- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 22, 2002

By Owen Bennett Jones
Yale University Press, $29.95, 328 pages, illus.

With the Middle East teetering on the brink of nuclear war, nothing could be more timely than this account of Pakistan's turbulent history by a veteran British newsman.
At the heart of the matter, on the frozen roof of the world, lies Kashmir, a ravishingly beautiful princely state with a Hindu ruler, a Moslem majority and a strategic position bordering India, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The roots of the present crisis lie in the 10-year Russian occupation of Afghanistan, eventually ended by a combination of American dollars, Pakistani political support and Afghan valor.
Pakistan has been under military rule for half of its 53-year national life. No civilian president has completed his term in office. Thus the politics of the army has become the politics of the state, which is to the right of center. Because India has twice the strength of Pakistan's armed forces and usually enjoys the support of the Soviet Union, Pakistan has found it desirable to seek the backing of the United States (both India and Pakistan have small nuclear arsenals).
There always has been a price for such backing, and it usually has been high. For Pakistan, it has meant abandoning Islamabad's support of the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, a more vigorous fight against terrorism and restraining Pakistani-backed military raids into India and Indian-held Kashmir. For its part, the United States is sending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Pakistan, with the promise of more to come, and a softer position on human rights.
President Pervez Musharraf, a "modernist" who is intelligent, energetic and a good friend of the United States could be forced from power as a consequence of his abandonment of the Taliban. Yet Owen Bennett Jones Jones probably is correct in "Pakistan: The Eye of the Storm" that no more than 15 percent of Pakistanis want Islamic fundamentalism of the Afghan flavor. Most do not want to live in a dour theocracy. "They want their country to be moderate, modern, tolerant and stable," Mr. Jones writes.
The future of Pakistan probably depends largely on the orientation of the madrasas: private, religious schools usually based at a mosque. Most but not all of these schools are woefully under-funded, poorly equipped and short of trained teachers. Those who attend them tend to be those without money, family, connections or prospects, the rejects of Pakistani society. Learning is largely by rote and limited to religious subjects. The virtue of the madrasas system is that it has deep and widespread indigenous roots.
When the Russians invaded Afghanistan, there were about 250 madrasas in Pakistan. As a consequence of their success in producing dedicated zealous fighters, by 1987, 2,286 madrasas were producing about 30,000 graduates each year. Today, more than 700,000 students are attending 8,000 institutions. Tuition is free, and students who may spend seven or eight years in the system receive a small allowance.
The best of the graduates go directly to fighting units. They are paid a small salary, but more important is the feeling of glamour and self-worth attendant upon becoming a full-fledged jihadist.
Those who die know their parents will gain both prestige and a pension.As Mr. Jones observes, "what started as an alternative system for a small number of conservative religious families on the periphery of Pakistani society has been transformed into a countrywide parallel education system, catering for a substantial proportion of Pakistani children."
Control of the madrasas clearly is a prize worth fighting for, and the Pakistani government already has taken the first steps toward modernizing and reforming it. The trick to doing so is to change without destroying. A litmus test of the popularity of the army's reforms will be provided Oct. 10 when Pakistan holds a general election.
A number of opposition leaders, including two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto (the Harvard-educated daughter of the prime minister hanged by the army) and Nawaz Sharif, are in exile abroad and face arrest if they should return to Pakistan. Several of the country's 28 political parties are banned, or expected to be before balloting takes place.
A heavy vote for the opposition under such circumstances would be considered a serious blow to the Musharraf government, although the general would be expected to ignore calls for his resignation.

Smith Hempstone is a former editor in chief ofThe Washington Times.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide