By Ayesha Siddiqa –
Think things will get better once the Americans leave? Think again
A popular notion is that violence in the tribal areas and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) will come down after American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yes, there are numerous people whose lives were affected due to America’s ill thought out invasion of Afghanistan. However, it may turn out to be an erroneous assumption to think that peace will be restored in Pakistan after the US withdrawal in 2014. The primary reason being that the source of jihadism and extremism has spread like wildfire in mainland Pakistan, primarily Punjab and Sindh. Unfortunately, religious extremism, and the militancy that accompanies it, now have deep roots in the two major federating units of the country.
There are three factors that make jihadism and extremism in mainland Pakistan a severe issue that will have a long lasting impact on the future of Pakistan. First, successive governments, and most political parties, are in a state of denial as far as the situation in Punjab and Sindh is concerned. While there is some coverage of Punjabi jihadis, there is barely any mention of how the phenomenon seems to be spreading in Sindh as well. Over the past decade, over 3,000 madrassas have opened in Sindh, and this includes Karachi. These madrassas are in addition to the old ones like Banuria Town seminary in Karachi, which is known for providing cover to terrorists like Osama bin Laden. These are not the madrassas that were part of the local culture but are new entities that threaten the local culture which was essential pluralist in nature. Today, if someone were to look down from a satellite, they wouldn’t miss the hundreds of religious seminaries situated at the entry and exit points of all cities and towns and all communication arteries in the two aforementioned provinces. From a law enforcement perspective, it would be a tremendous challenge if the militants were to ever mobilize the students from the seminaries, as it would block traffic on major road networks.
Second, the two main provinces of Pakistan, which also constitute the country’s bread basket, have also emerged as the hub of key jihadi organizations like the Sipha-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), and Jamaat-ud-Daawa (JuD). These organizations are not a result of the post 9/11 developments but a product of a ‘considered’ state policy and the first Afghan war of the 1980s. There are, in fact, two ideological trends at player here, denoted by Deobandi ideology and Wahabi ideology. The SSP, established in the early 1980s, represents the mothership for all Deobandi organizations. With its base in Jhang, south Punjab, this militant outfit was a response to the establishment of the Tehreek-Nafaz-e-Fiqah Jafriya (TNFJ), also in the early 1980s. While the TNFJ proliferated into Sipah-e-Mohammad, a militant shia outfit, the SSP multiplied into other forms like the LeJ, HuM, and later, JeM. One of the prime reasons for the establishment of these outfits was the cold war being fought between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in which Pakistan’s military dictator, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, opted to use the Deobandi outfits as proxy. It was at this time that jihadi outfits such as the SSP engaged with numerous Afghan warlords to fight the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet troops. This interaction also brought the SSP and its various Deobandi offshoot organizations in contact with Osama bin Laden and his Arab-dominated Al-Qaeeda. Therefore, what must be understood is that these jihadi outfits have a deep ideological link with OBL and are ideologically inclined towards war and conflict rather than as a response to the conflict imposed on the region by the US after 9/11. The presence of these forces is bound to undermine peace and stability in the entire South Asian region in the medium- to-long term.
Third, since these jihadi outfits have operated in Punjab and Sindh since the 1980s, they have begun to have an impact on the social dynamics of these regions of Pakistan which will have a detrimental effect on the country’s pluralist character. This is not to argue that their presence will eliminate other forms or schools of thought such as Sufi Islam, which was historically dominant in both Punjab and Sindh but it has to be taken into account that the presence of these outfits tends to scare other perspectives into silence. The fact of the matter is that these jihadi outfits have established pockets of support in Punjab and Sindh, from where they also recruit their foot soldiers. The presence of jihadi leaders like Malik Ishaq, Maulana Ludhianvi, Masood Azhar and others, who pursue a strategy of violence against people subscribing to other sects and schools of thought, has generated an element of fear in the region. Consequently, even major political parties, rather than fighting these outfits, seem to have succumbed to their violent influence. Not only that, members of the militant organizations have begun to penetrate into the lower and middle management of some of the mainstream parties as well, which adds to their political influence.
A glance at some of the religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), its student wing, the Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba (IJT), Jamiat-e-Ulamae-Islam (Fazl-ur-rehman) (JUI-F) and others, shows an intense network that helps in the growth of militancy and extremism in mainland Pakistan. This network has certainly helped in the proliferation of extremism in Sindh and south Punjab, two areas known for their Sufi culture and ideological multi-polarity. These forces now seem to be combining their efforts in the form of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC). They have been holding rallies in major cities and towns like Karachi, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Multan and Bahawalpur, which is bound to exacerbate the problem of extremism in the plains of Pakistan. The DPC rallies have brought together the worst form of jihadi and extremist leadership that not only call for a violent engagement with the outside world, but also incite war inside the country against ideological minorities. The US may pack up and leave, or undertake a major draw-down of forces in 2014, but this cannot be deemed as a sufficient change in circumstances as far as jihadism and extremism in Pakistan are concerned. Lest we fool ourselves, the forces of violence within Pakistan have rallied together to use religion to ostracize religious and sectarian minorities.
These are actually the forces of evil that will not go away until the state makes a policy to challenge their narrative and to counter these more effectively. This is the real tsunami in the making which endangers peace and stability in the region in the long term.
The writer is a public intellectual and is author of the book Military Inc