As the primary arbiter of national affairs in Pakistan, it is the army alone that is equipped to put up an effective political challenge to extremism.

The killing of Salmaan Taseer has once again raised fears about Pakistan's future. More than the killing itself, the wide support for the killer among ordinary people has shown that religious extremism is not confined to the lunatic fringe. If a “silent majority” of moderate Pakistanis exist at all, they have gone even more silent and thus carry little or no value when the chips are down. On the other hand, over 50,000 people attended a rally called by Islamist parties in Karachi, at which Taseer's killer was hailed, and Sherry Rehman, a parliamentarian of the Pakistan People's Party, was declared wajib ul qatl (fit to be killed) for demanding changes to the draconian blasphemy law.

The few Pakistanis who are still not afraid to stand up and be counted as liberal, progressive, rational and modern agonise about what must be done to reclaim Jinnah's vision of Pakistan, which they believe was modernist. But their helplessness is only too painfully apparent as they rage on the Facebook, Twitter, SmS and blogs, and in Pakistan's English language newspapers. Should we hold a rally, one Facebooker asks. Candlelight vigil, invites another. Yet another talks about taking on extremism through a “lateral assault.” But everyone knows that tweets and newspaper columns do not a revolution make.

The elected government is too weak to take on such a huge challenge and the judiciary's record in the matter is mixed, at best. As one commentator pointed out, when it comes to deciding cases that have to do with religious extremism, militancy and terrorism, judges look for every loophole to let off the suspect; on the other hand, when it comes to blasphemy cases, suspects get no benefit of doubt at all.

There is now perhaps only one force that can push back the poison that has taken hold of Pakistan's vitals, and it is the same one that is responsible for spreading it in the first place — the Pakistan Army. At the outset, let it be clear that this is a case not for a military takeover in Pakistan but for strengthening its democracy.

That Pakistan's national security establishment and the Islamists are fellow travellers is well known. The military sought and obtained predominance in national affairs with the help of the Islamists. It used them in the pursuit of regional strategic goals, in Afghanistan and against India in Kashmir. In turn, the Islamists have managed to gain influence over a good section of the military and the security establishment to push their vision of Pakistan.

Everyone agrees that the military's jihad enterprise since the time of General Zia-ul-Haq's dictatorship is squarely responsible for much that is wrong in Pakistan today — the fundamentalist madrassas; the hate-filled school curriculum that has misinformed two generations of Pakistanis; its rejection of its South Asian heritage and embrace of Arabisation; the anti-people measures in the name of religion such as the Hudood ordinance and the blasphemy laws.

The intolerance that was behind the killing of Taseer must be seen as part of the same continuum, and Barelvis are apparently no exception to this. The Barelvis are seen as practising an Islam that is closer to Sufi traditions and a majority of Pakistanis adhere to this sect. In the summer of 2009, the PPP government took upon itself the task of promoting Barelvism as a counter to the Deobandi-Wahabist schools that are the well-spring of radical Islam.

At the time, a Barelvi cleric was killed by a suicide bomber for participating in government-organised conferences that condemned suicide bombings. But those who thought the Barelvi stand against suicide bombings and jihad made them less extremist are disappointed. That Taseer's killer, a policeman who was deputed to be part of the Punjab Governor's security detail, is a Barelvi, and Barelvi clerics played a prominent role in condemning Taseer before and after his death only goes to show how deep the poison has spread in all the experimentation with religion by the military-dominated Pakistani state.

Today, the Pakistani military says it has no truck with militants or extremist organisations. It points to the death toll of 3,000 Pakistani security personnel killed in the line of duty as Pakistan plays a frontline role in the U.S.-led “war on terror.” It points to the retaliation against it by militants. Suicide bombers and snipers have targeted generals, there was an attack on the GHQ, even on a mosque used by senior army officials.

Pressured by the United States following 9/11, the Pakistan Army under General Pervez Musharraf, who was also heading the country at the time, did roll back the state's links to militants and radicals. But questions about the sincerity of this effort remain. Gen. Musharraf spoke about building an “enlightened moderate” nation but when it came to implementing this vision, he hedged his bets. Islamist parties made unprecedented electoral gains during his time, and ran a provincial government in the North-West Frontier Province that looked upon the radicalisation of the region with a benevolent gaze. It was ultimately with the help of these parties that Gen. Musharraf won parliamentary legitimacy and was able to enhance his powers as President.

He banned some militant groups, and then watched as they resurfaced under other names. The Kashmir jihadists were never reined in fully. The Afghan Taliban remained intact. Hate-spewing madrassas and mosques remained untouched. The continuing tolerance for these activities by the state, even though Gen. Musharraf himself was the target of two assassination bids by militants, hardly created the climate for the much touted vision of enlightened moderation. He backed down on a promise to change the blasphemy law in the face of protests by Islamists. To his credit, he went through with amendments to the Hudood ordinance but watered them down to make the changes acceptable to the religious right-wing.

Extremism grew, invading the national capital as never before, witness the Lal Masjid episode. When commandos took control of the mosque and the radical Jamia Hafsa seminary next door to flush out the militants holed up inside, ordinary Pakistanis were convinced that Gen. Musharraf had killed “thousands of Koran-reading girls.” No one accepted the official death toll of around 100 dead including the commandos who were killed in action. The Lal Masjid incident also brought on bloody retaliation from militants in the form of more suicide bombings and terror attacks.

Around this time, the movement for the restoration of the Chief Justice gave the impression that Pakistan was finally reconnecting with Jinnah's vision. But alongside moderate sections of lawyers and civil activists demanding rule of law and democracy, religious conservatives and Islamists played a prominent role in it, using it as a vehicle to rail against Gen. Musharraf for taking even the half-hearted steps that he had taken against militancy.

It is now argued that the situation has spun so out of control of the military that it is helpless against its own poison. In any case, it is rightly argued, extremism in people's minds cannot be removed by a military operation.

But as the primary arbiter of national affairs in Pakistan, it is the army alone that is equipped to put up an effective political challenge to extremism. For one, it could come out with a strong condemnation of the killing of Salman Taseer, which it has not done so far. It could declare its whole-hearted backing to any attempt by the political government to make changes to laws that encourage extremism and religious intolerance. It could also openly come out in favour of changing the school curriculum and for reforms in the madrassa education systems.

Such steps would send strong signals through the establishment for a clean-up, and to the rest of the nation. Of course, it would mean several changes in the Army's own thinking. It would mean that the Pakistan Army stops looking at the Islamists as an ally. That, in turn, would mean a serious rethink by the army on its own role in Pakistan and, by extension, it would imply a rethink of its India-centric worldview.

Back in 2009, it was a tremendous build-up of national opinion that forced the army to go after the Taliban in Swat. As Pakistan's progressives once again mull over how to save the country, they must consider putting the kind of pressure they brought to bear on their army two years ago.

More In: Lead | Opinion