Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
At the office of what claims to be one of Pakistan's oldest newspapers, workers scan copy for words it is not allowed to use -- words like Muslim and Islam. "The government is constantly monitoring this publication to make sure none of these words are published," explains our guide during a visit to the offices of al Fazl, the newspaper of the Ahmadiyya sect in Pakistan.
This is Rabwah, the town the Ahmadis built when they fled the killings of Muslims in India at Partition in 1947, and believing themselves guided by God, chose a barren stretch of land where they hoped to make the Punjab desert bloom. Affluent and well-educated, they started out camping in tents and mud huts near the river and the railway line. Now they have a town of some 60,000 people, a jumble of one- and two-storey buildings, along with an Olympic size swimming pool, a fire service and a world class heart institute.
Yet declared by the state in the 1970s to be non-Muslims, they face increasing threats of violence across Pakistan as the country strained by a weakening economy, an Islamist insurgency and internecine political feuds, fractures down sectarian and ethnic lines.
At the rehabilitation center for former militants in Pakistan's Swat valley, the psychiatrist speaks for the young man sitting opposite him in silence. "It was terrible. He was unable to escape. The fear is so strong. Still the fear is so strong." Hundreds of miles away in Lahore, capital of Punjab province, a retired army officer recalls another young man who attacked him while he prayed - his "absolutely expressionless face" as he crouched down robot-like to reload his gun.
All countries are unique and comparing two of the world’s most populous Muslim countries, Egypt and Pakistan, is as risky as comparing Britain to France at the time of the French Revolution. But many of the challenges likely to confront Egypt as it emerges from the mass protests against the 30-year-rule of President Hosni Mubarak are similar to those Pakistan has faced in the past, and provide at least a guide on what questions need to be addressed. In Pakistan, they are often summarised as the three A’s — Army, Allah and America.
Both have powerful armies which are seen as the backbone of the country; both have to work out how to accommodate political Islam with democracy, both are allies of America, yet with people who resent American power in propping up unpopular elites.
Pakistani journalist Mosharraf Zaidi had a good post up last week attempting to frame the many different challenges Pakistan faces in trying to deal with terrorism. Definitely worth a read as a counter-balance to the vague “do more” mantra, and as a reminder of how little serious public debate there is out there about the exact nature of the threat posed to a nuclear-armed country of some 180 million people, whose collapse would destabilise the entire region and beyond.
Zaidi has divided the challenges into counter-insurgency, counter-terrorism and counter-extremism.
If you were to give the flood victims in Pakistan a voice, they would tell you that they need seeds to replant the crops destroyed by the water and enough emergency relief to tide them through the winter. After that the land, newly fertilised by the floods, could yield bumper crops in the years ahead.
The children would tell you that the floods hit so powerfully that the memory of feeling in panic while loudspeakers broadcast warnings from the mosques will be forever etched on their minds. They don’t blame the government for a disaster so big that not even in the tales of their ancestors had they heard stories of such floods. They just want enough help to rebuild their homes so they don’t have to sleep in half-destroyed buildings with sunken floors, worrying about them collapsing on top of them in the night.
Remember the issue of what to do with the corpses of the nine attackers killed during the November 2008 siege of the Taj Mahal Hotel and other targets in Mumbai that killed 166 people? The dead attackers were all presumed to be Pakistani Muslims, like the sole survivor, but local Indian Muslim leaders refused to let them be buried in their cemeteries. Islamabad ignored calls to take the bodies back. So they were left in morgue refrigerators in Mumbai, presumably until the issue was finally settled.
In the absence of a coherent narrative about the failed Christmas Day attack on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, the debate about how best to tackle al Qaeda and its Islamist allies has once again been thrown wide open.
Does it support those who want more military pressure to deprive al Qaeda of its sanctuary on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, or suggest a more diffuse threat from sympathisers across Europe, the Middle East and Africa? Should the United States open new fronts in emerging al Qaeda bases such as Yemen and Somalia, or focus instead on the fact that the attempted airline attack did not succeed, suggesting al Qaeda’s ability to conduct mass-casualty assaults on U.S. territory has already been severely degraded in the years since 9/11?
A crucial part of gunman Mohammad Ajmal Kasab's confession at the Mumbai attack trial has been censored by the judge on the grounds that it could inflame religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India. After stunning the court on Monday by admitting guilt in the the three-day rampage that killed 166 people, Kasab gave further testimony on Tuesday that included details about his training by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based militant group on U.S. and Indian terrorist lists.
The front-page report in today's The Hindu, which noted the judge's gag order in its sub-header, put it this way:
A new poll shows public opinion in Pakistan has turned sharply against the Taliban and other Islamist militants, even though they still do not trust the United States and President Barack Obama. Reporting on the poll, our Asia specialist in Washington, Paul Eckert, said the WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, conducted in May as Pakistan's army fought the Taliban in the Swat Valley, found that 81 percent saw the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda as a critical threat to the country, a jump from 34 percent in a similar poll in late 2007. Read Eckert's report here. (Photo: Pakistani Taliban in Swat, 2 Nov 2007/Sherin Zada Kanju)
The poll shows a wide divergence between Pakistani public opinion and the views of the Taliban on the implementation of sharia, a religious issue sometimes cited to help explain earlier tolerance of the militants. Some 80 percent of the respondents said sharia permits education for girls, one of the first services the Taliban close down when they gain control of an area. And 75 percent said sharia allows women to work, which the Taliban do not.
One theory about how to deal with militant Islamism calls for promoting Sufism, the mystical school of Islam known for its tolerance, as a potent antidote to more radical readings of the faith. Promoted for several years now by U.S.-based think tanks such as Rand and the Heritage Institute, a Sufi-based approach arguably enjoys an advantage over other more politically or economically based strategies because it offers a faith-based answer that comes from within Islam itself. After trying so many other options for dealing with the Taliban militants now openly challenging it, the Pakistani government now seems ready to try this theory out. Just at the time when it's suffered a stinging set-back in practice... (Photo: Pakistani Sufi musicians in Karachi, 7 May 2007/Zahid Hussein)
Earlier this month, on June 7 to be exact, Islamabad announced the creation of a Sufi Advisory Council (SAC) to try to enlist spirituality against suicide bombers. In theory at least, this approach could have wide support. Exact numbers are unclear, but Pakistan is almost completely Muslim, about three-quarters of its Muslims are Sunnis and maybe two-thirds of them are Barelvis. This South Asian school of Islam, heavily influenced by traditional Sufi mysticism, is notable for its colourful shrines to saints whose very existence is anathema to more orthodox forms of Islam. Among those are the minority of Pakistani Sunnis, the Deobandis, who are followers of a stricter revivalist movement founded in 19th-century India whose militant branch led to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Many Deobandis think Pakistan's Shi'ite minority is not truly Muslim.