On Monday the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad issued an unusual statement, urging the Pakistani government to immediately release scores of opposition politicians and activists arrested last weekend.
Earlier this week U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said at a gathering in Washington he told his Pakistani interlocutors that “democracy is the best form of governance that I know.”
While not taking a public stance on issues like whether President Gen. Pervez Musharraf should quit the army before or after the forthcoming elections in Pakistan, the Bush administration has consistently emphasized the need to ensure that “the elections are fair, free, transparent and all inclusive,” as a State Department official said.
In an interactive session with students of the South Asia Program at Johns Hopkins University’s Washington campus, Boucher acknowledged some people fear the elections could bring religious extremists to power.
But he also pointed out that many in Pakistan believe the elections, if they are free and fair, will decrease, and not increase, the influence of religious political parties in Pakistan.
“The religious parties do have a place in Pakistan’s political spectrum although they may not get as many votes in the next elections as they did in 2002,” he said.
This reflects a major change in the U.S. attitude toward politics in the Islamic world. Elections in some Muslim countries, such as Algeria, did bring religious extremists to the front, causing Washington and other Western capitals to believe they are better off supporting unpopular but pro-Western autocratic rulers.
Pakistani politicians, particularly former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, however, have always insisted that Pakistan was different.
“Throughout Pakistan's 60-year history, weaving between dictatorship and democracy, from free elections to rigged elections to no elections, religious fundamentalists have never been a significant part of our political consciousness,” Bhutto wrote in an op-ed piece published in The Washington Post last week.
“We are inherently a centrist, moderate nation. Historically, the religious parties have not received more than 11 percent of the vote in national elections,” she said.
She and other Pakistani politicians argue that religious political parties, particularly extremists, have only been prominent when there is a ban on political activities in the country.
In the 2002 elections an alliance of half a dozen religious parties -- Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal -- captured the provincial legislature in one province, formed a coalition government in another and became the largest opposition group in the center.
But as Bhutto pointed out, it only happened because Musharraf kept her and her rival politician and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif out of the election process and out of the country.
Pakistani politicians also insist their country is different from other Muslim states in the sense it already has a free media and an established political culture.
The country has several large political parties with organizational structures that stretch from major cities to the remotest of villages. While Pakistan has been ruled for half of its 60 years of independence by military generals, even the strongest general had to include politicians in his setup.
From Gen. Ayub Khan to Zia ul Huq and Musharraf, each military ruler was forced to hold some form of elections, allow the federal and provincial legislatures to function, even if under duress, and form his own political party.
Despite their corruption and inefficiency, the politicians also have a history of struggle. Many were jailed, some for years, and one -- Bhutto’s father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto -- was hanged for refusing to bow before a general, Zia ul Huq.
That’s why Pakistani politicians have always argued the United States is wrong in placing Pakistan in the same category as some of the Middle Eastern nations.
“The United States should not side with the generals. It should support the people of Pakistan who want democracy,” said Sharif, who earlier this month attempted to return home from forced exile but was deported to Saudi Arabia.
And Washington’s strong reaction to the arrests of opposition politicians in Pakistan over the weekend shows the Bush administration seems to have realized it has to strengthen democratic forces if it wants to fight extremists in that country.
In a rare statement issued in Islamabad on Monday, the U.S. Embassy expressed "serious concern" at reports of arrests of opposition politicians and described the government’s move as an “extremely disturbing” development.
The remarks came as police clashed with opposition activists outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad, which is hearing many challenges to whether Musharraf is eligible for re-election.
“The reports of arrests of the leadership of several major Pakistani political parties are extremely disturbing and confusing for the friends of Pakistan,” the U.S. Embassy said.
“We wish to express our serious concern about these developments. These detainees should be released as soon as possible.
“We hope to see a democratic process that is inclusive and the election of a leader who represents the choice of the Pakistani people through a free, fair, and transparent process."
This strong reaction signals a change in Washington’s attitude toward Musharraf and his autocratic rule. It also reflects the U.S. desire to give democracy a chance, even at the risk of allowing extremists to exploit the electoral process.