If Pakistan is serious about confronting and eliminating terrorism, then it must adopt a coherent policy starting with the Sharif brothers withdrawing their support of terrorist outfits.
That Pakistan indeed faces a serious existential threat from terrorism is not in doubt. Its porous borders are ideal for such criminal activity. The long border with Afghanistan, presence of millions of Afghan refugees in the country coupled with the Indian-backed and financed insurgency in Balochistan as well as the financing of terrorist activities by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), add up to a huge mess.
Unfortunately Pakistani politicians are not up to the task. They are not even serious about tackling the problem for a number of reasons. Most political parties are one-man outfits. Those who lay claim to a larger voting body — the Sharif Brothers from Model Town/Raiwand in Lahore, Punjab province — have basically bought people over or are indulged in massive rigging as was the case during the May 2013 general elections. Given the lack of public support, politicians are reluctant to take on the task of confronting terrorists. Why create new problems when existing ones are daunting enough? Instead, many politicians have patronized terrorist outfits. This is especially true of the Sharif brothers.
That leaves the military to tackle the problem. In the past, the policy of dealing with terrorist outfits was murky. There were bad terrorists and there were good terrorists but since last December’s brutal attack by the Pakistani Taliban on the army-run school in Peshawar, there has been a noticeable shift in official thinking and policy. Even prior to the Peshawar attack, the army had launched a clean-up operation against terrorist sanctuaries in North Waziristan. Admittedly it led to a mass dislocation of civilians but the operation seems to have been largely successful.
Unfortunately, military operations alone cannot solve the problem. There has to be a parallel political process including investment and economic opportunities for people in the affected areas — North and South Waziristan, the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and Balochistan — so that despair does not lead people into the arms of militants. Soon after the Peshawar attack, the government launched its 20-point National Action Plan (NAP). All political parties supported the plan. But as with most other initiatives of this nature, this has also now sputtered without making any significant progress. Given the myriad problems, the fight against terrorism has simply receded into the background. Frequent attacks on Shi‘is and last month’s attack on Isma‘ilis in Karachi point to the ongoing problem.
Many question the Sharif government’s sincerity in tackling the threat. Police have been given vast powers to raid publishing houses and shops selling religious books, especially those that promote sectarianism. This is intended to contain the problem at its source. Theoretically, it sounds good but how are poorly educated policemen to determine what religious material is unsuitable? The net result has been the arrest of small shopkeepers unconnected with producing sectarian literature. Many have been forced out of business or have gone underground. Police raids have also led to people settling personal scores, reporting opponents and enemies to the police accusing them of spreading sectarianism. Many ordinary people have been ensnared in such scams.
It would have been better to establish a committee of ‘ulama representing all schools of thought to review religious books and literature and make a determination. True, it could be argued that the ‘ulama would themselves have ended up in disagreements, preventing them from providing clear guidelines. Even if true, there are other scholars and academics in Pakistan who operate above sectarian considerations and can assist in such an undertaking. Besides, it would not require too much intellectual effort to determine what material is academic and within the purview of allowing legitimate differences of opinion — Islam does not forbid that — and what constitutes hate literature.
But the problem needs to be tackled at a much deeper level. There are more than 22,000 madrasahs in Pakistan. Most are unregistered and, therefore, operate outside any formal oversight. The breakdown of their spread according to provinces provides clues to what is going on. Of the total of 22,052 madrasahs, 15,954 or almost 73% are in the province of Punjab, support base of the Sharif brothers and the province this family has ruled uninterrupted since the 1980s. The number of madrasahs in other provinces is as follows: Sindh, 4,264; Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 1,400; Balochistan, 1,247; and the capital, Islamabad, 187.
Non-registration of madrasahs is one factor. Secularists in Pakistan have been demanding that the government bring these madrasahs under its direct control. Will that solve the problem? What qualifications does the government have, especially one dominated by greedy industrialists and feudal lords whose conduct is as bad if not worse than that of the terrorists? The abysmal state of government schools in Pakistan points to why it is not a good idea for the government to take control of the madrasahs. So what should be done?
It would be far more helpful if the source of funding for these madrasahs is clearly identified. As the saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune. It is no secret that countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have and continue to fund the vast majority of madrasahs in Pakistan. They hardly do it for the love of Islam. These same regimes also fund many masjids as well as train “imams” at the Islamic University in Madinah. These regimes promote the obscurantist and hate-filled ideas of Wahhabism. Saudi largesse does not come without strings attached. In fact, the very purpose of dispensing such funds is to buy the loyalty of the people so that they can do the Saudis’ bidding.
According to reliable estimates (a Channel 4 documentary on The Qur’an aired July 14, 2008, for instance) the Saudis have disbursed more than $100 billion since 1975. This is an enormous sum of money and can buy a lot of influence. True, not all these funds have gone to madrasahs in Pakistan but it is safe to assume that the bulk of funding has been disbursed in this unfortunate country. The result has been disastrous.
Historical factors have also played a part. Prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Saudi influence in Pakistan was limited. Sectarianism was not a factor in politics or in social interaction. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis follow the more tolerant version of Islam where hate for other schools of thought is not propagated. Enter the Wahhabi zealots and hatred quickly began to seep into religious discourse like poison. Branding opponents as kafirs is their signature mark, in complete violation of a hadith of the noble Messenger (pbuh). The Wahhabis’ arrogant self-righteousness has infected and poisoned the minds of tens of thousands of innocent people in Pakistan in the last 30 years or so.
The Saudis operate at multiple levels using a number of front organizations. These include Rabitah al-‘Alam al-Islami (World Muslim League), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) as well as the Islamic University in Madinah. While the “Islamic” University in Madinah trains “imams” — stuffing their brains with Wahhabi obscurantism and puffing them up so they become arrogant because they now hold a degree from an “Islamic” university that is based in Madinah — the Rabitah is there to provide funds.
A word about the “Islamic” university in Madinah is in order. Last year, it awarded an honorary doctorate to then King Abdullah (now safely tucked in his grave) in political science. There are two problems with this. Abdullah had no formal education. This could be overlooked. But the “Islamic” University in Madinah has no political science department, so how could it award a doctorate, even an honorary one, to anybody in political science?
While the Rabitah dispenses bakhshish to local imams and masjids, WAMY operates at a higher level. It targets professors and students at colleges and universities. Not surprisingly, the two Islamic universities — in Islamabad and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) — have close and deep links with WAMY. In fact, the present rector of the Islamic University in Islamabad is a senior official of WAMY. Interestingly, he does not speak Urdu or English!
The “youth” in WAMY is used very liberally; there is no age limit. Many people on the WAMY payroll are in their late-60s, 70s or even 80s. Welcome to Alice in Wonderland! So one can see that the “Saudis” operate at two levels: at the mass level, they recruit “imams” appropriately trained in their “Islamic” University, and at the higher level, they rope in students, professors and other professionals through WAMY to propagate their ideas.
All this would not have been possible had successive governments in Pakistan not acted as willing tools of the Saudi regime. True, the Saudi regime provided funding to Pakistan when it was suffering under US sanctions because of its nuclear program. The oil-rich kingdom has also provided oil at concessional rates easing Pakistan’s foreign exchange difficulties. While such disbursements have allowed Pakistan to withstand US pressure, does it mean that the country should be exposed to the Wahhabis’ poisonous ideas that have caused so much damage to the social fabric of Pakistani society and cost the country a great more than what the Saudis have provided over the years?
The problem in Pakistan is that both politicians and the military have had close links with the Saudis. The Sharif brothers’ close relations with the Saudis are well known. They were given refuge when General Pervez Musharraf overthrew their national and regional governments, in Islamabad and in Punjab, respectively. Indeed, there were fears that Musharraf might hang another civilian prime minister like his predecessor General Zia ul-Haq did to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979. It must, however, be stated that Nawaz Sharif is no Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the circumstances were such that Musharraf would not have gotten away with hanging another prime minister as Zia had done.
As the Pakistani military grapples with the terrorist threat, it must earnestly address its own close links with the Saudis. True, the military turned down the Saudis’ whimsical request to send Pakistani troops to fight their war on Yemen. The Saudis even had the gall to tell the Pakistanis not to send any “Shi‘i” troops. The military’s firm “no” put Sharif in a bind but he is not in control of affairs in the country.
The Sharif family and some of his ministers must also come clean about their links with and protection of many terrorist outfits in Punjab. It is not speculation that the Sharif brothers and ministers work closely with the terrorists, using them as their shock troops. Why have there been so few terrorist attacks in Punjab, for instance, despite 73% of madrasahs being located there while terrorism has been rampant in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province as well as elsewhere?
If the Pakistani establishment — military and civilian — is serious about tackling terrorism, then they must clean their own houses first, otherwise this would be another of those false promises meant to buy time and blunder along. It must also be borne in mind that with the Chinese pledge to invest nearly $50 billion in Pakistan’s infrastructure development, externally backed terrorism will escalate in Pakistan. The US, Britain, Israel, India and Dubai have all been financing terrorist activities in Pakistan. The Emiratis are afraid that Gwadar’s development as a major port would undermine Dubai’s importance. Pakistan can do without such “friends.”