THE SYMBIOSIS OF TERRORISM AND RELIGION
Several times in the quiet of the night, sitting alone in my study, I have pondered over what has happened to Pakistan. at has caused the deterioration in our national fabric? We were once a perfectly normal, religiously harmonious society, with only occasional tension between the Sunni and Shia sects of our religion. How did we reach the present-day epidemic of terrorism and extremism?
The trauma started in 1979 with the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. The Russians all along had the ambition of reaching Pakistan’s warm waters of the Indian Ocean through the Arabian Sea. We suddenly realized that we were faced with a two-front threat-India from the east and the Soviet Union and its Afghan puppet from the west. Pakistan’s security was gravely threatened. The nation and the military were in a quandary. Fortunately for us, the West, led by the United States after the election of Ronald Reagan, considered Afghanistan an important arena in which to check the Soviets’ ambitions. A jihad was launched in Afghanistan, with Pakistan as the inevitable conduit and a front line supporter because of its contiguity to Afghanistan. Afghan warlords and their militias were armed and financed to fight the Soviets. Alongside 20,000 to 30,000 mujahideen from all over the Islamic world, students from some seminaries of Pakistan were encouraged, armed, financed, and trained to reinforce the Afghans and confront the Soviet war machine. Before 1979, our madrassas were quite limited and their activities were insignificant.
The Afghan war brought them into the forefront, urged on by President Zia ul-Haq, who vigorously propounded the cause of jihad against the Soviet occupation.
The entire decade of the 1980s saw religious extremism rise, encouraged by Zia. It is undeniable that the hard-line mullahs of the Frontier province were the obvious religious partners in this jihad, because the Afghan Pukhtoons adhere to their puritanical interpretation of Islam. Actually, Zia, for his own personal and political reasons, embraced the hard-line religious lobby as his constituency throughout Pakistan and well beyond, to the exclusion of the huge majority of moderate Pakistanis. Fighting the infidel Soviet Army became a holy cause to the jihadis, and countless Pakistani men signed up.
This jihad continued for ten years, until the Soviets were defeated in 1989. They withdrew in a hurry, leaving behind an enormous arsenal of heavy weapons that included tanks, guns, and even aircraft, with abundant stocks of ammunition. The United States and Europe were also quick to abandon the area, as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet threat dimmed. The sudden vacuum in Afghanistan led first to the toppling of the puppet government that had been installed by the Soviet Union, and then to mayhem and bloodletting among warlords jostling for power. Afghanistan was ravaged by a twelve-year internal conflict, from 1989 to 2001.
The effect of this upheaval, from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to the internal mayhem, was threefold. First, it brought 4 million refugees into Pakistan. Second, it sparked the emergence of the Taliban in 1995. Third, it led to the coalescing of the international mujahideen into al Qaeda, with reinforcements coming from the newly independent Central Asian Republics, the discontented Chechens, and several Arab countries.
Then came 9/11, the catastrophe that changed the world. Even before Secretary of State Colin Powell called me to ask for help, even before President Bush announced in a public speech that all nations were either “with us or against us,” I knew that Pakistan was at a cross-road. Here was an opportunity for us to get rid of terrorism in our midst in our own national interest, and we must not falter. The extremists were too well armed, and too numerous, for us to manage quietly. Yet after the United States’ angry invasion of Afghanistan and the con-
tinuing turbulence and guerrilla warfare there, many al Qaeda operatives shifted to the cities and western mountains of Pakistan. Our situation, before the attacks on me, had worsened.
As if this were not enough, the struggle for freedom that erupted in Indian-held Kashmir in 1989 had a major impact on Pakistani society. The struggle was initiated through an indigenous intifada, with public demonstrations in the streets of Srinagar. The Indian law enforcement agencies were ruthless in crushing the movement for freedom. Massive army reinforcements were brought into the Srinagar valley to nip the movement, then largely political, in the bud. The movement reacted in self-defense, went underground, and took up arms. From then on it became militant, confronting Indian forces with guerrilla warfare. The Pakistani people are emotionally and sentimentally attached to their Kashmiri brethren. Dozens of support groups sprang up all over the country, prepared to join the jihad against the Indian army.
For twenty-six years now on our western borders, and for sixteen years to our east in Kashmir, we have been in turmoil. A culture of militancy, weapons, and drugs now flourishes in Pakistan. A deadly al Qaeda terrorist network entrenched itself in our major cities and the mountains of our tribal agencies on our western border with Afghanistan. A culture of targeted killing, explosives, car bombs, and suicide attacks took root. The attempts on my life and that of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz were part of this story.
This is what Pakistan has gone through in the last twenty-six years and what still causes us suffering, albeit somewhat less after our many successes against the terrorists. I shudder to think what the situation would have been like if we had not decided to take action when we did. What hurts us, in addition, is the lack of understanding from some in the West of our suffering, and of Pakistan’s contribution. Had we not joined the jihad against the Soviets, and had they not pulled out of Afghanistan, would the Cold War be over yet? We did what Napoleon and Hitler could not do; we defeated Russia, with the help of our friends in the jihad. If you take Pakistan out of the picture, the jihad would never have been won. On the other hand, if you take the United States out, one never knows. I say this to give you an idea of the size of our contribution to the Afghan jihad and of our critical and pivotal role. It was some consolation when I read an inscription on a plaque on a
THE SYMBIOSIS OF TERRORISM AND RELIGION 277
piece of the Berlin Wall presented by a chief of German intelligence to the chief of Pakistan’s intelligence: “To the one who struck the first blow”
Our major successes in smashing al Qaeda’s Pakistani network are a good start toward reclaiming Pakistan-but the extremists are far from defeated. We must continue to confront them and to reharmonize Pakistan and its emotionally wounded society.
At our core, the people of Pakistan are religious and moderate. Pakistan is an Islamic state created for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Only a small fringe of the population is extremist This fringe holds rigid, orthodox, even obscurantist and intolerant views about religion. A problem arises when it wants to impose its rigid, dogmatic views on others. This fringe not only is militant and aggressive but also can be indoctrinated into terrorism.
Leaving the extremist fringe aside, the moderate majority can be divided into three broad categories. On one side are the semiliterate de facto clerics (Islam recognizes no church or clergy) with a very orthodox, ritualistic understanding of Islam. On the other side is an educated, enlightened group that understands religion in its true sense and focuses on character, values, and responsibilities to society. In the center lies the vast mass of less literate poor people of Pakistan, living largely in rural and semiurban areas. They too are moderates who adhere to a philosophy of “live and let live.” They love visiting the shrines of Sufi saints and listening to the hypnotic beat of devotional mystical music, but because of their illiteracy, poverty, and desperation, the extremists try to recruit them and often succeed, especially among the semiliterate de facto clerics.
However, there are extremists in our midst who are neither poor nor uneducated. at motivates them? I believe it is their revulsion at the sheer pathos of the Muslim condition: the political injustices, societal deprivation, and alienation that have reduced many Muslims to marginalization and exploitation. This accounts for the likes of Osama bin Laden, Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, and Omar Saeed Sheikh-all rich and educated, two of whom attended school and college in the United States and Britain and one of whom was British-born. More recently, we saw terrorists from this class in the bombings of 7/7 in London.
Unfortunately, the enlightened class has abdicated its responsibility of teaching true Islam to the central masses, leaving them in the hands of the semiliterate clerics. People from the enlightened class tutor their children in every subject under the sun, but when it comes to religion they relinquish this crucial responsibility to their neighborhood clerics. The educated class had not thought it important to get involved in religious controversies. They never predicted 9/11 and the impact it would have on the Muslim world. Now they are faced with a catastrophe.
Today, the central masses are confused about where Islam actually stands on various serious issues facing the world in general and the Muslim world in particular. They need to be drawn away from the clerics’ obscurantist views, and toward the enlightened, progressive, moderate message of Islam. The challenge is great, no doubt, but it is eminently achievable.
As I have said earlier, our experience has taught us that foreigners in al Qaeda have almost invariably masterminded terrorist acts in Pakistan. The masterminds find local planners. The planners penetrate into bands of religious extremist organizations, or they indoctrinate groups of selected fanatics to take on specific terrorist tasks. Such attackers are mere pawns. They are not always religiously motivated, yet this is how terrorism in Pakistan has been mixed with religion.
If I were to make a comparison between the terrorist tiers and a tree, I would call the attackers mere leaves of the tree. Leaves will keep growing, or even multiplying, as long as the tree lives. The entire al Qaeda network, including masterminds and planners, I would equate with a branch of the tree. By eliminating al Qaeda we will have chopped off only one branch of the tree, even though it is a large branch. The tree of terrorism will continue to flourish as long as the roots remain intact.
at drives a person to kill innocent fellow human beings? at drives a person to the extreme act of wasting his own life to take the lives of others? It must certainly be a powerful urge. I strongly believe that the one factor pushing a person to extremes is a sense of hopelessness, powerlessness, and injustice, arising from political deprivation-these are the roots of the terrorist tree. The tree must be destroyed root and branch, and it can be destroyed only if it is uprooted first. The only way to do this is to remove the sense of injustice and the actual political deprivation. Feelings of powerlessness and finally hopelessness will develop if the roots of the tree are not destroyed. The roots are the prime cause, the original sin that eventually grows into a terrorist tree.
Such a feeling, when combined with illiteracy and poverty, makes for an explosive mix. This is what the Muslims in many parts of the world are suffering from today-an acute sense of loss, with nothing to look forward to. When a person with such a mind-set is illiterate enough to believe that a key hung around his neck is the key to paradise (this is actually what some suicide bombers believe), and if he is leading a miserable, impoverished life that holds nothing for him, he is easy prey for recruiters. Why not contribute something toward one’s political cause and then leave this miserable world for a more joyous and bountiful hereafter?
The bombers involved in London on 7/7 were not politically deprived, uneducated, or poor. Quite clearly, their motivation came from the socioeconomic deprivation of their community. Being unassimilated into the society they lived in, facing unequal treatment, and seeing atrocities meted out to their coreligionists-these could be the reasons for their resorting to terrorism.
All this has to be combated today. We need a holistic understanding, approach, and strategy. I prefer to separate the response against terrorists into short-term and long-term strategies.
The terrorist has to be faced with full force in the short term. He needs to be physically eliminated. But that isn’t enough to root out the menace. The issues that spawn terrorism must be addressed at three levels: the international community, the Muslim world, and the domes-tic situation within each country, in accordance with its own particular environment.
Internationally, we must resolve key political disputes. Within the Muslim world we must reject extremism and terrorism and concentrate our energies on socioeconomic development. Domestically, I will con-fine myself to what needs to be done in Pakistan. Without doubt, we have to fight terrorism frontally and with full force until we root it out completely from our country. The strategy that Pakistan has followed is to strike at the masterminds and planners at the top tiers of the terrorist hierarchy. This has met with great success in breaking the back of terrorism in our country though more needs to be done. We have to sustain the pressure and keep the terrorists on the run. The bigger success lies in the elimination of their top leadership. But ultimate success will come only when the roots that cause terrorism are destroyed: that is, when injustices against Muslims are removed.
This lies in the hands of the West, particularly America.
Dealing with extremism requires prudence. It involves addressing religious and sectarian extremism. It is a battle of both hearts and minds. Mind-sets cannot be changed by force. They must be trans-formed through superior logic and action. We have to facilitate this transformation. It involves mobilizing the silent moderate majority to rise and play a positive role. The following areas that we have addressed will, I am sure, produce positive results.
We have banned all extremist organizations, denying them any access to funds, while remaining alert to their reemergence in some other garb. This effort needs to be vigilantly sustained.
We banned the writing, publication, printing, sale, and distribution of hate material in the form of books, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, or handbills.
We modified school curricula to eliminate all materials promoting sectarian or religious hatred or confrontation, and replaced them with teachings of the real values and spirit of our religion, focused on the emancipation of self and society.
We began monitoring the misuse of loudspeakers in mosques to spawn hatred and disharmony.
We began mainstreaming madrassas to teach standard educational sects in addition to religion, and to offer examinations developed by the boards of education so that their students become equipped for professions other than the clergy.
Last, we are initiating a national discourse on Islam, with enlightened Islamic scholars, to influence the minds of the masses in the right direction. This may be the start of a Muslim renaissance, as it were, from Pakistan.
There is a great commonality in the cultural, intellectual, and emotional environment of most Muslim countries. We have a lot to learn and adopt from each other’s experience. We have a lot of work to do, but we will succeed if only we remain focused and determined.