By Nadeem Farooq Paracha
Cross post from The Dawn
On April 19, a Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) rally in Peshawar was attacked by a suicide bomber. The gruesome attack was allegedly engineered and undertaken by members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The irony is that the JI are one of the few mainstream political parties in the country that actually sympathise with the TTP, claiming that the terror group is fighting a war against “American imperialism” and against the Pakistani state’s “aggression” in the north-west of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
But the irony in this respect wasn’t a one-off. In early April, former ISI sleuth, Khalid Khawaja, was kidnapped along with another ex-ISI man by a group of terrorists labeled (by the media) as the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ (or Punjabi extremists having links and sympathies with the Pushtun Taliban).
On April 29, Khawaja’s murdered body was found in the turbulent tribal area of North Waziristan. He had been shot twice. A faction of the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ calling itself Asian Tigers claimed responsibility. Khawaja was an open supporter and sympathiser of the TTP, and was known to have had deep links with various Sunni sectarian organisations, and within both the Pushtun and Punjabi Taliban groups.
The attack on the JI rally and the murder of Khawaja by these groups have highlighted a bitter truth; a truth that has for long been stated loudly by the current government and various ‘liberal’ media personnel and ‘moderate’ Islamic scholars. They are right to suggest that as far as terror outfits such as the TTP and their sectarian foot soldiers are concerned, a majority of Pakistani Muslims (or for that matter, Muslims around the world) are either ‘false Muslims’ or outright infidels.
Journalists and authors such as Amir Mir and Imtiaz Gul in their well researched books on the activities of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Sunni sectarian organisations in Pakistan, have mentioned the narrow religious mindset of the aforementioned terror groups.
But not only have the JI, some rightwing media men, and various former ISI and military personnel continued to live in the thorny fantasy of perceiving such terror groups as legitimate expressions of ‘anti-Americanism,’ they have also refused face the fact that most extremists are as likely to question the Islamic credentials of these parties, media personnel and former ISI sleuths as they are of denouncing all non-Muslims as infidels deserving death.
Exhibiting a somewhat cowardly strain of Machiavellian tact, a number of politicians, former military men and journalists are known to loudly support and defend the position of the extremists on various TV channels, blissfully believing they are protecting themselves from the ideologically-motivated violence various anti-Taliban politicians face every day.
Alas, the attack on the JI rally and the murder of one of the extremists’ most vocal and active supporters has left the pro-Taliban fraternity stunned. What’s more, voices suggesting that those who murdered Khawaja were a ‘foreign-funded’ breakaway group of the Taliban sound highly unconvincing, especially in the event of Khawaja’s own wife accusing the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ for her husband’s kidnapping and murder.
The pro-Taliban mouthpieces were right to understand that it was a case of desperation (felt during the United States’ indiscriminate action in Afghanistan after the tragic 9/11 episode) that left a number of Pakistanis in the north-west and southern Punjab becoming Islamic insurgents.
However, what the same mouthpieces are failing (or refusing) to recognise is the occurrence of another kind of desperation that finally turned these insurgents into a ferocious and nihilist breed of terrorists.
This strain of desperation emerged when after failing to weave a largely mythical idea of a Sunni Islamic utopia, the insurgents in an attempt to enforce their brand of an Islamic caliphate took on the state of Pakistan thinking it to be weak and dotted with sympathisers.
However, under the guidance and consensus provided by an elected parliament and the vanishing of a supposedly ‘liberal’ military dictator playing a double game in his dealings with the extremists, the Pakistani military machine finally retaliated and was able to deliver a number of hefty blows to the once seemingly invincible insurgents in the tribal areas.
The action was unprecedented, especially to the groups of insurgents and militants, most of whom had been organised and patronised by the Pakistani state itself! The Islamic idealists had turned against their own nanny, only to find out that the nanny was more pragmatic than idealistic.
Not my dog
But Islamic extremists turning against their allies and patrons is not quite a new phenomenon. It has already happened in Egypt, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. When Anwar Sadat replaced the popular Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt in 1970, he began undoing policies erected by Nasser based on ‘Arab Socialism.’
This also meant pulling away the country from the influence of the Soviet Union, putting it in the sphere of the United States and its oil-rich Arab allies (especially the Saudi Arabia), and consequently lifting the siege that Nasser had laid against pro-Saudi Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
However, in 1981, it was a violent faction of the same Muslim Brotherhood that undertook the dramatic public assassination of President Sadat. In Algeria, when the country’s long-time secular government came under pressure after the failure of a series of its socialist and nationalist economic and political experiments, the regime in the 1980s began to give a lot of leeway to Islamist outfits to keep a full-fledged Islamic opposition movement at bay.
But the state and the military suddenly reversed the decision when Islamist groups (after winning municipal elections) began talking about implementing harsh Sharia laws and undoing Algeria’s secular and ‘socialist’ state and social apparatus.
The result was a deadly long-drawn civil war in which thousands of civilians lost their lives and a number of brutal and nihilist neo-fundamentalist outfits emerged, with a penchant for desperate bloodletting.
Not totalitarian enough
The most startling event in this respect took place in Saudi Arabia. ln 1979, an alarming incident occurred, which most history books across the Muslim realm have almost completely expunged from their pages.
Within this incident lies not only the chance to study the roots of modern-day Islamic extremism, but also the roots of the phenomenon in which extremist groups in the Muslim world eventually turn against a sympathetic state or personnel.
On November 20, 1979, a group of armed Saudi fanatics entered the premises of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The group was led by a man called Juheyman bin Muhammad. With him as his second-in-command was one Muhammad Abdullah. The group was made up of about a hundred men, most of them Saudis, but also comprising Egyptians, Yemenis, Syrians, Sudanese, Pakistanis, Libyans, and at least two African-American converts.
All of them were followers of Abdul Azizi bin Baaz, who was Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti. Baaz had been highly critical of late King Faisal’s moderate reforms that had seen the setting up of the kingdom’s first television station. Faisal had also given conditional permission to the kingdom’s women to work in offices, even though the country remained an ultra-conservative Sunni Wahabi state.
Bazz was also incensed by the presence of western workers in Saudi Arabia who had been hired by the government to manage the large amounts of oil wealth the kingdom had accumulated.
In his fiery Friday sermons, Baaz attacked the monarchy for moving away from the path set by the monarchy’s predecessors, especially King Al-Saud (d 1953) — even though it was under Saud that the discovery of the vast amounts of oil in Saudi Arabia was made with the help of British and American firms.
But Saud knew that to retain power he had to remain on the right side of the powerful official clerics. That’s why, though flushed with oil money, he was painfully slow to initiate reform. Instead, he kept the kingdom running on the conservative principles of puritanical Islam.
No wonder then, Juheyman and his men thought they were doing exactly what they had been taught at Saudi schools and universities: i.e. purge ‘false Muslims’ and ‘infidels’ from Saudi Arabia.
To counter the rise of secular Arab Socialism in the 1960s initiated by regimes in Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Syria, and later Libya, King Saud’s successor, King Faisal, started implementing some soft social reforms.
The kingdom’s clerics thus accused Faisal of turning Saudi Arabia into a ‘liberal’ country, though almost all of these clerics were on the payroll and enjoying perks from the monarchy. Interestingly, the policy of tolerating clerics continued even after a member of his own family, a Baaz admirer, assassinated Faisal in 1975.
Baaz’s blazing sermons eventually gave birth to a group of young fundamentalists quoting an ambiguous hadith, claiming that Muhammad Abdullah was the Mehdi. The hadith also mentioned that the clash between Mehdi’s followers and ‘infidels’ would take place in the Grand Mosque of Mecca.
The mosque was therefore taken while pilgrims were present. Some were allowed to leave, while a number of others were taken hostage. Mayhem ensued. For days the militants fought bloody gun battles with Saudi forces. Misled by rumours (largely fanned by the new-found Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran) that attributed the mosque takeover to an ‘American-Zionist conspiracy,’ mobs in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Libya attacked and burned down American embassies in their respective countries.
The first days of the battle saw the militants gaining the upper hand – scores of Saudi soldiers were slaughtered. Watching the situation spiraling out of control, the Saudi regime contemplated using outside help. Since no non-Muslim is allowed to enter the Grand Mosque, the Saudi regime pondered using Pakistani and Jordanian commandos.
But the Saudis eventually called in French commandos and asked them to supply training (just outside Mecca) and weapons to the bloodied Saudi forces. It took another three days for the Saudi forces to defeat the militants and clear the mosque. The battle cost over 900 lives.
Logically the Saudi regime was expected to launch a crackdown on fundamentalists after the tragedy, but it did what most Muslim regimes usually do in the face of a movement or insurgency by fundamentalists: i.e. it rolled back whatever few social reforms it had initiated and became even more subservient to the puritanical clergy.
And here is where most Muslim regimes and societies have faltered. Faced by pressure and violence from Islamists, many regimes in the Muslim world have historically tried to work out their survival by giving in to a number of regressive and myopic demands of the Islamists – something the current government and parliamentary opposition in Pakistan has only recently realised and attempted to rectify.