SOS Pakistan: What Muslims Know
by Irfan Al-Alawi
When Saudi Arabia and the U.S. joined in assisting the mujahidin in Afghanistan and their Pakistani patrons, the problem of Kashmir faded into the background. As the US began to pursue al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the Pakistani radicals cleverly withdrew their forces to Kashmir. Now, however, the moment has come that all moderate Pakistanis - and moderate Muslims in India and Bangladesh - have dreaded: The extremist coalition, bringing together the Deobandi sect (the regional allies of the Saudi Wahhabis, with a few differences between them) and the Jamaat-e-Islami, with army veterans of the clashes in both Afghanistan and Kashmir, has begun its 'main offensive' against Pakistan herself.
Moderate Pakistani Muslims worry that neither the Karachi government nor the moderate Barelvi trend can mobilise to halt the radical onslaught. At present, the government increasingly looks like that of a failed state. While the Barelvis will benefit from the opposition of the people to Talibanization, they may not be able to quickly organize their own ranks.
A Taliban victory in Pakistan would not merely create a more urgent nuclear threat in the region and a likely showdown with India . It would leave Afghanistan completely vulnerable as a revived focus for al-Qaida, though secondarily to Pakistan . It would encourage the growing radical movement in Bangladesh , which also draws inspiration from the Pakistani Deobandis. But above all, it would further radicalize the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who make up the majority of British Muslims (some 60 percent) and the Pakistanis who comprise the plurality of American Muslims (about a third).
As terrible as this danger is for non-Muslims as well as Muslims, one thing is clear: the West cannot act through major military force in Pakistan . Like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan has assured its immunity from foreign intervention by its long history of diplomatic alliances with the Western countries at the same time that it fosters extremism within and along its borders. If there is a solution, and Pakistan is not to fall, new developments must appear among the Pakistanis themselves. They must recognize the great risk posed by Deobandi and Jamaati infiltration in their government and military, and unite to curb it.
The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan seems all too familiar. Fresh waves of terrorism sweep both countries; Afghan leaders are accused of corruption; the Pakistani armed forces begin a new offensive aimed at the nests of the Taliban and al-Qaida inside their territory; Western politicians debate over whether they can achieve their goals in either land.
While we are not military experts, my colleagues and I in the Centre for Islamic Pluralism have actively warned for several years that Muslims know certain things sadly neglected among Westerners because of distorted Western vision.
Muslims know that the conflict in Afghanistan is not about that country's political or ethnic grievances, but about radical Islamist ideology.
Muslims know that focusing attention on al-Qaida alone may have disastrous unintended consequences, not least in Western countries with a large Pakistani diaspora, like the UK and US. Muslims know that terror in Pakistan is a central, not a marginal phenomenon.
Every conscious Muslim in the world is aware that Afghanistan is merely a rear-guard area for powerful extremist movements in Pakistan . The wars in Afghanistan after the Russian withdrawal in 1989 are often portrayed as extensions of the confrontation with communism. In the wreckage left by the Soviets, a void opened up, it is said, and was filled by the Taliban. The Western offensive against the Taliban after September 11, 2001, aimed at depriving al-Qaida of a headquarters area. The military efforts in Afghanistan now are treated along the same limited lines.
The center of the South Asian crisis, however, in our view, is in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan . In Pakistan, armed formations representing the fundamentalist Deobandis, as well as the jihadist followers of Abu'l Ala Mawdudi, in the Jamaat-e-Islami, were vying for power over the state, and its transformation in an extreme direction, before the Russian attack on Afghanistan. Their pretext then was the conflict with India in Kashmir . Russia's crude expansionism not only undermined its own power, it also weakened the Pakistani political and military establishment. Al-Qaida, in a detail of history Westerners ignore, had little to do with the Afghan resistance to Russia . Usama Bin Ladin and his Saudi-backed network chose to locate their activities in Afghanistan for reasons other than the victory over the Russians, or even Afghanistan's difficult geography, which afforded places of concealment.
Rather, al-Qaida observed with approval that the Taliban, drawn from Deobandi madrassas ('talib' means 'student' in Arabic), had installed a fundamentalist government with Pakistani approval and almost no serious opposition. Based first on the problem in Kashmir, then on the series of conflicts in Afghanistan, the Deobandis and Jamaatis accomplished a wide-scale penetration of the Pakistani military and intelligence services (ISI). For al-Qaida, the physical environment of Afghanistan was less significant than the ideological surroundings. Deobandi and Jamaati preaching against traditional Islam, and attacking those Sufis and Shias unwilling to submit to them, increased in Pakistan itself, although opposed by the traditionalist Barelvi sect, which consists of the majority of Muslims in Pakistan. The Deobandis and Jamaatis continue to benefit from Gulf oil funding, and proclaim their intention to 'Talibanize' all the Muslims they can reach.
Pakistani Muslims in the West already face significant problems with radical ideology. Barelvis in the UK have seen their mosques occupied by Deobandis and Wahhabis, and have taken legal or other action to recover these institutions. In the US, one of the most powerful and influential organisations propagating extreme interpretations is the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), a front for the Mawdudist Jamaat-e-Islami. 'Talibanisation' of Pakistan means a similar outcome among the Pakistani Muslims in the West. In the UK, this would provide an impetus for new forms of so-called 'domestic terrorism,' which are no less organized from abroad than other terror efforts.
In the U.S., submission of the Pakistani-born Muslims to Taliban direction would harden Muslim attitudes and also encourage violence.
Pakistani moderates seem paralyzed by the cobra their government nourished. Similarly, Western observers seem unwilling to admit that Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan, is the area at stake. Westerners have settled on Afghanistan as a simpler problem, because it can be defined as a refuge for al-Qaida. But the same policy-makers admit that al-Qaida's other areas of security include the Pakistani border regions. It appears an irritant to Western experts to constantly be informed of things that are counter-intuitive to their opinions, and even worse when they hear, after the consequences of their mistakes become apparent, 'we told you so.' But in this case some of us among moderate Muslims must finally say, about the South Asia crisis, that the world was adequately cautioned against this outcome.