The crisis in FATA and Swat has increasingly become reduced to a narrative of the evil Taliban versus the helpless state and society. That the Taliban have instituted a horrendous regime of terror is beyond question. But it is evasive and dangerous to think that the Taliban are the only bogeymen. We need to understand the ongoing crisis in terms of Talibanization as a historical process of Islamist moral policing and militancy, which has been an established part of state policy in Pakistan since its inception. Until we refuse to acknowledge this reality, and tackle it head on, we will be unable to address the existential mess in which we find ourselves today.
As early as the 1950s, senior government officials in Pakistan had begun to authorize hypocritical and intolerant religious policies in the name of promoting an Islamic identity for the new nation. For example, in The State of Martial Rule, Ayesha Jalal discusses how Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan issued an official injunction urging Muslims to fast, which subsequently paved the way for populist Islamist moral policing – mobs stormed restaurants that did not close during fasting hours, non-fasters were paraded through bazaars in NWFP with the support of the local police, and the judiciary in Haripur sentenced people for eating in public.
In such an environment, fundamentalist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami flexed their muscles even more. By 1953, we had already succumbed to certain aspects of religious terror that we associate with the Taliban: in organized riots all over Punjab, religious parties as well as the Muslim League government collaborated in the extensive looting, arson, and murder of fellow Ahmadi Pakistani citizens. Both the Pakistani state and society have thus been implicated in the process of Talibanization right from the start, reducing politics to cynical uses of religion instead of substantive citizenship, and encouraging a singular and authoritarian interpretation of Islam which is now being brought to its logical conclusion by the Taliban.
Civilian and military governments have pandered to the fundamentalist lobby at every step for short-sighted political gains, and introduced Islamist policies themselves to strengthen their power. The mullah-military alliance has obviously made matters much worse. For more than two decades, the military-intelligence regime in Pakistan actually produced, trained, and funded the militants of today for Cold War needs, as well for its shallow campaigns of violence in Afghanistan and Kashmir that it euphemistically calls “strategic depth.”
Contrary to popular opinion, the eight years of Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation” encouraged Islamist agendas even more. In the rigged elections of 2002, Musharraf and the ISI enabled religious parties to form a government for the first time in Pakistan’s history. Between 2002 and 2007, the MMA government in NWFP implemented a repressive Islam that has now paved the way for a more forceful assertion of power by the Taliban.
The NWFP may not have had a very liberal society, but the intimidation of barbers, tailors, X-ray assistants, CD sellers, female health workers, NGO activists, and administrators of girls’ schools is a new phenomenon that began systematically with the MMA, and not with the Taliban. If there is a so-called moderate majority, it has largely refrained from organizing against this Islamist bigotry, partly because no one wants to be seen as falling outside the purview of an imagined, authentic Islam.
If extremism and militancy have been established tools of Pakistani militarization for over three decades, how can we count on the same military apparatus – that created, fed, and sustained fundamentalism – to challenge it? The failure of the Pakistan army against the Taliban is often posited as a structural difficulty: it is argued that a conventional army geared to fight against India simply cannot handle Taliban-style guerilla warfare. The argument is rather tenuous since the repressive machinery of the state in Pakistan is super-efficient when it wants to be: thousands of lawyers can be arrested in a day, and radio and TV channels banned in a second when they speak truth to power, but Maulvi Fazlullah’s FM station is allowed to thrive for years, the Lal Masjid clerics can openly terrorize citizens and not be arrested, 300 Taliban can publicly hang Pir Samiullah’s body, and Baitullah Mehsud can give press conferences like an opposition party leader.
Why are we unwilling to acknowledge that there might be a failure in the will to counter the Taliban? There are good reasons for this lack of will, beyond the historical patron-client relationship between the military and the militant. Many in the military see the spectre of the Taliban as a source of continuing US aid, and an opportunity to use that aid for distributing political favours, and facilitating military desires. Moreover, the military feels that when the US exits Afghanistan, the Taliban will likely be back in power, and hence ties with them should not be entirely broken. As before, the military is still suffering from the delusion that a “friendly” and controllable Taliban is a useful strategic partner for military interests.
Even if we assume that the military command has learnt from its mistakes and is sincere now, is a brutal military campaign that punishes and uproots entire populations justified? Will we begin to bomb villages in southern Punjab next, because they too have militant madressas? Or is the state wrath reserved only for Pashtuns? Should we kill all the Taliban everywhere? Can we? We have to wake up to the fact that Talibanization as a process will not go away with killing the Taliban. If history is to be learnt from, it will continue to spread even more. There is enough evidence in recent decades that shows how military campaigns entail indiscriminate killings and destruction that swells the ranks of jihadis and makes them appear saviours instead of culprits. Not surprisingly, Taliban leaders openly state that American and Pakistani attacks have been a blessing for them.
So, what can we as citizens do? A long-term, pervasive problem demands long-term vision and collective engagement, not short-term military strikes and expedient deals. We need to recognize that the current mess is attributable not just to the figure of the Taliban, but to a systematic abuse of Islam and power by our political, military, and religious elite. As we learnt from the judicial crisis, pressure and mobilization from below is indispensable for making our polity more democratic and egalitarian. Hence, the same spirit that defined the civil rights movement for the restoration of the judiciary is needed for tackling the crisis of Islamist militancy in Pakistan. We must start with the basics. We need to assertively say no to a military solution, whether pushed for by the US or our own government. We are already suffering from the blowback of the Afghan war, the Bush-Mush war on terror, and the Lal Masjid fiasco, and simply cannot afford more. Instead of bombing away, and then delivering development aid, we need to demand and initiate public accountability, reform, and rule of law. The perpetrators of religious terror in Pakistan are not just the terrorists, but also actors embedded in state and society, and neither have been made answerable. This has emboldened all those who want to abuse Islam to assert power. Why are such abusers never arrested, tried and sentenced before a court of law? This lack of deterrence is a major reason that the Taliban can openly flout the rule of law in the name of “Islamic” justice.We need to push for legal reform which questions intolerance and injustice legitimized under the label of Sharia, instead of sanctioning it further as we have always done. Alongside, we need immediate steps such as curtailing the flow of funds to the militants, plugging their means of mobilization such as radio, and initiating plans for their rehabilitation. We must shed the hypocrisy of turning a blind eye to Waziristan and Bajaur, but panicking when the crisis reaches our beloved tourist destinations and urban enclaves. Instead of creating a misleading religious vs. secular divide, and demonizing ethnic groups and pious Muslims, we need to take back the meaning of Islam and ensure that ideologies of intolerance and discrimination are severely curtailed socially, as well as legally. Instead of looking for saviours – be it a politician, a judge, or a commando – we need to collectively engage in holistic institution-building. We have to involve ourselves in the internal reform of our political parties, bureaucracy, judiciary, media, schools, and mosques to ensure that these critical institutions are geared towards the Muslim spirit of humanism and rule of law, not pretentious and prejudiced pronouncements on religion. And most importantly, we need to question the self-serving arrogance and impunity with which our military claims to define and defend our “national security.” This means a revision of the grossly misguided “strategic depth” policy, as well as parliamentary and public accountability of our military and intelligence agencies. There can be no simple solution to the complex and deeply embedded process of Talibanization. And there will be no progress without an informed and proactive public.