When the mullahs fell silent

Print edition : February 02, 2002

WHEN representatives of the international media camped in Islamabad for a ring-side view of the developments in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States, for a time they were kept busy by radical Islamic groups in Pakistan. Can the mullahs (Islamic clerics) turn the tide against Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf who had pledged support to the U.S., they wanted to know. After all, the mullahs had vowed to resist him. Musharraf was condemned and, unlike any other military ruler, riled on the streets. The supporters of the Taliban also took on the U.S. - albeit only verbally - for targeting the Taliban.

From Peshawar in the northwest to Karachi, to Quetta in the southwest, and the stretch of country in between, radical Islamists, militants and others took to the streets to condemn and warn Musharraf. Venomous anti-U.S. speeches became the norm. Burning of effigies of President George W. Bush went with them. Pledges to fight and die for the Taliban were aplenty. In some instances, people were so moved by the clerics' Islamic rhetoric that they donated money and even jewellery for the Taliban's cause; no one then knew they would lose so easily, rather melt away. The climax came when two Islamic radicals were killed in the southern Pakistani town of Sukker in an exchange of fire with the security forces. The security forces had tried to stop the radicals from laying siege to an air base that had been handed over to the U.S. military for operations in Afghanistan. Images of fire-spitting mullahs jostled with Musharraf in the international media.

The mullahs' hullabaloo is now being seen as a case of the monster baying at its own creator (Pakistani intelligence establishment). More so after Musharraf's January 12 speech in which he vowed, "we have to check extremism, militancy, violence and fundamentalism." This line of argument originates from the intriguing silence by the groups Musharraf has banned and the religious parties in general, who have kept mum.

The religious groups could have agitated on the issue of having to seek permission to set up a new mosque or madrassa (Islamic seminary), restrictions Musharraf imposed in his speech. They could have labelled his pronouncements as interference and taken to the streets to make a show of it. That did not happen.

Going by their history, the religious groups are known to have a knack of creating issues out of non-issues. Musharraf, too, experienced this. In the initial days of his rule, he amended the procedure for filing a blasphemy case with the police, making a senior district administration official oversee the process. This was done in an attempt to clear up perceptions that the law had been misused, particularly against the country's minuscule Christian community. The mullahs raised a cacophony until Musharraf withdrew the modifications. His "extremists" were quiet.

Surprisingly, the mullahs were not infuriated by Musharraf's January 12 speech that was dubbed "historic", lending another aspect to the situation. Was the Pakistani establishment using them all along to create the impression, especially among a Western audience, that it would face resistance by the religious Far Right if it pressed too hard on issues such as Kashmir?

Explaining why there was no reaction by the Islamic groups that Musharraf banned, the chairman of the independently-run Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Afrasiab Khattak, said that when "state patronage" was withdrawn "they (these Islamic groups) collapsed like a house of cards".

As for the Sunni and Shia Muslim sectarian groups that Musharraf banned, Khattak said they were supported by "petro-dollars" flowing in from the Gulf Arab countries in case of the Sunni groups and Iran for the Shiite outfits. "Those funds are drying up," the HRCP head believed. His organisation issues a yearly report on the state of human rights in Pakistan, which often draws sulky comments from the government of the day.

Khattak said that with the crackdown on those groups "a peculiar economy of gun-running and madrassas" had ended. "It will have a positive impact only when there is pluralism, a participatory process and democracy," the human rights activist said. But will Pakistan acquire these features in the near future?

ANOTHER line of argument in Pakistan, based on what is almost a truism, is that the rise of Islamic extremism is not endemic to Pakistan. The so-called jehad the country fought in Afghanistan under the stewardship of the late military ruler General Zia-ul Haq, and patronised by the West, injected it into the society.

This is a point free thinkers like Khattak too fall for. "The West is not as innocent as they would like us to believe," he said, in an argument that is repeated ad nauseam in Pakistan's intellectual circles.

But Pakistani newspaper columnist Ayaz Amir described Musharraf's treatment of the mullahs and his American nexus vis-a-vis Afghanistan as efforts by the General in "excelling at the art of the strategic U-turn". Amir wrote in his weekly column in the Dawn newspaper on January 18: "With greater grit on our side we could have said that we were already dismantling the politics of jehad, that we would move at our own pace and would not be pushed around. But we succumbed to the pressure and started preparing for another historic about-face."

The religious groups were more of paper-tigers than real power-wielders, believed Dr. A.H. Nayyar, a Physics Professor at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and a peace activist. "The U.S. action against the Taliban was so decisive that it completely demoralised them (the religious groups)," Nayyar said, explaining why they could not resist the government. But Uzma T. Haroon, a social analyst working for a United Nations agency, argued that a lack of political process in the country prevented a backlash against the government decision.

At least two of the five groups Musharraf banned claimed to be fighting the Indian Army in Kashmir. With the ban, Nayyar said, "Kashmiris may have heaved a sigh of relief."

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