Wednesday, March 9, 2011

With the rise of militant Islam, Pakistan reaps what for years the state has sown

On 2nd March came the second high-profile political murder in Pakistan in two months. Shahbaz Bhatti, the minorities minister, seems to have been killed for the same reason that Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was assassinated on January 4th. Both had called for the harsh law on blasphemy to be changed. After Mr Taseer’s death, Mr Bhatti, a Christian, was a rare prominent politician to condemn the governor’s murder. He was only too aware of the risks. But, he said, his faith gave him strength.

What is loosely known as the “Punjabi Taliban” immediately claimed responsibility. It is an assortment of Muslim extremist groups, some of whom in the past have had the help of the army’s undercover arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in waging a low-level guerrilla war in Indian-occupied Kashmir. The Punjabi Taliban are now distinct from that lot.

Yet people are not inclined to take things at face value. The ISI itself is widely believed to be responsible for everything from the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in late 2007 to the rise of fundamentalist chat shows on cable television. But in terms of conspiracy theories, the ISI can give as good as it gets. Hamid Gul, a former head, says Mr Bhatti’s killing is “another Raymond Davis-style attack”, referring to the row between America and Pakistan over a CIA contractor who killed two Pakistanis. The Americans, Mr Gul says, want to destabilise Pakistan so that they can somehow make the case that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are not safe in Pakistani hands. “This is a tried and trusted intelligence tactic. I should know.”

Others recognise the Punjabi Taliban as a Pakistani phenomenon—one of the consequences of a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism which manifests itself in increasingly violent ways. Indeed, today’s crisis has been long in the making. Over three decades, political and military leaders have appealed to Islam as a source of strength. Zia ul Haq, the military dictator who ordered the killing of Bhutto’s father (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former president and prime minister), introduced sharia law, favoured Islamist political parties and promoted orthodox Muslims in the armed forces and bureaucracy.

Decades of conflict in Afghanistan have pumped guns into Pakistan, and foreign money has funded extremists. In the 1980s American and Saudi support for the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation engendered conditions that later fostered both the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda, with consequences for Pakistan today. All the while, money has been flowing into Pakistan from the Arabian Gulf to support a hardline version of Islam, pushing back Pakistan’s more tolerant Sufi-based form. Raheeq Ahmad Abbasi, of the Tehreek Minhaj-ul-Quran, a non-sectarian Muslim body, says that of around 20,000 madrassas in Pakistan roughly 15,000 promote hardline doctrines.

None of this would have mattered so much had Pakistan’s governments performed better. But the failure of both civilian and military rule to provide decent education, health care or robust levels of economic growth has fed frustration among the young. In Pakistan, where the politicians have governed no better than the soldiers, democracy has only intermittent appeal as a rallying cry.

Religion appeals more; hence the spread of militant Islam. At its violent extreme is a network of Islamist terrorist organisations which, according to Amir Rana of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, breaks down into three broad parts. Al-Qaeda provides the ideology. The “Pushtun Taliban” is a loose-knit alliance of groups along Pakistan’s north-western border who rose up in opposition to America’s war against their ethnic brothers next door in Afghanistan. It provides the logistics and the hideouts. Meanwhile the Punjabi Taliban increasingly provides the foot-soldiers for terrorism. Khaled Ahmed, author of “Sectarian War”, a new book on religious violence in Pakistan, says all three elements work closely together.

Pakistan is of increasing interest to al-Qaeda’s leaders at a time when they must be disappointed that militant Islam has played almost no part in north African uprisings. In 2009 al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, produced a book on Pakistan’s constitution entitled “The Morning and the Lamp”. It argued that the state was illegitimate and should be destroyed. Mr al-Zawahiri is widely believed to be lodging with the Pushtun Taliban. The Pakistani army allowed the networks to flourish for a while, because they supported the Afghan Taliban, ISI allies. But in 2009, pressed by America, it pushed them out of their strongholds of Swat and South Waziristan and into the remote badlands of North Waziristan, where they have been left to their own devices.

The Punjabi Taliban grew out of a combination of ISI support for anti-Indian militants, anti-Shia feeling in central Punjab and Gulf money in south Punjab.

Southern Punjab, a favourite area for rich people from the Arabian Gulf, is now thick with well-funded religious institutions. Mr al-Zawahiri’s tract has been widely distributed in seminaries there.

The Punjabi Taliban poses a greater threat to the Pakistani state than does the Pushtun Taliban. Three-fifths of Pakistanis live in Punjab. The province is the army’s main recruiting ground. It could not carry out the sort of operation there that it mounted in Swat and South Waziristan.

Foreigners looking nervously at this nuclear-armed state wonder whether militants who murder ministers might one day take over the government. That seems highly unlikely. The country’s political system may be weak, but its bureaucracy and armed forces are strong, and they would not allow it. However, although Pakistan’s state is not going to be overthrown, the country’s nature is changing.

Until recently, Pakistan was a joyfully argumentative and outspoken place. Now Pakistanis are falling silent. Only one among a group of academics and students at the University of Punjab discussing the fundamentalists’ control of the campus was prepared to be named. When asked why the university had organised no ceremony to mourn Mr Taseer, who was its chancellor, Samee Uzair Khan, an assistant law professor, said: “If somebody as big as Salman Taseer can be killed, how can we be safe?” The Economist

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