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DateLine Tuesday, 26 August 2008

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Government Gazette

The real threat

The other day, some of the people I work with were having a discussion about the Taliban and who exactly they are. Most of them were young professionals and many of them are quite devout and adhere to Islamic injunctions about prayer and fasting. When I was asked the same question I started to ponder on it. Luckily for me one of the people in my department walked in just then.

The Al Qaeda terrorists

He is from the northern areas, wears a long flowing beard and is a practising Muslim. I looked at him and asked him if his daughter went to school. He replied that she did; that perhaps is the defining action that separates the devout from the Taliban. And I pointed to this person and said that as long he was willing to send his daughter to a regular school, he would never be of the Taliban nor would he really support them.

That is the conundrum facing us today. How to separate the devout from the extremists and then rally the former to the cause of fighting against those very extremists. Unless we can mobilise those among us who are good Muslims, send their daughters to school and are opposed to extremism, we can never win the war against those that use our religion to intimidate and subjugate.

And that has been my major beef with the nine-year rule of President Musharraf. He espoused the cause of “enlightened moderation” (may it rest in peace) but only paid it lip service. Moreover, in spite of all his trips to the Holy Land and the House of God, he was never really able to convince ordinary Muslims of his sincerity to the cause of Islam.

The fact that President Musharraf and his establishment dealt with the Taliban only in terms of ‘strategic depth’ rather than as a menace to society allowed them to flourish to the point that they today pose the biggest threat to law and order that Pakistan has ever seen. Frankly unless the Taliban threat is seen as an anti-Pakistan movement nothing can be done about it in a definitive way.

Having lived in Pakistan for the last five years I am convinced that most Pakistanis do not subscribe to the Taliban philosophy.

Pakistan always had a strong pro-religious element and in the very first few years of the country’s existence an outpouring of sectarian religious fervour brought us the first martial law.

Today the Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus incorporates three important aspects. First, an extreme interpretation of Islam; second, a desire to establish this form of Islam as the primary arbiter of all social and political activity; and third, an anti-Imperialist (anti-US and anti-west) activism. The latter is a result among other things of the US action in Afghanistan.

As such Talibanisation is no longer just about religion but has a strong political element to it.

It is this political element that brings this movement in confrontation with the Pakistani state. One of its major aims has to some degree been achieved and that is to create autonomous areas outside the control of the Federal Government within Pakistan. In these areas, the extreme form of Islam is being established as the law of the land and more importantly these areas are being used to stage armed activity against the State.

The important thing then is to realise that the Taliban-Al Qaeda nexus is not unlike the Marxist rebels in the eastern Indian states or the Tigers in Sri Lanka. The only way to isolate and eventually defeat them is to emphasise that it is not Islam but well defined political goals that motivate them.

The fact that they do not kill ‘infidels’ but fellow Muslims is a point that needs to be brought up for discussion in the national press and the electronic media.

One must point out that whenever a NATO action causes the loss of civilian life in the areas adjoining Afghanistan a great hue and cry is raised against such action.

Yet I have not seen a single Urdu newspaper or a ‘private’ TV channel bemoaning or emphasising or dwelling upon ‘collateral damage’ when a suicide bomber hits ordinary people, the recent attack in Wah being a prime example.

Neither do the talking heads on TV ever dwell on this issue; they are either mortally afraid of being targeted by these extremists if they oppose them or perhaps are essentially in agreement with them.

Evidently, one of the interesting developments in extremist thinking based upon fatwas from their supporters is that it is acceptable if ordinary Muslims are killed in suicide attacks. The idea being that these victims are automatic participants in jihad and if they die they are martyrs and therefore destined for heaven.

For most Muslims it is extremely difficult to separate politics from religion even under normal circumstances. But in these perilous times when terrorist attacks within Pakistan are becoming a major problem, it has indeed become imperative to separate the purely political from the religious. Only then can the problem of extremism be tackled objectively.

And yes, the Government does need to get over with the irritants that confront its coalition partners and put its house in order to confront the real problems facing Pakistan.

What is clearly needed then is a coherent national policy about terrorism that is acceptable to even the most conservative Muslims within Pakistan.

But the public face behind that policy has to be someone whose probity and Islamic credentials are impeccable.

What Pakistan needs badly is a politician who is popular and at the same time is capable of mobilising majority of Pakistanis against the extremists. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be anyone of that sort around.

Syed Mansoor Hussain has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at [email protected]

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