Islamic Stronghold in Pakistan Goes Secular

February 22, 2008

Author: Mark Sappenfield

Source: The Christian Science Monitor

Hajji Ali Akbar wants his country to be governed by Islamic law.

Yet in Monday's elections in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), he and many others voted for a party that rejects religion in politics. It has led many to herald these elections as a victory for secular democracy and as a sign of the failure of Islamic parties' governance.

The religious parties that held 46 of the 96 provincial parliamentary seats won only nine this time. Moreover, they have been replaced by the secular Awami National Party (ANP).

It is an important development in the province nearest Pakistan's tribal areas, known to host Al Qaeda and the Taliban and the new focus of US antiterror policy. The ANP is expected to marshal all the province's resources – police, politics, and the law – against extremism, whereas the mullahs had refused even to condemn suicide attacks.

For this, Mr. Akbar gave them his vote. Yet he, like many others, says his vote was not a veto of Islamic politics. He wants a government that is fair and ethical, and he will vote for anyone to get it. That meant ousting President Pervez Musharraf's allies – in this case, the mullahs loyal to him. "They wanted a vote in the name of Islam," says Akbar, sipping tea by the roadside outside the Old City. "But it was not for Islam, it was for Islamabad," the capital and seat of Musharraf's government.