Category Archives: Militancy

Salmaan Taseer: a legacy of resistance

Ishrat Saleem

Last year, on this day, Pakistan lost one of the most outspoken politicians of Pakistan. The murder of Salmaan Taseer and its aftermath offered chilling insights into the state of affairs in Pakistan. Just a few weeks prior to the incident, Salmaan Taseer had visited a Christian peasant woman, Aasia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death by a lower court for committing blasphemy, and criticised the blasphemy laws for their tendency and track record of being abused to implicate innocent people. Despite knowing that it was a highly emotive issue, Taseer stood by his conviction and defended his position, only to be gunned down by his own guard in broad daylight. It might have flabbergasted saner perceptions to see the murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, being deified as a defender of Islam by sections of the media, lawyers and religious lobbies alike, but viewed in the context of the general trend of the rise of extremism in Pakistan, it was but a logical happening. One year down the line, things have only got worse.

Religious extremism, spawned by the state to promote foreign policy interests, has gradually shrunk the space for dissent and debate. It is a whole enterprise, involving as diverse elements as the state, madrassas, mosques, the public education system, the political class and the media. Thousands of madrassas opened to train the jihadi proxies to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s became entrenched and continue to churn out thousands of graduates each year, who are the mainstay of religious lobbies in pushing for their agenda. No democratic regime since 1988 could undertake the overhauling of the curricula of the public education system of Pakistan that were contaminated during Zia’s regime with texts that promote prejudices and hatred toward non-Muslims and inculcate a narrow worldview among students. Mosque loudspeakers through the length and breadth of the country continue to spew poisonous speeches against the Ahmedis, Shias, Hindus, Jews and anyone they consider an outsider. In his article, ‘Remembering Salmaan Taseer’ (January 1, 2012) in a national daily, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy has aptly pointed out how mosque sermons psychologically condition the people and make them disposed to celebrating murder, lawlessness and intolerance. Instead of standing up to this wholesale incursion of an extremist mindset, the political class has adopted a policy of appeasement of the religious lobby out of fear, or genuine conviction. Salmaan Taseer was one of the very few exceptions. Attempts to justify the murder of Taseer by a section of the media exemplify how the extremist mindset has become entrenched in various levels of society.

Pakistan has paid a very heavy price for the ill-advised policies of the state. Countless people have lost their lives or live in constant insecurity at the hands of self-styled defenders of the faith. The diversity and culture of the country are on a constant decline and it seems we are gradually turning into a nation of yahoos unable to think and behave in a civilised manner.

Following the murder of Salmaan Taseer, Pakistan’s society stood starkly divided among those who supported the murder, or justified it in some way, and those who did not. While the proponents of extremism are highly organised and are using all means at their disposal to perpetuate their views and maintain control, those that espouse a vision of an inclusive, tolerant, progressive and secular society in Pakistan are too few in comparison, unorganised, and powerless.

This does not mean that there is nothing that can be done to reverse this wave of extremism. The history of social movements tells us that even the most powerless people can take on entrenched institutional powers through organisation. In his essay ‘Why David Sometimes Wins: Strategic Capacity in Social Movements’, Marshall Ganz writes, “Strategy is how we turn what we have into what we need to get what we want. It is how we transform our resources into the power to achieve our purposes. It is the strategic link we make between the targeting, timing and tactics with which we mobilise and deploy resources and the outcomes we hope to achieve.” Those who believe in a tolerant Pakistan must find ways to employ their resources strategically to push for what they want.

All it requires is overcoming frustration, having a firm conviction, and a belief that even our small bit will help in transforming the situation. Each of us must start by not just criticising and preaching to others, but practicing the message of tolerance. We must educate ourselves and answer the religious extremists in their own idiom. An overwhelming majority of Pakistan’s population comprises people between the age of 15 and 25. They are disillusioned and deeply frustrated by what they see around them. Their search for an alternative leadership is visible when they flock to the rallies of Imran Khan. All of them are not convinced that anyone who does not agree with you should be eliminated. Even if their perceptions are clouded by the media propaganda, they are still searching for an alternative narrative. It is not a coincidence that songs like ‘Aaloo Anday’ or ‘Jhoot ka Ooncha Sar’ are produced and become instant hits. It is because these challenge the dominant narrative. Youth could become a valuable resource if educated and mobilised.

Salmaan Taseer lived by his convictions and went down as a martyr. We must continue his legacy and challenge those that have pushed Pakistan into this abyss.

(Published in Daily Times on January 4, 2012)


Americans against Amercian policies

Despite boasting a highly sophisticated security apparatus, the US continues to be haunted by the spectre of terrorist attacks on its soil. Today, an attack within the US without the involvement of Americans looks like a farfetched idea. In spite of having within their grasp the ‘American dream’ of a better, richer and happier life, that has lured millions around the world to this land of opportunity, it is fascinating to see how naturalised or American-born citizens of Muslim origin feel attracted to a militant ideology that espouses terror and violence as its primary means to achieve its objectives. Thus, on more than one occasion, American citizens have been found involved in activities that constitute the gravest of crimes in the American lexicon — terrorism.

The recent botched attempt to bomb Times Square, New York, and the arrest of an American citizen of Pakistani origin in connection with the bombing calls for introspection why would a happily settled individual do something that could potentially destroy life for him and, most likely, his family. It is not to suggest that only Americans are involved in such activities; the spread of militant extremism has emerged as a global phenomenon, which continues to inspire individuals around the world, including Americans.

The most recent cases of Americans indulging in terrorist activities are those of Nidal Malik Hasan and David Headley. Hasan was a US Army major serving as a psychiatrist at a military base in Fort Hood, Texas, where he opened fire at his colleagues, killing 13 and wounding more than 30 in November 2009. Of Palestinian origin, Hasan had been born and brought up in the US. David Headley, formerly Daood Sayed Gilani, was born in the US in 1960 to an American mother and a Pakistani father and spent his early years in Pakistan after his parents split. Headley has been charged with conspiring to launch the 2008 attack in Mumbai and providing material support to Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT).

It boggles the mind what is there in the seemingly mindless frenzy of Islamist violence that lures perfectly sane and educated individuals into its fold. But the fog gradually dissipates as one looks at the broader picture. Western countries’ policies generally and the US policies particularly have caused anger and resentment in the Third World for decades now. Although the US had projected a relatively better stance in supporting decolonisation since 1918, when US President Woodrow Wilson backed the right of self-determination of colonised countries in his Fourteen Points, its real motives behind this policy became apparent once the old order was dismantled and the new order gave a pre-eminent place to the US. The objective was to expand US influence and control in a neo-colonial system. This was the great transition that took place after World War II.

One aspect of the neo-colonial US policy was very aggressive military campaigns and invasions during and after the Cold War, and toppling of foreign governments through covert support. From Latin America and Indo-China to the Middle East and South East Asia, overt and covert US military interventions have left their scars and invoked anger throughout the Third World, regardless of religious, cultural and ethnic affiliations and geographic location.

Is the American military posture an accident or aberration? Contrary to what the US would like us to believe, this posture is part of the American system. The US military and defence industry is a major component of the economy. No less a person than President Dwight D Eisenhower, who can hardly be accused of being a radical, said in his farewell speech in 1961: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Who could know this better than the ex-Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe who later became the Supreme Commander of NATO in 1951? The American system requires wars and foreign arms sales, which also spark off wars, in order to keep its economy going. The inherent contradiction in that economy is that the productive capacity is more than the market demand, which fuels the constant need for more weapons and more wars.

Armed struggles, political movements and other kinds of resistance to American hegemony and its aggressive military posture have taken place throughout the neo-colonial period. Issues like Palestine have specifically angered Muslim opinion against blatant US support for repeated Israeli aggressions against the Palestinians and Arab countries on its periphery. The bruised Muslim sentiments have been aggravated by the senseless invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq at the turn of the new millennium.

The rise of militant ideology, seen in this background, makes perfect sense. It is not surprising then that Americans themselves become influenced by this ideology. It has past precedents. Even during the Vietnam War, arguably, without the increasing support of the American people, especially young people, who revolted against that war, the Vietnamese would not have won. Draft-card burning, going underground, and radical movements such as Students for a Democratic Society and Black Panthers were a reaction to the aggressive, military posture the US had demonstrated in Indo-China in the most brutal fashion.

When the US indulges in military adventures abroad, it is not free of reaction at home. People within the US have been influenced by an increasing appreciation of what their country represents to the outside world. The US aggressive policy is systemic, not accidental, and the injustices that have followed in the wake of that aggressive intent are being exposed. It should not come as a surprise that Americans resent this. There was reaction against the Iraq war and increasingly people are fed up with American involvement in Afghanistan.

Whereas the majority opposition to the Iraq war is very much in the American democratic mainstream, there will always be radical offshoots of such resentment. Why are these radical offshoots opting for a completely different path? Why are middle class, seemingly removed Americans influenced by Islamic extremism? Because in the marketplace of ideas, currently militancy and extremism are the only available items, which have filled the existing vacuum of ideas. The perception is that the old ideas, be they national liberation, socialism, or non-alignment, which informed resistance movements post-World War II, have failed. People seeking some way to express their anger, resentment and resistance to the American posture are increasingly influenced by the Islamist militant ideology. This is the periphery of the general rejection of American imperialism and explains the phenomenon of the Americans turning against America in a violent manner.

The Frankenstein’s monster


Ishrat Saleem


One may find stark similarities between the story of Frankenstein by Mary Shelly and the current situation obtaining in NWFP. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein builds the creature through science and alchemy. The creature is so repulsive and ugly that Frankenstein flees from it in horror and disavows his experiment. Abandoned, frightened, and completely unaware of who or what he is, the monster wanders through the wilderness searching for someone who would understand and shelter him. All his attempt to find a friend are met with horror and disgust at his ‘accursed ugliness’. Heartbroken, he renounces all of humankind and swears revenge on his creator, Frankenstein, for bringing him into the world.A stream of news reports appearing in the press reveals that the situation in the NWFP is extremely alarming. Sixteen Christians were kidnapped by the Taliban from Banaras Town in Peshawar (later released on the intervention of a jirga). Ten girls’ school were set on fire and a soldier was killed and three injured in Swat. Eight drivers who were part of a food convoy were found dead in Kurram Agency last week. The Tehrik-i-Taliban are handing out leaflets warning transporters and drivers of grave consequences if they truck supplies to the Christian army in Afghanistan. Militants in Khar, Bajaur Agency killed two Afghan nationals in public on charges of spying – these are just a few of the recent incidents. Precisely, we are reaping the harvest of what we have sown over the years.
Finding it weak and vulnerable, the Taliban seem bent upon overthrowing the state. They have been carrying out their activities with ease and confidence in Swat, Khyber Agency, North and South Waziristan, Parachinar, Mohmand Agency, Bajaur Agency, Kurram Agency, Khyber Agency, Orakzai Agency, Darra Adam Khel, Tank district and even Peshawar. The other day a news report suggested that the fall of Peshawar into the hands of militants was a matter of time and once that happens the rest of districts will fall like ninepins.
When the military establishment headed by General Ziaul Haq decided to become part of the ‘great game’ to defeat the Soviets, who had invaded Afghanistan in 1979, it could never have imagined that one day it would have to face the demons it helped the US create back in 1980s. Having been compelled to withdraw from Vietnam in 1975 after facing defeat, the US had chosen to fight a proxy war in Afghanistan. The US as well as some countries in Middle East funded a network of militant jihadi organisations. A worldwide campaign was launched to induct recruits from the Muslim communities for jihad against Soviet infidels. These would-be jihadis were brought to Pakistan and trained to fight the invading army in Afghanistan. Finally, when the Soviet forces withdrew in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed shortly afterwards due to internal political and economic weaknesses, a huge victory was celebrated. Smug to emerge as a sole superpower, the US left the mujahideen in the lurch and spared little thought to rehabilitating war-ravaged Afghanistan. Infighting between various factions raged during most of the 1990s.
Numerous accounts confirm that the ISI, with chests swelled that its intelligence had brought a superpower down to its knees, believed that India was a fair game and could be bled to death in the same manner, hence the sudden upsurge of militancy in the Indian-held Kashmir. There were simultaneous insurgencies in countries of origin of the mujahideen, including Xinjiang province of China, Central Asia, Africa, Philippines and elsewhere. With militant networks intact, Islamabad decided to facilitate the installation of a friendly regime in Kabul acting on the doctrine of ‘strategic depth’. Thus the Taliban government was installed which was recognised only by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE. The Taliban were the children of the madrassas. Indoctrinated in extremist Islam, they had little exposure to human values of modern society and believed in the archaic interpretation of religious texts, which favoured returning to the social set-up of the 7th century which saw the advent of Islam. They believed in imposing their narrow interpretations of Islam through the force of the gun.
The tailor-made madrassah students were good for fighting jihad in Afghanistan, but nobody seems to have spared a thought that they were innocent people, who had the right to education and a chance to lead a normal life. Even after they went out of business, these elements were used by one party or the other to promote their cause. But promoting retrograde values to serve vested interest has its own costs. Feeding a monster also runs the risk of its turning against one’s own self, and this is what seems to have happened.
The Soviet withdrawal had a deep ideological impact on the jihadis, making them believe that they were responsible for this feat. Internationally, militants networks consolidated, the leading being al Qaeda, and carried out successful terrorist attacks around the world, the most notable being one in the US on September 11, 2001. Finding itself under attack, the US decided to take out al Qaeda hideouts in Afghanistan, which had the Taliban government’s protection. It was then that Pakistan had to take a difficult decision of severing close links with the Taliban and throw in its lot with the US. Pakistan was also compelled to launch an operation in the tribal area to take out militants using the area as a base to launch attack across the border.
There may have been many tactical as well as strategic mistakes in a U-turn in this policy, which has landed us into the current situation. Lt. Gen. (retd.) Orakzai, who oversaw the first deployment of troops, was in favour of negotiations to carry out the operation in collaboration with local supporters. However, this strategy was abandoned in favour of a full-fledged military operation, but soon the military found itself surrounded by the hostile populace and no sources of intelligence. It suffered heavy casualties and bombed indiscriminately whenever it did. Anti-American sentiments raged in the area and the local breed of Taliban systematically decimated the pro-maliks, who were crucial to the system of governance in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). While on the one hand, the government was busy making enemies of its erstwhile friends, on the other hand, after the initial crackdown on militant outfits in the country, the government allowed them to resurface and operate with new names. It also embarked upon a campaign to defend the institution of madrassa in the West. Analysts and close watchers of the situation argued that the government followed a dual strategy – saving the Taliban (with whom it had close ties) and taking out al Qaeda (the foreign elements). The government failed to calculated that touching al Qaeda would automatically evoke reaction from their hosts, the Taliban. The Lal Masjid incident in Islamabad should have served as an eye-opener that the erstwhile protégé had become independent of the mentor’s tutelage and was out to take on its creator. The much-delayed and the ill-conceived military operation on Lal Masjid and its fallout in the form of suicide bombings throughout the country have revealed that the mosque administration was closely associated with Baitullah Mehsood in NWFP. They were armed with sophisticated weapons and were confident that the government would not dare touch them. It was due to this confidence that they openly kidnapped ordinary people as well as security personnel in the heart of the capital. The situation is made much more complex by the fact that the militants in NWFP have been accused of using the area as a base to launch cross-border attacks on the coalition forces in Afghanistan, which has irked the US and Afghan government to issue threats of hot pursuit.

Unfortunately, at the time of Soviet-Afghan war and subsequently during Kashmir insurgency, so much investment was made to prepare the people to support and volunteer for jihad within Pakistan that they are still unable to make a distinction between lawful and unlawful. There are deep fissures in government, the media as well as the people’s perception on the issue of militancy. The jihadis have support among religious and right-of-centre political parties, the media, the government institutions, including the army itself. This is evident in their outreach and ratio of success in suicide bombings, which saw a steep rise after the Lal Masjid operation. They have struck at the place and time of their choosing, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. They have taken the entire society hostage. But the Pakistani public in general has still not been able to make up its mind that militancy is unlawful and dangerous. It runs the risk of decimating moderate sections of society by the force of gun, just like the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. There is also the perception that Pakistan is fighting a foreign war. This inherent confusion about the role of militants and now a fear of their demonstrated ability of persecution seems to be weakening the resolve of law enforcement agencies to fight them.

In this situation, the elected government finds itself in a fix. This is exhibited in the lack of coordination between the central and the provincial governments and conflicting statements by various government functionaries. The government is still holding out an olive branch to the militants in the province, who know they are negotiating from a position of strength. One may find solace in the government’s announcement of a three-pronged strategy of using political influence of elected representatives for holding peace talks, military effort to deal with recalcitrant elements and socio-economic uplift of the militancy-prone areas to isolate extremist elements. However, it is difficult to say whether the inherent confusion and divisions among our state institutions, political parties, media and the public will allow any efforts to curb militancy to succeed.


To conclude, it is the responsibility of the state to provide security to the citizens against militant activities. But do the powers-that-be recognise the dangers they have posed to the society and even the state itself by letting the monster of militancy grow out of proportion? One might ask whose interests are the militants serving when they go out and burn girls’ schools and CDs and barbers’ shops? Is the government (read the establishment) sincere in its resolve to fight extremism and militancy it once promoted with zeal?