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Pakistan's Wars Within Islam

Pakistan's wars on both its western and eastern borders as well as the war with itself, have been created by the very same institution - the intelligence agencies within the security establishment. It is this institution, which needs to be neutered politically in order to end these wars. The choices are not between supporting or making one interpretation of Islam over another, but between a democratic position and a militaristic one.


day on television, arguing that Islam did

Pakistan’s Wars Within Islam

not allow such practices.

Moderate/Hard Line Divide

S Akbar Zaidi As a consequence of taking such positions

Pakistan’s wars on both its western and eastern borders as well as the war with itself, have been created by the very same institution – the intelligence agencies within the security establishment. It is this institution, which needs to be neutered politically in order to end these wars. The choices are not between supporting or making one interpretation of Islam over another, but between a democratic position and a militaristic one.

S Akbar Zaidi ( is a social scientist based in Karachi.

bout two months ago, a video of a 17-year-old girl being publicly flogged by turbaned and bearded men from one of the many “Talibans” in Malakand division in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), was shown scores of times on the booming private television channel network across Pakistan. The girl had been accused of adultery and was being punished for the crime according to this group’s interpretation of the sharia.

Later, one of the spokesmen of this faction of the Taliban said on television that according to the Islamic practice of rajam the girl should actually have been stoned to death, but the Taliban were showing their leniency in this regard by letting her go lightly. While there was some debate concerning the authenticity of the video, and questions were asked about the whereabouts and punishment of the man she was said to have committed this indiscretion with, the visual image of a young girl screaming, created a huge response across wide, varied and diverse sections of society in Pakistan. While the response from women’s groups and “liberal” sections of civil society and some political parties, was anticipated and expected, what concerns me here is how Islamic parties, groups and organisations reacted.

Numerous demonstrations by Islamic parties and organisations were held all across Pakistan widely condemning this treatment of the young girl. Slogans were raised at these demonstrations that not only was this treatment un-Islamic, so too were the Taliban who had perpetrated this action. Even those Islamic organisations, which are normally considered fairly militant themselves, distanced themselves from the Taliban and stated that the latter was not following the principles and ways of the sharia. Ulema from different maslaks – groups in Islam or schools of thought, usually incorrectly translated as “sects” – had a field and making these arguments, militant Islamic parties and organisations were being called “liberal” or “moderate” by the very limited standards that govern the use of these words in the Pakistani media. Similarly, political parties accused of ethnic cleansing and mass killings as recently as 2007, were now being courted as being “secular”. Analysts and columnists began writing articles arguing that this divide between Pakistan becoming a moderate Muslim nation and it moving towards Talibanisation, was the only political question of our times worth discussing and addressing. Notwithstanding ideology, belief or political and cultural practices, suddenly, as long as one stood opposed to the Taliban, one was immediately considered to be secular, moderate and liberal. This became the main, if not only, criterion differentiating good Muslims from bad, good Pakistanis from bad.

The main group which goes by the name of the Taliban in the NWFP, and which has been the cause for much concern for many local, national and international actors, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was responsible for literally butchering and beheading men belonging to the Pakistani army and others accused of being notIslamic-enough, with such activities filmed and distributed via the internet across Pakistan. They dug out bodies from graves and hung these already-dead bodies in public squares in some towns in the Swat region of the NWFP to teach other Muslims a lesson. They have claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings all over Pakistan, at mosques and even at funeral processions, targeting Shias and other Sunni maslaks in Islam, and are said to have even killed Benazir Bhutto. They have demonstrated the most brutal and barbaric behaviour towards Muslims of differing faiths. Their latest high profile victim has been a well-known and well-respected scholar belonging to the Jama’at Ahle Sunnat in Lahore, who was killed in his seminary by a teenaged

June 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

Economic & Political Weekly


suicide bomber. This vocal scholar had supported the military action underway against the Taliban in the Malakand division and had issued a fatwa that suicide attacks were un-Islamic. He had organised an anti-Taliban seminar at his seminary just a few days before he was assassinated.

This assassination of the cleric from the Jama’at Ahle Sunnat in Lahore in June, once again, like the flogging video, brought widespread condemnation from a wide section of society, but particularly from Islamic groups and parties. Protests were held across Pakistan once again, and anti-Taliban slogans were raised and scholars and students insisted that the Taliban be held accountable for this crime. Once again, the credentials for being a moderate, secular, liberal and patriotic Muslim and Pakistani depended on the extent to which one went in condemning the barbaric atrocities of the Taliban. Other criteria, at this moment in time, were to be held in abeyance.

Are the Taliban “terro rists”, “anti-state”, “enemies of Islam” or, are they Muslim representatives within Islam, who interpret the sharia in a particular manner? Does the dominance of the Taliban not simply reflect the fact that Pakistan’s many Islams are at war with themselves?

These are difficult questions to address, as numerous issues and facts are clouded in great ambiguity. However, one thing is probably clear. This particular brand of Taliban which has been active in Pakistan in recent years is not rooted simply in interpretations of any “Deobandi” Islam, as some scholars claim. This is not simply a Deobandi/Barelvi war of ideology being fought with the help of suicide bombers and sophisticated weaponry, especially when it is mainly the Taliban who are doing the killing, with other maslaks simply on the receiving end. While some Taliban fighters may claim some sort of Deobandi tradition and allegiance, as I have argued recently (EPW, 9 May 2009), this belief in a continuation of a 19th century Deobandi tradition is deeply flawed. The ruptures and discontinuities which mark many religious movements in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, are far sharper and give rise to a very different set of analysis. While the last quarter of 19th century India was a field in which the then Ahle Sunnat va Jama’at and the Deobandi clerics disputed, debated, argued and fought over theological interpretation, the killings of Jama’at Ahle Sunnat scholars by the Taliban suggest that far more is at stake than simply theological disputation.

There is just too much evidence – academic, journalistic, diplomatic, and speculative – which clearly points to a key role of Pakistan’s military establishment in supporting and building up, individuals and groups, which go by the name of the Taliban in Pakistan. And, it is not just this group called the “Taliban”, which has found support from the Pakistani military, but countless other jihadi outfits have also been created to play some role in the military’s “Grand Plans” for the region as a whole. Without such support and protection, such leaders could not be able to move about and even live, with such impunity as they do. Journalistic accounts exposing the military’s armed “strategy” in the Swat and Malakand region point to this collusion, as do much other evidence. The military has created and protected so many of such militant Islamic leaders that it has probably lost count. The latest case of the leader of the TTP, Baitullah Mehsud, following the killing of the Lahore scholar is a case in point.

Role of Intelligence Agencies

If it is true, as the media reports claim, it seems that the military has finally decided to strike against Baitullah Mehsud, one of the many Taliban leaders the military helped create. The decision to withdraw support to Baitullah, it seems, rests on the premise that he has begun to interfere too much, and too randomly and independently, in Pakistan’s Islamic wars and is now a threat to Pakistan itself. Yet, just as Baitullah was propped up some years ago, some new anti-Baitullah leaders, also belonging to the Mehsud tribe, have appeared to give exclusive interviews on private channels condemning Baitullah. Baitullah Mehsud is now being portrayed not so much as an anti-Islamic militant, but as an agent of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and of India. The new anti-Taliban offensive seems to be an anti-India offensive, where a great deal of information and speculation has been provided regarding India’s Afghanistan operations. The number of embassies and consulates, the training of the Afghan police, a road being built through Iran to the Persian Gulf, and numerous other pieces of evidence are all being cited as proof of India’s aspirations to undermine Pakistan. The claim that Baitullah Mehsud is being funded by India, opens up another anti-India front, this time on Pakistan’s western borders.

The “sectarianism” of the 1990s when the Shias and Sunnis were militantly exterminating each other, was said to be masterminded by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. Similarly, the differences between the Jama’at Ahle Sunnat, Shia and other maslaks, notably the Deobandi and the Saudi Arabian-sponsored Wahabi, have been manipulated to result in widespread terrorism and killings in Pakistan in recent months. While there have always been differences and divisions within Islam with its supposedly 73 sects/maslaks, the element, extent and order of militancy, murder and mayhem, which now defines Pakistan’s Islam, could not have progressed to this scale without support and funding from state agencies. It should be amply clear that these are not theological niceties being contested in seminaries.

Pakistan’s wars on both its western borders and its eastern one, as well as Pakistan’s war with itself, have been created by the very same institution. It is this institution, which needs to be neutered politically in order to end these wars. Hence, the choices are not between one interpretation of Islam and another, but between a democratic position and a militaristic one. For political parties and organisations to be called “liberal”, “moderate” or “secular”, must necessarily require more stringent standards than simply taking an anti-Taliban position. An anti-Taliban position must necessarily be an anti-military and pro-democracy one, not one which s implistically distinguishes between moderate and hard line Islam.

available at

Akshara-The Executive Partner

8/3/1089, Plot No 46, Srinagar Colony Hyderabad 500 034 Andhra Pradesh Ph: 23736262

Economic & Political Weekly

June 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

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