Female militants’ show of force

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

IN ITS latest issue, the Time magazine titles its cover story as “The truth about Talibanistan” which it claims is gathering strength in Pakistan’s “wild borderlands”. Last week events took a new turn.

The show of force by the Lal Masjid strongmen and the Hafsa madressah’s female guardians of morality in Islamabad was an indication that the tentacles of the Taliban are spreading rapidly to the heart of the federal capital.

Is this surprising? Not really if one has been following the Musharraf government’s policy vis-à-vis the militants of all shades and hues. Not long ago the general was on friendly terms with Islamist groups when he astutely used them to pursue a policy of destabilising Indian-held Kashmir by proxy. The Islamic fundamentalists preaching jihad against the ‘infidels’ were provided full protection, and even assistance, by the authorities.

The religio-political parties on their part have served another purpose for the military regime. Musharraf has used them to neutralise the mainstream secular parties, notably the Pakistan People’s Party, PML (Nawaz) and the nationalists in Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP. As a result of a policy which actually bestowed favours on the constituents of the MMA, the Musharraf government did not have a level playing ground for all parties.

As a result the religious groups which had never won more than five per cent of the popular vote in a general election received a tremendous boost and found themselves in office in two provinces.

To be fair to the army chief, he has not been the only one pursuing this strategy of using the jihadis as an active tool for conducting the country’s foreign policy. This strategy was first adopted by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Afghanistan when Sardar Daud was at the helm in Kabul. Surprisingly Bhutto had not learnt from his experience of the 1965 war in Kashmir when infiltrators dispatched from Azad Kashmir had failed to trigger the much awaited uprising in the Valley.

When Ziaul Haq used the Islamic militants in Afghanistan – with a spiritual zeal that he shared with them – he succeeded in driving the Russians out of Afghanistan. Needless to say, the Americans were also a party to this unholy game.

Subsequent civilian governments in Pakistan with the ISI’s cooperation – or was it the other way around? — expanded this strategy and employed it in Kashmir. This time there was no military victory and Kargil was a clear demonstration of the danger to peace posed by proxy wars.

Then came 9/11 and President Musharraf’s famous U-turn which forced the government to modify its strategy somewhat. Officially the parties resorting to terror were banned and their funds were seized. The madressahs which produced the foot soldiers for the jihadi were to be registered and regulated. But the fact is that there was no comprehensive crackdown on the jihadis. The assistance they received from the government may have been withdrawn. But they no longer need that help. Having grown and developed over the years they are now quite capable of fending for themselves. What is more important, many of them continue to be patronised and protected – if not by the official structures of power, then by rogue elements. The stage has been reached that even this protection is not so crucial for their existence any more. They are satisfied so long as the powers that be turn a blind eye to their existence and doings. On rare occasions when an attempt is made to curb their power, there is invariably a confrontation and the state is forced to retreat.

Last week’s events came as a watershed of sorts because they took place in Islamabad and amounted to the militants’ testing of the waters there. The religious extremist parties have now moved from the foreign front to their mission of ‘cleansing’ domestic society. Posing as the self-appointed custodians of our morals, they are willing to break the laws of the land to achieve their ends. They are thus asserting themselves to set up a parallel system which will ultimately be designed to undermine the authority of the state by resorting to force.

It is distressing that the madressahs have been allowed to get away with their blatant defiance of the government which has climbed down when matters have reached a head leading to a confrontation.

Only recently a madressah that had been built illegally on encroached land in the federal capital and had been demolished was allowed to be rebuilt after the girl students of the Jamia Hafsa occupied a children’s library throwing down the gauntlet before the government. Seventy-six mosques in Islamabad have been declared illegal but the CDA cannot touch them now because a ‘dialogue’ is supposedly in process with the militants.

The government’s madressah reforms project has yet to take off because of the madressahs’ refusal to register with the authorities. Now many are said to have registered but only after the registration process was relaxed and the madressahs were not required to submit information they were reluctant to give such as the source of their funding, details of the courses taught and so on. The bulk of the funds earmarked by the government to bring madressahs into the mainstream has lapsed because they were rejected by these institutions as they did not want any controls.

Many of the madressahs have emerged as a major threat to the social and political integrity of Pakistan. Previously, they were irritants because of the parallel foreign policy they were running. Now they have grim social and sectarian implications.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group points out that most madressahs are linked to politico-religious parties whose agendas their students are mobilised to promote. Being involved in what the ICG report terms the “business of the fatwas”, the madressahs compete “to win over members of rival sects” leading to intense inter-madressah competition that “fuels socio-political conflicts even within families and neighbourhoods”.

They also disseminate hate material – written as well as oral, through the Friday sermons – with a no-holds barred approach.

The government must now seriously consider getting off the fence and taking on squarely the groups spreading sectarianism, violence and disaffection. By allowing them to grow because of his failure to act, President Musharraf has created a problem for himself as well as the country. He must be clear about this that terrorist groups fostered by those in power ultimately devour their patrons. Remember the end of the story of the Sikh rebel leader Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and the late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi.