Pakistan and the Challenge of Extremism

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Pakistan’s 9/11 did not occur in 2001 but in 1948 when the founder of the country, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, passed away. Almost ten years earlier, on 5 February 1938, during an address to the Muslim University Union at the Strachey Hall in Aligarh, Jinnah told his audience: “What the Muslim League has done is to set you free from the reactionary elements of Muslims and to create the opinion that those who play their selfish games are traitors. It has certainly freed you from that undesirable element of Maulvis and Maulanas.” Around that time Allama Iqbal had been declared a kafir or non-believer because of an essay he had written on ijtihad i.e., reasoning on matters not dealt with by the Qur’an and the authentic Traditions of the Prophet. Both events are cited by A. G. Noorani in his article, “A Liberal Islam in South Asia,” which was carried in the April-June 2008 issue of this journal.

Jinnah’s assumption that Muslims had been “freed” from the influence of the clergy was incorrect. Six months after his death, the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan adopted the Objectives Resolution and,  since  then,  the  religious  right  became  progressively  stronger. With the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, the state and the religious parties found common cause and were hand-in-glove for the promotion of internal Islamization and external misadventure. After the Russian retreat under the Geneva Accords, the so-called jihadis were used by Pakistan as its proxy warriors in its quest for strategic depth, a euphemism for control of Afghanistan, and the parallel pursuit of its objectives in Indian Occupied Kashmir. The only outcome of this short-sighted policy was that the writ of the state was progressively eroded in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and other parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Swat was literally handed over on a silver platter through the infamous Nizam-e-Adl Regulations ostensibly to the Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM) of Mualana Sufi Muhammad, but actually to his firebrand son-in-law Mulla Fazlullah of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The government soon realized that appeasement never pays. Sufi Muhammad declared the Constitution of Pakistan un-Islamic and the Taliban entered Buner while their influence spread like wild fire not only in the Malakand division but also over the entire province. The Nizam-e-Adl Regulations had been thoughtlessly rubber-stamped by the National Assembly which thereby became a party to the surrender of Pakistani territory to violent extremists who sought to impose their distorted interpretation of Islam on the entire country. The supreme folly had grave consequences. The death and devastation that followed has resulted in more than three million internally displaced persons who either languish in refugee camps or have found shelter in the homes of friends and relatives.

These are known facts that have been discussed threadbare in the print and electronic media, in seminars, and by think tanks. The question that has not been addressed is why the situation was allowed to deteriorate to the extent that it did. The Musharraf era policy of running with the hare and chasing with the hounds is no longer a secret. The rationale was to generate the perception in the West that nuclear-armed Pakistan was under threat from the militants and its strategic assets could come under their control with disastrous consequences for the rest of the world. His military regime was, therefore, shored up and substantial economic assistance was provided to enable his army-dominated government to pursue what was projected as the war on terror. Military operations were launched but never carried through. The peace deals that were subsequently negotiated with the militants not only gave them the space to regroup and rearm but also enabled them to consolidate their hold on almost the entire tribal territories where they enforced their own laws, levied taxes and ran the administration.

However it took well over a year for the elected government to wake up from its slumber and take decisive military action which was prompted by Sufi Muhammad’s diatribe against the Constitution and his threat of enforcing the draconian rule of the Taliban within Pakistan and even beyond. The unexpected dividend was the near national consensus for the army operation against them.

The popular backing for the military action implies that there is, at last, a realization that the defeat of terrorism is in the country’s interest and that the war against terror is as much Pakistan’s war as it is that of the US and the international community. Alongside this there is a growing parallel recognition within the government and the military establishment that the greatest threat posed to the country is internal and not external. It is, therefore, important for the international community and in particular the US to prevail upon India to relieve the pressure on Islamabad by reducing its military presence along Pakistan’s eastern border and resume the stalled dialogue between the two countries.

The nationwide support for the military onslaught against the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine must not be allowed to dissipate as in the past. More than ever before in Pakistan’s brief history, there is need to formulate and then efficiently implement a policy to defeat the extremist ideology which is based on false religion. The government as well as the print and electronic media has always shied away from contradicting extremist clerics and their misrepresentation of Islam. This is a dereliction of duty and there can be no justification for it. The Taliban have murdered respected religious scholars such as Maulana Hasan Jan in September

2007, Dr. Sarfraz Naeemi in June 2009 and others. The tomb of the Sufi poet Rahman Baba (d. 1711), who is celebrated as the “nightingale of Pakhtunkhwa,” was destroyed on 5 March 2009 followed later that month by a suicide bomb attack on a mosque in Jamrud killing more than fifty worshipers. These are only a few examples of extremist attacks on religious personalities and places of worship. Other than perfunctory condemnation of these acts, the government did little to unleash a propaganda broadside against the Taliban and expose their distortion of Islamic tenets. Silence is no longer an option and the true message of this strikingly moderate religion has to be presented to the people. The defeat of the Taliban ideology with the help of moderate clerics and civil society is a crucial element in the fight against extremist violence. Mulla Fazlullah’s FM radio broadcasts have demonstrated the effectiveness of propaganda and yet, despite the resources available to the government, nothing was done to drown the voice of extremism through similar broadcasts from specially designated FM radio stations.

The two month long military operations in Swat which began on 8 May, no matter how successful, will remain incomplete till the TTP leadership is neutralized in FATA. The final battle for Swat and the other areas has to be fought and won in the tribal regions. The Pakistan government initially had reservations about the US troop surge in Afghanistan because of the fear that fleeing Taliban and Al Qaeda militants would cross the porous border into its territory. The new thinking that seems to be emerging is that the escape root of the terrorists can be effectively blocked by intercepting them on either side of the border for which the need for structured coordination and intelligence sharing between the Pakistan armed forces and the US-led troops in Afghanistan is obvious.

Overwhelming firepower is available against the insurgents on both sides of the border. However in a guerilla war it is not only firepower but smart intelligence that is required. The terrorist/extremist groups will be thrown into disarray if their leadership is eliminated through intelligence-based precision targeting. Only then can casualties be kept to the minimum and collateral damage avoided. The effort has to be collective because no country, not even a superpower, can succeed on its own, but unfortunately there is a trust deficit between the major players which needs to be overcome.

The Marxists believed that religion is the opiate of the people. This is not true but if distorted and misinterpreted it is the poison that destroys society. More than sixty years after its emergence as an independent state, Pakistan continues to be the world’s foremost victim of terrorist and extremist violence which the perpetrators have touted as jihad in their quest for an Islamic order. There can scarcely be a greater blasphemy.