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At the Edge of Revolution: Does Pakistan Have a Khomeini?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

LAHORE, Pakistan -- "The only time I wore a burka was at a fancy-dress ball," says Unver, a Pakistani painter hailing from an upper class Pakistani family. Speaking to a group of friends, he recounts sending his driver to the market to buy him the cheap, all-enveloping veil sealed with a face grill that many of Pakistan's most conservative women wear on sorties outside the house.

"After forty minutes of wearing that thing, I was drenched in sweat. Next time I saw my driver, I asked him how his wife can wear that thing all the time. He just looked at me with an expression that said, 'You don't understand.'"

Unver's post-party exchange with his driver hints at the massive cultural gap between the elites inhabiting the villas vacated by the British colonial masters and the vast majority of Pakistan's 190 million poverty-stricken masses. In Iran, a resource-rich country twice the size of Pakistan and with a third its population, this social disparity helped galvanize the 1979 Revolution that led to the foundation of the first Islamic Republic in the Middle East. Could this be the path that Pakistan will follow?

Unver is the only one of his siblings to have returned to Pakistan from the West. One of Pakistan's foremost painters, he sells his striking figurative and abstract works for several times what the average Pakistani makes in a year. His world is peopled by a British-accented Pakistani elite inhabiting exclusive districts of Lahore or Karachi and punctuated with shooting and fishing getaways conducted against a background of private guards, cooks and drivers. In Iran, almost thirty years ago, people such as Unver were shocked when the classes to which their servants belonged rose up to overthrow them and confiscate their properties. Could it be Pakistan's turn next?

"A civil war in slow motion has started already," said a Lahore-based Pakistani journalist who refused to be named for fear of jeopardizing his position. "Musharraf has a double standard: he's killing Baloch nationalists in the name of security and patronizing mullahs inside the capital."

Pakistan's military President came to power in a 1999 coup and assumed the position of Washington's main partner in its post-9/11 War on Terror. To safeguard American aid, Musharraf conjured the specter of Islamic radicalism as the only alternative to himself in a bid to convince the Americans that he is an indispensable partner. At the same time, he gave religious radicals more leeway to conduct their activities than at any other time since the Islamist Pakistani President Zia Ul Haqq.

In a notorious, ongoing case, hundreds of madrasseh students have taken over Islamabad's Red Mosque, a radical seminary, and are running an independent religious court that bypasses Pakistani law to implement Islamic law directly. The mosque's male and female students have also launched anti-vice patrols that target music and video shops. Meanwhile, in the northern Pakistani city Charsadda, two-dozen music shops have been blown up in the past month. In Iran, all Western music and films were banned after the Revolution and morality militias called Bassijis manned checkpoints and raided homes in which unrelated men and women were suspected of mingling.

In Balochistan, a restive and underdeveloped province adjoining Iran, Pakistan has constructed the fourth deepest port in the world with Chinese help. When ready, it will give Beijing a valuable strategic foot-hold close to the energy-rich Persian Gulf, long an American zone of influence. Washington is less than delighted about the budding Sino-Pakistani friendship, which has led to Musharraf stepping up his repression of armed Baloch factions who are demanding greater profit-sharing with the state and increased autonomy. Across the border with Iran, a series of explosions and kidnappings by a mysterious group called Jundullah (Soldier of God) has targeted the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, giving rise to Iranian accusations that the United States is involved in funneling arms, money and terrorist know-how to the anti-Tehran group as part of its strategy to pressure the Islamic Republic.

Elsewhere in Pakistan, social inequality is on the rise. Rather than addressing the simmering resentment and widespread poverty of the people, the incestuously intertwined political and business establishment is giving its blessing to the construction of Dubai-style exclusive gated compounds with names such as Canyon Views and Crescent Bay where the rich can isolate themselves from the anger of the poor. The remains of such compounds still exist in today's North Tehran, although they are now inhabited by the new "revolutionary" aristocracy. During the Shah's time, they were the exclusive domain of foreign, often American, advisers subcontracted out to the Shah's modernization drive. Like Pakistan, Iran had also signed an intrusive Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) with Washington that exempted U.S. personnel from prosecution under local courts in the event they committed a crime while in the host country.

Pakistan's elites inhabit exclusive, British-designed ghettos with 24-hour access to water and electricity and names such as Cantonment, Defence and GOR (Government Officials Residences). Their villas are set back from wide, tree-lined boulevards embedded with speed-bumps to minimize rowdy driving and terrorist attacks. Lush, plentifully-watered gardens poke over high walls, within which small detachments of servants bustle about preparing Sahib's car or Madame's social excursion. Educated in British-style public schools and American universities, Pakistan's upper classes speak mostly English among themselves, switching to Urdu to address the servants. Avoiding the slum-infested popular parts of town, they feed themselves at Western fast-food franchises and turn a blind eye to the assorted scrums of beggars clamoring to clean their windscreens or sell them jasmine-bracelets at traffic lights. In the summers, they migrate from Lahore or Karachi to London, taking a break from a busy social calendar that peaks in December with glittering weddings and parties catered by small armies and splashed across the glossy pages of socialite magazines.

Having been based in Iran for the past three years and having studied the social conditions that led to that revolution, I was assaulted by an ominous sense of déjà vu as I witnessed Pakistan's moneyed professionals discuss the emboldened religious conservatives in horrified tones at nightly salons. The way in which they mystifiedly asked each other who the niqab-clad women occupying the Lal Masjed (the takeover of the Red Mosque by radical Talibs is the latest manifestation of Islamist fervor in the Pakistani capital) reminded me of the befuddlement with which Iran's upper classes confronted the great unwashed after they took over Tehran's streets, ousted the Shah, voted overwhelmingly for an Islamic Republic and moved into the lavishly-appointed ministries of a defunct Imperial Iran.

Today, those formerly scruffy revolutionaries have aged gracefully in power, educated their children at foreign universities and chanelled their profits into international companies with interests in Dubai, London and New York. In the summer of 2005, it was their turn to look appalled as another wave of the great unwashed, led by current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stepped up to the seat of power.

So when can we expect the Revolution? Well, possibly not anytime soon.

"Pakistan's very social fabric has been broken, ever since Zia ul Haqq," said Javed Muazzam, the chairman of the Pakistan People's Party - Shahid Bhutto and Pakistan's longest-serving political prisoner during the reign of former Islamist premier Zia ul Haqq. "We've become a country of crises but even now people are not ready to come to the streets. They've been divided in religion, language and faith basis and lost their faith in the political parties that betrayed him."

Pakistan may be an overwhelmingly Muslim state, but it is split between a Sunni majority and Shiite minority and lacks a Khomeini-style religious leader behind which its fragmented religious groups can unite. None of the country's clerics possess the charisma of the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, while the corrupt antics of the leaders of Pakistan's mainstream political parties have robbed them of their popular legitimacy. Musharraf has taken advantage of this by building a strategic domestic alliance with the MQM, a thuggish political party that was largely responsible for violence two weeks ago that killed around 40 people in Karachi.

"He has parceled up the country and sold it off to people whose support his needs," said Benazir Bhutto, a two-time former prime minister with corruption charges pending against her. "He has given Karachi to the MQM like he has given the (North Western) Frontier to the religious extremists."

But not one of the religious parties is led by a personality of inspirational and unblemished religious credentials. The head cleric of the Red Mosque, Maulana Abdel Aziz, has been widely quoted in the headlines recently for threatening an anti-government jihad.

"We will not retreat. We will sacrifice our lives," said Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a spokesman at the Lal Masjid mosque.

However, neither he nor Abdel Aziz can match Khomeini in stature or the magnetic hold exercised over ordinary people. Ironically, perhaps Pakistan's most popular Muslim preacher is an Indian: Zahir Naik. Unknown to the West, he employs his fluent, sarcastic English to fashion biting retorts to perceived Western encroachments upon Islam that endear him to the millions of the subcontinent's middle class Muslims who feel directionless in these troubled times.

Ultimately, Pakistan is perhaps too young and insecure a nation to sustain a genuinely popular anti-establishment movement rising from the streets.

"Iranian society is intact and deep-rooted but we're not," said Munib. "Iranians have 3,000 years of nationhood and an accompanying arrogance. We don't."

Perhaps the reason for the almost servile respect that is directed towards foreigners lies in Pakistan's short nationhood -- just sixty years have elapsed since the state was created in 1947. It is an attitude diametrically opposed to the Iranian mistrust -- official and popular -- of Westerners and the single largest factor contributing to the two countries' foreign policy: Iran is an international pariah and member of the so-called Axis of Evil, while Pakistan is the most trusted Muslim partner in the War on Terror.

Perhaps the Pakistani Khomeini is even now preaching in a mosque in the conservative city of Multan or studying in a madrasseh in the North Western Frontier Province. But his ability to reach out to the masses will be hampered by Pakistan's Sunni-Shiite divide and the country's fragmented Muslim identity.

"In our subconscious we're shaped by Hindu mythology," said Rumman Ihsan, a journalist for Pakistan's Dawn television. "We worship idols, not democratic principles, and live in a fool's paradise, feeling that we're still the Muslim Moghul princes who ruled the Continent."

Iason Athanasiadis is an analyst and writer who recently left Iran after three years living in Tehran.

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