease to signify an alternative moral and political order — if growing rage over a grossly iniquitous system wasn’t channelled so frequently into savage assaults on various infidels.
As leaked cables from the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan 2009 pointed out, “poor and underdeveloped regions” in rural Punjab and Sindh are “increasingly the recruiting and training ground for extremism and militancy.” “Unlike in the recent past, the poor and jobless youth are no longer cut off from the outside world”; they can see “the wealth and corruption that exist outside their immediate circles.”
One day, this dyad of dupes and extremists may well be regarded as a byproduct of a particularly unstable and grim phase in the evolution of democracy. But that day will come only if democracy amounts to something more than adult franchise and ceases to be a way of further empowering the rich and the powerful. In the meantime, the working relationship between politicians and communities of sectarian hate can only grow stronger.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India. The opinions expressed are his own.