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Pakistan's two-pronged internal threat

June 15, 2011 12:18 IST
Despite their differences, mainly related to political strategy, Islamist groups like the Jamaat-e Islami and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa share a very similar ideology -- of the centrality of the notion of the Islamic State and the compelling need to acquire political power in order. Yogi Sikand critiques a study on the rising Islamic radicalism in Pakistan

Radical Islamists now threaten the very foundation of Pakistan, threatening to hurtle the country into the throes of interminable civil war.

Given the very ideological basis of the Pakistani State -- the untenable 'two-nation' theory -- and the persistent cynical use of Islam by successive Pakistani regimes in order to counter internal dissent and promote the perceived foreign policy interests of the Pakistani State, the eventual rise and dominance of radical Islamism in the country was hardly unexpected.

In her recently released study titled Secularising Islamists? - Jama'at e Islami and Jama'at ud-Da'wa in Urban Pakistan, Humeira Iqtidar, a Pakistani research fellow at King's College, Cambridge, suggests that these two major Pakistani Islamist formations, like numerous other such groups that have proliferated in Pakistan, represent the future of Pakistani politics.

According to Iqtidar, Islamism, rooted in the belief in the inseparability of Islam and the State and the centrality of the Islamic State to understandings of Islam, is a distinctly modern phenomenon, for the modern State itself is a recent invention. Both the Pakistani Islamist groups she studies, the Jamaat-e Islami and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, are avid enthusiasts of modern technology and other such trappings of modern capitalism, and insist that Muslims acquire technical expertise in order to combat what they berate as the 'enemies of Islam'.

Both insist on the capture of the modern State apparatus. Yet, this does not mean, Iqtidar indicates, that they are modernist in the conventional sense of the term. Rather, their entire political agenda rests on the belief that Muslims are obliged to struggle to establish what they call an Islamic State, a polity ruled in accordance with what Islamists regard as divine laws, not just in Muslim-majority states but, ideally, all across the world.

Despite their reformist pretensions, radical Islamists (in contrast to Islamic reformists and modernists) do not brook any rethinking of the system of laws that they wish to impose, for they insist that what was good for seventh century Arabia holds good for all times to come and in no need of any modifications whatsoever.

Iqtidar provides interesting details about the evolution and development of the two Islamist formations that she studies. The Pakistani JI, the premier Islamist formation in South Asia, Iqtidar writes, has 'provided the most ferocious and organised opposition to populist, progressive agendas from the 1950s onwards', particularly through its close relationship with authoritarian regimes. Its ideology, she argues, has 'tended to support authoritarianism and contained a powerful critique of both the left and Western democracy to the advantage of Pakistan's military dictators'.

Consequently, she notes, the JI has remained the main ideological adversary of progressive forces in Pakistan, lending its support to a number of anti-people laws and policies, generally in the name of Islam and Pakistani national interests, that have had a disastrous impact on the most vulnerable sections of Pakistan's population -- women, the working class, the peasantry and religious minorities. Progressive causes, such as land reforms, were consistently opposed by the JI, that branded them wholly 'un-Islamic'.

Iqtidar also alleges that the JI, along with other such Islamist groups, were richly funded or otherwise patronised by the United States of America, including by the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as conservative Arab regimes, particularly Saudi Arabia, precisely to counter the appeal of the Left. 'CIA funds', she writes, 'were available for supporting JI's extended activities […]'. 

At the same time as the JI aimed at combating the Left in Pakistan, and was used by successive Pakistani regimes, America and Saudi Arabia for this purpose, particularly during the Cold War, Iqtidar shows how the JI sought to emulate the Left in some ways in order to counter its appeal, including by turning to populist politics and appearing to speak for sections of Pakistani society among which it hitherto had little appeal, such as workers and peasants. In this way, it sought to present itself as committed to the concerns of subaltern groups but actually worked to strengthen the influence of the landlord-military-mullah nexus and American imperialism.

Alongside this, the JI, especially its students' wing, the Islami Jamiat Tulaba, was responsible for the killings of numerous opponents in university campuses, besides raising armed militias in East Pakistan that murdered vast numbers of Bangladeshi freedom-fighters, whom it branded as 'un-Islamic' for daring to challenge the 'two-nation' theory, of Hindus and Muslims as enemy 'nations', which the JI, like other radical Islamist groups in the country, continues to vociferously champion.

Iqtidar also supplies interesting details about the JD and its militant wing the Laskhar-e Tayeba, that are linked to the Wahhabi or Ahl-e Hadith school of Sunni Islam. The JD, which is said to have been behind the deadly terrorist assault on Mumbai in 2007 besides being involved in numerous other acts of terror, was, Iqtidar writes, directly propped up and funded by Pakistani intelligence agencies and the Saudis.

She argues that this patronage, beginning with the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, allowed many 'local gangsters, strong men, and small-time thugs' the opportunity 'of a larger stage to exhibit their dubious talents' by joining groups like the JD. The JD, she notes, 'relied for recruitment initially, and to a lesser extent to this day, on small-time thugs or gundas, arms dealers and other criminals, as well as those who were groomed by a particular brand of madaris [madrasas]...' She notes, however, that owing to external pressure the JD has now been forced to tone down its rhetoric somewhat and, consequently, seeks to pass off as a charitable organisation, although this has not met with any cooling off of its hate-driven terrorist violence.

Iqtidar indicates that despite their differences, mainly related to political strategy, Islamist groups like the JI and JD share a very similar ideology -- of the centrality of the notion of the Islamic State and the compelling need to acquire political power in order, as Islamists put it, to 'establish Islam in its entirety', without which they believe Muslims cannot lead truly Islamic lives. This theory, Iqtidar contends, was most well developed in the Indian subcontinent by the JI's founder, Syed Abul Ala Maududi, whose copious writings greatly influenced Islamists across the world.

As South Asia's pioneering Islamist group, the JI, Iqtidar notes, has played a leading role in supporting the rise of other Islamist groups in Pakistan like the JD by providing and popularising the necessary Islamist ideological framework and organisational role models, and by turning Islamism into an integral part of the Pakistani commonsense as it massively boosted the space for Islamist discourse and rhetoric in Pakistani politics and day-to-day life. Several top JD leaders, she points out, were introduced to Islamism through the JI, most notably Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, chief of the JD who served as the organiser of a unit of the JI's students' wing while a student at Punjab University, Lahore.

 

Yet, although the JI, the JD and other Pakistani Islamist groups share a common ideology (despite some differences over tactics and strategy), and even though they work together to expand the discursive and political dominance of Islamism in Pakistan, they also compete with each other for roughly the same constituency. This takes the form, as Iqtidar describes, of each group claiming the mantle of Islamic authenticity or 'true' Islam at the same time as it vociferously denies the same status to other such Islamic groups, especially if associated with rival Islamic sects.

This, Iqtidar says, makes for endless sectarianism as well as factionalism within existing groups and internecine violence that has now assumed endemic forms in Pakistan. The competition among fellow Islamists and other Islamic groups explains their violent rhetoric and sometimes even violent attacks against rival Islamic sects, as well as the numerous splits in Pakistani Islamist organisations, with each splinter group claiming to represent Islamic normativity. In other words, Islamism is not the monolith that it is often imagined as, being characterised by considerable internal diversity as well as sometimes furious contestation.

By focussing on the acquisition of this-worldly power, thundering against what they condemn as 'superstitious' beliefs (mainly a legacy of the Pakistani Muslims' Hindu past and their Sufi heritage), stressing the role of a willed religiosity and critiquing the notion of religious intermediaries (such as Sufi preceptors), radical Islamists like the JI and JD, Iqtidar controversially contends (and this is also suggested in the curious title of her book), might be inadvertently promoting a form of secularisation of Pakistani society, ironically in the name of Islamising it.

That claim seems dubious to me, though, but no matter what the long-term impact of radical Islamism in Pakistan may be, there can be no doubt about its mounting salience in the country, which American imperialist offensives in the region, that are exacting no less a toll than the bomb blasts routinely engineered by radical Islamists on an almost daily basis, are doing everything to further escalate.
Yogi Sikand