The Rise of Religious Extremism in Pakistan

Gulf News, April 4, 2007

The Pakistani media is clearly concerned about the expanding influence of the Taliban within the country. Hardline religious leaders and hundreds of male and female activists from Islamabad’s mad-rasas (religious schools) have challenged the writ of the state by forcing their brand of “Islamic justice” in the federal capital.

The Pakistani state, which is extremely competent at jailing elected leaders and putting supreme court chief justices under house arrest, has so far done little to check the vigilantism of the religious extremists.

Everyone knows that the Taliban are active in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan where they behead alleged American spies and mete harsh punishments for “crimes” such as listening to music, watching television or shaving one’s beard while being an adult male. But the influence of the Taliban beyond the tribal areas was less known until recently.

Now the Taliban control significant parts of the settled areas of Northwest Frontier Province. They have enforced their rules in parts of Bannu, Hangu and Tank. Their recent actions in Islamabad should worry anyone concerned about Pakistan’s future as a viable and functional state.

In Islamabad, where hardly a leaf flutters without the knowledge of Pakistan’s ubiquitous intelligence services, Pakistani Taliban took hostage three women from a house allegedly for running a brothel. The students of Jamia Hafsa madrasa, encouraged by the radical Imam of Islamabad’s government-operated Lal Masjid, occupied a children’s library almost 60 days ago, which still remains under their control.

For the last six years, Pakistan’s President General Pervez Musharraf’s military regime has described the elimination of extremism as its raison d’etre. After large infusions of US and other economic and military assistance expressly for the purpose of promoting “enlightened moderation”, extremism is still rising in Pakistan and becoming far more threatening than before.

Deep roots

There are four possible explanations for the deteriorating situation in Pakistan. The first, given by Pakistani officials, is that religious extremism has deep roots in Pakistan and would take many years and a lot more US dollars to root out.

The second, offered by American officials (notably outgoing US ambassador Ryan Crocker) claims that the Pakistani government does not have the capacity to control the Taliban and their sympathisers in all parts of the country

The third, somewhat harsh, view is that Pakistan’s military-intelligence-bureaucratic complex is deliberately encouraging extremism in an effort to extort more international support, manage domestic crises and to persist with their decades old dreams of expanding influence in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

The free rein for Jamia Hafsa’s vigilantes, for example, serves the regime’s purpose by taking attention away from the crisis generated by Musharraf’s suspension of the Sup-reme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Choudhary.

The fourth explanation is a hybrid of the second and the third. Pakistan’s rulers, it suggests, give priority to regime survival above long-term national strength. As long as Pakistan’s ruling elite presents itself as being between a rock and a hard place, the world will continue to bail it out. After all, no one wants a nuclear-armed state to fall under the control of the Taliban.

The official Pakistani explanation does not hold much water. If the aim of Musharraf’s policies is to weaken deep-rooted Islamist extremist groups then why are these groups gaining in strength instead of losing ground?

In principle it seems reasonable that the Pakistani state should avoid using extreme force against its own citizens. But such qualms have never held back the Pakistani state from killing Bengalis in erstwhile East Pakistan or Baloch and Sindhi dissidents.

As for the American account of “limited capacity” of the Pakistani state, that is only partly true. Had Benazir Bhutto or Asif Ali Zardari been the ones hiding in Waziristan, instead of Afghan Taliban and Al Qaida figures, I am quite certain that the Pakistani state would have found the means to deal with any armed supporters they might have had.

That leaves us with the harsh view that the generals like the chaos generated by Islamists and the explanation based on the Musharraf regime’s wrong priorities.

There is enough evidence to demonstrate past collaboration between the Pakistan military-intelligence apparatus and extremist Islamists to make the cynics seem plausible. On the other hand, if instead of being used as personal security guards for an unpopular ruler or rent-a-crowd tools at Musharraf’s rallies, Pakistan’s security forces were properly deployed they could, at least, protect Pakistan’s federal capital from Talibanisation.

The survival of Pakistan depends upon eliminating extremists. But the Pakistani establishment’s erroneous view that its survival in power is synonymous with Pakistan’s survival is pushing the country further to the brink. Regime survival requires manipulation or calibration of the extremists. Pakistan’s survival necessitates their containment or elimination.