Extremism

Islam Needs Reformation from Within

18 January 2015

“Would you permit me to teach my children that God is greater, more just, and more merciful than all the (religious) scholars on earth combined? And that His standards are different from the standards of those trading the religion” — Nizar Qabbani, Syrian poet.

Much has been said about the French magazine Charlie Hebdo and its slain cartoonists and their provocative cartoons about Muslims. Satirical representations of the Muslims in Europe do merge with racism and evoke destructive passions. But the barbaric killing of journalists exercising their right of free speech is beyond condemnable. It strikes at the heart of press freedom.

Muslim communities in most Western countries view themselves as besieged collectives. Issues of integration, racism and the colonial baggage resonate each day. But in the past two decades especially with the rise of violent extremism as global phenomena, these complexities have become even more intractable.

By brutally killing staffers of Charlie Hebdo magazine, the violent extremists have offended their faith far more than the perceived blasphemy of the magazine. Theirs is a political ideology — of using terror as a weapon — to avenge a history, to settle grievances and to assert power through violence.

Billions of men and women who practice Islam often have little input in shaping such narratives of hatred. Such violent ideas emanate from the minority schools of thought within Islam, which rationalize the killing of ‘infidels’ and their ‘associates’. This ideology is the same that hounded Salman Rushdie, and killed Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam for a film.

Ironically, the main targets of this ideology have been Muslims themselves. From the mass killings of Hazara Shias in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the ongoing killing spree in Syria and Iraq, it is the Muslims that bear the brunt of this violent mindset.

Dozens of Sufi shrines and hundreds of schools have been blown up in Pakistan by extremists. Most of the 50,000 Pakistanis killed in the last decade were Muslims. And in this day and age this ideology prevents the majority of Pakistanis to access YouTube simply because somewhere, someone lampooned the holy figure of Islam.

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No exit

16 January 2015

The US must not forget the importance of a democratic, pluralist Pakistan

US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses a press conference in Islamabad

US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses a press conference in Islamabad

The recent visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to Islamabad is a continuation of the improving relations between Pakistan and the US. From the declared frenemies in 2011, things have changed thereby proving that nothing is permanent in international relations except interests.

Kerry during his visit lauded Pakistan’s ongoing fight against terrorism and urged the authorities to take action against militant groups that threaten regional peace and stability. Furthermore, the State Department has declared Mullah Fazalullah, commander of TTP fighting Pakistani military, a global terrorist and froze his US assets, if any. On Tuesday, Afghan authorities reportedly apprehended 5 suspected planners of the Peshawar school attack based on the intelligence shared by Pakistan. This came after the weekend visit of Pakistani intelligence chief to Kabul and his meeting with President Ghani.

What distinguished Kerry’s current visit from earlier visits by US officials was that Pakistan Defence Council and other such xenophobic networks did not carry out public demonstrations against the US. A clear effort was made that such an embarrassment is avoided. Phrases such as ‘drone strikes’ and ‘violations of sovereignty’ were missing in the official communiques. Both countries are back to their old military to military relationship and trust deficit has considerably narrowed.

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A definitive history of Pakistan

13 January 2015

Pakistan’s best-known historian, Ayesha Jalal, is back with a new book: The Struggle For Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics. This book essentially synthesises much of Jalal’s earlier work that by all accounts is rich and comprehensive. In short, the new book presents an overview of Pakistan’s progression as a national security state, a lop-sided federation to its current existential woes fuelled by state-sponsored Islamisation. Jalal acknowledges that the country’s Islamic identity was not enough to hold it together and the continued cycles of military rule turned it into a polity that cannot provide full citizenship rights to all Pakistanis.

This emphasis on citizenship is an important perspective that Jalal has brought forth to a global reader, who views the country as an epicentre of terror and blowing itself as a jihadi state. As the premier scholar on the country’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Jalal refers to the origins of Pakistan as a “truncated … moth-eaten and mutilated state” in the most peculiar circumstances of 1940s and the breakdown of power-sharing schemes that were deliberated in that decade. Lord Mountbatten’s ominous sentence marked the start: “As far as Pakistan is concerned, we are putting up a tent. We can do no more.” And even today in many parts of the country, the tent exists without a responsive state structure. Sixty-seven years later, Pakistan is a country of 200 million people with no local governments that can assure accountable services (including security) to its citizens.

Pakistan’s insecurity is rooted in that phase when it was widely projected that it may just collapse under the burden of its inherent contradictions. Over 40 million Muslims stayed in India; its two wings were 1,000 miles apart and the task of creating a nation-state was even more onerous given the diversity — ethnic, linguistic and religious — of the new state. Nearly 25 per cent of Pakistanis in 1947 were non-Muslims (today only four to five per cent are). The perennial debate on Pakistan’s national identity has not ended. (more…)

Reboot the narrative

5 January 2015

My views incorporated in The Jinnah Institute’s new brief on the urgent policy interventions for 2015:

Jinnah institute
Reboot the narrative. Pakistan needs a new narrative of nationhood and its security. This requires a parliamentary debate and resetting the public discourse. If the civil-military leadership is serious about changing the future course of the country, a public debate should be initiated, led by Prime Minister Sharif on the role of jihad as a tool of foreign policy. This will enable us to build a national narrative against extremism and reduce space for militants in Pakistani society. Political parties and the military should be part of the national conversation, given their immense influence in society and the military’s capability to implement the policy. The constitutional bar on private militias of any kind, meanwhile, is mandatory, and the civil-military elites must not continue to subvert the constitution.
Protect moderate voices. Pakistan’s Islamic identity has become a reality. Presently there is no space for moderate, progressive Islamic scholars. In 2014, we saw the murder of the Dean of Islamic Studies at Karachi University who was arguing in favour of a rational interpretation of Islam. Protecting such voices is crucial. In addition, Muslim scholars from around the world should be invited to Pakistan in 2015 to exchange ideas and experiences with Pakistani ulemas. Malaysia and Indonesia are two Muslim countries that have achieved remarkable economic growth and prosperity with a deeply religious society. Such an exchange of ideas and meetings with ulemas and scholars from Muslim nations would go a long way in addressing the issue.
Regulate the mosque-madrassah nexus. Militancy and extremism are directly linked to the unregulated mosque-madrassah complex that operates with impunity, with functional and ideological linkages with private militias. Mosques and madrassas need to be registered for the sake of regulation. All mosque leaders must operate according to and meet certain standards before they can lead congregational prayers. Hate speech should be dealt with an iron hand. The use of the loudspeaker must also be monitored and regulated, as per the laws on the statutes, which are rarely implemented.

An icon for a sane, just Pakistan

4 January 2015

Salman taseer10

Salmaan Taseer’s defiance of convention and collective cowardice is one of the watersheds of Pakistan’s contemporary history. His defence of a poor Christian woman purely on the grounds of humanity has chiseled his memory and legacy in stone. Taking a position on a narrowly defined religious issue is rare in today’s Pakistan. Even rarer is to defend someone on the grounds of humanity in a republic that uses religion for its identity and rationale, and where public opinion has been crafted to perpetuate such attitudes.

Within Muslims, this struggle between reason and bigotry is not new. It has existed for well over a millennium. Rationalists have always been the target of fanatics and their patrons in power. In South Asia this is even more complex where the historic evolution of Muslim beliefs and practices has followed an inclusive trajectory imbibing the folk, non-Islamic traditions as an expression of lived, dynamic Islam. In each era, the power of orthodoxy was challenged by unique men and women who took dissent to be more important than the Mullah’s edicts. Bullleh Shah, Dara Shikoh, Princess Zebunnissa among others faced persecution. Dara Shikoh had to lose his throne and his life in pursuit of a humanistic vision that sought to reiterate essence over form, spirit over ritual and synthesis over division. The bigots declared that he was a heretic and his own brother leading the pack, ordered his killing.

Taseer’s politics was fiercely anti-orthodoxy based on his progressive worldview. Unlike a few progressives, he was a staunch Pakistani nationalist and viewed Pakistan as a modern and enlightened country. This was a position espoused by his party – the Pakistan People’s Party – through the 1970s and onwards. In the 1990s, disillusioned with the changing nature of Punjab politics and his own party’s drift towards pragmatism, he took a break and focused on expanding his business empire. Musharraf’s rule came as another faux moment that brought him back into active politics. A short stint under Musharraf as an interim minister was a tricky decision but it was his re-entry into political life. He had decided to end his political ‘exile’. (more…)

Countering the terror menace

1 January 2015

Ten days after the ghastly attack on the military-run school, Pakistan’s prime minister (PM) finally appeared on national television and announced a set of measures that reflect the civil-military consensus on the country’s counter terrorism strategy. After a national outpouring of grief, anger and global shock in the wake of the Peshawar attack, the government had no choice but to appear tough. The long list of measures announced by the PM relate to tackling the long-standing growth of domestic militancy and proliferation of extremist groups across the country.

In a rare expression of stoutness, the PM announced that violent militias would not be allowed to operate and shall face a crackdown. He also referred to regulating the madrassa network and arresting the sources of hate speech that create violent mindsets and provide the faux-theological basis for asserting sectarian agendas. One of the key announcements came in the shape of setting up military courts. Human rights groups have expressed concerns and reminded that even a remote chance of a miscarriage of justice will only lead to more brutalisation and radicalisation of society.

Pakistan’s justice system is heavily flawed and has been unable to respond to the enormous task of punishing those accused of terrorism. The conviction rates are no more than five per cent and the outdated prosecutorial system is clogged by severe capacity constraints. There is a consensus in the country that without major judicial reform and improvements in prosecution services, the regular criminal justice system cannot deliver.

This is not a new debate. In 1999, the Supreme Court (SC) in the Liaquat Hussain case declared military courts unconstitutional. The SC also provided guidelines to deal with the menace of terrorism, which remain unimplemented. Key guidelines issued were: keep anti-terrorism courts exclusively for terrorism cases and assign one case at a time; daily hearings; announcement of decisions in seven days. Directives were also issued that the challan of a particular case should only be submitted once the prosecution had ensured that all witnesses could be produced. High courts were asked to nominate judges who could review the speed and outcomes of the judicial process. The SC was also meant to appoint a judge who could review the implementation of its own verdict. And, the judgment also mentioned that the government could seek assistance of the armed forces under Article 245 to ensure the security of judges, advocates and witnesses.

Like Pakistan’s repetitive governance failures, this judgment was also forgotten. Fifteen years later, we are in the same situation, except that terrorism has grown beyond belief and extremist narratives have captured public discourse. This is a collective failure of Pakistani society. Deja vu, once again? General Musharraf in 2002 embarked upon a similar path to fight militancy and extremism. In January 2002, this is what the General said: “If any madrassa (religious school) is found indulging in extremism, subversion, militant activity or possessing any types of weapons, it will be closed. All madaaris will have to adopt the new syllabi by the end of this year …”

None of what Nawaz Sharif said is new. It was the agenda of his nemesis Musharraf, too, and the latter happened to be far more powerful than Sharif currently is. But even Musharraf’s resolve remained unimplemented. In fact, the country witnessed proliferation of private militias and the emergence of the deadly Pakistani branch of the Taliban movement right under the nose of the moderately enlightened general.

Musharraf failed because the establishment continued to view certain banned outfits as ‘strategic assets’ in its competition for regional dominance against India; and continued to treat Afghanistan as the strategic arena. Most of the banned outfits reappeared under new names. Few turned into ‘welfare charities’ with militant wings. An alliance with the religious parties in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa meant that madrassa regulation could not be achieved. By 2008, when a civilian government took over, the tide had reversed and the al Qaeda outpost — the Lal Masjid — had become a national symbol of resistance against US-allied Musharraf. Sections of the media played an irresponsible role in stirring up this storm.

This time again, it is the army that is in the driving seat. General Raheel Sharif has been leading the operation in North Waziristan and the recent measures announced have the endorsement of the military.

The government cannot deliver on its recent promise until it manages to engage in a dialogue with the establishment on revising the strategic security paradigm that governs the military-intelligence operations. Pakistan’s foreign and security policies remain ‘India-centric’ and the perceived threat of India encircling Pakistan via Afghanistan continues. Second, if the media commentaries are any guide, the Kashmir jihad militias are unlikely to be touched. Third, the autonomous actors within the intelligence outfits need to report to the civil-military authorities concerned. Fourth, the bail of alleged 2008 Mumbai attacks mastermind Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and the impending release of Malik Ishaq are signals that run contrary to the declared intent of the state.

Can the civilians drive these policy changes? Sadly not. Since July, Nawaz Sharif has lost his grip over power largely due to the protests and media-generated frenzy, which some attribute to the meddling of the famed invisible hand in Pakistani politics. The recent all-parties conference once again displayed the weaknesses of Pakistan’s compromised political elite and their lack of capacity, preparation and imagination. By signing on the military courts, they have effectively endorsed a 21st century coup. This follows the follies of Imran Khan, where instead of strengthening the democratic process, he has allowed for greater space for the “umpire” he had been keenly inviting to meddle. Decision-making with respect to security remains firmly in the hands of military commanders.

This is why the next few months are a test of General Sharif’s leadership. The public looks at him as the tough general who can deliver on the menace of terrorism. Given that they are in charge de facto, it might help the commanders to seek civilian input into their strategic worldview. The constitutional requirement of undoing all private militias may serve as a guide here. Dismantling the private jihad infrastructure — from feeder madrassas to education curriculum to militant networks — is the first step to secure Pakistan. The TTP are just the tip of the iceberg. Public hangings and military courts are akin to prescribing aspirin for a cancer that is consuming Pakistan.

Don’t expect a miracle to happen

24 December 2014

The ignoble massacre of children and teachers in Peshawar has led to unprecedented anger and grief across the country. The state has responded by ending the moratorium on the death penalty and convicted terrorists are now being hanged. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has announced that the days of differentiating between the good and the bad Taliban are over. A parliamentarians’ committee is reviewing counterterrorism measures that need to be adopted. The military leadership has undertaken the diplomatic-security initiative to engage with Afghan authorities on potential action that can nab the Taliban leadership based in Afghanistan.
All these measures are important and noteworthy. The ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb is here to stay and perhaps, is likely to be extended to other areas. But the central question is, whether these tactical moves are sufficient to tackle the hydra-headed Frankenstein’s monsters that Pakistan’s flawed national security policy has created, sustained and nurtured, sometimes with outside support and on occasions totally on its own. There is a name for this Frankenstein’s monster and it is known as jihad — a narrow, self-seeking interpretation of an otherwise lofty and ethereal religious concept. The struggle embedded in jihad — according to most scholars and not semi-literate clerics — is self-improvement. Instead, this has turned into a spectator sport where private militias carry out state objectives in the region and within the land of the pure.
This trajectory is an old one. It did not happen overnight nor was it a ploy of the Unites States and other powers to get Pakistan into a royal mess. In 1948, ‘jihadis’ from the tribal regions started with the battle of Kashmir that continues to date. Conventional wars or private ‘jihad’ efforts have brought neither glory to Pakistan nor relief for the Kashmiris, most of whom are sick of India and Pakistan treating their land and rights as national fiefs. (more…)

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