Treat Talibanisation, not Taliban – Analyses by Irfan Hussain and Saleem Safi

Treating symptoms, not the disease
By Irfan Husain
Saturday, 17 Oct, 2009 (Dawn)
So what has fuelled this deadly trend? Zia’s zeal to send the country back to the medieval era was certainly one factor. And financing many of the madressahs have been rich Muslims from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and elsewhere who thought their philanthropy was paying to educate poor young Pakistanis. –AP/ File photo
As Pakistan reels from a series of lethal terror attacks in major cities, there is a welcome strengthening of resolve to fight the Taliban and their allies.

Currently, the army is gearing up for a major campaign against the hub of terrorism in South Waziristan. The senior military spokesman has talked of the nexus between Al Qaeda, Fata-based Taliban and jihadi groups from southern Punjab.

The recent assault on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi demonstrated the capabilities of the foe: launched by a mix of Punjabi and Pakhtun militants, the attack underlined the level of their training and motivation. There is now some talk of taking them on in south Punjab after the successful completion of the Waziristan operation.

Then, of course, there is the question of the terrorist centres in Quetta and Muridke. So where will our war against terrorism stop? With groups being trained and armed across the country, where exactly do the frontlines lie? By reacting to terror attacks when and where they occur, and by launching operations against the likes of the Mehsuds in South Waziristan, it seems like we are applying band-aids to gaping wounds when the patient is haemorrhaging all over the body.

The reality is that we have been trying to treat the symptoms, and not the disease. Thus far, we have not been prepared to admit that the causes of our crisis lie in our collective psyche, and not in the remote badlands of the tribal areas.

The easy response to why we are where we are is to say that it is largely due to the creation of jihadi groups by the ISI and CIA to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. After the invaders withdrew, and our American allies followed suit, thousands of armed and trained fighters were left to create mischief. The next step in this analysis is to blame our own army and intelligence apparatus for using these groups to further Pakistani interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir. After 9/11, when our establishment under Musharraf was forced to abandon its support for our proxies, they turned against us.

This chain of events is certainly a plausible explanation for our present plight. But it does not go far enough to give us an understanding into why Islamic militancy finds such fertile soil in Pakistan. Some would point to problems abroad while looking for the underlying reasons for militancy, citing Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya and Kashmir among other Muslim hotspots. Again, there is some weight in this internationalist argument.

Nor does Pakistan have a monopoly on Islamic terror groups. These have mushroomed from Indonesia to the UK, and have caused mayhem around the world. Nevertheless, Pakistan is increasingly being seen as the breeding ground for extremism and religiously inspired violence. Time and again, terrorists have been shown to having been trained and indoctrinated in the tribal areas, as well as in Pakis- tani cities.

The proliferation of madressahs in Pakistan is another cause for radicalisation that has been repeatedly identified. From a few hundred when Zia seized power in 1977 to the current estimate of some 25,000, these religious seminaries are seen as the spawning ground for the foot soldiers of jihad.

Here, thousands of young children are taught little but rote learning of the scriptures. Maulvis unqualified to teach have assumed the responsibility of indoctrinating young minds. And while Musharraf vowed to reform this sprawling, unregulated system, he failed to live up to his word in this crucial area, just as he did in so many others.

So what has fuelled this deadly trend? Zia’s zeal to send the country back to the medieval era was certainly one factor. And financing many of the madressahs have been rich Muslims from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and elsewhere who thought their philanthropy was paying to educate poor young Pakistanis.

In many cases, this financial support has had more sinister motives, as proxies were paid to further the causes of rival Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia was especially active in exporting its rigid brand of Islam.

More pernicious than these outward symbols of piety was (and is) the atmosphere of religiosity that has gripped the country since Zia’s 11 years in power. By making promotions in the army and the civil service conditional on a public display of belief, the dictator ensured that religion would be our defining identity. And what happened if you were not a Sunni Muslim in Pakistan? Our unfortunate minorities are finding out the hard way.

In these days of cable and satellite TV, it is hard to imagine the days when PTV ruled the airwaves, and bombarded us with endless sermons. Of course, many of our private TV channels still do, but at least we can now flip the remote. Education, both public and private, was forced to include an impossible amount of religious instruction.

Even Aitchison College in Lahore, a centre of secularism, succumbed. I remember one day my seven-year old son Shakir came home to complain that he had been punished in his religious studies class. When I asked him why, he replied: “The teacher asked me what Islam taught us, and I replied Arabic. So she made me stand in the corner.”

Long before Zia, Pakistan was a Muslim country, so he was hardly making any new converts through his relentless campaign. But what he did succeed in doing was to transform Pakistan into an Islamic state. This change in emphasis is deeper than it seems: in a Muslim country, the majority of citizens are followers of Islam. But it has been observed that in an Islamic state, one interpretation of the faith forms the basis for law-making. This can cause non-Muslims to be relegated to second-class status.

It is the consequence of this sea-change that we are contending with today. By creating an environment where a rigid, literal interpretation of the faith rules supreme, we stifle democratic debate based on reason.

Then the question arises about which school of jurisprudence will underpin the law of the land. Next there is the tension between the Deobandi and Barelvi schools. Finally, there is the ever-present conflict between Shia and Sunni Islam. This is the Pandora’s box Zia opened.

Unless we can somehow summon up the will to confront these difficult and divisive issues, we will be destined to continue applying band-aids to our bleeding body. (Dawn)