It is reassuring that Pakistan’s army, air force and paramilitary have dislodged the Taliban from Malakand and are now concentrating on South Waziristan. The current single-minded approach of the civilian government and the military authorities for countering terrorism has checked the creeping advance of the Taliban-led militancy into mainland Pakistan.
The threat of the Taliban establishing permanent control over Pakistani territory is now reduced, but the Taliban mindset is going to haunt Pakistan for a long time. This mindset goes well beyond the Taliban. Many political circles share this perspective to varying degrees. A large number of Islamist parties and groups either support the Taliban or share their worldview, although some of them maintain a distance for political reasons.
A large number of people and societal groups sympathise with the Taliban because they have been socialised into religious orthodoxy and militancy. They may not agree with the Taliban’s violent ways but they protect and defend their cause or attempt to neutralise any action by the state and society against militant groups.
Islamist parties like the Jama’at-e Islami and the JUIF, and factions of Jamiat-e Ahle Hadees openly support the Taliban and oppose military action against them. They either describe Taliban violence as a reaction to US military presence in Afghanistan or drone strikes. At times, they argue that some agents of foreign countries have entered the Taliban movement to engage in violence to undermine the reputation of the Taliban, who are actually friends of Pakistan. Some activists of these parties express a lot of appreciation of Taliban rule in Afghanistan before September 2001.
The Jama’at-e Islami realised soon that its opposition to military action against the Taliban does not evoke a positive response at the popular level. It changed its strategy by avoiding direct criticism of military action and focused more on criticising the US and its policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, accusing Pakistan of killing its people for the sake of the US in return for money and weapons.
Some religious circles oppose the Taliban mainly because of Islamic denominational differences. They also support military action against them. However, they are critical of the US like those religious leaders who support the Taliban. They also support the introduction of an Islam-dominated religious political system in Pakistan.
The appeal of these Islamic parties is limited to their hardcore supporters who come out for their public rallies, but these Islamist parties cannot launch a sustained agitation to stop military action in the tribal areas or force the government to sever its ties with the US. The mainstream political parties do not endorse their views and demands, neutralising the appeal of Islamist parties beyond their core support.
However, these groups have sustained overall sympathy for conservative religious discourse and Islamist militancy in society. This runs deep into official civilian and military circles. A good number of civilian and military officials express sympathy, if not support for militancy (avoiding the name of the Taliban) or argue that Pakistan has been dragged into an American war in the region. This sentiment is strong among retired officials who are more open in expressing their views.
In the past, these diverse groups sympathising with militancy could often soften the government’s counter-terrorism policy because of lack of unity of mind in the official civilian and military circles.
Now, the civilian leadership and the military have come to the conclusion that stern action has to be taken against the Taliban and other militant groups that challenge the writ of the Pakistani state. Therefore, these elements have become less effective. However, they continue to engage in a whispering campaign against the government either with reference to military action in the tribal areas, pro-US policies or alleged corruption and mis-governance of the federal government.
Support for Islamist discourse on national and international issues and militancy is reflected in the electronic media and the press, especially the Urdu press. Some columnists and TV anchors present an extremely slanted view of politics and society, influenced mainly by a strong Islamist orientation, subtle sympathy for the Taliban and strong anti-West, especially anti-US sentiments. Pakistan’s internal problems, especially suicide attacks, bombings and killings, are attributed to India, the US and Israel. The standard argument is that these countries want to destabilise Pakistan because the US has plans to directly take over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal or use the UN to take control of nuclear weapons ostensibly to protect them from falling into the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
It is interesting to note that one Urdu columnist wrote that India must be upset by the death of Baitullah Mehsud. Another argued that the Americans decided to kill him after he lost relevance for the US.
The Red Mosque incident (2007) is periodically highlighted by some columnists as a legendary incident of sacrifice by the inmates of the mosque and brutalities by Pakistan’s security forces. Writing in August 2008, an Urdu columnist compared the Red Mosque incident with the incident of Karbala by showing how the forces of “Yazidiat” killed the innocent people in the mosque, in an operation that resembled the extremely hostile treatment of the family and companion of Imam Hussain RA. Obviously, by “Yazidiat” the author meant the government of Pakistan and its security forces.
Such a partisan mindset is the product of pro-orthodoxy and militancy policies adopted by the government of General Zia-ul Haq. It adopted militancy as an instrument of its foreign policy in Afghanistan. And later in the 1990s, governments adopted the same approach in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Several factors contributed to the gradual shift in the orientation of Pakistani society and state towards religious orthodoxy and militancy. These included the setting up of Islamic-Afghan resistance in Pakistan to fight the Soviet military in Afghanistan; the search for legitimacy and support by the military government of General Zia-ul Haq; the opportunity provided to Islamist parties and groups to penetrate state institutions; use of the state’s reward and punishment system to strengthen religious orthodoxy and constitutional and legal changes for that purpose; changes in recruitment and promotion policies for government and semi-government jobs; Islamisation of the media and imposition of cultural norms reflecting conservative Islamic norms and values; and changes in courses of studies at the junior and high school levels to socialise children into religious conservatism and make them more receptive to Islamic militancy.
The government encouraged proliferation of madrassas not only in the NWFP but also elsewhere, and state patronage was used to encourage public displays of religiosity.
Having gone through pro-Islamic orthodoxy and militancy socialisation, the generation that got high school and college education from the mid-1980s to 2004-05 was bound to lean heavily towards conservative Islamic political and social discourse and militancy.
Some half-hearted efforts were made during the days of General Pervez Musharraf’s rule to control Islamic orthodoxy and militancy. These efforts did not produce much results.
The major challenge for the government is to neutralise the Islamic conservative orientation of the populace, especially the generation socialised in the 1990s. Unless an effort is made to encourage pluralist notions of society and multiple political and social discourses, the government will continue to face domestic criticism of its counter-terrorism policy, pro-US orientation, corruption and mismanagement.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst
Reproduced by permission of DT