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Monday, 28 May 2007

25 May 2007

Sometimes I think it is my duty to alert you to something that hasn’t happened yet. You can think of me, if you like, as an early warning system, an amber flashing light in the middle distance. Trouble ahead.

And this week, what do I see in the middle distance? Pakistan, population 170 million, the second most populous Muslim nation in the world. Formed in 1947 when the British carved up India to create an Islamic homeland. Its name means Land of the Pure.

Now, it’s a seething hotbed of unrest, and its military leader General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a coup eight years ago, looks weaker than ever. He is being torn apart by the incompatible demands of his Western allies, who insist that he cracks down on Islamic pro-Taliban militants on the border with Afghanistan, and a growing number of his own citizens who are beginning to see certain attractions in Islamic militancy.

For more than half of its 60-year existence, Pakistan has been ruled by the military. Its experience of elected civilian governments has not been a happy one; corruption and incompetence rapidly became their defining characteristics. When General Musharraf seized power in 1999, barely anyone complained. And when he quickly sided with the US after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he became a much-valued Western ally.

When I interviewed him four years ago, he was happy to be described as a bridge between two worlds: the West, and Islam. But that bridge is creaking dangerously now: the West thinks he has failed to stop the Taliban using Pakistani territory as a base from which to mount attacks in Afghanistan; his Islamist political allies in parliament think he’s doing too much to appease the West.

Does it matter? Oh yes, it matters a lot. Pakistan has a nuclear weapons capability. Remember? It has in the past gone to war against India over the disputed territory of Kashmir (still not resolved, even if relations between the two neighbours are now much better than they were). And I doubt that I need to remind you that many of the British Muslims who have been convicted in connection with terrorism allegations have spent time in Pakistan.

So why the warning signals now? Well, two weeks ago 40 people were killed in protest demonstrations in the teeming port city of Karachi. President Musharraf’s political allies were blamed for the violence. This week, there have been more protests in a number of cities; there are signs of growing public unrest. Pro-democracy activists are demonstrating; Islamists are demonstrating; lawyers are demonstrating, because the president decided to sack the chief justice of the Supreme Court, a man with a reputation for speaking his mind.

Oh, and the minister of tourism, Nilofar Bakhtiar, has just tried to resign after clerics said she had behaved in an “obscene” manner by being pictured hugging a man in public after a paragliding flight. It is one of the many paradoxes of Pakistan that it combines a sophisticated, liberal intelligentsia with a form of sometimes unreconstructed Islamist revanchism. They do not sit happily together.

So, I suggest that you keep an eye on Pakistan. Watch what London and Washington say as they try to prop up General Musharraf while inching him towards political plurality. There have been at least three assassination attempts against him in the past couple of years; there may well be more. And the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the state is coming up this August.

Finally, I’m sorry if this is beginning to sound boring, but our colleague Alan Johnston has now been missing in Gaza for nearly 11 weeks. More than 100,000 people have signed our online petition calling for his release; if you haven’t yet done so, you’ll find it clicking here.

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