Tuesday, 14 May, 2024

Pakistan’s complex relationship with religious extremism

One would wonder who might be an enemy of the faith in Pakistan. If any, the person would most probably be a Muslim.

It was 2005, I was 14, in middle school in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, mouthing lines at a morning assembly from an Urdu poem that exhorted me to behead the enemies of the faith.

Elsewhere, the hunt was on for someone many considered a bigger enemy – Osama bin Laden.

For the past four years, American and allied troops had been stationed in Afghanistan, scouring the land for bin Laden and seeking to dismantle the Al Qaeda network. By then, both had become an enemy to almost the entire world.

By 2005, the Taliban regime had fallen in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda had been deprived of a comfort zone in this strife-torn country. But many from these groups slipped into Pakistan, to save their lives and to regroup.

In Pakistan, they were on the run, but would still find sympathisers. The religious political parties were already charged up against the US-led invasion in Afghanistan and Iraq. They often invoked a statement by the then US President George W. Bush to incite the masses at home.

While describing his country’s actions post-9/11, President Bush had used the word“crusade”. His exact words: “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.”

Pakistan’s right-wing religious parties projected Bush's war on terror as a war against Islam. Bush's statement about "fighting crusades" further alienated the Pakistanis' perception of the war.

Supporters of radical Islamic groups condemn Pakistan's war on terror and raise hands to show their support during an anti-government rally in Islamabad, Pakistan on Wednesday, March 9, 2005.
Supporters of radical Islamic groups condemn Pakistan’s war on terror and raise hands to show their support during an anti-government rally in Islamabad, Pakistan on Wednesday, March 9, 2005. (AP)

"An enemy of the faith"

The school I completed my matriculation from belonged to a chain of dozens of schools run and administered by the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), a political party leaning to the right of the political spectrum.

A ritual every day during the assembly was the recitation of some verses from the Quran, followed by a poem, and Pakistan’s national anthem to conclude.

One of the poems, that in the day was quite popular at my school, had these lyrics in Urdu: “Sadarat mein, sifarat mein, wazarat mein, adalat mein; jo dekho deen ke dushman tou sar tan se juda kar do; (In presidency, in embassy, in ministry, in court; if you come across enemies of the faith, behead them).”

There I was, barely a year into my teens, growing up in a family with religious orientation and in a middle-income neighbourhood of an expanding Karachi. For families like mine, religion was very important. It was something very dear to us and so we were very emotional about it.

And it was precisely these emotions that the likes of Al Qaeda and its ideological affiliates cashed in on for recruitment and infusing more extremism into the society.

It was much later that I came to realise how problematic these particular lyrics were. Pakistan is an Islamic state with a Muslim majority. One would wonder who might be an enemy of the faith in this country. If any, the person would most probably be a Muslim.

More importantly, even if these lyrics were mouthed rhetorically, chances were they would be taken for granted. Who then is to decide who the enemy of the faith is?

"Too moderate"

Noman Burney spearheaded the student wing of JI, the Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), at one of the largest public-sector universities in Pakistan, the University of Karachi for the session 2008-09.

By that time, things had taken a drastic turn within Pakistan. For instance, a local faction of the Taliban calling itself the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), had come into being and was waging a violent war against the Pakistani state.

Post-2007, Pakistan was no longer just an ally of the US, but a participant in the war against terror. In 2007, then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator, decided to use force against the members of Jamia Hafsa, gathered inside Islamabad’s Lal Masjid mosque.

The blowback to that military operation came in the form of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks across Pakistan. The public sentiment, especially among the religious segment of the society, was that of anger and hatred against Musharraf, Pakistan's army, and its state.

Burney says it was a difficult time. “We were taking stock of the situation,” he recalls. “The situation was complex. Parents of IJT members would call us to say their sons had suddenly disappeared in the dark of the night.”

These youths were mostly discovered later in the country’s tribal areas, in the ranks of TTP, Al Qaeda, or their affiliates. Their numbers could have been just a fraction of the total party strength, Burney says, but it indicated a situation that needed a swift solution.

He also insists the “indoctrination” was not a post-9/11 phenomenon.

“The foundation was laid down back in the 1980s when the Pakistani state promoted ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion,” he says.

So, why was the militant narrative more popular? “Many of our members thought we were too moderate. They found the other side more appealing,” says Burney.

A sudden U-turn

The state played its part too by providing funding and necessary training. The JI, back in the 1980s, along with other religious outfits, were the ones that responded to the state’s call for a ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan with much passion, facilitating young men who wished to fight the “holy war”.

It was all in the alignment of a greater game, and Pakistan was just a small part of it — which would, in about two decades, begin to look like a blunder that many wished had never happened.

One such person is Faizullah Khan, is a journalist based in Karachi, and an expert on militancy once thrown into prison by the Afghan government which considered him a threatto Afghanistan’s national security.

Khan believes that Pakistan’s youth was first influenced by the state into extremism and were later used by Al Qaeda and its affiliates. He says the present situation cannot be understood by not taking into account the events from four decades ago.

In his view, it would be unjust to talk about the country’s educated youth heading towards militancy and not mention the role the Pakistani state played over the years.

“This was a state policy in the 1980s, and religious parties were taken on board for effective messaging,” he says.

“An entire generation was influenced by militancy, extremism. First, the Afghan jihad. Then, the Kashmir insurgency gained pace during the same time, and later 9/11. The state, for decades, promoted a policy and when Musharraf was at the helm, it suddenly took a U-turn.”

During most of the 1980s and later in the 1990s, religious parties in Pakistan continued to speak about changing the system and bringing in an Islamic order that would turn the fortunes. Slogans and poems, such as the one I quoted above from my school-going days, were trotted out rhetorically so that they became ingrained in the subconscious of Pakistan’s youth.

Both Burney and Khan agree that when a generation grows up consuming a complex narrative fed by the state, it becomes difficult to reason with them when they begin to question the state’s new line of thinking.

Rather than engaging with them, the state found it easier to pick them up or kill in “encounters”, they say.

Worse, the change in the state narrative meant a war on terrorism that resulted in an estimated 70,000 Pakistani lives lost.

The devotees

A fresh wave of jubilation can be seen in similar religious circles on the sweeping victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan. As I continue to scroll down my Facebook timeline and see my friends back from the school sharing news glorifying the Taliban regime, it feels all too similar.

I can see the debates resurfacing surrounding what women should wear, whether they should work or not, or what the punishment for stealing should be, and whether what the Taliban are doing is justified or not.

I fear whether this will lead to a renewed wave of extremism, inspired by the Taliban. The Taliban are now again favourites of the religious right in Pakistan.

Recently, the Taliban spokesperson said they never got evidence from the US establishing Bin Laden’s role in 9/11.

The infamous dead Al Qaeda chief may have found many devotees in Pakistan too, where he continues to live in the memory of the indoctrinated youth.

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