Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Ten days have passed since Pakistan cut a deal with Islamists to enforce sharia in the turbulent Swat region in return for a ceasefire, and we still don't know many details about what was agreed. The deal made international headlines. It prompted political and security concerns in NATO and Washington and warnings about possible violations of human rights and religious freedom. (Photo: Supporters of Maulana Sufi Mohammad gather for prayers in Mingora, 21 Feb 2009/Adil Khan)
In the blogosphere, Terry Mattingly over at GetReligion has asked in two posts (here and here) why reporters there aren't supplying more details about exactly how sharia will be implemented or what the doctrinal differences between Muslims in the region are. Like other news organisations, Reuters has been reporting extensively on the political side of this so-called peace deal but not had much on the religion details. As Reuters religion editor and a former chief correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I'm very interested in this. I blogged about the deal when it was struck and wanted to revisit the issue now to see what more we know about it.
After consulting with our Islamabad bureau, reading other news organisations' reports and scouring the web, I have the feeling -- familiar to anyone who has reported from that part of the world -- that the more you look at this deal, the less you see besides the fact of the deal itself. The devil isn't hiding in the details because there aren't many there. He's playing a bigger political game.
First, look at the deal that made all the headlines. On February 16, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) government agreed with the local Swat Islamist leader Maulana Sufi Mohammad what was essentially a sharia-for-peace swap. The short text was all of two paragraphs in the original, as reported in the Urdu daily Roznama Express (Daily Express, below). The MEMRI Blog has the Urdu original (click here) and a translation that says they agreed that:
Pakistan has agreed to restore Islamic law in the turbulent Swat valley and neighbouring areas of the North-West Frontier Province. What does that mean? Sharia is understood and applied in such varied ways across the Muslim world that it is difficult to say exactly what it is. Will we soon see Saudi or Taliban-style hand-chopping for thieves and stonings for adulterers? Would it be open to appeal and overturn harsh verdicts, as the Federal Sharia Court in Islamabad has sometimes done? Or could it be that these details are secondary because sharia is more a political than a religious strategy here? (Photo: Swat Islamic leaders in Peshawar to negotiate sharia accord/16 Feb 2009/Ali Imam)
As is often the case in Pakistan, this issue has two sides -- theory and practice. In theory, this looks like it should be a strict but not Taliban-style legal regime. As Zeeshan Haider in our Islamabad bureau put in in a Question&Answer list on sharia in Swat:
It's hard to write about the Taliban on a religion blog without giving the impression that this militant movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is basically religious. It's certainly Islamist, i.e. it uses Islam for political ends. But it's hard to find much religion in what they're doing, while there's a lot of power politics, Pashtun nationalism and insurrection against the Kabul and Islamabad governments there. (Photo: Pakistani pro-Taliban militants in Swat Valley, 2 Nov 2007/Sherin Zada Kanju)
It's often difficult to separate religion and politics in groups like this, but President Barack Obama gave a basic rule of thumb in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last week:
In the aftermath of the Mumbai massacre, a lot of attention has been focused on the militant Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba that has been blamed for the bloodbath. Simon Cameron-Moore, our bureau chief in Islambad, has written an interesting piece on what they've done in recent years. As a religion editor watching this story unfold, I was also curious to know how they think. What kind of religious views do they have? My Google search has turned up an interesting answer.
An article entitled "The Ideologies of South Asian Jihadi Groups" gives a very concise and complete run-down of Lashkar-e-Taiba's thinking (hat tip:Times of India). In today's context, the article's author is just as interesting as its content. An academic at the time he wrote the article in 2005, Husain Haqqani is now Pakistan's ambassador in Washington. He's been in the media quite often arguing that Islamabad did not support Lashkar-e-Taiba even if it was operating in Pakistan. Indian media arent't buying it.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has blamed a group with “external linkages” for coordinated attacks which killed more than 100 people in Mumbai. The language was reminiscent of the darker days of India-Pakistan relations when India always saw a Pakistan hand in militant attacks, blaming groups it said were set up by Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, to seek revenge for Pakistan’s defeat by India in the 1971 war.
An attack on India’s parliament in December 2001 triggered a mass mobilisation along the two countries’ borders and brought them close to a fourth war. That attack was blamed by India on the Pakistan-based Kashmiri militant groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed - hardline Islamist groups with links to al Qaeda. Both have been associated with the kind of “fedayeen” attacks – in which the attackers, while not necessarily suicide bombers, are willing to fight to the death — seen in Mumbai.
Afghanistan’s Taliban are appealing to the United Nations, the European Union and the Red Cross to stop President Hamid Karzai from carrying out executions of people on death row, many of them their fighters.
They don’t think the Afghan judicial system is fair, according to a statement by the hardline Islamist group. The UN and the EU have asked Karzai to halt the executions.
In the absence of any claims, and a denial of involvement by the main local separatist group, the Indian media is are starting to point the finger at a Bangladeshi militant Islamist group for Thursday’s multiple bombings that left 65 left dead and more than 300 wounded in Assam state.
If it is indeed the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami (HuJi) Bangladesh that orchestrated one of the most deadly attacks in the far flung northeast state, then it could end up hardening the mood in India against not just Bangladesh, but also once again against Pakistan.
One of the questions that repeatedly came up during Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s rather eventful trip to the U.S. last month was who was in charge of the Inter-Services Intelligence , especially after the botched attempt to bring the powerful spy agency - that critics see as a state within a state – under the interior ministry.
But at home, Pakistanis are asking an even more fundamental question: Who really is in control of their country ? A very rough poll conducted by All Things Pakistan among people who visit the blog found that nearly 40 percent thought nobody was in control of the nuclear-armed Muslim nation of 160 million and from where at least the Americans are convinced the next major militant attack is coming.
U.S. ambassador Anne W. Patterson, in a speech reported by the Pakistan press, said last week that the depth of anti-Americanism in Pakistan, especially among the middle-class, had surprised her. Pakistan’s long-term interests were aligned with those of the United States, and those opposing U.S. engagement in the country had a limited understanding of how the partnership based on economic assistance had changed the lives of Pakistanis, she told a meeting in Karachi. For added measure, she said that the “ïncreasingly prosperous middle class” would be the first to suffer if hardliners gained ground.
She needn’t have looked further than to events last week to see why America sits rather uneasily on the Pakistani mind, a heavy hand of friendship that Pakistanis are increasingly chafing against.
While living in Delhi after 9/11, and in particular after India and Pakistan nearly went to war over an attack on the Indian parliament on December 13, 2001, one of the questions that cropped up frequently was about how much the Pakistan army had been permeated by hardline Islamists. In other words, how much sympathy did the army feel for al Qaeda and Taliban militants that then General Pervez Musharraf had pledged to fight?
Several years later, while researching a book on the Siachen war, I had occasion to travel with the Pakistan army and assess the Islamist question up close. My impression was that the Pakistan army was not driven by religious fanaticism. Yes, it exhorted its soldiers to embrace “shaheed”, or martyrdom, in the name of Allah. But it was otherwise remarkably similar to the Indian army. Both relied on a blend of nationalism and loyalty to their fellow men in the same unit; both found recruits in the mountains and rural villages who could be inculcated with a spirit of “ours not to reason why”; both counted on officers to lead from the front. Men did not go into battle dreaming of death. An officer who thinks only of killing himself is of little use to a professional army, which needs men who are above all sane, who can remain focused and objective, who know the difference between suicide and getting killed.