COMMENT: Enabling environment — Salman Tarik Kureshi
Daily Times, April 5, 2008
It was precisely the opportunistic waffling of the last government, its ‘soft face’ towards violent extremists, which permitted them to seriously damage our internal sovereignty and spread a wave of terror through the country
There is a big mosque not far from my home where numerous members of Karachi’s uber-bourgeoisie genuflect in prayer alongside more ordinary mortals. The Pesh Imam who leads the prayers has an especially resonant voice. He has two topics to which he repeatedly returns in his sermons.
One relates to those ‘Mujahideen’ (including a certain “tall Ghazi” in the mountains) who are fighting the seemingly endless battle against the ‘enemies of Islam’ around the world. On these, he invokes the Almighty’s Blessings. As regards their enemies, he prays that they be struck blind and become paralysed, their bodies filled with sores, that their children should die in front of them, etc.
His other frequent subject of discourse revolves around the Houris in Paradise. In praise of these, he becomes quite ecstatic, extolling their various charms in terms that are vividly physical.
It would seem quite likely that some among the regular congregation at this particular place of worship may find this Pesh Imam’s almost obsessive perorations excessive or even objectionable. But the mosque in question was set up by a ‘friendly Islamic country’ and is managed by their Consular Office, which is presumably the employer of the Pesh Imam, and its affairs are beyond interference by mere members of a congregation. Or is it merely the frequently noted indifference of our elite to collective matters (fed by some measure of guilty superstition) that ensures the passive silence of the congregation?
For, clearly, the fierce and/or lubricious literalism of this strident religious discourse is very different from the traditions of quiet piety and gentle acceptance in which most Muslims were brought up. Now, I claim no expertise in such matters to suggest whether this or the other is the ‘correct’ version of Islamic thinking. However, there are certainly many scholars who contend that this aggressive literalism, popularly but incorrectly referred to as ‘fundamentalism’, is a doctrinal innovation of relatively recent historical origin. It is very much a product of the linear, pseudo-logical thinking that has characterised our violent and intolerant age — an age that began with the full flowering of modern imperialism in the nineteenth century and whose baleful cultural and psychic responses have long outlived their origins.
The most dramatic legacy of the past regimes’ incompetence besetting our country today is the fact of violent extremism and a terrorism that claims Islamic justification. Now, I am not for a moment suggesting that the Pesh Imam I have described or any of the well-heeled members of his congregation are in any way responsible for, or could even remotely approve of, the horrific waves of violence and destruction continually emanating from epicentres in our north-western regions. But is there not a kind of philosophical connection, a tacit acceptance that such acts of violence, and the war being waged against the state of Pakistan by these elements, are regrettable but somehow ‘understandable’?
We are repeatedly told that we must assert our national sovereignty and stop fighting “someone else’s war”. But who says this is “someone else’s war”? While earlier, the Taliban fighters had to an extent avoided direct actions on the Pakistan army and terror attacks within Pakistani cities, this policy changed in 2003, after the Egyptian cleric Sheikh Essa relocated to Mirali in North Waziristan.
In his sermons, all ‘non-practicing’ Muslims (i.e. all those who, like the vast majority of Pakistanis, do not subscribe to his extremist concepts) were labelled as ‘infidels’ and therefore valid targets for ‘Jihad’. Willy nilly, this is now certainly ‘our’ war. Sheikh Essa openly calls for the establishment of ‘Islamic Emirates’ to replace Pakistan.
And this is not just a question of poisonous, but empty, rhetoric. Over the last four years, we have observed the militants becoming ascendant in district after district, systematically establishing and extending their control from North Waziristan to South Waziristan to Thall, to Darra Adamkel, Kohat and Bannu, to Malakand, Bajaur, Shangla and Swat. Their terror bombings have committed mass murder on Pakistani citizens in Peshawar, Charsadda, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Quetta, Karachi and all too many other places.
So much for this being “someone else’s war”!
As regards the reassertion of our ‘national sovereignty’, as we also hear being repeatedly urged, is it not abundantly clear that whatever limited writ of the state there formerly was in the seven FATA Agencies has been at least seriously compromised? Kurram Agency in 2002 came under the influence of Al Qaeda operatives, who fled there from Afghanistan. In 2005, the Taliban in North Waziristan declared an ‘Islamic state’. The Tehreek-e Taliban also effectively controls South Waziristan. Bajaur has been virtually a ‘Poppy Kingdom’, with its own rules and laws, since last year. The Khyber Agency is under the control of the Lashkar-e Islam. The Orakzai Agency has witnessed Shia-Sunni violence and Taliban from this agency have moved into nearby Kohat. In the Mohmand Agency, while some tribesmen have been cooperating with the government, militants have blown up a hospital to drive NGOs out of the area.
The collapse of Pakistan’s writ has not only been in the FATA areas, as the events in Swat and other settled districts of the NWFP clearly show, not to mention the activities emanating from Lal Masjid in the heart of our federal capital, which had become such a cause celebre with our religio-political leaders and our TV anchors!
Is this the kind of ‘sovereignty’ that needs to be asserted in our country?
Now, while no comparison is being made or even suggested, is it far-fetched to see a kind of rhetorical-philosophical continuum connecting the fulminations of Sheikh Essa with those of the former Katibs of Lal Masjid? And a still further line, perhaps a dotted one, connecting these to the Pesh Imam I have written about here? Still more disturbing is the silence with which this Pesh Imam’s sermons are greeted by the genteel members of his congregation. Is their/our silence indifference or consent? Certainly, it is a key part of the enabling environment of terror.
And this brings me to the ways forward that the new government seems to be developing. One must wholeheartedly endorse the view that the problem is complex and multi-layered and that the solution lies in a mix of initiatives. It is not enough to defeat the militants militarily, which is not going to happen easily anyhow. They must first be cut off economically from their funding sources and ideologically from the hold they have gained on the popular imagination. Only then can they be rendered politically inert.
It is a multi-dimensional task, but one that needs to pursued with relentless vigour along each of its paths. Let us be quite clear. It was precisely the opportunistic waffling of the last government, its ‘soft face’ towards violent extremists, which permitted them to seriously damage our internal sovereignty and spread a wave of terror through the country. This bloody wave engulfed not only thousands of ordinary citizens but also the late Ms Benazir Bhutto.
Regrettably, one detects a vacillation, an uncomfortably defensive note in some of the recent statements. Worse, there is a whiff of appeasement and battle-weariness in the air. We cannot escape terror by acquiescing to the terrorists.
The writer is a marketing consultant based in Karachi. He is also a poet.