Fundamentalist march

Print edition : February 17, 2001

Religious parties and militant groups in Pakistan are hell-bent on achieving their goals, and the Musharraf regime has adopted a policy of appeasement towards them.

ON January 13, Pakistan's Interior Minister Lt. Gen. (retd) Moinuddin Haider convened a conference of religious parties and groups in the country to seek their 'cooperation' to create a tolerant society. He did not tell their leaders to go across the co untry and preach harmony and brotherhood: he begged them to shed their militant image and respect the law of the land.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider with Sunni Islamic militant leader Azam Tariq in Islamabad on January 13. Another Sunni leader Maulana Sattar Niazi is in the foreground.-AP

The very fact that the government called a meeting of these groups to discuss the menace of fundamentalism and sectarianism is a telling commentary on their reputation. Over the years they have become so powerful that they are now ranked next only to the Army in muscle power. But there is a vital difference in character that makes them more potent than the Army.

The Army holds the key to power by virtue of the gun. The damage caused by religious organisations is at a more fundamental level. 'Catch them young' is the motto of the religious outfits, and the vast network of religious schools (madrassas) acro ss Pakistan enables them to inject into children the poison of communal hatred. The phrase 'jehadi culture', freely employed now by scholars in the context of all major trouble spots in Asia, is actually a reference to the spread and influence of these o rganisations in these areas.

There is deep concern about the extent to which the products of seminaries have infiltrated the Army. The Pakistani media, at any rate the English newspapers, often dwell on the following of some religious leaders in what is known as the ORs (other rank s) of the Army. The question of "hardliners" vs "moderates" among the generals themselves, on key issues of concern to Pakistan, such as Kashmir and Afghanistan, is debated widely.

It is not just the pressure from the West that has compelled the Musharraf government to get to grips with the militant organisations. The military leadership perhaps has begun to feel the pinch as they seek to dictate the agenda, enforce their writ, and in the process undermine the credibility of the military.

In December, a maulana threatened to march to Islamabad with thousands of his followers to force the military government to enforce the Sharia (Islamic law). He agreed to postpone the march only after the Religious Affairs Minister visited his sem inary and promised to fulfil his wish.

Quazi Ahmed Hussain, the chief of the largest religious outfit in Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami, did the unthinkable a few weeks ago: he appealed to the military top brass to replace the Chief Executive and military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, on the p lea that he could not be trusted with the security of the country. The Jamaat suspects the Islamic credentials of Musharraf. Indeed it must have been a rude shock for the military leadership, which had always used the leverage it enjoyed among the religi ous groups to checkmate the mainstream political parties during the intervals of democratic governance.

Pakistan has been a fertile ground for the growth of religious outfits and their militant wings. Ironically, this has nothing to do with popular sentiment. The people have shown their disdain for religio-political parties in election after election. Thes e parties have never won more than 5 per cent of the popular vote.

And yet they have thrived, particularly in the last three decades, thanks to the patronage of the military. The period witnessed a mushroom growth of religious organisations. The cold fact is that most of these outfits were created from time to time by t he state, in pursuit of its objectives. Few people may know that Al Badr, the Brotherhood, the Pakistan-based militant organisation operating in Kashmir, was created by Pakistan's intelligence agencies to fight the Mukti Bahini months before the birth of Bangladesh.

What gave the religious groups a political agenda was the Soviet take-over in Afghanistan in 1979 and the proxy war between the United States and Soviet Union for the next 10 years. In the name of defending Islam, President Zia-ul-Haq raised countless ba ttalions of the faithful. The operation had the blessings of the West. In its eagerness to humble the Soviets, the U.S. did not think about the consequences of its actions. Billions of dollars were spent on the project. The most sophisticated weapons wer e made available to the ideological warriors.

The fallout was multifarious. It gave rise to a pan-Islamic class of fighters, who needed new battlegrounds, and an array of the faithful who became unemployed after the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Most of the religious organisatio ns are convinced that it was their might that led to the exit of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan and also the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union. It is this belief that influences their thinking. If they could bring one super power to its k nees, why cannot the same be done to the other? Their agenda is now global. Most of them see the Taliban militia as their role model. 'Liberation' of the oppressed Muslims across the globe is their bounden duty, and 'jehad' (holy war) is the will of the Almighty.

Angry protesters rush towards the office of The Frontier Post in Peshawar on January 30, for publishing a blasphemous letter about Prophet Mohammad.-MOHAMMAD SAEED/AP

The Frontier Post

But then what is jehad? It is the duty of every Muslim to take part in a 'holy war' for the spread of Islam. Jehad can be against poverty, illiteracy and other social evils, but the most popular form it has taken is that of armed struggle against kafi rs. The sentiment of jehad gripped Pakistan during the Afghan war, and now it flourishes in the context of Kashmir.

Maulana Mehmood Azhar of the Kandahar hijack fame established his madrassa and his jehadi group as the first task after his release in exchange of hostages in December 1999. He is now based in Pakistan, heads the outfit 'Jaish-e-Muhammadi', claims to be an ideologue, and has claimed responsibility for many a violent act. The Jaish is supposed to be the fastest-growing militant group based in Pakistan reportedly with liberal help from the country's intelligence agencies.

Madrassas operated by religious parties and groups are the breeding ground for 'jehadis'. There are an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 of them in Pakistan. They graduate from the madrassas with a commitment to jehad and training in the use of ar ms.

The Musharraf government had an ambitious programme to bring the religious schools under its control. It announced in June last year a reform plan requiring all the madrassas to register with the government, disclose their sources of funding, seek permission to admit foreign students and stop sending students for training programmes. But the religious parties and organisations refused to cooperate. The military chose not to make an issue of it. Obviously it did not want to stir up a hornet's nest .

That the religious outfits are least bothered about the intentions of the government was evident from what happened on January 10. Just three days before the meeting called by the Interior Minister, all the major religious parties and their armed wings gathered at Akora Khattak near Peshawar to denounce the latest United Nations Security Council sanctions. Some of the religious leaders were escorted by hooded bodyguards armed with sophisticated weapons, in defiance of the government.

The Minister made it a point to raise this issue at the conference in Islamabad, to buttress his argument as to how such incidents undermined the image of the country and also Islam. However, far from being defensive, the leaders argued that the display of weapons was intended to send a message to the U.S. and all other 'enemies of Islam'. By all accounts the exercise turned out to be a fiasco for the military government. At the meeting, which had been advertised as an exercise to check the growing infl uence of fundamentalism, the government ended up endorsing the military groups' agenda. In response to the far-Right's demand, the Minister promised to amend the Constitution in order to enforce the Sharia.

The Musharraf regime's volte-face has raised disturbing questions. Is Pakistan going the Afghan way? This has been a subject of intense debate in the Pakistani media and civil society in recent months. The conclusion in most cases pointed to the d readful prospect of Talibanisation of the country.

Far from reining in the fundamentalists, the military government has actually ended up giving the impression that it is too eager to further their agenda. The onward march of the mullahs and their armed followers began the moment the military gove rnment beat a hasty retreat on the issue of effecting changes in the procedure to register cases in the blasphemy law.

The fundamentalist groups, pampered over the past decade for they have been fighting 'the proxy war' in Kashmir, now seem to be coming into their own. Helped by the 'rogue elements' in the Army establishment, they are now setting the agenda for the milit ancy in Kashmir as well as within Pakistan. They are convinced that jehad is the only way to 'liberate' Kashmir, and no wonder they have contemptuously dismissed the peace moves by the governments of India and Pakistan.

They have now set an ambitious agenda to Islamise Pakistan on the lines of Afghanistan. The military government prefers to look the other way rather than confront them. In the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan bordering Afghanistan, a religiou s militia has sought to ban television on the grounds that it is spreading Western influence and obscenity. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) engaged in various activities have been accused of pursuing the Western agenda and put on notice.

In December 2000, the military government announced a shift to riba (interest) free banking from July this year, for it is un-Islamic to charge interest. It was only seeking to implement a judgment of the Supreme Court. Economists are at a loss to understand how the country's economy would survive in isolation from the rest of the world. This, when the economy is drip-fed by international monetary agencies. The government decision was seen as yet another concession to the lobby of religious funda mentalists.

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