Religious Extremism in Pakistan – A detailed study

ali.zaidi@dunyatv.tv'Posted by

Pakistan is facing a host of problems today. Lawlessness, corruption, poor governance, fragile economy, inflation and energy crisis are but only some of the problems. Terrorism, on the other hand, has been one of the major reasons for keeping all this mess as it is. The political instability and rest of the problems are somehow linked with the same terrorism that has now become an existential threat to the country. Although lawlessness, inflation, illiteracy, poor governance do nothing but add to the reasons for terrorism, the root cause of this major threat to Pakistani nation is nothing but the rising tide of religious extremism in the country. According to the statistics provided by Interior Ministry last year, Pakistan has so far suffered losses worth 65 billion US dollars fighting terrorism and the ammunition for the enemy in this war just keeps coming, only because of this religious extremism that prevails within the society at multiple levels.

Before we move ahead, it is important to define extremism, as well as terrorism, and lay down the differences between the two so that the two can be discussed separately, and their consequences and causes may also be discussed separately.

According to the definition of extremism laid down by Merriam-Webster, “Extremism is the holding of extreme political or religious views”.

The same website defines terrorism as “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”.

The two definitions tell us that while extremism is limited only to views while terrorism is the next stage of extremism in which the extremist person goes ahead to use ‘violence’ and ‘intimidation’ for the pursuit of the goals laid out by his politically extremist ideology. Therefore, the two have to be fought at different levels and with different means. And for that purpose, one must have the background knowledge of the two subjects under discussion.

The roots of religious extremism in Pakistan are rooted deep into the Pakistan Movement. The founding father of the country, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was undoubtedly a forward-looking liberal politician but the politicians around him never cared to define what they meant when they demanded ‘a homeland for Muslims’. The masses somehow perceived it to be a ‘laboratory for Islam’, or at least that is how the religious parties defined it later on, and from there on we have been constantly hearing a mantra that Pakistan was earned in the name of Islam and Islam provides whatever laws that are required to govern the country.

To add fuel to the fire, the successive governments after the making of Pakistan were in their essence either Islamists or found no other way to keep the country united but the use of religion as a binding force. It was due to this reason that Pakistan could never shed off what its religious parties portrayed it to be and as a result, Pakistan today is one of the few countries most hit by religious extremism.

Moreover, the country is geographically and demographically a paradox. While it has people from various ethnicities living within it, it also is located at the flashpoint of the world. Two of Pakistan’s neighbours, Iran and Afghanistan, have seen almost 35 years of wars combined during the last 37 years while Afghanistan has remained blighted by civil war even during those years when it hasn’t been in a state of war with another country. Pakistan, located in the South-East of Afghanistan, has around 15% of its population of the people who are ethnic Pashtuns, the largest ethnic community of Afghanistan that makes around 40% of that country. As a result, the Pashtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan have quite a lot in common and they certainly have a common tradition of armed resistance against whoever they conceive as usurpers or intruders. The 2250km long border between the two countries is extremely porous and is one of the busiest transit trade borders of the world.

While Pakistan has remained steadfast about its religious identity, Afghanistan has kept flirting with communism and Islam both during the last century or half. When in 1975 Afghan army overthrew Dawood’s government,, it was basically a leftist coup that was also pitched to go against Pakistan whenever it found time. As a counter move, Pakistan hosted the Islamist leaders of Afghanistan like Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hikmetyar and Ahmad Shah Masood. These Islamist leaders and warriors, though on opposite sides, remained stapled to a religious identity and Ahmad Shah Masood was a step ahead as he was not just a religious man, but a nationalist too.

By siding with these men, Pakistan actually chose its side in the Soviet-Afghan war that followed the coup. Pakistan openly sided with the Islamists in the war and did whatever it could to keep the Soviets away from Pakistan. Again, Pakistan found a sanctuary in the Islamists against the Soviets, instead of looking to support a nationalist movement against the Soviets. At the same time, when Ahmad Shah Masood and Rabbani split with Hikmetyar, Pakistan chose Hikmetyar out of necessity since Hikmetyar was an ethnic Pashtun and Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan is populated by Pashtuns on both sides. So it is not just a choice but a compulsion too that Pakistan always sided with Islamists.

Since Pakistan was fighting a war in Afghanistan with a religious fervour, it was impossible for its own population to remain eluded from what was happening in its neighbourhood. Moreover, Pakistan also needed recruits in the war and the seminaries in Pakistan along the Pak-Afghan border were the best breeding grounds for the Afghan-refugee-turned-freedom-fighters. The problem however was that Pakistan couldn’t have kept its own Pashtun elements from entering the warzone; for mainly two reasons. First, the local tribals didn’t believe there was any difference between them and the Pashtuns living on the other side of the border. Secondly, Pakistan was itself in a state of war on religious grounds then how could it keep its own population from buying the argument the state was selling.

But there is something more to it. Pakistan doesn’t have only two borders. It has another one, that with India, its enemy since the creation and the one with which Pakistan has already fought 3 full-scale wars. Pakistan, being the smaller partner in the conflict with India, cannot fight India on its own, given the disparity in the sizes of the two countries and the resources available with the two countries. Till 1979, Pakistan had a very friendly Iran on which Pakistan fall back onto every time when in war with India. In the 1965 and 1971 wars with India, Pakistan used Iranian soil as a backyard where it could park its fighting jets in order to keep them safe from the enemy attacks. After 1979 revolution in Iran, Zia ul-Haq initially tried to keep Iran on his side but he soon learned that the new regime in Iran was all for breaking the status quo, not keeping it. In the Afghan-Soviet war, Iran sided with the Northern Alliance led by Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Masood while Pakistan backed the Pashtun-led alliance of Gulbuddin Hikmetyar. Moreover, the revolutionary leader of Iran, the self-styled Ayatollah, Khomeini was unhappy with General Zia ul-Haq who had defied his appeals for mercy on Pakistan’s deposed Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, hanged by Zia in a questionable case.

It was thus that Pakistan realized that Iran was no more the country on which Pakistan could fall back on and therefore, started seeking the infamous ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan. To sum it up, Pakistan was actually fortifying itself against India when flirting with Islamism in Afghanistan and its Western areas.

Another important dimension when discussing the foreign elements’ role in fanning the religious extremism in Pakistan is the Saudi connection. Saudi Arabia is the self-professed leader of the Sunni world in the Middle East while Iran leads the Shiite section in the region. Before the revolution, Shah of Iran had good relations with Saudi Arabia but under Khomeini, Iran followed a policy that was literally a policy of intervention in the other countries. To secure itself, Saudi Arabia led an alliance of the Sunni countries that aimed at curbing the growing influence of Iran. Pakistan was certainly going to be Saudi Arabia’s biggest hope in this alliance since Pakistan was the only country in the Islamic world with a strong army and in a state of permanent financial need. Saudi Arabia started providing funds to religious seminaries in Pakistan, particularly the ones belonging to Ahle-Hadith or Deoband sect. These seminaries proved to be the breeding ground of terrorist recruits not only for the international terrorist organizations but also for the local ones like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and others. Iran, in response, started supporting the Shia extremist elements and thus started Pakistan’s own sectarian war that had its roots, again, in the Afghan War.

LeJ and SSP led the sectarian war in Pakistan from the Sunni side while Sipah-e-Mohammad (SeM) along with Shiite political parties led the war from the Shiite side. These two organizations killed hundreds of innocent people from both sides and though SeM was curbed by the state long time ago, the LeJ kept receiving the support and strong leadership throughout the last 30 years of their founding. LeJ’s last ‘celebrated’ leader Malik Ishaq was killed in an encounter only last year in Muzaffargarh area when there were credible reports with Pakistani intelligence agencies that Malik Ishaq was organizing the lines for Islamic State (IS) in Pakistan.

The local politics has also played a strong role in making all these terrorists. While the sectarian war within Pakistan and its origins from Jhang are traced back to the class conflict between the Sunni dwellers and Shia landlords of the Jhang region, the role played by Jamiat Ulema Islam’s (JUI) warring factions in creating the Taliban in Afghanistan and then in Pakistan must never be overlooked. JUI factions owned and ran the seminaries that were creating these freedom fighters cum terrorists. As a result, the JUI leaders gained control of the politics in the North-Western areas of Pakistan and used these elements as a force to gain power for themselves. After coming to power, it was Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI that convinced the establishment, as well as the Benazir Bhutto government, that Taliban could be relied upon and that Pakistan needed to support them in order to gain leverage in the Afghan civil war.

This was the point when these terrorist elements and religious extremists gained access to the mainstream politics of Pakistan and have been an ever-growing threat since then. On the other hand, the political parties that generally pose to be center-right or center-left in their orientation, also struck alliances with the same religious extremists and sectarian terrorists. Benazir Bhuttos’ government from 1993-97 had SSP leaders in its Punjab cabinet, Nawaz Sharif led Pakistan Muslim League faction also has been alleged of having ties with Al-Qaeda and Taliban and Sharif is accused of having received money from Osama bin Laden to topple Benazir Bhutto government. Pervez Musharraf led government of Pakistan Muslim League – Quaid (PML-Q) also came to power with the help of one vote provided to it by an SSP MAN. PTI, though a newer phenomenon, has also struck deals with LeJ and SSP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and CM Pervez Khattak has been repeatedly photographed with SSP leaders in KP.

Although a strong military action has been led by Pakistan army in the past against these terrorist outfits in 2009, the break off of the mainstream, as well as regional and religious, political parties with these terrorist and extremist groups is vital in order to make any military action against these elements successful.

However, the taming of the terrorists is impossible unless the religious extremism prevalent in the society and the causes of this extremism are not removed. This is only possible through reaching to the root cause of the problem. Class conflict, lawlessness and inefficiency of the state judicial system, the reason cited by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2009 for their demand for Sharia in Malakand Division, are but just a few of the problems. While they need to be addressed, there are some other very vital causes too.

Talking about the issue, one of the leading Urdu columnists of Pakistan Aamir Khakwani said, “When asked, the so-called liberals trace the origin of this extremism to Objectives Resolution passed by the Legislative Assembly back in 1948. My question is pretty simple, if it is the Objectives Resolution radicalizing these people, why is it affecting the Deobandi and Ahle-Hadith sects only. Why didn’t the Barelvis get violent? Why are Shia not violent?” Going on, he ruled out the role of poverty as well. “Interior Sindh has the highest poverty rate of all the four provinces, I think. The religious extremism is at its lowest in that province. Why? Why is religious extremism higher in the relatively better off provinces like Punjab and KP?”

The argument certainly carries weight. It brings us down to the curricula of the state-run as well as religious seminaries and educational institutions of the country. How is it affecting the minds of the people? To understand this, KK Aziz’s book ‘Murder of History’ is a perfect referrer. Aziz points out how the curricula glorified the usurpers like Muhammad bin Qasim and Shah Mehmood Ghaznavi and how it belittled the failure of the Pakistan state in keeping the country together and the reasons behind the failure. The fact is that religious extremism is institutionalized in Pakistan. Almost all the major positions at clerical levels at almost all the major state-run universities in the country are held by ex-Jamiat followers and the faculties are highly influenced by the same school of thought. It is pertinent to mention here that Punjab government recently led a vigorous campaign against religious hardliners across the province and several teachers with links to extremist religious organizations were arrested. Two senior teachers from Punjab University were also arrested for having links with the banned outfit Hizb ut-Tehrir.

And it is not just about the educational institutions. In 2011, a deadly attack was carried out by terrorists at Mehran Airbase in Karachi. Slain Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad broke the inside story of the attack in a magazine run from Thailand, named Asia Times. He claimed that there were around 50 members of Hizb ut-Tehrir who were silently advocating against the then Army chief and ISI head and were calling for them to be thrown out and a takeover of the army for the sake of establishing caliphate in Pakistan, a stated objective of Hizb ut-Tehrir. None other than al-Qaeda officials bargained with Pakistan army for these arrested soldiers and when Pakistan army refused to relent, the attack was carried out. Saleem Shahzad was found dead some 60 kilometers from Islamabad three days after the story was published and as a matter of fact Pakistan army court martialed officers as senior as a brigadier in the inquiry led into the matter after this attack. Pakistan army also banned Tablighi Jamaat from its bases later on and in late 2015, the ban on the organization was also imposed at the university campuses throughout the country.

We also need to remember that the attackers in Safura incident last year that killed dozens of Bohra Shias in Karachi was carried out by students from respectable institutions and among them was Sabeen Mahmud, social activist, murderer who had studied from Karachi’s prestigious business school  IBA.

In 2014, Pakistan army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb against the terrorists hiding in North and South Waziristan Agencies and also in Khyber Agency. A National Action Plan (NAP) was also carved out by the government and the security agencies and over 37,000 operations have so far been conducted in Punjab province only, according to Prime Minister’s spokesperson Dr. Musaddiq Malik.

Renowned columnist and analyst Wajahat Masood said, “Pakistan army is doing a great job and I don’t suspect government’s intentions either but the fact is that the problem is rooted deep in our history and the geography and demography of the country. Look at our political parties. I’m not saying all of them are extremists or some of them are liberal. I’m just saying that these political parties do not offer a viable alternative and that is why the disgruntled people fall into the hands of these religion-vendors”.

However, Pakistan state has taken some extraordinary initiatives during the last couple of years. Though some of the deadliest terrorist attacks have also been carried out during this period, not to forget the attack on Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar that took away 141 innocent lives from us, including 132 kids, but the two years have also been of great importance in Pakistan’s forward policy.

To name a few initiatives, the NAP was formulated, an operation was launched against religious terrorists in the northern areas and the criminal elements in Karachi, some terrorist leaders were killed in ‘encounters’, some were arrested, others were taken into custody (Maulana Masood Azhar), and a drive to end the corrupting elements within the institutions has also been launched. Recently, Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, was hanged and the government took a bold step by not intervening to save him for the fear of the lash out by religious political parties. It was a giant step forward. Although the current PM has had a past, the fact is that he has done well on this front so far in this regime. And as a senior official in Pakistan told Washington Post recently, “PM is a religious man and he has respect for Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians. If to some it is liberalism, then be it”. This is the kind of image that Pakistan needs to portray before the world and this is the kind of image that Pakistan actually has. The majority of the country is almost insensitive to the demands of the religious extremists. It is up to the government and the state institutions that they project the voice of the common Pakistanis instead of playing into the hands of the extremists who want to bring this country down.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *