Don’t we have enough of a Deobandi-Shia problem at home that we should be taking sides in the larger Salafi-Shia cleavage racking the so-called world of Islam? The battle lines of this larger conflict are drawn most visibly in the killing fields of Syria and Pakistan, at the bidding of friends, has committed itself on the side of the increasingly sinister anti-Bashar al-Assad coalition.
The recent joint communiqué signed in Islamabad calls for “the formation of a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers…” in other words for the ouster of al-Assad.
The western powers wanted Syria to go down the Libyan path, and would have succeeded but for the Syrian military, the crucial help rendered by Hezbollah – the only Arab outfit, let us never forget, which has worsted the Israeli military in combat – and Russia’s backing of the Assad regime.
And holy friends are incensed because President Obama launched no air strikes on Syria and because he is trying to improve relations with Iran, anathema to friends and to Israel. Even by the Middle East’s usual standards of throwing up the bizarre this would be counted as unusual: friends and Israel on the same page and both raving against the US.
Saudi ambassadors are not known for their op-ed writing skills but when the US-Saudi rift over Syria came into the open the Saudi ambassador in London penned an op-ed column sharply critical of American policy. Unprecedented but there it was.
The Obama administration is being careful about Egypt, skeptical of the military-led government but not openly critical. Friends from the desert of Hejaz are, on the other hand, openly supportive. Their cheque book the most potent weapon in their arsenal, a cheque for five billion dollars was recently written for the new dispensation in Egypt led by Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.
Let’s try to make sense of this. In Egypt our friends – and please forgive me for being euphemistic – are for military-led ‘stability’. In Syria they are for the rag-tag opposition even if it contains significant al Qaeda elements. In Egypt they don’t like the Salafi Muslim Brotherhood because it is a populist movement, populism and monarchic absolutism not going well together, and because being who they are they look with profound distrust at anyone else claiming to hold aloft the true banner of Islam. In Syria they don’t like Bashar al-Assad because he is an Alawite Shia backed by Shiite Hezbollah and Shiite Iran.
The US, Britain, France, and now even Turkey, are wary of Islamic extremists not only penetrating but dominating the al-Assad opposition. But our friends have thrown caution to the winds, the Saudi spy chief, Prince Bandar, previously long-time Saudi ambassador in Washington, overseeing the effort to arm and fund the anti-Assad forces.
Into this Deobandi-Shia conflict played out on a large checker-board, Pakistan has stepped at external bidding because (a) it is not easy for PM Sharif to say no to the quarter from where this pressure is coming, his friends having saved his skin during the Musharraf regime; and (b) Pakistan’s perennial need for dollars and riyals, or any other foreign currency.
At a time of acute financial crisis Pakistan needs money and our friends, having worked themselves up into a passion for what they consider to be America’s betrayal of their interests – not a very sound analysis – are loosening their purse strings, or so think Pakistan’s present rulers. And Pakistan given the lure of short-term gains has been usually ready to offer its services to foreign contractors, no matter how high the risk involved or how questionable the enterprise so being fuelled. Indeed few countries would equal our record as masters of the bad bargain.
Our popular narrative rightly blames military dictators for jumping into battles that were not Pakistan’s and selling Pakistan’s interests for a song. Now Pakistan has signed on to something that doesn’t concern it at all. If Gen Zia and Musharraf concluded deals and understandings without public disclosure much less anything resembling public discussion, Pakistan’s new tack on Syria has also come about in the same hugger-mugger fashion. Long live democracy.
Some content is provided by this AFP dispatch (Feb 23): “(our friends are) reportedly in talks with Pakistan to provide anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets to Syrian Salafi/Deobandi rebels fighting forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, a Saudi source said on Sunday.”
No one in his right mind will say spoil relations with Saudi Arabia. If the Sharifs have some cachet with our friends from the holy kingdom they should exploit it in the country’s interest. This is a cash-strapped government, indeed a cash-strapped economy. We could do with what help we can get. But our begging bowl is eternal. We are always in need of cash. No one bailout or temporary funding is going to redeem our condition.
In any event, this should not mean bartering away other interests such as our vital relationship with Iran for short-term gains. Iran and its rivals are entitled to the pursuit of their sectarian agendas and indeed their dreams of glory. But why must Pakistan become a party to this useless exercise? The Sharifs at a personal level perhaps owe a lot to their patrons in their days of exile. But if any repayment is required let it too be at a personal level.
There was no protocol necessity for PM Sharif to receive and see off his recent guests at Nur Khan airbase. If he did and felt that this is what he his benefactors, that’s fine. But jumping into the Syrian cauldron is a different ballgame.
Pakistan has been a proxy battleground for competing Saudi and Iranian interests from Gen Zia’s time, the Saudis pouring in money to Deobandi madressahs and the Iranians funding Shiite seminaries and imambargahs, and Pakistan reaping the whirlwind and turning into the sectarian and extremist powder keg it has become. Have we learned nothing from our tale of woe, the record of our follies?
After Pakistan suffered defeat at the hands of India in 1971 Bhutto initiated the look west approach, the turning to the Arab world. But he knew how to play the game and developed equally cordial and close ties with all Arab states, conservative and so-called radicals alike. But Zia played to Saudi sensitivities because he wanted Saudi support and his treasury was empty. Afraid that the Saudis might appeal for sparing Bhutto’s life the then Jamaat chief, Mian Tufail Muhammad, was sent to Saudi Arabia where he met King Khalid. Of all the countries close to Pakistan only Saudi Arabia kept mum over Bhutto’s hanging.
The Hudood Ordinance prescribing so-called Islamic punishments for sex and drinking – the single most regressive bit of legislation on our statute books – was issued by Zia to please the Saudis. This was just before Bhutto’s hanging. The irony remains that the constitutional amendment passed under Bhutto declaring Ahmedis as non-Muslims was also something, according to some Bhutto insiders, on which some of Pakistan’s foreign well-wishers were keen.
In the name of religion or in the name of anything else Pakistan doesn’t need to be a pawn or a plaything of outside interests, the US or any other country. And the war against extremism in which Pakistan currently finds itself needs no mixed signals. It should be all clarity and no confusion. The understanding on Syria, however, sends a confused message, that instead of moving forward we are still clinging to aspects of our dangerous past.