Religious extremism in Pakistan (Part I)

At the beginning of the movie Osama, one sees a swarm of women, all clad in blue shuttlecock burkas, holding placards and demanding the right to work. The movie depicts the life of women in post-Taliban Afghanistan. One feels sympathy for these burka-clad women in the movie, feeling their pain, anger and frustration. But then there is another kind of burka-clad woman (and some say even men!?) right here in Pakistan, for whom one feels no sympathy but only ire. The Jamia Hafsa students clad in their black burkas are the female version of the Taliban. Add to it their dandas and one feels as if the Stone Age is back (Uncle Sam did not need to bomb us back to the Stone Age, we managed to go back there ourselves, thank you very much!).

Moreover, when the government’s surrender to the demands of the Jamia Hafsa students – reconstruction of razed mosques at the same locations – is added to the equation, voila, Pakistan completes its first phase of Talibanisation. According to the US State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2006, Pakistan remains a “major source of Islamic extremism and a safe haven for some top terrorist leaders” despite being a forefront partner in the war on terror. It is because of fundamentalists like the Lal Masjid clerics who run Jamia Hafsa and the government entertaining such elements that religious extremism has permeated Pakistani society. The government has failed to realise that these extremists not only pose a threat to society at large, but are a danger to the country’s security as well.

The suicide hit on the country’s Interior Minister’s rally signals the fact that we live in dangerous times. It also makes one wonder why, despite General Musharraf’s tall claims of ‘enlightened moderation’, is Pakistan heading towards extremism?

One of the underlying causes for this is the premise of the Two Nation Theory on which Pakistan was founded. When it became clear that the British would have to leave India in a few years, Muslims in the pre-partition Subcontinent felt themselves marginalised in comparison to the Hindu population. Muslims had ruled India for over a thousand years before the British conquered it, therefore it was hard for them to swallow the fact that once the British leave and India becomes a democratic country, the Hindus being the majority would rule the country, albeit democratically. This fear combined with the fact that the elite Muslim class had its own vested interests in the creation of a new state, was why Pakistan was born.

In an article titled, ‘Pakistan: on the edge of instability’ (International Socialism, Issue: 110), Geoff Brown argues, “Jinnah became titular head of a state in which the key forces were big landowners in the Muslim majority areas (even though they had been slow to support its foundation), officers who had made their careers in Britain’s Indian army and senior officials from Britain’s Indian civil service. Accustomed to operating as part of an elite colonial administration, the military state bureaucracy played a dominant role in the new state which, with ups and downs, it has sustained ever since.”

Jinnah might have had a secular outlook, but most of his successors did not. The induction of the Objectives Resolution in 1949 in the Constitution laid the foundation for religious forces to intervene in state affairs. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto further paved the way for religious forces by giving in to their demands, while General Ziaul Haq and the Afghan jihad served as a licence for the religious zealots to entrench themselves in every nook and corner of Pakistan. After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the US and the Sunni Arab Sheikhdoms felt threatened by the rise of Iran-inspired Shia fundamentalism and in a bid to counter the Shia revolution, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority Gulf states began to fund the Deobandi and Ahle Hadith madrassas (religious seminaries that also functioned as militant training camps) in Pakistan, which shares a border with Iran and has a significant Shia population. It is pertinent to note here that before partition, Deobandi madrassas were set up in united India as a countervailing force to neutralise Sir Syedian enlightened moderation that he deemed essential to make the Muslims come out of their stupor of isolation. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan served as an impetus to the Sunni Deobandi madrassas, as it brought in more funding from Saudi Arabia and the arms from the US for the mujahids emerging out of those madrassas to combat the communist threat. The surge of Sunnis was also a strategic decision given Iran’s stake in the war theatre in Afghanistan.

When Benazir Bhutto came back to Pakistan after General Zia’s death, many believed that she would be a breath of fresh air for Pakistan and would do her part to root out extremism from the country. Instead, when Ms Bhutto was not able to get a clear majority in the 1988 elections, she made a compromise with the establishment, which meant an alliance with religious zealots and supporting the cause of the Afghan mujahideen. When Nawaz Sharif came to power, he being Zia’s protégé, extremist elements further gained a stronghold. It was during Benazir’s second term that the Taliban were unleashed in Afghanistan.

General Musharraf’s military coup in 1999 brought an end to the 11-year civilian rule in Pakistan. The military and its intelligence agencies being the godfathers of the mujahideen, one did not expect much from the general in terms of bringing an end to extremism. But the September 11 attacks brought a U-turn in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Pakistan was not left with any other option by the US except to part ways with the jihadis and help it in the war on terror. The public was once again hopeful that a wave of liberalism would swamp Pakistan and it would be rid of fundamentalist elements. Alas, this was not to be, as is stated in the US State Department’s report. It says that though General Musharraf “remained a forceful advocate for his vision of ‘enlightened moderation,’ calling on Pakistanis to reject extremism and terrorist violence”, the government’s crackdown on banned organisations, hate material, and incitement by religious leaders continued “unevenly”. Terming the government’s crackdown as ‘uneven’ is quite apt, given the fact that the government has turned a blind eye to many a banned organisation after it changed its name and resurfaced.

The Jamia Hafsa incident is a glaring example of how the government treads carefully when religious elements are involved, while being completely ruthless with others, for instance the lawyers’ community, which is fighting for the independence of the judiciary or the Baloch insurgents who are fighting for their just rights. The infamous mullah-military nexus has always been there despite Pakistan’s pledge of allegiance to the war on terror.

In this article, I have only provided a brief overview of the various factors that have played a role in making Pakistan an increasingly intolerant theocratic state. In the coming weeks, I will shed more light and provide an in-depth analysis on why this has all come about, so keep watching this space!
(to be continued)


Anonymous said…
Whats te source of your paragraph mentioning reasons of partition.. the one starting with two nation theory.

Do not write things as if they are obvious truths unless your sources are verified. I mean the 1000 year example is ridiculous.
mehmal said…
Well, my basis for that paragraph are quite a number of books. I've given some references to prove this point in some latter parts of this series.

About the 1,000 year rule, well I know that if I had written that Muslims ruled India for "hundreds of years", it'd have been more accurate but if one reads about small conquests in India, you'll find out that Muslims have indeed ruled some parts of India way before the Ghauris and Ghaznavis invaded India. I'll quote from wikipedia here: "The Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent mainly took place from the 13th to the 16th centuries, though earlier Muslim conquests made limited inroads into the region, beginning during the period of the ascendancy of the Rajput Kingdoms in North India, from the 7th century onwards."

Hope that shows that I wasn't being ridiculous :)
jafar kazmi said…
good article maam , quite agree wth your views

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