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Pakistan’s Islamic Odyssey: Dangers Ahead

"Religion had created a nation but never succeeded in creating a composite nationalism or a new identity in Pakistan. The country was kept unified by its Armed Forces but if they splinter what happens to Pakistan?"
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by A. K. Verma

(June 23, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) The movement for Pakistan, as envisaged by its chief promoter Mohammed Ali Jinnah, was not intended to produce a religion dominated theocratic state. No doubt he engaged in communal tactics and successfully executed a spurious doctrine, the two nation theory, to reach his goal of Pakistan, but the founders of the movement had planned for a state basically as a homeland for Muslims which would govern itself following the British traditions of liberalism and secularism. However the state soon turned Islamic, drove out most of its minorities, emasculated practically all traditions of liberalism and tolerance, spawned a breed of Sharia demanding clerics, slyly using terrorism as a tool of policy to pursue what it perceives as its national interests, and today is poised on the brink of uncertainty of what the future holds for it. Its conversion into hard core Islamic society, gradually embracing Islamization and Jehadi fundamentalism, another name for Talibanisation, takes it miles away from whatever dreams Jinnah might have had about the state he struggled so hard to establish.

An interesting question to examine would be: was this end product fundamentally inevitable. In other words once Pakistan was created was it in its destiny to be driven to this state?

There are people in Pakistan who think that Pakistan started incubating a millennium ago when the first Muslim stepped on the soil of the subcontinent. Such a perception implied a belief that once introduced Islam developed roots and quickly spread out. Such a view would have us believe that the Pakistan movement was not an avoidable phenomenon and that Islam was ultimately to become its raison-de-etre. In fact people like Osama-bin-Laden do not hide their conviction that at the end of another millennium Islam would be becoming the raison-de-etre of the entire world.

A look at the historical evolution of Islam world wide provides indicators how it was to grow in Pakistan. Starting from a small enclave in Medina in the 7th century, Islam over the next 13 centuries, spread like a whirlwind, overpowering boundaries, borders, frontiers, countries, peoples, civilizations, religions and traditions. Much of the advance took place under the shadow of the sword. Rulers and clerics, not sanctioned under the original scriptures, took roots later, mutually assisted each other, promoting favored brands. Many schools of thought and jurisprudence erupted, sometimes tragically in confliction to one another. But this did not come in the way of the growing sweeps of Islam. The power of faith has carried Islam down to every nook and corner of the globe. Today every sixth human being in the world is a Muslim. Islam remains the fastest growing religion in the world. However, the concept of Umma, a novelty introduced by Islam, could not ensure unity within the length and breadth of Islam. Unity remained susceptible to powerful influences, generated by ethnic, linguistic or regional forces. Within the Islamic world questions of identity have been settled more by such forces than the religion itself.

Islamization of Pakistan, therefore, fulfilled the inherent tendencies contained in Islam. Emergence of Islam as the dominant ideological factor was predestined in Pakistan. Basically, democracy as developed in the West by the liberating influences of renaissance and reformation in Europe, and Islam with its centrifugal and converging influences, are concepts largely anti-thetical to each other. Islam wants unreservedly the rule of Sharia everywhere. Democracy has not, therefore, found a hospitable home in Pakistan. Emergence or re-emergence of democracy in Pakistan depended upon the influence the Mullah class could bring to play on the civil or military rulers, directly or from behind the scenes. Nearly always the rulers capitulated to the Mullahs to stay in power.

Each capitulation strengthened the thread of Islamization. The story of capitulations begins with the Sandhurst trained whiskey guzzling Gen. Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator; who established the Council of Islamic ideology, to check whether the systems in Pakistan conformed to the precepts of Islam. The left leaning self proclaimed socialist, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who came to the helm in Pakistan after an ignominious exit of Ayub’s successor Gen. Yahya Khan, following the Bangladesh debacle, moved Pakistan many notches towards an Islamic polity. He succumbed to pressure for declaring the Ahmedia community non Muslims and accepting the demands of the Nizam-e-Mustapha movement. Gen. Zia-ul-Haq who deposed Bhutto and usurped power in Pakistan acted like a Mullah in a general’s uniform and gave an Islamic orientation to a wide spectrum of administration including the armed forces to get the clergy on his side in political battles with the opposition. The democratically elected Nawaz Sharif gave in to the obscurantist demand for capital punishment for violation of blasphemy laws. He also had the Shariat bill for uniform application of Shariat in Pakistan passed by the lower house of Parliament but was unable to muster majority for its passage through the upper house. More recently, the left oriented provincial ANP govt. of NWFP, now rechristened Khyber-Pakhtunkhwah, and so called liberal PPP members of the Parliament joined together to permit Sharia in Swat and Malakand to appease the rabid forces demanding such application there. The religious extremism, manifesting itself in Pakistan today and the increasing chaos in the country, can be described as gifts to the nation by these rulers and their supporting classes, through the impact of their cumulative actions. Rise of fanaticism signals that the power and might of the Mosque now overshadows the power and the might of the armed forces. The preference of the leaders of all hues for Sunni Islam also widened the sectarian divide in Pakistan.

Afghan war 1 transformed the nature of the Islamic movement in Pakistan. It is worthwhile to understand some of the phenomena responsible for the cataclysmic changes in the psychology of the rulers and the ruled in Pakistan. War against the Soviets was converted into a morally unambiguous Jihadi war of Islam against them. Western powers, notably the US, and Muslim countries from other parts of the world, liberally funded the Jihad and copiously supported it with arms and ammunition. Muslims from all over the world came to join the Jihad. The volunteers became today’s Janissaries who had a played a major role in the in the expansion of the Ottoman Empire of Turkey, which after world war II was broken up into 28 independent countries. The fine distinctions that the scriptures prescribed to distinguish between higher and moral Jihad on one hand and the lower on the other never came into play in the Jihad against the Soviets. The Pakistani military and intelligence establishments were the lead managers of this Jihad, controlling exclusively the supply of funds, arms, ammunition, training and deployment of the Jihadi warriors. Their actions and approach received widespread support from practically all sections of the polity within the country. Groups like Harkat-al-Ansar, HIzb-ul-Jihadi- e- Islam, Markaz-e-Dawatul-Irshad, Lashkar- e- Toiba, Lashkar- e- Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahiban etc. sprang into existence, recruiting volunteers from the Madrassas and hinterland, for participating in the Jihad in Afghanistan. All such organisations were the creatures of Pakistani ISI that had also worked out plans to deploy the trained Mujahideen in Kashmir against India after the war in Afghanistan ended.

Not so well noticed immediately was the fact that the Pakistani role in the Jihad was fomenting a Jihadi culture among various sections of the people and within elements in the armed forces and the intelligence organisations. The liberal fringe in Pakistan was horrified by these developments but the growing muscles of the Mullahs and extremist organisations stilled them in to silence. The liberals failed to remove the confusion over the role of religion in society where a radical mindset was taking shape with a widening acceptance of an arch conservative philosophy. It became evident that a nation, in which a majority had earlier believed in a liberal ethos and had wanted religion to be a personal affair of the individual, was becoming a nation a majority of which wanted Islam to become a dominant influence on the political life of the country. This majority included students, ruralites, labour classes, intelligentsia, teachers, clergy and politicians among others.

Such an overgrowth was also being fueled by the decadent educational systems Pakistan had introduced in the country. The Madrassa schooling as well as the state controlled curriculum in other schools overdosed students with heavy Islamic bearings which prepared them to accept Jihad as a duty of every Muslim for which they should be ever ready. There was a constant refrain on two themes: Islam remains in perpetual danger and India a permanent enemy. These themes lay a strong foundation of a siege mentality which then regards violence and Jihad as natural and desirable options. Rationalism and prudence get targeted out. Foreign funding for education coming from Islamic countries promoted the precepts of Wahabi and Salafi doctrinaire Islam from where extreme radical Islam remained just a step away. Most of rural Pakistan and its tribal regions received their education through Madrassas. They have, therefore, become the breeding grounds of Jihad. Even higher educational institutions have not escaped the attention of youth bodies of conservatives and orthodox religious institutions such as Jamait-e-Islami, which force others to fall inline with an intolerant culture about music, art, dress etc. that is sought to be imposed by these in the name of an Islamic way of life. The education system was intended to create an explosive new thinking, to bind Pakistan together with a new identity.

At the end of the Afghan war I Pakistan succeeded in establishing the Talibans at Kandahar who soon took over the political control of almost the whole of Afghanistan. These Talibans had graduated from the Madrassas of Pakistan and its tribal regions and personified obscurantism, orthodoxy and intolerance. They took no time in showing a culture of fanaticism in Afghanistan which went beyond the Wahabism in which they had been schooled. Their leader Mullah Mohammed Omar turned into an arch fundamentalist and asked all the Muslims the world over to follow his precept and example by styling himself Emir-ul-Momineen, the overlord of all the faithful. Talibanism now became a new philosophy, a state of mind, which really needed no more ideologues. This was a parallel development to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaida. The Al Qaida can now do without Osamas: it has transcended from a personality cult to a set of ideas, beliefs and convictions which is receiving acceptance in the world wherever Muslims find themselves oppressed or believe that they are oppressed. Talibanism and Al Qaida are now in tune with each other and while AL Qaida as an ideology is making itself felt in many parts of the world, and Talibanism is not except in Pakistan, the two are synonymous, born of the same parent, the Salafi doctrine. Both have set their eyes on identical geopolitical objectives, establishment of Islamic Caliphates all over the world.

Apart from the pull of the fundamentalist ideology other ground realities in Pakistan were factoring in, to conditioning of the Pakistani mindset. The absence of an enlightening education system has already been mentioned. Its harmful effects got compounded by a miserable all round failure of governance in Pakistan which has led to economic deprivation, corruption, inflation, social inequalities and injustice, and an environment of violence, and insecurity. A majority of citizens live well below the poverty line, deprived of adequate means of subsistence, making them desperate for the emergence of a messiah. Mainstream political parties offered them no succor as they were unable to rise above hypocrisy. The clergy have exploited the people’s misery, claiming absence of piety relegated them to such a fate. All these put together make radical Islam irresistible. Many recent independent public polls in the country show a disturbing trend towards increasing radicalization. The disturbing part is that members of the elite or upper classes are also getting inclined towards orthodox religion in search of a panacea for their ills. The drift in the country, therefore, is unmistakably towards fascism. The Pakistani middle classes are no longer immune from its virus.

Once the Soviets were ousted from Afghanistan, the Jihadi fever was not allowed to subside and other targets were located. The Pakistan Establishment saw in this continued Jihad an opportunity to seek Pan Islamic leadership as well as to settle scores with India. This new Jihad was to be carried in all Islamic centers of trouble by volunteers drawn from various parts of the world but trained under Pakistani auspices, to emphasize the inherent strength of Islam and to inspire the Muslim Diaspora to remain relentless in their struggle wherever Muslim interests were being targeted or threatened.

Identifying the US as the main target of this Jihad has landed Pakistan in a complex problem. Firstly, Pakistan was forced to join the US war on terror against the Talibans. This step leads to a pervasive and widespread anger against the US in Pakistan, displacing India as the main enemy of Pakistan in public mind. Secondly, withdrawal of support to the Talibans went against the fundamental instincts of Pakistan and upset its strategic calculus. Following the new US war in Afghanistan, Afghan Talibans and their foreign supporters had been given refuge and shelter by Pakistani Pushtoons in the tribal regions of the Northwest as they themselves had been Talibanised in thinking and practice by the fall- out of Afghan war I. Compliance of Pakistan to the new US strategy was secured by threats of stoppage of financial aid. However, the Pakistani Establishment, past masters in duplicity, and deception, had no intentions of accepting fully the US dictates. They now followed a policy of hunting with the hound and running with the hare. However, such a policy has had dangerous consequences for Pakistan this time. The American pressure on Pakistan is for action against the entire spectrum of Talibans living in Pakistan including Baluchistan as well as the Pakistani Talibans themselves. The US also engaged in independent action in the frontier regions of Pakistan using drones and Special Forces against Taliban targets hiding there.

The difficult question facing the Pakistani military and intelligence authorities is to what extent they should accommodate the US demands. They have deployed their forces in Swat, Malakand, South Waziristan and certain other tribal regions to take out foreign Taliban elements allied to Al Qaida and to establish control over the territory but they have so far refrained from moving into North Waziristan and Baluchistan where key Taliban leadership and ISI’s own powerful infrastructure of a support mechanism for Talibans are sheltered. The US appears to have privately made it clear that failure on the part of Pakistan to take action in these areas will compel them to move into these areas themselves for counter insurgency and counterterrorist operations. North Waziristan is home to the Jalaluddin Haqqani network, deadly enemy of the US but regarded as an invaluable strategic asset by Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiani, the Pakistani COAS.

The Pakistanis have been very obdurate in the past in their responses to American demands. Often the US has had to back down from pursuing its objectives in order to preserve what they considered to be their more important larger interests. Gen. Zia-ul-Haq’s rejection of President Carter’s offer of aid of $64 m as ‘peanuts’ is famously known. During the entire course of Afghan war I, the repeated efforts of the CIA to get a foothold in the distribution of funds, arms and equipment to Mujahideen were consistently turned down by Pakistan despite the reality that CIA was the original source of most of the supply and funding. In this war the US needs to humor Pakistan was so intense that they looked the other way while Pakistan was developing its nukes and proliferating nuclear technology and equipment to many of its friends.

Now, however, the situation is qualitatively and dramatically different. The US feels directly threatened by the terror of Al Qaida philosophy which seeks to reawaken the somnosolent impulses and aspirations of Islam, and has a self imposed deadline of July 2011 to quit from Afghanistan. The US now well recognizes that Pakistani tactics and strategic objectives are proving counter-productive but compelling Pakistan to strike at the Taliban leadership hiding in Baluchistan and Haqqani network in North Waziristan has proved till now almost impossible. Will the confrontation between the two governments reach a breaking point? Will the US troops themselves actually enter Baluchistan and North Waziristan to clear these areas of Talibans? At the moment these are imponderable questions but the moment of truth seems to be fast approaching. A turning point is perhaps being reached demanding a public re-evaluation by US of its relationship with Pakistan. The US had once threatened Pakistan to bomb it to the Stone Age for refusing to fall in the line.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani Talibans have reacted by taking up arms against the Pakistani armed forces not only in the tribal regions but also in the heart of Punjab in cities like Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The resultant situation is akin to a civil war which is inflaming public opinion, resulting in deepening radicalism. Punjabi radicals, mostly belonging to extremist groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and perhaps Lashkar-e-Taiba, by engaging in terror strikes against the state, have already demonstrated that their sympathies lie with the Pak Pashtoon tribals. The Pakistani ISI had been the patron of such groups and the terror syndicates and continues to be so. These surrogate outfits had been recruiting Jihadis for Afghanistan and Kashmir in their largest numbers from Punjab as compared to other provinces of Pakistan. Their leaders, though nurtured by ISI for covert proxy wars in J&K and Afghanistan, have now slipped away from their control and no longer obey the authority of the ISI. These leaders dominate a vast tract of area between Jhang and Bhawalpur in Punjab. With their large militias they will play a crucial role if the rebellion against the state reaches this heartland. A stage may also be reaching for doubts to arise whether the Pashtoon elements of the Pakistan Army, comprising 20 to 30% of its strength, and its other extremist fringes, could continue to be counted on for loyalty towards the state.

Religion had created a nation but never succeeded in creating a composite nationalism or a new identity in Pakistan. The country was kept unified by its Armed Forces but if they splinter what happens to Pakistan? There are many observers of the Pakistani scene who worry that a Jihadi or Islamist take over of Pakistan is not an unrealistic fear. Such fears take into account the fact that Islam alone can not prove integrative or overcome completely the pulls of ethno-nationalism. Further, multiplicity of interpretations of scriptures allow also in practice contradictory definitions of religion.

The overarching threat that looms ahead for Pakistan apparently is of a likely fragmentation. Western countries and China can be expected to jump in to save Pakistan and prevent its nuclear arsenal from falling into the wrong hands. US have already intensified its war against the Talibans in Pakistan through massive increases in the number of US Special Forces. Recent statements indicate its readiness to move deeper into Pakistan if driven by circumstances. If these steps also fail to stem the tide of radical Islam the US might be willing to recommend more drastic remedies to the Pakistan establishment such as re-imposition of the Army rule and to allow counter insurgency campaigns by it within Pakistan.

The Indian policy makers should remain well tuned to the nuances of the surge of radical Islam in the neighborhood and its possible repercussions across the border in our country. Another alarming situation like the rise of Naxalism in the country should never be permitted.

(The author can be reached at e-mail: verma_anandkumar@yahoo.com)

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