Religious extremism in Pakistan (finale)

General Pervez Musharraf’s military coup on October 12, 1999, was greeted with joy by the general public, who heaved a sigh of relief at the ouster of the autocratic ‘civilian’ ruler Nawaz Sharif. The public sentiment at that time had turned against democratic rule due to the disappointing tenures of both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Ironically, civil society too supported Musharraf due to his ‘moderate’ outlook and saw him, a military dictator, as a ray of hope for the ‘bright’ future of Pakistan. Militant Islamic groups were also ecstatic at Musharraf’s coming to power. “Abdullah Muntazir, spokesperson for Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (Army of the Pure), a religious-cum-militant group primarily operating in Indian Kashmir, declared that now Pakistan should have an Islamic system on the pattern of Afghanistan’s Taliban. Such elements perhaps were waiting for another General Ziaul Haq, who had fathered them, not knowing that Musharraf was reputed to be cut from a very different cloth” (Abbas, Hassan, Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror, London: M. E. Sharpe, 2005, p. 178).

General Musharraf did not declare a martial law and only suspended the 1973 Constitution without abolishing it. At the beginning Musharraf’s coup was condemned by the international community, but after some help from influential diplomatic channels, he gained acceptance in the international arena as a ‘moderate’ leader who could bring stability to South Asia. The events of September 11, 2001 (better known as 9/11), further helped Musharraf strengthen his credentials internationally. As soon as Pakistan became a key ally of the US in its war against terror, Musharraf had to immediately take a U-turn on Pakistan’s policy of supporting jihadists in Afghanistan. “As time passed, Musharraf was coerced or persuaded by the US to expand intelligence sharing against jihadi groups linked to al Qaeda, shut down the infiltration of militants across the Line of Control [LoC] into Indian-controlled Kashmir, and join a peace process with India. Towards the end of 2003, after information surfaced about Pakistan’s covert sales of nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea, and Libya, Musharraf also had to shut down the clandestine sales network headed by Pakistani scientist Dr A. Q. Khan and share intelligence about the network with the US…His statement about Pakistan’s ‘vital national interests’ was meant to reassure his military and Pakistan’s religious conservatives that the alliance with the US was not the policy U-turn it appeared to be” (Haqqani, Husain, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, USA: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005, pp. 261-62). It is pertinent to note here that “in 2001-2, Pakistan was home to 58 religious political parties and 24 armed religious militias” (Shafqat, Saeed, ‘From Official Islam to Islamism: The Rise of Dawat-ul-Irshad and Lashkar-e-Taiba’, in Pakistan: Nationalism Without a Nation, ed. Jaffrelot, Christophe, London: Zed Books, 2002, p. 133).

In the 2002 elections, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of the religious-political parties, won 53 seats out of the 272 it contested due to the anti-American sentiment that prevailed in Pakistan following the invasion of Afghanistan. It was the first time since Pakistan’s creation that any Islamist group had managed to secure so many seats in an election. There were speculations that the MMA won this many seats due to the manipulation of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who wanted to use the religious extremism threat to deal with the US. Since Musharraf’s own King’s Party, the PML(Q), was not able to win a majority, a mullah-military alliance was forged in the shape of the MMA tacitly supporting the Musharraf regime, leading to the passage of the 17th Amendment that consequently upheld the Legal Framework Order (LFO).

A crackdown was launched by the Musharraf regime on jihadi groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, but nothing came out of it since the crackdown was stopped midway. The banned organisations renamed themselves and resurfaced after the October 2005 earthquake. “In January 2002, General Musharraf banned some jihadi outfits and launched a crackdown. But it is far from complete or consistent, as despite the setbacks they suffered, underground groups have not slowed their activities” (‘Invisible jihadis?’, Editorial of The Post, December 27, 2005).

Musharraf’s mantra of ‘enlightened moderation’ sounds hollow given the fact he never took on the radical fringe with the force commensurate with his public utterances on the issue. In fact, he reneged on his promise to end the scourge of radicalism. Musharraf’s retreat in bringing about a simple procedural change in the blasphemy laws is a case in point. Similarly, he dilly-dallied on the issue of the Women’s Protection Bill, allowing the PML(Q), which is fundamentally a right-of-centre party, to involve the MMA mullahs in deliberations on the said law. President Musharraf’s ‘running with the hare and hunting with the hounds’ policy in respect of religious extremism and militancy is evident in his incorporating the local Taliban into his drive to root out foreign militants in the tribal areas.

This policy is the offshoot of a post-September 11, 2001, strategic move on the part of Musharraf that entailed action against al Qaeda and other foreign elements while keeping intact support for the Taliban and local jihadis. In this pursuit, he recruited the services of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), which is running the biggest network of madrassas in Pakistan. Needless to say, given Pakistan’s intelligence agencies’ use of jihadis in quest of strategic objectives in foreign lands, Musharraf’s policy of being soft on the local jihadis later spiralled into a frontal attack on the writ of his government, both in the settled and tribal areas. So much so it culminated in the Lal Masjid fiasco in Islamabad. As things stand today, the lukewarm policy of Musharraf has pushed him into a situation where the entire tribal belt is in the grip of the local Taliban. Even the urban areas, including the most inaccessible Kharian Cantt, have tasted the viciousness of ‘paradise’-inebriated jihadi suicide bombers.

With a visibly perturbed US breathing down his neck, Musharraf has now been forced to induct Benazir Bhutto, who too once lent her support to the Taliban in pursuit of ‘strategic depth’, to fight ‘religious militancy’. The price he is ready to pay is in the form of the withdrawal of cases against her. On the other side stands an amalgam of rightist parties, led by Nawaz Sharif and Qazi Hussain Ahmad. Pakistan is yet once again standing at a crossroads with a weakened Musharraf making last ditch efforts to ward off the march of religious militancy. But then it is he who bears the blame for bringing himself to this pass, despite having enjoyed unmatchable support from the US, the army and civil society at large when he assumed power in 1999.


Abu Muhammad said…
Initially I thought you are a enlightened moderated hijabee ... but later when i read your posts ... I must say you have good background research and you moulded the words very well ... and on top when i saw you profile you turned out to be a professional journalist ... Keep up the good work !!!
Atonu said…
I just finished all your postings on "Religious extremism in Pakistan". I really liked it and provided many information pertaining to my own interest in the matter. Being from Bangladesh, I think many of the problems and issues are rooted in the early rise of Islamists' thinking in the sub-continent which eventually led to the partition. Flirting with radical form of thinking endangered democratic thinking and many of the fundamental rights of people within the polity which a liberal like me almost takes for granted.

Thanks. Keep on writing.
Anonymous said…
very impressive...As an Indian, I have not heard such rational thought frm any muslim yet, never frm any India muslims..Indians will be greatful if u give some of ur rational thoughts to our Indian muslim brothers in India.

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