Why Extremism can Breed

Gulf News, July 20, 2005

The July 7 terrorist bombings in London have led to greater scrutiny of Pakistan’s role in fomenting global jihad (holy war). The London bombers were Britons of Pakistani origin and at least three out of the four visited Pakistan recently. It is natural for the international community to wonder why so many elements of Islamist extremism have a Pakistani connection.

Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf has responded to the London attacks by ordering a crackdown on extremist groups. There is no doubt that Musharraf has selectively cooperated with the United States and other Western governments since 9/11 and Pakistan has made some high profile Al Qaida arrests. But Pakistan has yet to acknowledge, let alone deal with, the ideology of hatred and militancy that has been cultivated as state policy for over four decades.

The threat of terrorism to the West does not come exclusively from Arabs formally affiliated with Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaida. Other groups organised to “avenge” real and perceived humiliation of Muslims are an equally significant menace, operating as “baby Al Qaidas”. Afghan, Kashmiri and Pakistani Islamist groups share Al Qaida’s ideology even when they have no direct links to Bin Laden’s network.

Some of Pakistan’s madrassas are no longer just bastions of medieval theology, which they were for centuries without fomenting terrorism. They have evolved into training centres for radical anti-Western militancy. Pakistan’s school curriculum cultivates the sentiment of Muslim victimhood and inculcates in young minds the hatred of Jews and Hindus, in particular, and non-Muslims in general. These pervasive attitudes are hardly conducive to Pakistan’s emergence as a modern and progressive Muslim state.

When it emerged as an independent state in 1947, Pakistan was considered a moderate Muslim nation that could serve as a model for other emerging independent Muslim states. Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was a Shiite Muslim. Its first law minister was a Hindu. Its foreign minister belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect, which opposes jihad.

Although Pakistan’s birth was accompanied by religious riots and communal violence, the country’s founders clearly intended to create a non-sectarian state.

Over the years, however, Pakistan has become a major centre of Islamist extremism. The disproportionate influence wielded by fundamentalist groups in Pakistan is the result of state sponsorship of such groups.

Pakistan’s rulers have played upon religious sentiment as an instrument of strengthening Pakistan’s identity since soon after the country’s inception. Islamist militants were cultivated, armed and trained during the 1980s and 1990s in the Pakistan military’s efforts to seek strategic depth in Afghanistan and to put pressure on India for negotiations over the future of Kashmir.

Although Musharraf has restrained some of these home-grown groups since 9/11, he has refused to work towards eliminating them completely.

In an effort to justify the ascendancy of Pakistan’s military in the country’s affairs, a national ethos of militarism was created. An environment dominated by Islamist and militarist ideologies is the ideal breeding ground for radicals such as the July 7 suicide bombers. In their search for identity, British-born Pakistanis have been drawn into the whirlpool of their parents’ homeland.

The London attacks point out the deep-rooted problems in Pakistan that cannot be handled merely with rhetoric of “enlightened moderation”.

The major Kashmiri jihadi groups retain their infrastructure because the Pakistani military has not decided to give up the option of battling India at a future date. Afghanistan’s Taliban also continue to find safe haven in parts of Pakistan as recently as the spring of 2005.

Western policy makers would rather see Pakistan’s glass as half full rather than half empty and Pakistan’s ruling oligarchy would like things to remain that way.

This approach distracts Pakistan’s rulers and their Western supporters from recognising the depth of Pakistan’s problem with Islamist extremism.