Dr. Hasan Askari
It was during the years of General Zia-ul-Haq’s rule (1977-1988) that the state of Pakistan officially promoted and patronized religious orthodoxy and militancy. As the Zia government was pursuing the short-term objective of it political survival and winning over international support, it joined with the United States and conservative Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, to establish and train Afghan-Islamic resistance to the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. These developments strengthened religious hard line perspectives on socio-political issues and there developed a tendency to use force to challenge the competing Islamic and political agenda. Religious and cultural divisions, especially sectarianism, was strengthened that caused much violence. These trends could not be reversed by the post-Zia governments.
The trends initiated during the Zia-years have now become so strong that Pakistan is in the grip of religious extremism, intolerance and terrorism for the last over 20 years. The Taliban and other militant Islamic groups use violence against individuals, groups and the government of Pakistan in order to establish their ideological and political dominance. These militant groups have developed societal linkages in Pakistan and enjoy the support mainly from Islamic and extreme right-wing groups.
The Jamaat-i-Islami and the JUI (both factions) and their affiliates and other Islamic groups sharing their religious and political perspectives engage in a passionate defence of the Taliban and other militant groups. To them the fault lies on the side of the Pakistan government and the United States. They want the Pakistan government to change its policies and adopt a friendly attitude towards the Taliban.
It may however be mentioned that a number of Islamic groups subscribing to the Bralevi and Shia doctrines do not support the Taliban, although these groups are religiously conservative and criticize the U.S. policies in the region. They plead for a tough action against the Taliban and sectarian groups. These groups have now become more active on these issues than was the case in the past.
The attack on Swat’s girl students by a Taliban group has given all of us a chance for soul searching for how the issue is to be tackled. Though all parties and societal groups, including the Islamic parties, are condemning the attack, this consensus breaks down as we try to examine the causes and how to deal with the situation in the future. Should we continue to engage in polemical exchanges based on partisan party or group interests or turn this into an ideological war amongst various political and religious identities?
The Swat incident has produced noticeable impacts on the current discourse on terrorism. First, those publicly opposed to the Taliban, viewing them as a threat have become more vocal in their criticism and they are demanding that the state’s civilian and military institution should give up the policy of soft paddling towards selective militant and hardline groups. They want a firm action against those challenging the primacy of the Pakistani state and using coercion to impose their socio-religious perspectives on others by force.
Second, a large number of fence sitters who may express concern on terrorism but they do not take an anti-Taliban or pro-Taliban position are now tilting towards those criticizing the Taliban. A large number of these people feel that some tough action is needed to make sure that these extremist groups do not repeat the Swat incident.
Third, the pro-Taliban Islamic groups are perturbed by the growing societal criticism of the Taliban and other militant groups. They are worried that if the current barrage of criticism of the Taliban and others continues, many people in the middle of the ideological divide would shift towards the anti-Taliban discourse. Therefore, they are putting forward all kinds of explanations for the Swat incident and raising issues to deflect the current societal pressure and shift the focus from the controversial role of the Taliban. They are now arguing that the attack on Malala is a conspiracy for creating justification for an attack on North Waziristan or that the Swat attack is engineered by the foreign enemies of Pakistan rather than the Taliban.
The issue is straight forward. If Pakistan is to continue functioning as an effective nation-state with respect at the international level, it cannot allow armed groups to function that reject Pakistan’s constitution and law and want to impose their narrow dogmatic Islamic views on others with the threat of violence. If such groups proliferate and expand their domain of authority for any reason, Pakistan will gradually fade out as a state. Such a situation has to be dealt with a policy that combines tough military action against those who continue to use force, dialogue with those who are prepared to stop violence and talk for a political settlement, and economic development for the strife ridden areas. However, no meaningful economic development can be pursued if strife continues unabated.
Pakistan’s Islamic parties should convince the Taliban to moderate their behavior and work within the framework of Pakistan Constitution and law.
The PMLN leadership condemns terrorism but avoids criticizing the Taliban and other militant groups. It maintains political links with some Punjab based sectarian and militants groups.
If these two political parties develop a broadly-based understanding on the Taliban and terrorism related issue, the prospects of controlling these problems will increase.