Former (and future?) Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif
Daniel Markey

ISLAMABAD - If Pakistan's May 11 parliamentary elections unfold according to recent national opinion surveys, two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif will once again take power in Islamabad. Deposed in a 1999 coup led by General Pervez Musharraf, Sharif fled for nearly a decade of Saudi-sponsored exile. Today, however, it is Musharraf who lives under house arrest just outside Islamabad and faces charges of treason. Even in the context of Pakistan's topsy-turvy politics, this latest role-reversal is nothing short of breathtaking.

Sharif is no stranger to Washington, and by all accounts, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) leader knows how to hold a grudge. The years of generous U.S. support to the Musharraf regime that sent him packing are bound to rankle. Time, along with a changed administration in the White House, may have started to heal that wound, but Sharif would return to power with little trust or affection for the United States.

Pakistan's political transition comes at a critical juncture for the region. The U.S.-led campaign in neighboring Afghanistan has shifted from surge to downsizing. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship has moved from the post-9/11 era to an uncertain new post-bin Laden era, and the Obama administration is busy reassessing how best to manage its long-term goals in South Asia, from counterterrorism to nuclear nonproliferation. In the midst of such flux, Islamabad's new leadership team will play an important role in setting the tone and direction of the bilateral relationship.

Sharif Versus America

Along with a bitter history, Sharif has other differences with Washington. Above all, he has publicly opposed the U.S. counterterror campaign in South Asia, and especially the CIA-directed drone war in Pakistan's tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. As Sharif has said numerous times, "We won't tolerate these attacks on our territorial jurisdictions."

It is possible that Sharif, if he returns to power, would never back up those words with meaningful action. Instead, like his predecessors, he could privately or tacitly permit U.S. drone strikes while criticizing them in public and leaving the details to be sorted out by Pakistan's military.

On the other hand, Sharif might actually try to end or curtail the scope of the drone program. Less likely, but still conceivably, he could offer a trade: his endorsement of a limited number of drone strikes in exchange for greater Pakistani control over targeting decisions. In any event, Washington should be prepared for the possibility that Sharif will seek to renegotiate the terms of Pakistan's counterterror cooperation.

A similar renegotiation may be necessary with respect to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. To start, although the massive retrograde of U.S. military equipment planned for the next several years is possible without Pakistan's roads and ports, it would be faster and cheaper to flow containers and vehicles south through Karachi than north through Central Asia. A new Sharif government might try to hike the price of overland transit as a new source of revenue or as bargaining leverage to achieve other goals.

Beyond logistical considerations, there is the question of just how helpful (or harmful) Sharif's Pakistan would be as the United States seeks an exit from the Afghan war. The answer depends on (1) how Sharif and his party relate to the Taliban and other violent extremist groups, and (2) whether Sharif would exert control over Pakistan's foreign policy in ways the most recent civilian government could not.

Sharif and the Jihadis

Sharif's liberal Pakistani critics speak darkly of his associations withextremist networks in Punjab. Some say that he harbors ideological or religious sympathies for groups like the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a political front for one of Pakistan's most violent Sunni extremist groups, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). The SSP and its affiliates are responsible for horrific sectarian carnage. Recently, a series of photos has made the rounds on the Internet, showing Rana Sanaullah, a top official in Sharif's PMLN party, palling around with AWSJ leader Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi.

Those more sympathetic to the PMLN tend to argue that Sharif's center-right PMLN simply cuts rational, politically necessary deals with a range of Pakistan's Islamist parties to win elections. At heart, they insist, Sharif and other top party bosses are Punjabi centrists and industrialists who appreciate that extremism, violence, and anti-Western ideologies are all bad for business.

Maybe so, but U.S. officials will recall the 2010 episode when Nawaz Sharif's younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, number two in the party and then chief minister of Punjab province,suggested that the Pakistani Taliban should have no cause to attack his province. As he explained, both the PMLN and the Taliban had rejected Musharraf's dictatorial rule as well as the "external dictation" of the United States, so they had little cause for quarrel. Even today, the PMLN's election manifesto mainly blames a combination of Musharraf's authoritarian rule and the post-9/11 U.S. war in Afghanistan for encouraging and emboldening Pakistan's militants. If the United States is hoping for a loyal partner or champion of anti-extremist causes in Islamabad, it will be sorely disappointed if the PMLN comes to power.

Over the past decade, Pakistan's violent extremists have shown a capacity to disrupt society with acts of terrorism, like the October 2012 attack on the young schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai. Fortunately, these vicious groups continue to lack political unity or a base of popular support sufficient to win power through the ballot box. One of America's chief concerns about a PMLN-led government is that its leaders seem too eager to temporize with Pakistan's home-grown extremists, too willing to offer them breathing space and even a share of political power that would turn them into an even more formidable threat to national stability.

Is there any silver lining for the United States? Actually, the PMLN's history of accommodating extremist groups might prove tactically useful at a time when Washington is energetically exploring reconciliation talks with the leaders of the Afghan Taliban insurgency. It is unlikely that Sharif's government would be able to bridge the divide between these warring adversaries, but U.S. officials should at least test the proposition.

Sharif and the Generals

More than the civilian president or prime minister, it is Pakistan's army chief who has always set Islamabad's stance on Afghanistan. How Sharif manages relations with General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani (and with Kayani's successor, since the chief is slated to retire in November) will have important implications for Pakistan's stability as well as for its relations with Afghanistan, India, and the United States.

Decades ago, Sharif and his party were the army's favorites, but their relations are now poisoned by a history of political confrontation and personal antagonism that goes well beyond Sharif's feud with Musharraf. If the two sides remain at loggerheads, their skirmishing will distract the country from necessary initiatives required for peace, security, and economic growth.The United States would then be hard-pressed simply to navigate between feuding politicians and generals.

Fortunately, many members of the PMLN are eager to overcome past grievances and find a stable working relationship with their military counterparts. If that effort were to succeed, the army and the PMLN might again prove natural partners, backed by Pakistan's "silent majority" of center-right nationalists. All have an interest in promoting economic reforms that would bolster industrial production. In addition, they seek a normalized relationship with India that permits greater trade, even if they are not ready to resolve underlying diplomatic disputes.

A Workable Relationship?

Many analysts predict that if Sharif returns to power, his party will sit atop a fractious coalition government that will tie the aging "lion of Pakistan" in political knots even if he escapes debilitating tangles with the army. No doubt, Sharif will find Pakistan a difficult country to govern; there is no telling how long his government would hold together in the face of severe stresses within and without. Sharif lacks at least some of the cunning and uncanny survival instinct that permitted President Asif Ali Zardari to keep his party in power for a full five-year term.

The United States, too, will find no easy solutions for many of its longstanding frustrations with Pakistan if Sharif assumes the helm.

U.S. officials should begin their dealings with a new Sharif government by actively encouraging his strengths, especially his economic and educational reform agenda and his openness to improved relations with India; quietly holding a firm line on areas of dispute, like drones; and exploring potential areas for tactical cooperation, such as the Afghan Taliban reconciliation effort. Under such circumstances, the best Washington can achieve would be a workable relationship: a far cry from the ambition of "strategic partnership" touted early in the Obama administration's first term, and yet not a complete disaster either.

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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