Misuse of faith

By Zubeida Mustafa

A RECENTLY launched collection of Hamza Alavi’s papers and speeches should be a timely reminder to us about the role that faith has come to play in Pakistan’s politics. Translated into Urdu by Dr Riaz Ahmad Shaikh (dean of Social Sciences, Szabist), Tashkeel-i-Pakistan: Mazhab aur Secularism leaves no one in doubt about the misuse of religion by our leaders to gain advantages in public life at the expense of the people’s well-being and the national interest.

Hamza Alavi, who was a Marxist scholar recognised in world academia, firmly believed that the founder of this country never sought to set up a theocratic state. Yet that is the direction in which Pakistan appears to be heading.

Much has been written and said about the exploitation of religion in the country to marginalise the minority communities and the non-mainstream Muslim sects. Religion has also been misused to try and suppress the freedom of expression and to unleash violence and extremism in order to concentrate influence — and ultimately power —in the hands of a right-wing, religious oligarchy.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of this phenomenon has been the use of faith in our foreign, defence and strategic policies. Religious symbolism was employed from the start in the security establishment. Initially, it was more to mobilise the soldiers, so no one thought twice about the use of religious slogans such as ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ and titles such as Nishan-i-Haider. But then we went much further. The word ‘jihad’ was also used by the security establishment to justify action that may not be universally acceptable in the eyes of modern-day international law.

Extremism has opened a Pandora’s box. How will it be checked?

The rise of Islamist extremism that has spawned myriads of militant groups in the Middle East and South Asia was initially facilitated by the introduction of rigid interpretations of faith in public life. With extremism opening a Pandora’s box, it is difficult to see how such misuse will ever be checked.

What is worrying is that this approach was not only used to try and gain our own strategic goals and foreign policy objectives. Successive governments also allowed outsiders to use religion on our behalf. Remember how we fought Charlie Wilson’s war in Afghanistan as proxies for the US dubbing the guerillas as “freedom fighters” engaged in jihad. Now we know better — as has been recounted by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s security adviser — that the ‘godless’ Russians were lured into Afghanistan by the Carter administration. Gulbadin Hekmatyar and colleagues were mobilised in Afghanistan in July 1979. The use of the religion card was evident to evoke a military response from the Soviets in December 1979. That was to trap the Russians in their Afghan ‘Vietnam’.

This approach was also formerly seen in India-held Kashmir. The various lashkars that roamed freely in this region were said to be the creation of our security establishment, and held up as our ‘strategic assets’. The aura of faith that surrounded them gave them extraordinary protection especially in the public perception. So powerful had they become that our foreign policy was seen as being held hostage to their wishes.

Against this backdrop, the situation has now taken a serious turn with the entry of Donald Trump in the White House and his announcement of a new South Asian strategy in August. A key feature of this new policy was spelt out by Trump as, “Pakistan will have to stop providing safe-haven for terrorists. … That must change immediately.”

We have not been told about the tactic the US plans to employ to achieve this end. Given Mr Trump’s performance, it would be unwise to believe that it will be business as usual. No official announcement has been made about the outcome of the American secretary of state’s visit to Pakistan apart from the outpouring of scorn from our leaders.

It is time we were told about what Mr Rex Tillerson had to say apart from his ‘expectation’ that the 75 ‘terrorists’ whose names were given to Pakistan should be handed over to the US or information about their whereabouts be provided. How will the security establishment react to this demand?

In this context the New York Time’s report of Oct 17 carries certain implications. According to the NYT the US had planned to send in SEALs to rescue the American/Canadian couple kidnapped by the Haqqani network four years ago. The family had been sighted by US drones. Reportedly, Pakistan went into action to recover the hostages when Washington gave the message, “Resolve this or the United States will.”

Is this report to be believed? One cannot help but recall the US helicopter operation of 2011 that saw SEALs entering Pakistan territory to kill Osama bin Laden? Are similar incursions to be expected to destroy the alleged safe havens set up in the name of religion?

Source: Dawn