Difa-e-Pakistan: What we know and do not want to hear

February 16, 2012

It is an adage that everything is already known; it just has to be rediscovered. But it applies particularly well to the rise of the Difa-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) Council (DPC). The new alliance of Islamist groups, campaigning for a break in ties with the United States  and an end to warming relations with India, is giving clear shape for the first time in many years to an underworld of hyper-nationalism, militancy, sectarianism and faith-based politics whose influence in Pakistan has until now operated largely beneath the surface.

And many Pakistanis are not liking what they are seeing.  Columnist Ejaz Haider described the very public rallies of the DPC - which includes the Jamaat-e-Islami political organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (the humanitarian wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group),  the anti-Shi’ite Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and former spy chief Hamid Gul among others – as “a Whisky Tango Foxtrot moment for the entire nation and, yes, the military and its various intelligence agencies”.

Yet what is interesting is what the DPC tells us about the trends already going on below the radar.  Given widespread suspicion that the alliance enjoys the tacit backing of the Pakistan Army – few believe it could operate so openly without the approval of the generals in Rawalpindi - it also provides an (albeit distorted) window into the thinking of the country’s powerful security establishment.

The alliance, which has held rallies in the cities of Lahore, Rawalpindi, Multan and Karachi since late last year, is unusual in bringing an intense dislike of India and anger at the United States onto the same platform. Pakistan’s relations with the two countries have always been linked – the military has traditionally sought American support to help it stand up to India. And its reluctance to cede to U.S. pressure to turn on its former militant proxies has in part been explained by its view that Pakistan needs them to counter the influence of its much bigger neighbour in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

But in recent years, Pakistan’s approaches to India and the United States have been viewed separately (in part due to a determined policy of “de-hyphenation” of India and Pakistan in Washington). The United States was the strategic partner with whom Pakistan threw in its lot after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks; India was the country with which it nearly went to war in 2001/2002. Much later, as relations with the Americans soured, they improved with India – so much so that a populist tendency to blame the United States for all of Pakistan’s problems almost completely ignores the traditional enemy India (except in the ranks of the India-focused military.)

The Difa-e-Pakistan criticises the United States and India equally. It is demanding that Pakistan refuse to reopen supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan, closed after last year’s NATO airstrike which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border; and that the government withdraw its decision to offer Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status to India.

What is important is the narrative which unites them both.

In “Secularizing Islamists”, a study of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), author Humeira Iqtidar writes of a woman leader in the JuD who had sent two of her sons to fight and die in Kashmir. “Of course, who wants to send their children under a rain of bullets? The same children that we protect from ills and injuries when they are home?” Iqtidar quotes the woman as saying. “Have we been left with any other option now (as Muslims)?… Shahadat (martyrdom) is the only weapon we have to fight American control of our societies.”

“To her,” adds Iqtidar, “the connection between Indian control of Kashmir and American control of Pakistani society was the global market.”  The Americans, so the argument went, were willing to overlook Kashmir in order to win access to Indian markets; at the same time they controlled Pakistani markets by propping up “puppet regimes” with the help of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Or as Stephen Tankel writes in his excellent book on the Lashkar-e-Taiba, “Storming the World Stage“, ”anger at perceived American meddling in Pakistan and the occupation of Afghanistan, as well as alleged favouritism towards India,  were recurrent themes in every interview the author conducted with Lashkar members.”

Before returning to that narrative, some comments on what the DPC is not.

It is not a union of Islamist groups sharing identical approaches to the United States and India and about to assume control - religious parties have never had much electoral success in Pakistan compared to their street power. The interests of the disparate groups are overlapping and often competing.

The Jamaat-e-Islami has its roots in British colonial India and has tended to work within the electoral system. The Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa had its origins in the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, sharing a common mentor with al Qaeda in Islamic scholar Abdullah Azzam, but has focused on Kashmir and India. The JuD says it has no interest in joining mainstream politics, while the LeT – with which the JuD has dissociated itself after the November 2008 assault in Mumbai - has eschewed attacks within Pakistan. The sectarian Sipah-e-Sahaba’s militant offshoot, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, has been blamed for a string of attacks inside Pakistan and has often been linked to al Qaeda. The religious leader Sami ul-Haq, a leading light in the DPC along with JuD leader Hafez Saeed, is closely associated with the Afghan Taliban.  But only the JuD shares the Salafist tradition of al Qaeda; the others are mainly Deobandi.

Nor should the equation between the DPC and the Pakistan Army be overstated. The military would have many reasons to give the DPC tacit approval. It serves as a convenient stalking horse for an army which wants to maintain a relationship with the United States while also being able to insist in negotiations with Washington that the people of Pakistan will not tolerate too many concessions.  It is a reminder to the civilian government not to be over-enthusiastic in improving ties with India (talks on Pakistan giving MFN status to India have stalled.)  And the very public rallies of the DPC also allow the army to reassert its authority after being fought to a stalemate with the civilian government in a row over an unsigned memo which purported to seek American help in reining in the power of the military. 

For purely pragmatic reasons, the army – which has lost many of its own men and officers fighting militants in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan – has also traditionally preferred to allow some militant leaders to operate openly above ground in order to keep a better watch on them.  That does not mean it controls them. As Stephen Tankel writes in “Storming the World Stage”, “managing jihadis is more of an art than a science and ambiguous policies by nature create situations in which real control is impossible.”

But now return to the narrative and the JuD woman who said Shahadat is the only weapon available to fight American control.  That narrative, in spite of, or because of, its  intimate association with violent jihad, is increasingly finding a place in mainstream Pakistani politics.  Former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan has been able to garner growing public support by tapping into a popular but simplistic theme that all of Pakistan’s ills can be blamed on a corrupt political elite “bribed” by the United States into cooperating with it in its war in Afghanistan. 

Meanwhile, the DPC has been fiercely criticised in the English-language media for campaigning against a mosque in Rawalpindi run by the Ahmadiyya community, a minority sect particularly vulnerable to attack after being declared non-Muslims by Pakistan in 1974 and then subjected to draconian anti-blasphemy laws.  Yet that intolerance goes well beyond the DPC – this month the Lahore Bar Association voted to ban the soft drink Shezan from court premises because it was produced by Ahmadis. 

And the sectarianism of the DPC is accompanied by promises of a society that many Pakistanis crave – of peace and social justice, underpinned by an ”Islamic” welfare state providing healthcare and education for all.  The Jamaat-e-Islami and the JuD not only carry out extensive humanitarian work, but also provide a  vehicle for social mobility and identity to the urban lower middle classes, many of them recent migrants to the cities, which would otherwise be denied them in a society still heavily weighted towards the elite.

In other words, its message has an undeniable appeal.  Indeed it would be hard to go to many countries these days and not find people blaming the globalised free market championed by the United States for the world’s ills, let alone in Pakistan, where the impact of the worldwide financial crisis has been exacerbated by political instability, natural disasters, terrorism and weak governance.

So while the Difa-e-Pakistan Council is not about to take over, it is not just a fringe group.  It has the capacity to influence society and reflect it (that applies too to the military whose officers and men come from the same society).   It can  be used to express the army’s views of the United States and India, but is also a product of the security establishment and its thinking. (The ”Deep State”, as its critics call it, has always been bigger than the military leadership.)

And to come back to my opening adage, the rise of the DPC  and its ideology tells us something about trends in Pakistan that were always there, but just waiting to be rediscovered – and after that, more problematically, understood.

Humeira Iqtidar writes that the rise of the Islamists in Pakistan is very roughly comparable to the Protestant Reformation in Europe. That upheaval (which through the printing press encouraged personal reading of the Bible just as many Islamists promote the value of the reading the Koran without the intercession of saints, shrines or pirs)  challenged the  Catholic religious traditions which provided the framework for the ruling elite. Eventually – and these arguments are contested – it paved the  way for secularisation (a society free of religious traditions) and capitalism. 

It is, Iqtidar stresses, a risky comparison to make. No South Asian academic wants to be accused of looking at society through a European lens (let alone wish upon Pakistan the violence faced after the Reformation in what was once the most murderous continent.) And the process of religious schism, if indeed that process is at work in Pakistan, will have different, and unpredictable, outcomes to those in Europe. It is also a controversial argument -  her book was lambasted by Pakistani academic Ayesha Siddiqa for being overly sympathetic and for “rationalising jihadi discourse”.

Yet, however unpalatable to its critics, the Difa-e-Pakistan Council probably tells us what we already know. No amount of  exhortation to  improve the U.S.-Pakistan partnership or build trade ties with India – both nation-state, pragmatic, and essentially secular principles – will affect the trajectory of Pakistan.  Its future will be decided at the axis of religion and power.

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