In Islamabad, a cleric who unleashed forces from his Lal Masjid to attack and capture government buildings to press for his demand that the constitution of the state be overthrown and replaced with Islamic law, triggering the infamous showdown of July 2007, is once again addressing press conferences.
Maulana Abdul Aziz, now a member of the Taliban committee negotiating with the government, continues to openly hold that the framework of the constitution should not bind the scope of talks. His suggestion that the supreme law of the land be overthrown is one he has been permitted to air in the heart of the country.
Not so far away, in the Azad Kashmir capital of Muzaffarabad, we have seen Maulana Masood Azhar make a comeback after a long period of absence. The rally of some 10,000 people that he addressed was guarded by the police. Azhar, considered one of the most dangerous of the ‘jihadi’ leaders in Kashmir, had been freed from an Indian jail after a 1999 plane hijack. In Pakistan he has remained free, despite protests by India.
While his Jaish-e-Muhammad was banned in 2002, Azhar himself has remained untouched – and indeed he is reported to have expanded his outfit constructing elaborate new seminaries in his home area of Bahawalpur. His JeM has reportedly remained active, and is thought to be allied with other extremist forces.
Other leaders, such as Hafiz Muhammad Saeed of the Jamaatud Dawa, formerly the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which India – and the US – hold were allegedly behind the 2008 siege of Mumbai that plunged Islamabad-New Delhi ties to an all-time low at a time when things had been looking up, has already been resurrected as a kind of philanthropist rather than a ‘pro-jihad’ extremist, while another leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil of the Harkatul Mujahideen makes regular television appearances as an ‘expert’.
Meanwhile, our government apparently sees it fit to negotiate with a committee nominated by the Taliban, led now by Mullah Fazlullah, a man known to be behind many murders, the fearful beheadings witnessed in Mingora and the burning of schools in the Swat Valley where education for girls was banned on his orders until the 2009 military operation restored some element of normalcy. Why Fazlullah was never arrested is something many of us still ponder.
But the fact is that people who oppose the law of the land, who publicly say it should be overthrown, have today once more been pulled into the mainstream, enabled to address gatherings. The process seems to have gained pace in recent months – and in this there has to be a link to government policy. The argument goes that the ambiguity we have been seeing has given the Taliban space to re-organise, to stage more attacks and to speak to the government from a position of strength.
Many argue that, at any rate, the views held by the government and Taliban-nominated committees are not that far apart – that members of the government committee are Taliban sympathisers and share their view.
The entire ‘talks’ charade, of course, opens up many questions, especially given the Taliban ‘demands’. But whatever the reasons for the prime ministerial decision on this count – which it is said surprised even some PML-N members – it acts to weaken the government, the writ of the state and all that goes with it. So far the Taliban have offered nothing as the talks begin, and of course they have no reason to as they see an administration grovel before them, willing to talk to criminals even as they continue to unleash their suicide bombers and grenades. We are simply giving in to evil – rather than combating it, and history suggests this is almost always a disaster.
Equally dangerous is the space that is being created for extremist ideas and those who expound them. Groups such as the JeM feed into the same mentality that the Taliban and other militant forces hold. The rally in Muzaffarabad is ominous. So is the fact that other leaders who follow the same school of thought are being allowed to move further and further towards the centre of the stage. Of course, they should have been pushed away behind the curtains a long time ago, but now they are back even from the sidelines to play a far more prominent role.
What this will do is add to the doubts and confusion that already lurk everywhere in our country. Fewer and fewer seem ready to speak out and say what is true. Indeed, we appear to have become confused as to what the truth is and the ideas that began to breed in our country since the 1980s have taken stronger and stronger roots. Lately, a little additional fertiliser seems to have been placed under them, allowing them to grow taller and stronger.
This is dangerous. The policies followed with regard to extremism and ‘jihad’ have already inflicted immense damage as far as regional policy goes. We really cannot afford to see any more harm in this arena. The wider picture has to be kept in view. The issue of ‘jihad’ in the region is tied in to militancy; ties with India linked to creating the peaceful environment we seek and an eradication of the Taliban essential to calm and stability within our own country. All these elements go together to create a compound.
It is this compound we do not want to see created.
The policies of the past in respect of extremist forces based in Punjab, both those that follow a sectarian line and those which advocate militant struggle in some form, under previous PML-N governments have raised many questions. These questions are beginning to come up again. We must examine what we are doing and what the broader impact will be. All the influences involved in the current strategy need to be looked at.
Certainly the return to the forefront of clerics who breathe fire is not comforting. It can only add fuel to the Taliban force and allow it to grow into a bigger and bigger monster. Already, it is proving extremely difficult to tackle this force of violence that we allowed to grow within our midst. If we do not change the direction in which we are moving now, the task may become an impossible one.
Reason needs to step in and a genuine effort made to save our country by looking at the entire picture and not individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which needs to be put together if we are to see the entire scene unfold. The issues of ‘jihad’, of extremism, of particular interpretations of religion and of militancy all go together. It is impossible to pick them apart and still keep a hold on a nation spiralling towards chaos.
The only way to end this chaos is to put forward a clear vision of what we want. Surely, this does not include people demanding the constitution be thrust aside as they speak out at widely covered talks in Islamabad or gatherings by banned groups organised with what is obviously full official consent. Such tactics will only drive us into deeper and deeper trouble and once enmeshed in it, we may find it quite impossible to escape before we are destroyed completely, consumed by the monsters we ourselves have bred.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.