x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Pakistan harms itself by blaming everything on the US bogeyman

Religious militancy is as much to blame for Pakistan's problems as foreign interference.

Ninety-two per cent of Pakistanis feel their country is headed the wrong way, 85 per cent think economic conditions are worsening and just 14 per cent have confidence in the government. Although 63 per cent disapprove of the killing of Osama bin Laden, 88 per cent consider terrorism "a very big problem". These Pew poll results merely confirm that Pakistan is a deeply unhappy and confused country. Its streets, markets, mosques, churches and shrines are soaked in the blood of religious minorities, scholars and militants, as well as thugs, ordinary people, policemen, soldiers and nationalist separatists. Anyone can be killed, for any reason.

The army and government say that September 11 is the culprit. Its aftermath, they claim, created the terrorism that has consumed 36,000 lives so far and cost the economy about $38 billion (Dh 140 million), although the amount depending on the speaker and the time of day. They call these losses "sacrifices" - the price Pakistan allegedly paid for partnering with America in the "war against terror".

But a self-inflicted wound is not a sacrifice. Pakistan's war with the world, and itself, predates September 11. Since the 1980s, thousands have been killed in ethnic and gang warfare in Karachi. Last month, police say 315 people were killed; corpses stuffed inside sacks were found across the city. Equally unconnected with September 11 is the sickening abduct-torture-kill-dump routine of the Frontier Corps against Baluch nationalists.

But can Pakistan's religious militancy be explained by its post-September 11 embrace of the US, and subsequent abandonment of its Taliban progeny under US pressure? Is America, the devil, responsible?

Imran Khan, the politician and cricket hero now said to be Pakistan's most popular politician, said so during a televised debate some time ago. But what, I asked, of the Taliban who blow up girls' schools and video shops, kill doctors and health workers, refuse to allow women to vote, threaten barbers and tailors with death and destroy music and culture? Mr Khan dismissed them as inconsequential.

America's negative role in Pakistan since 1979 is undeniable. Its unconscionable invasion of Iraq reinvigorated Al Qaeda, bringing its deadly tactics to Pakistan. The US is also guilty of having waged illegal wars for decades and, in pursuit of its self-interest and wealth, bribed, bullied and overthrown governments, supported tyrants and undermined movements for progressive change.

But the poison of religious militancy had been injected into Pakistan's bloodstream a quarter century ago. Violent jihadist groups, such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, were busy with bloody sectarian cleansing. Their goal was to remake Pakistani society. Uninterested in the redistribution of wealth or social justice, such jihadists are most provoked by a woman's bare face or someone from the wrong sect or religion.

Subsequently Shia, Christians and Hindus were attacked. Many fled the country. Female education suffered. To date, about 1,400 schools have been blown up and reduced to rubble in the tribal areas. In Pakistan's cities, coeducational schools have largely converted to girls-only or boys-only schools. Many elite private schools have banned mixed play and games.

The religious militants originally had the full backing of Pakistan's state - until it too was targeted. Euphoric after the successful US-backed jihad in Afghanistan, the military imagined similar victory elsewhere. "Bleeding India with a thousand cuts," and gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan, was the army's new goal. A plethora of hard-line jihadist groups such as the Lashkar-i-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen received backing from secret agencies. These groups spawned others, some allied with Al Qaeda and drawing upon Arab, Uzbek and Chechen fighters.

State sponsorship of jihad did not disappear with September 11; it merely slipped underground. Throughout the 1990s, my university in Islamabad was decorated by posters and banners urging students to join the jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Although these disappeared after 9/11, the change was cosmetic. For those who ran Pakistan, religious militants were too great a strategic asset to surrender.

Still, it is wrong to blame the military alone for the cancerous growth of jihadism. In Pakistan, Islam has always been a refuge of troubled and weak political leaders. When challenged by mullahs, their instinctive response has been to appease.

Founded on Islam and separate from India's presumed Hindu state, Pakistan cannot declare itself secular. But, since there are many models and interpretations within Islam, there is irresolvable conflict over which version should prevail. Pakistan may or may not survive. But if it does, then it shall surely be as a secular state and not an Islamic one.


Pervez Hoodbhoy is a professor of physics in Islamabad and Lahore