The most recognizable face of political Islam today is neither a mullah nor a religious scholar. It is a militant.
Until 2001, spellchecks did not recognise the word Taliban and suggested changing it to “tally bone.” Now it is recognised by all spellchecks. Names like al Qaeda and Boko Haram are also equally recognizable. Even the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is a recent addition to the list of Muslim militant Deobandi/Wahabi organizations, is known across the globe.
Yet, a recent survey by Pew Research Center, Washington, shows that overwhelming majorities – 70 per cent and more – in Muslim countries reject extremism.
Why, then, has the militant become the symbol of Islam across the globe?
The answer is simple: The methods they use — suicide bombings, mass killings, executions and hijacking — draw immediate attention. And since they do so in the name of Islam, they are seen as representing their faith even if 80 to 95 per cent Muslims reject suicide bombing as haram.
Intellectual deficit and political chaos
Muslim and Western scholars of Islam warn that it would be a mistake to equate the religion with violence, but many across the world find it difficult to appreciate the distinction between Islam and its militant version.
“Political disputes and not religion, beget violence,” argues John Esposito, a widely respected American professor and author on the Islamic world, known for his moderate views on Islam.
“If you had Palestines and Northern Irelands in other places, you would have violence in those places as well,” says Esposito.
But what ordinary people across the world see — from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States to the July 7, 2005, London bombings and the recent violence in Iraq and Afghanistan — influences their opinion about Islam.
While Esposito’s argument that political disputes and not religion beget violence may be correct, the inability of political Islam to provide an intellectual base for Muslims allows these violent groups to occupy the central stage in the Islamic world.
The lack of an intellectual base has created a vacuum in the Islamic world that extremists like those in the Taliban and al Qaeda try to fill. But these groups choose violence, and not intellectual arguments, for spreading their message.
Scholars like Esposito, however, point out that almost all those groups that use violence as a weapon were born in the areas where Muslims are engaged in violent political struggles.
Afghan War and madrassas served each other
They argue that no event made a greater contribution to the creation of terrorist groups than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which soon became a war between two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States. The United States and its Western and Muslim allies took immediate steps to counter the Soviets.
As the war in Afghanistan grew in intensity and the Soviet occupation forces made it obvious they had come to stay, Washington and its allies began to search for an ideology to counter the communism that the Soviets had brought with them to Afghanistan.
They did not have to look far.
Political Islam was the ideology they needed, and madrassas provided them with thousands of volunteers willing to die for their faith.
The madrassas claim to be the centres of religious learning. But they provide only a rudimentary knowledge of Islam to mainly rural youths who have nowhere else to go.
Most madrassa students, when they graduate, cannot compete in the job market with students from other schools. So they work as teachers of Islamic scriptures, making meager incomes.
When US-backed recruiters arrived at their doors to take them to Afghanistan, they found these youths keen to join a jihad that not only gave them the opportunity to fight “Godless Russians” but also provided a steady income.
The war in Afghanistan also changed the mullahs’ status in countries like Pakistan, where they were never part of the ruling elite. But the Afghan war suddenly brought a lot of funds from backers of the jihad around the globe.
A good example of how the money pumped into Pakistan for the war altered the country’s social fabric is that of the imams of Islamabad’s Red Mosque.
Before the war, the entire family — parents, two brothers and two sisters — lived in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house near the mosque. The father, Maulana Abdullah Deobandi, had one bicycle, and his sons, Ghazi Abdur Rashid Deobandi and Abdul Aziz Deobandi, did not even have enough warm clothes to protect them from Islamabad’s cold winter.
Soon after the war, when the Red Mosque’s clerics joined the efforts to defeat the Russians in Afghanistan, they had a four-wheel drive vehicle, a big house and armed bodyguards.
Consequences of ‘strategic depth’
After the war, the Americans pulled out of the region so rapidly it created a vacuum. The Pakistani government, instead of recognising the threat the militants posed to the state, decided to use them for a proxy war against India and to create the so-called ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan by backing the Taliban.
It is true that Pakistan did not have the resources needed to disarm thousands of battle-hardened extremists brought from all over the Islamic world to join the jihad. But when others offered to help, particularly after 9/11, the Pakistanis rejected them.
The clerics, who gained prominence during the Afghan war, obviously were unwilling to revert to their previous social status, living once again in relative poverty. This created a new conflict by pitching the clerics against the traditional, English-speaking elite unwilling to treat the mullah as an equal.
What happened at the Red Mosque in 2007 — a major military operation in which hundreds of madrassa students reportedly died — was a logical consequence of this larger conflict between two social classes.
Pakistani troops did succeed in destroying the radical madrassa attached to the Red Mosque, but the operation created new problems for the Pakistani government. Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan, used it to widen its support base and successfully recruited hundreds of new sympathisers and scores of suicide bombers.
Mullah Fazlullah Deobandi of Swat used it as an excuse to create a state within a state and implemented his own version of Sharia in the valley.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly summarised the situation after the Red Mosque operation: “Pakistan is on a knife’s edge,” she said. “It is easily, unfortunately, a target for the jihadists.”
In a comment on Pakistan’s decision to allow the Taliban to operate from Fata, she said that Pakistan was “keeping snakes in its backyard (Fata)” but they had conveniently forgotten that “the snakes do not bite your neighbours only. One day they will bite your children as well.”
The need for new narratives
The Pakistani establishment carried out a major military operation in Swat when the militants captured the valley. But they remained reluctant to accept the argument that the Deobandi militants were their enemy. They continued to focus on India, instead.
But a major Taliban attack on the Karachi airport last month has forced the Pakistanis to reconsider their strategy.
They have now launched a major military offensive in North Waziristan and are also attacking militant targets in other tribal agencies. According to the Pakistani military, almost 500 militants have already been killed during this offensive, which still continues.
All the same, there is some truth in the argument that this problem cannot be resolved by military means alone. There’s an immediate need for providing a counter-narrative to the Pakistani youths, particularly those in the madrassas, who have been raised on a regular diet of militancy.
What the misguided militant youths need is a balanced and secular education system coupled with an economy that creates job opportunities for them. Creating jobs for the rural unemployed is crucial as often it is them who go to the madrassas because they have nowhere else to go.
And more than anything else, the Muslim societies, not just in Pakistan, need to develop an intellectual base to counter extremism, and that does not seem to be happening soon.