Now that in his State of the Union address on February 13, US President Barak Obama reiterated his intent to pull back the bulk of American troops stationed in Afghanistan, the question arises that will the region naturally head towards peace and quite? Moreover, will the exit be a harbinger of the end of extremism in Pakistan as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) would like us to believe? The underlying assumption is that extremism and terrorism landed in Pakistan with the US moving into Afghanistan. Such opinion does not consider all the pre-9/11 violence in the country that mostly took the form of, what is popularly termed sectarian violence. At one level, terms like sectarian violence or genocide are problematic as they cast this dimension of terrorism in the light of inter-communal rivalry. The state’s law and order functionaries usually tend to hide behind this and take an act of violence relatively lightly as, for them, it is nothing more serious than an expression of a historic anger of one community against the other.
But referring to the US and Isaf 2014 pull-out from Afghanistan, it is bound to create tensions for Pakistan at many levels. First, peace within Pakistan will largely depend on the kind of solution which has been worked out in relation to it. Given that Pakistani forces have been involved in training Afghan troops, we now know that there is some understanding regarding Islamabad’s share in Kabul’s larger future power structure. However, the second important question is that will the Pakistan Army be satisfied with the power arrangement as it will not be the only ‘kid on the block’ after the US pull-out? Third, will GHQ continue to maintain a certain level of ‘strategic assets’ or abandon them as part of some peace deal?
It is foolhardy to imagine that the TTP is the only form of militant-extremism in the country. In fact, there are three kinds of elements operating inside the country: (a) friendly Ahle Hadith militants like the Lashkar-e-Taiba(LeT)/ Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) network, (b) mildly-uncontrolled Deobandi militants like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and (c) friendly-and-controlled Deobandi outfits like the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and the Lal Masjid gang. These forces are critical as they operate at the level of being a social and political force as well. If Tahirul Qadri could land in Islamabad with about 40,000-odd people from his Minhaj network, these various outfits can produce an even greater force. Furthermore, it is difficult to calculate the damage done by the presence of these forces as their existence in a geographical area is not necessarily commensurate with the levels of violence in that area. In fact, one of the key features of the friendly and better-controlled outfits is that they tend not to generate violence in their areas of operation so as not to attract attention. For instance, a comparison between the peace and quite in Bahawalpur versus the mild violence in Rahim Yar Khan is a case in point. While a better-organised JeM ensures silence in Bahawalpur, the relatively loosely controlled SSP/LeJ network cannot hide its traces due to the proliferation of Shia-Sunni conflict in the latter district.
The absence or presence of conflict, however, is not a commentary on the level of extremism in an area. These various outfits have ensured their continued presence due to the state’s dependence on them to fulfil its national security goals. To a military mind, this is indeed the cheapest form of available force that can fight with maximum commitment. But this also means that these various outfits continue to procure manpower from within the country for which they need to maintain a certain level of extremism in society. The LeT/JuD network’s extensive wall-chalking throughout the country, especially Punjab, which calls for jihad, or JeM’s extensive discourse development on religious war is an extensive intellectual investment with string bearings on segments of society where these outfits operate.
These various above-cited networks have sufficient space to operate as there is no counter-narrative to challenge their existence. A local historian from South Punjab shook me up by his statement that the Barelvi school of thought as a counter-narrative was almost dead. This was to highlight the bitter fact that neither Barelvi scholars nor Sufi institutions had expanded in terms of a counter thought process. While the shrines are there and continue to attract people, there is an extensive decay in the moral fiber of the Sufi orders that control the shrines. Some khanqahs have become a method of extortion rather than a source of spirituality. Although there is a difference between the Sufi and Barelvi schools of thought, the two institutions were loosely connected, hence, the weakening of one has impacted the other. Recently, talking to one of the heirs of one of the big Barelvi scholars, Ghulam Mohammad Ghotwi, I realised that the greatest threat to Sufi Islam was not just from the rabid mullahs but from the pirs and sajjada nasheens themselves. Moreover, post-1980s, with the state backing extremist and militant forms of religion, the pirs have also lost their value as prime negotiators between the poor and helpless mureeds and the state. Thus, the mureed today is uncomfortable with a pir who, besides his blessings cannot deliver in terms of intervention with functionaries of the state like the patwari, the tehsildar, the local thana, or even a minister.
Could the state then have used Tahirul Qadri and his 600-page fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombing to establish the basis of a counter-narrative? Qadri’s fatwa has intellectual issues but has the energy and meat to develop a strong argument against lawlessness and violence sold in the form of religious diktat. But Qadri denotes a wasted resource and, perhaps, indicates the state’s unwillingness to disengage with violence and extremism. This is because the Barelvi cleric was launched as a political force to destabilise the current leadership rather than a means of encouraging peace in society. Therefore, some of the key political parties have no reason to look away from their active engagement with Deobandi extremist organisations, including their plan for seat adjustment in Punjab for the coming elections.
In the absence of an alternative narrative on national security, politics or religion, extremism unfortunately will continue to have a vibrant future. Violence is a tap that the extremist networks will open and close at their behest.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2013.
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