Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taiba and the power of religion

November 20, 2009

Following up on earlier posts here and here about Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), I’ve been looking closely at the arrest in Chicago on anti-terrorism charges of two men linked to LeT and accused of plotting attacks in Denmark.

Analysts say the Chicago case demonstrates the global reach of the militant group and its ability to plot attacks in India and around the world. The court documents submitted by U.S. authorities also allege that Lashkar-e-Taiba had suggested that attacks on India be given priority over the planned attack in Denmark, highlighting the threat still posed by the group one year after Mumbai.

As discussed in this factbox, analysts cite several reasons for Pakistan’s reluctance to dismantle Lashkar-e-Taiba. These include its role in Kashmir and in India-Pakistan rivalry, and popular support for the humanitarian work of its Jamaat ud-Dawa sister organisation. They also cite an unwillingness to create a new enemy right now when Pakistan is already fighting the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan and facing a wave of reprisal attacks in its cities. Lashkar-e-Taiba is the only Pakistani militant group which is not believed to have been involved in attacking targets within Pakistan itself.

None of that makes the group any less dangerous. But while researching the subject, I also found myself asking questions about the nature of the group and the kind of support it has – beyond its alleged state backing. This is not to condone violence. But by failing to look at this support, particularly for Jamaat ud-Dawa’s  humanitarian work, are we perhaps missing at least part of the point?

The religious ideology of the Markaz ud-Dawa wal Irshad which gave birth to Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat ud-Dawa is Ahl-e-Hadith, a Salafist school of thought which seeks a return to what it sees as the ”purer” practices of the early Muslims. This ideology originally sprang from a rejection of the corruption of religion by political power and of the syncretism which had thrived in South Asia through a blending of Hinduism and Islam, and which also underpinned the popularity of the Sufi tradition.

Whatever you think of this ideology, it does bear a remarkable resemblance to the thinking behind the Protestant Reformation in Europe which rejected the power and the myths of the Catholic Church and sought what it saw as a return to the original views of the followers of Jesus, best exemplified by its then heretical efforts to translate the Bible from Latin into languages that ordinary people could understand.

The Protestant Reformation led to centuries of wars, pogroms and cruelty from which Europe only properly emerged after World War Two. It also contributed to a philosophy of clean living, hard work and individualism which some argue laid the foundations for capitalism and with it, the rising power and wealth of the west.

So my first question is whether we understand properly these similarities between such reformist traditions in Islam and Christianity, both in their time seen as hardline, fundamentalist and dangerous?  And are we drawing the right lessons from this?

Secondly, one of the reasons for the popular support for Jamaat ud-Dawa is its extensive humanitarian work in education, healthcare and disaster relief.  This is not unique to Pakistan or Islam – before the development of universal free education in many countries, most people were educated in schools originally set up by charities and religious organisations.

Providing help to the poor is common to most if not all religious organisations.  In disaster relief, the Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was amongst the first on the spot following the 2001 Gujarat earthquake in India, just as Jamaat ud-Dawa cadres rushed to help the victims of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and Pakistani Kashmir

Again, are we paying enough attention to the similarities between the ways in which different religious organisations help the poor and drawing the right lessons? There are inherent dangers in this help – as seen in the activities of some Christian missionaries in the British empire, in the global network of support for Jamaat ud-Dawa that counter-terrorism experts fear can be exploited by Lashkar-e-Taiba, and in the popular backing for the RSS after the Gujarat earthquake in 2001 that may have strengthened it in its alleged role in the communal violence in the state a year later.

There are no obvious answers to these questions. But if those posting comments here could set aside the many bitter feuds which divide nations and indeed the exploitation of religion for political gain that has been a feature of every continent, how would you start addressing them?

Please try to restrict your comments to those you would be willing to make if everyone was physically present in the same room, rather than in an internet forum.

(Photos: Mumbai skyline; earthquake-hit road near Muzzafarabad in Pakistani Kashmir; a girl rescued from the Gujarat earthquake)


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