The topmost topic of discussion in Pakistan today is undoubtedly extremism, causing concern among both liberal citizens and the ulema representing the major schools of thought in the madrasa network. The same holds true in other parts of the world, including expatriate Muslims in Europe and the US where extremists are being arrested on suspicion, and in Asia, where Muslim majorities and minorities seem equally inclined towards extreme views of life.
The latest sad news is that in Mali’s ancient Unesco-protected city of Timbuktu, salafist followers of al Qaeda have attacked mausoleums of mystic saints, the same way the Taliban have attacked the tombs of Sufi saints in Pakistan. This has happened in the wake of similar attacks in Egypt and Libya last year, both having gone through the ‘pro-democracy’ Arab Spring in recent times. Replying to the Unesco’s appeal to stop destroying the tombs, the extremist vandals have said: “We are subject to religion and not to international opinion. Building on graves is contrary to Islam. We are destroying the mausoleums because it is ordained by our religion”. Their organisation, Ansar Dine, is made up of militants of various nationalities, including Malians, Algerians and Nigerians.
Another extremely violent offshoot of al Qaeda, called Boko Haram, has wreaked havoc on Nigerian Christians. Last week, too, a Somalia affiliate, al Shabaab, launched coordinated attacks on churches in northern Kenya. Gunmen killed 15 Christians and wounded over 40 in separate attacks on two churches in a town bordering Somalia. In February this year, al Shabaab announced its merger with al Qaeda, which was followed by a statement by the Muslim Youth Centre that it had now become part of al Qaeda, in East Africa.
Indonesia, once known to be moderate in its thinking, also seems to have become prone to violence and intolerance. In May this year, a church was attacked by a mob in Jakarta, which hurled stones, bags of urine and death threats at the congregation. Since then, local government officials in the province of Aceh, in Sumatra, have closed at least 16 churches, citing lack of permits. In 2007, it was noted that in the previous three years, there were 108 cases in which churches and other places of worship were damaged, forcibly shut down and, in some cases, even demolished by extremist groups in violent and indiscriminate attacks.
The delicate political balance between Malaysia’s ethnic and religious groups was rocked by a series of attacks on churches last year, after a high court ruling stated that a Catholic weekly, The Herald, could use the word ‘Allah’ in its Malay-language edition, overturning an existing ban. The supposed fear in Malaysia is that Christians are plotting to convert Malays, who make up some 60 per cent of the population and, under the constitution, must also be Muslims. So sensitive is the issue that the high court was forced to suspend this ruling.
In Pakistan, too, al Qaeda’s partners seem to be growing. The ‘announced’ followers of al Qaeda are the Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP), the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and the Jundullah. The TTP, now spread around the country and concentrated in Karachi, targets Sufi tombs; the Jandullah attacks Shias in Iran; and the LeJ kills Shia Hazaras in Quetta. Everywhere, from Africa to the Far East, nations with Muslim majorities seem to be veering towards intolerance and fanaticism. Pakistan is in some ways a good example of this because of the location of al Qaeda’s leadership in the region. It is also present, in force, in Yemen and is inspiring killings in Iraq.
Al Qaeda is looking for a state that it could run with enough internal revenue to launch its global jihad through terrorism. Only Pakistan qualifies because it is internally weak, externally isolated and politically fragmented. The political parties are back to their old tricks of toppling each other’s governments and most Pakistanis seem to be unmindful of the fast-shrinking writ of the state.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2012.