A cobweb of myths Dr Tariq Rahman
Thursday, Dawn, 14 May, 2009
NOW that a military operation is going on in the Malakand Division it is imperative that it should be supported by the people and that the IDPs should be looked after with all resources at hand and be treated with compassion and respect.
Unfortunately, we have many myths and conspiracy theories which prevent clear thinking and that need to be debunked.
Myth 1: America wants our nuclear weapons and is destabilising Pakistan through the Taliban.
This myth is dangerous because those who subscribe to it also believe that America pays the Taliban to destabilise Pakistan to create an excuse to take away our nuclear weapons. This makes it difficult for the government to fight the Taliban while accepting American aid as the whole thing seems to be a cruel hoax to ordinary Pakistanis.
The US has over 5,400 nuclear warheads and it is thousands of kilometres away from this country. Moreover, it allowed Pakistan to develop these weapons. America would not gain if Pakistan is destabilised because then Al Qaeda would be strengthened and that would threaten America.
During the 1971 war America warned India not to overrun (West) Pakistan because it was not in America’s interest to destabilise South Asia any further. In 1999 during the Kargil episode America helped Pakistan to cut its losses without further bloodshed.
During the Afghan war the US wanted to defeat the Soviet Union and paid Pakistan to do so. Pakistan helped because it needed the military aid and money (and Ziaul Haq wanted American support). And now, once again, America wants to defeat the Islamic militants because they threaten America and Pakistan needs the money. That is what the Kerry-Lugar bill is for and that is precisely why the IMF and the Friends of Pakistan consortium have lent Pakistan billions of dollars. It is not in America’s interest to destabilise Pakistan because if it breaks up or is Talibanised it will be a threat to America.
So, while America’s policies might not be the most productive, it makes no sense to claim that the Taliban are US agents in a conspiracy against our nuclear weapons.
Myth 2: Nothing gets done in Pakistan unless America wants it to happen.
This is a different version of the previous myth and it is not true. No country is so powerful that it can get everything done. Pakistan made friends with communist China against America’s wishes. Later, it was the US which sought American help to develop its own relations with China. Pakistan also developed nuclear weapons against American wishes. During the lawyers’ movement America was a supporter of Musharraf until he turned weak and it was no longer in America’s interest to support him.
Myth 3: The Taliban want Islam in the country but their approach is wrong.
This depends on personal interpretations of the Sharia. The Taliban want to impose their version of it. However, it is not only a matter of approach, it is also a matter of the interpretation of the Sharia. In fact the Taliban version of the Sharia would make life joyless for all and a torture for women. Secondly, the country would lose a pool of talent to other countries. Thirdly, productivity would decrease as Pakistan would be isolated.
Fourthly, science and technology, indeed all knowledge, would suffer as creative minds would be stifled in an atmosphere of fear. Fifthly, either the US or India or Iran would be so alarmed as to attack us or stop all foreign aid to us because such a regime would be a threat to their way of life and religious practices. Lastly, the Taliban is a name for disparate groups and gangs. They would fight for power, making us another Afghanistan.
Myth 4: If Nato forces withdraw from Afghanistan there will be peace.
Nato forces should withdraw from Afghanistan as a matter of principle but this will not end Talibanisation. Indeed, if Nato forces withdraw, parts of Afghanistan will be ruled by the Taliban once again. If Pakistan sides with them it will be isolated by the rest of the world. If it does not, it will have a hostile neighbour. In either case the Taliban worldview will be strengthened in Pakistan.
The groups seeking power in order to enforce Taliban-style Sharia in Pakistan will continue their attempt to succeed. This will mean that the danger to girls’ schools, women’s freedom of choice in moving around, dress code, art and music will remain under threat.
However, in addition to the principle that one does not want any country to occupy another, one would want America to withdraw since the occupation creates a backlash. So, even at the risk of strengthening the Talibanisation of the Pashto-speaking areas our government and thinkers should raise their voice for a Nato withdrawal. When this happens Pakistan will find it easier to fight the Taliban because Pakistanis will stop calling it an anti-colonial war.
Myth 5: Islamic militancy is created by poverty and ignorance.
This is only partly true. The family background of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musaib al-Zarqawi (killed in 2006) — all leading lights of Islamic militancy — cannot be called a poverty-stricken one. Osama’s family is among the richest globally. Zawahiri comes from a distinguished Egyptian family. Zarqawi’s father was an army officer and mayor of a town in Jordan called Zarqa.
Nor is the leadership illiterate. All were educated though not in the liberal arts or the social sciences. The fact is that their ideas about using militancy to defeat what is perceived as western domination (called ‘Crusaders’ by them) and the corrupt ruling elites of the Muslim world emanate from Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood and Abd al-Salam Faraj of Egypt. Indeed, they go back to Taqi Uddin Ibu Taymiyya (1263-1328) who lived during the tumultuous time of the Mongol invasions.
The leadership disseminates ideas about the permanent grievances of Muslims, such as Israel’s domination of Palestinian land, to young people who burn with a sense of outrage. Here the poverty nexus does come in since the ordinary rank and file of militant movements come from poor, unhappy, violence-prone households. They want money, respect and justice and these are promised to these deprived angry young men. They then become cannon fodder for the militants.
If we understand these and other myths and realise that we have created our own Frankensteins and not foreign countries; that most of the militants are our people and not foreigners (though some are); that foreign countries may help militants but are not powerful enough to keep them alive for ever; that we made mistakes in the past of which we are reaping the harvest — then we can still make Pakistan safe for our children.