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The enemy within

Published : Jun 17, 2005 00:00 IST

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The suicide bombing of the Sufi shrine of Bari Imam in Islamabad is another reminder of the threat Pakistan faces internally from religious extremism and sectarianism.

B. MURALIDHAR REDDY in Islamabad

YET another suicide bombing in Pakistan, targeting the Sufi shrine of Bari Imam in Islamabad claimed 20 lives on May 27. Over a dozen of the injured in the high-powered explosion, which took place during the day, are in critical condition. Such incidents have become routine in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, particularly after President Pervez Musharraf joined hands with the United States-led coalition in the so-called international war against terrorism post-9/11.

The latest atrocity has shaken the military establishment and has served as yet another reminder to the international community of the grim challenge faced by Pakistan from fundamentalists.

Going by the devastation caused, the suicide bombing certainly does not count as one the spectacular strikes by extremists in recent times. However, in symbolic terms it is as close as extremists could get to the seat of power in Pakistan. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz's official residence is just one kilometre away from the targeted shrine. The President's Secretariat, the Parliament, the Supreme Court and the diplomatic enclave housing most of the missions too are all situated in the vicinity of the shrine.

Three days after the explosion, the authorities had no clue as to the identity of the bomber, which speaks volumes for the sophistication acquired by the new breed of extremists operating in Pakistan. The police have deemed it necessary to release a photograph of the man whom they say bombed the shrine, and have offered a reward of two million Pakistani rupees ($34,000) for details that could identify the suicide bomber or give any information about the bomber's accomplices.

The incident is similar to those that have occurred in different parts of the country, which are suspected to be the handiwork of sectarian and fundamentalist forces. Religious sectarianism is, in fact, the principal source of terrorist activity in Pakistan.

Available data suggest that Shia and Sunni zealots, reared and nurtured by former President Zia-ul-Haq and allowed to survive by successive governments, have killed more than 2,000 people and maimed thousands in the last 20 years. The year 2004 was one of the bloodiest on record, with more than 200 people killed. Some of the major incidents in the past one year were: 43 Shias were killed in a bomb blast in Fatehpur in March 2005; a car bomb in Multan killed 40 Sunnis in October 2004; 30 killed in a suicide attack on a Shia mosque in Sialkot in October 2004; 20 killed in the bombing of a Shia mosque in Karachi in May 2004: and 15 killed in a Karachi Shia mosque attack in May 2004.

President Musharraf has gone on record as saying many times in the past three years that the only challenge faced by Pakistan was from within and from forces of fundamentalism and sectarianism. "The government and the law-enforcement agencies need the full cooperation of the people and it is the duty of everyone to uproot the menace," he said hours after the Bari Imam incident. Condemning the incident, Musharraf appealed to people to unite against "religious terrorism, sectarianism and extremism".

THE attack on the shrine has doubly shocked people within and outside the country, as both Shias and Sunnis venerated it. The attack occurred less than two weeks after a group of 58 religious scholars belonging to different schools of Islamic thought issued a fatwa (edict) against suicide attacks in the country. The fatwa said Islam forbids suicide attacks on Muslims and those committing such acts at places of worship and public congregations cease to be Muslims.

The government-backed move was a response to a series of suicide attacks in different parts of the country in the past two years. It took weeks of persuasion by the government for the scholars of various schools to agree on the text of the fatwa. Some of the scholars were opposed to such an order on the plea that it would adversely impact on "struggles" in Iraq, Kashmir, Afghanistan and Palestine. So it was agreed that the fatwa would be applicable only to Pakistan, and Kashmir and Palestine were mentioned as examples where such acts could be condoned.

Mufti Muneebur Rahman, Chairman of the Ruet Hilal Committee, said the fatwa would not apply to people waging freedom movements against "alien occupation" such as those in Palestine and Kashmir. The decree said killing innocent people was haram (forbidden) in Islam and that it carried the death penalty, Qisas (retaliation in kind) and compensation. Killing a fellow Muslim without Islamic and legal reasons was even a bigger crime, it added.

The Pakistani establishment and military, which have relied on religious fundamentalists to pursue its strategic and foreign policy goals for decades, are now faced with the task of minimising its effect on the domestic front. Hence the flip-flop on the reversal of its policies.

It would not be surprising if the fatwa is not taken at its face value by some of the extremist elements. After all, there are sections and groups that are convinced that under Musharraf, Pakistan has become a colony of the U.S.

Pakistan has acknowledged that the attacks on Musharraf and other high-profile attacks in the country in the last few years have been orchestrated by elements opposed to the U.S.-led "war against terrorism". Such elements do not make a distinction between the enemy within and without.

A recent report (April 18, 2004) on the state of sectarianism in Pakistan by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent non-governmental organisation engaged in reporting on conflict zones around the globe, noted that the objectives and goals of Pakistani sectarian terrorists in the post-9/11 world might be closer to those of transnational jihadis, but the internal enemy still takes priority over the enemy without.

"It is a two-track jihad," says a member of a banned Pakistani group. "The external enemy is known, his intentions against Islam and Muslims are no secret. But the internal enemy posing as Muslim, as Shias and others do, is more dangerous. Stopping internal enemies is our priority," the report quoted an unidentified source as saying.

The report makes a sad commentary on the track record of Musharraf regime in dealing with the menace of fundamentalism and extremism. It is very critical of the half-hearted measures of the military and the establishment in dealing with the phenomena, and makes a case for a radical departure in the current policy.

According to the ICG, sectarian conflict in Pakistan is the direct consequence of state policies of Islamisation and the marginalisation of secular democratic forces. As President Musharraf is praised by the international community for his role in the war against terrorism, the frequency and viciousness of sectarian terrorism continues to increase in his country.

The report maintains that instead of empowering liberal, democratic voices, the government has co-opted the religious Right and continues to rely on it to counter civilian opposition. The political use of Islam by the state promotes an aggressive competition for official patronage between and within the many variations of Sunni and Shia Islam, with the clerical elite of major sects and subsects striving to build up their political parties, raise jihadi militias, expand madrassa networks and, as has happened on Musharraf's watch, become part of the government.

"Like all other Pakistani military governments, the Musharraf administration has also weakened secular and democratic political forces. Administrative and legal action against militant organisations has failed to dismantle a well-entrenched and widely spread terror infrastructure. All banned extremist groups persist with new labels, although old names are also still in use. The jihadi media is flourishing, and the leading figures of extremist Sunni organisations are free to preach their jihadi ideologies," the report says.

The ICG says leaders of banned groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Sipahe Sahaba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed appear to enjoy virtual immunity from the law. They have gained new avenues to propagate their militant ideas since the chief patrons of jihad, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and the Jamaat-e-Islami, have acquired prominent and powerful roles in Musharraf's political structure.

The military-led government's proposed measures, from curriculum changes to a new registration law, have been dropped in the face of opposition by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal and its madrassa subsidiaries. Instead, financial and political incentives to the mullahs have raised their public profile and influence. The government's approach towards religious extremism is epitomised by its deals with extremists in the tribal areas, concluded through JUI mediation after the payment of bribes to militant leaders, the report says.

It says that the choice that Pakistan faces is not between the military and the mullahs, as is generally believed in the West; it is between genuine democracy and a military-mullah alliance that is responsible for producing and sustaining religious extremism of many hues.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 17, 2005.)

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