Pakistan: The threat of religious fundamentalism

October 31, 2009

Once again Pakistan has become the focus of world attention. Every day there is news about the latest suicide attack or military operation, with killings, injuries and displaced communities.

Recently, schools were ordered closed for more than a week. Even children talk about death and suicide attacks.

With over 125 police checkpoints in Islamabad, it has become a fortress city. Lahore and other large cities suffer the same fate: there are police road blockades everywhere.

After each terrorist attack, authorities issue another security high alert and set up more barriers. How ironic that, until recently, officials and the media described these "terrorists" as mujahideen ("freedom fighters") fighting for an Islamic world.

Under immense pressure from US President Barack Obama's administration, the Pakistani government has launched military operations across the country. This has led to an unprecedented wave of killings, with hundreds of thousands more driven from their homes.

Pushed out of Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, religious fanatics from different nationalities have found refuge in Pakistan. They have two aims: to make Pakistan more Islamic and teach the government a lesson for its ties to US imperialism.

The religious fanatics believe in physically eliminating political opponents. Although they posture as anti-imperialist, they are not a progressive force.

They are an extreme right-wing force that wants to turn back the clock of the history.

Religion and the state

Pakistan is officially the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Religion is part and parcel of the state.

The constitution and judiciary are full of Islamic demagogy. Most of the education syllabus is also coloured with Islamic ideology; even scientific explanations somehow manage to drag in religion.

Religion has become a way of life. Every donation to charity ends up in the coffers of the religious institutions.

Pakistan was intended to be a secular Muslim state. When the state was formed in 1947, the population was not fundamentalist.

But as time went on, Pakistan adopted an Islamic ideology more favourable to the fanatics.

When Russia invaded Afghanistan at the end of the 1970s, Washington decided to develop an indigenous counter force.

To fight "communism" in Afghanistan, Washington worked closely with Pakistan's military dictator, General Zia ul Haq, and the Pakistani intelligence, the Inter-Services intelligence (ISI).

The US may have no longer been interested in these guerillas after the Soviet retreat in 1987, but the ISI found them useful in its conflict with India over Kashmir.

Clinton admits US role

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton told a US Congressional sub-committee in April about the US role in promoting the fundamentalists: "It was President Reagan in partnership with Congress led by Democrats who said, you know what it sounds like a pretty good idea ... let's deal with the ISI and the Pakistan military and let's go recruit these mujahideen.

"Here is a very strong argument ... it wasn't a bad investment to end the Soviet Union but let's be careful with what we sow, because we will harvest."

Numerous Pakistani governments were ready to do whatever the US wanted out of sheer financial greed.

Since 1978 the different governments have all been close US allies. This includes 20 years of military dictatorship under Zia (1977-1988) and General Pervez Musharaf (1999-2008).

Various Pakistani governments helped the religious fanatics establish religious educational institutions (madrasas) that have changed the country's religious culture.

These schools mushroomed under the Zia dictatorship. There are now religious schools throughout Pakistan.

The madrasas were marketed as offering a free education with religious teachings. The failure of the government to provide free public education paved the way for their progress.

Pakistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. Only about half of Pakistanis can read and write, far below other countries with a similar per-capita income, such as Vietnam.

The enrolment of girls is among the lowest in the world, lagging behind Ethiopia and Yemen.

The influence of the madrasas is increased by the inadequacy of public education. These schools are breeding grounds for religious fundamentalism.

More than 15,000 registered religious seminaries cater to more than 1.5 million students. Before 2002, the religious affairs ministry said there were 6000 registered madrasas.

After 9/11, the religious fanatics who left Afghanistan came to Pakistan and were able to establish more madrasas.

At this time, Musharaf was a partner in the "alliance against terrorism". He was manipulating both the fanatics and the imperialists.

The partnership of the religious fanatics with US and Pakistani intelligence agencies went unchecked until 9/11. Then the whole scenario shifted.

The mujahideen were labeled terrorists and the US sought a military solution to their growth.

This growth was not only the result of the US and Pakistani support, but also the complete failure of Pakistan's civilian and military governments to solve the basic problems of the working class and other sectors.

Successive regimes have failed to end the grip of feudalism, the exploitation by Pakistani capitalists and their humiliating treatment of workers and farmers, the repression of smaller nationalities and the theft of their natural resources.

Democratic failure

The Pakistani ruling class has failed miserably to bring about democratic norms.

The present civil government of the Pakistan People's Party has been contradictory in dealing with religious fanatics. In the Swat area, it went from peace talks to agreements with the fanatics to establish Islamic courts.

The religious forces were decisively defeated during the 2008 general elections. In the 2002 general elections, they received 15% of the vote, but in 2008 got less than 3%.

But instead of mass mobilisations to confront religious fundamentalism, the PPP regime opted for negotiations. This gave the fanatics an incentive to go further: they demanded sharia laws in the Malakand division.

This was accepted and an agreement signed.

This encouraged the fundamentalists to go even further in their attempt to control more areas, appearing close to Islamabad.

Panicked, the regime, with full US support, carried out a full military operation in the Malakand division in June. The result was more than 3.5 million internally displaced people and more than 5000 deaths.

The government claimed victory, but it was only a temporary retreat of the fanatics, who were able to save their infrastructure.

The "victory" celebrations had not lasted even one month before the fanatics attacked the military's general headquarters, the famous GHQ, along with several police training centres in different parts of the country in October.

Many Pakistani liberals have supported the military actions against the fanatics, arguing there is no alternative. But no military solution can eliminate the religious fundamentalists.

This is clear in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan.

The religious fundamentalists are using the tactics of urban terrorism. This cannot be eliminated by invading areas considered to be under fundamentalists' control.

Military actions in Malakand division and Waziristan have just pushed the fanatics to other areas.

Failure of 'short term' strategies

A military solution has been presented as an immediate step to an ultimate, lasting solution to fight against fundamentalism.

This has been presented as short-term and long-term strategies. For many liberals, a military solution is a short-term strategy, while the long-term strategy requires reforms and more development.

But the military strategy will achieve nothing beyond pleasing US imperialism.

For the fight against religious fanatics to advance, it has to start with the political will to separate religion from the state.

Religion cannot become the basis of a nation. Pakistani "two nation" theories were torn apart by the struggles of the '60s and '70s when an independent Bangladesh came into existence.

Now a more severe crisis is erupting in Baluchistan along similar lines. There is a strong movement developing that calls for the independence of Baluchistan.

A program to fight the religious fundamentalists has to combine dealing with the suicide attacks and curbing the activities of the fascist forces from their strongholds along with an overall plan of action in economic, political and social fields.

This should include the nationalisation of madrasas and retraining of teachers. It should include an immediate rise in workers' pay in the private and public sector to at least 12,000 rupees (about $150) a month.

All discriminatory laws must go. All citizens should enjoy equal constitutional status. There are several laws that now make religious minorities second-rate citizens.

The government should commit to fully back local resistance to the religious fanatics. Civil society organisations in the stronghold of the religious fundamentalists should be given full backing by the state so they can function.

The state must help to strengthen and sustain the local defence committees to fight the religious fanatics.

Trade union rights must be fully restored in the public and private sector with full freedom of speech and assembly.

Most discriminatory laws passed under military dictatorships are still intact, including blasphemy laws. The government has no plan to do away with them. Civil society organisations must demand government action to restore rights.

The religious fundamentalists organise internationally. A fight against them has to be organised at that same level.

The US government's "war on terror" is fuelling more religious fundamentalism. It is seen as a war on Muslims.

The occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan by the imperialist forces are providing the religious fanatics with a political justification for their terrorist activities. These occupations must end.

We must oppose occupations and religious fundamentalism. There should be no support for one against the other. The fight between the religious fundamentalists and the imperialists is a fight between bulls.

There is not much to gain by siding with one against the other. Rather, we need to end the fight and open the space to create an alternative system.

[Farooq Tariq is a spokesperson for the Labour Party Pakistan.]

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