The Rise of Religious Extremism in Pakistan

“Allah, the Army and America” – The Rise of Religious Extremism in Pakistan

When Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, addressed the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, he said: “We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State…. you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

Jinnah didn’t live long enough to see his dream fulfilled. And even today, 67 years after its independence, the nation continues to pay the price of ignoring this message. Pakistan is known in the Western world as a home for religious extremism, for Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Radicalism has been on the rise since the end of the Afghan-Soviet war to this day.

It is normally said that it is important to understand the role of “Allah, the Army and America” to understand the rise of extremism in Pakistan. A fourth actor, directly linked to the “Allah” component, should by no means be forgotten: Saudi Arabia. There has been a great deal of talk about the Army and America, not so much about “Allah” and Riyadh.

Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US

Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US have a history of right-right alliances. Since the Afghan-Soviet war, Pakistan’s religious right and centre-right parties have enjoyed a close relationship with Riyadh, which is trying to take influence on the country mainly through religion. Traditionally, these also maintain a close relationship with the military establishment.

Riyadh and a Republican-led White House supported the Mujahideen and a military dictator in the 1980s, which carried out a strong Islamisation agenda in Pakistan. Similarly, Bush Junior’s White House provided strong support to military General Musharraf in Pakistan.

It was also during this period that, for the first time ever, an alliance of religious parties formed the government in two of Pakistan’s four provinces bordering Afghanistan – riding on a wave of anti-American rhetoric. The same parties later provided support to Musharraf and helped pave the way for the military general’s election as president of the country. There is ample proof to support the argument that radicalism takes root and grows under authoritarian regimes like Pakistan in times of military governments and in the Gulf monarchies.

Anti-American rhetoric and religion

In the past, the USA’s political right, and, knowingly or unknowingly, some segments inside so-called liberal circles have supported dictatorships, monarchies and military regimes in the Muslim world. Most of these dictators (whether they were Arabs or the likes of Musharraf) portrayed themselves as reform-minded people to the US, who, due to its own interests, was more than keen to accept them as such. Pakistan was one of these countries. The often repeated argument has been that if the US wouldn’t support these regimes, the radical clergy would seize power. No argument could be more fallacious!

Authoritarianism has only emboldened religious extremism in these countries. There has never been a divide between the dictatorships and the clergy on important domestic and international issues. On the contrary: whether it was the Imams of Al-Azhar in Husni Mubarak’s Egypt, the clergy in Saudi Arabia or Islamic political parties in Pakistan during military rule, they have all worked together and supported each other. On occasion they have even hijacked or tried to hijack liberal movements aimed at reform.

What has not made the US appear more sympathetic to the Pakistani population is the war in Afghanistan, which has taken its toll on the whole region. To the surprise of many, US Vice President Joe Biden stated in an interview that the Taliban were not an enemy of the US. But to the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan who may not understand domestic US politics, what counts is what they see. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown a flawed simplicity in the US approach to identifying the enemy.

On Osama bin Laden’s killing, all that can be said is – good riddance. The raid raised a dicussion over the issue of violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty. But it’s much more important to discuss the issue of violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty when it comes to the US drone strikes as that has resulted in the death of numerous innocent Pakistani civilians.

Easy prey for religious fanatics

It is estimated that Pakistan will reach a population of 190 million in July of this year. It is expected to surpass Indonesia as the country with the single largest Muslim population in the world by 2030.

The Pakistani Muslim audience has long been easy prey for anybody with a beard or wearing a headscarf – because of general illiteracy, painful naïveté and a lack of comprehension of the Arabic language. It’s important to note that most Muslims in Pakistan learn to read the Quran but do not otherwise speak or understand the Arabic language.

The monarchy in Saudi Arabia is one actor who has long taken advantage of this situation. A US embassy cable revealed by WikiLeaks brought an accusation that annual financial support estimated at nearly US0 million was going from organisations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates toward financing extremism in Pakistan’s Punjab province, ostensibly with the direct support of the two countries’ governments. The money was aimed at recruiting people for militant activities from families with multiple children facing severe financial difficulties.

The conservative practices that the Saudi ruling family and its clergy force on the public, and especially on women, are used to malign the majority of the Muslim population who do not live according to these practices. It is impressive to see, moreover, how they turn any criticism of their government into an ethnic issue. But the Saudis are an unrepresentative ruling family, not an ethnic group. Muslims are not an ethnic group either, Arabs are. But 80% of the Muslim population is not Arab.

Murder is not Islam

Given that Saudi Arabia is trying to influence and radicalise Pakistani Muslims, one very important measure to fight extremism would be religious education of the Pakistani population.

Half of Pakistan’s population is illiterate and 24 percent live below the poverty line. They do not understand that neither the Islamic parties inside Pakistan nor the clergy in Saudi Arabia equal Islam, nor does the House of Saud. They do not realise that the monarchies in the Gulf do not represent the people of their own country, let alone Muslims all over the world. If they do not learn that not everything in Arabic is the word of God, they will continue to be swayed from abroad and exploited in the name of religion. But “murder is not Islam” should not be such a difficult concept to understand.

Also, they need to understand that an argument against the Saudi monarchy is not an argument in favour of the Saudi clergy or vice versa. Both are responsible for oppressing their own citizens, for chaos and instability abroad. Similarly, an argument against the Saudi regime is not an argument in favour of the oppressive Iranian regime nor it is a validation of construction of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian territories.

When it comes to extremism or even women’s rights in Pakistan, there are numerous stories about the Prophet Muhammad that could be highlighted to call for tolerance and women’s rights. There is the story of the Prophet’s visit to Ta’if, where he prayed for those who threw rocks at him. Or the one about Khadija, also known as the “mother of the believers” and respected in all sects of Islam, who was the first wife of the Prophet, and a merchant by profession who employed Muhammad. Though Muhammad had multiple wives after her, he never married anyone else while Khadija was alive.

Addressing discrimination

On the other hand, the educated foreigner also sometimes seems unaware of the difference between the average Muslim and an extremist. So the immigrant Pakistani Muslim – like people from other Muslim countries in the post-9/11 world – often faces discrimination in the West.

What needs to be understood is that just as it is okay for an individual from a post-Soviet country to take a politically left-wing position without having to fear being labeled a socialist, it’s also okay for a Muslim to grow a beard or cover her head (by their own free choice) without having to fear being suspected of extremism.

Hemlines and headscarves are not the most helpful way to judge how liberal a woman is or is not, nor are beards when it comes to men. It is important to remember that the 9/11 bombers Muhammad Atta and Marwan al-Shehri visited Shuckum’s Oyster Bar and Grill in Hollywood four days before 9/11, where they drank rum and vodka. Similarly, Major Nadal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, frequented local strip clubs, and pornography was found in bin Laden’s hideout. And you will find prostitutes in the Muslim world who wear a veil. All the racial profiling or patting down of 70-year-olds is not helping the cause.

McCarthyism, old or new, is always counterproductive as it prevents the possibility of an independent and objective understanding of rather complex issues. We should instead try to see the opportunities: there are 2.2 million Pakistanis living in Europe. If they were properly engaged, they could play an important role in democracy building in Pakistan.

Transgenders running for political office

The role of the media is also very important when it comes to fighting stereotypes against Muslims. Pakistan has a Muslim population six times that of Saudi Arabia. But when Pakistani transgender people get the right to vote, this hardly makes news in the mainstream Western media. Neither does their official recognition as a separate gender or a transgender person running for a provincial assembly seat.

In contrast, Saudi King Abdullah pardoning a woman sentenced for driving a car gets banner headlines all over the press. Arab dictatorships do not speak for the majority of liberal-minded Muslims from Rabat to Jakarta. The media should stop using the Saudi monarchy and its clergy-run conservative society as examples, thus maligning the religion.

On the other hand, of course, Muslims also need to stop being single-issue liberals, as they tend to be on the Israel-Palestine conflict, for instance. Not until and unless they are willing to criticise the dictatorships in the Gulf and the discriminatory practices propagated by clerics all over the Muslim world, will they be taken seriously. To expect that the Gulf monarchies will bring any real reform from within is to expect them to shoot themselves in the foot.

Arab spring

Today, Pakistan is passing through a period of increasing uncertainty. So is the region to its west, from Afghanistan to Egypt, from Iran to Israel – due to the Arab Spring and the increasing drumbeat against Iran in Israel and the US.

The situation in the Arab Middle East – with the exception of the Gulf – is fickle. Though the revolution in Egypt successfully ousted Husni Mubarak, the Egyptian Military Council still wields considerable power. It remains unclear whether the revolutionaries will be able to thwart local and foreign counter-revolutionary forces.

The most formidable among them is certainly – again – Saudi Arabia. Its government continues to effectively stop any positive change in the status quo both inside its own borders and outside. It has done so with military intervention in Bahrain, by hosting ousted Tunisian dictator Ben Ali and through participation in conspiracies against the Yemeni revolution (which has just seen its first fake election). Similarly, it continues to support the Egyptian Military Council and most likely the Salafists in the Egyptian Parliament. It’s interesting to watch the Saudi King’s ironic condemnation of Syria’s brutal regime – but as the saying goes, camel cannot see the bend in its own neck.

Breaking away from the kings, clerics, militants and militaries has become the biggest challenge for the people of the Middle East.

For Pakistan, the changing Middle East is both a challenge and an opportunity. It has important economic and religious ties mostly with Gulf countries. Given the speed of the turn of events during the last year, it remains to be seen how liberal voices in countries like Egypt with the largest Arab population will affect the people in the Gulf – and thus also influence Pakistan’s society.

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