Friday, January 2, 2015
PAKISTAN authorities seem to have decided that enough is enough, and it is time to weed out the extremists that have been running a reign of terror so long in its North West corner. The government and its powerful army have drawn a twenty-point programme to stop the cancer of extremism and religious militancy that in last ten years claimed more than fifty thousand people, the last being the most senseless and mindless killing of one hundred fifty children. The steps include creating a para-military force to combat the extremists, capital punishment of persons charged with extremist violence, and monitoring and regulating funding sources of the religious institutions. We can only hope that this resolve of Pakistan is for real, and it will not go the way of past such resolves of Pakistan authorities that were more known for the rhetoric than for real action.
One wishes that this will to eradicate the evil that has spawned over the last two decades had descended on Pakistan years ago. This would have saved the country thousands of lives, endless amount of financial resources, and above all the image as an intolerant and bigoted society. Unfortunately, it was not to be so; because the powers that are today declaring war on the militants are the same who had once nurtured them and helped grow the monsters they are today.
Birth of the religious extremists or the jihadists (as they call themselves) in Pakistan is no accident. This was by design, with direct help of the powers that be in Pakistan, in particular the army that had always been the king maker of the country. The midwife of religious extremism was General Ziaul Huq, the army general who commandeered his way to presidency and later became the rallying point of the West to wage war against Soviet aggression in Afghanistan. He adroitly used the Western powers' reliance on him to wage this war with locally recruited guerilla forces, motivating them with Islamic zeal to fight a communist regime. With abundant resources showered on him by the West, Ziaul Huq, himself a firebrand Islamist, created seminaries all over the country that would turn out to be recruitment centres of religious militants who would initially fight the soviets as Mujahids (freedom fighters) but later form the seed for the Taliban forces. The Talibans of Afghanistan were the brain child of Pakistan's formidable army intelligence, who ironically would later also have a fraternity in Pakistan imbued with similar ideals.
Taliban-Pakistan army axis would have gone on merrily had it not been for the tragedy of September 11 that exposed the Taliban's shelter to the main perpetrators of the tragedy. Pakistan authorities had to renounce their liaison with the Taliban under duress and helped support US war in Afghanistan to topple them. But in the change of guards, the Taliban simply blended and scattered all over, including slipping into Pakistan where they joined hands with their fellow sympathisers and blood brothers. Although this happened primarily in the territory adjoining Afghanistan, their ideological supporters were spread out all over Pakistan. And these supporters would also be within the army and its powerful intelligence branch.
Two powerful examples of such support were the firebrand imam of Islamabad Lal Masjid, Abdul Aziz, and the leader of Pakistan Taliban Fazlullah. Abdul Aziz, who was a protégé of General Ziaul Huq, preached his bigoted religious philosophy and intolerance day after day for decades, vowing to establish his brand of religious ideals in the country defying the government. He trained his students inside the mosque in handling small arms, and at one stage turned the mosque into a fort when police tried to stop the militant students from attacking them. The mosque would later turn into a battle ground, leading to the deaths of many civilians. The fortress of extremist militants that grew under the nose of Pakistan's powerful military intelligence was broken for the time being, but its main leader Abdul Aziz continued to roam free later and preach his violent philosophy.
Fazlullah, a self-declared leader of Pakistani Taliban, similarly grew his forces under the very eyes of Pakistani authorities. With the support of more than 4,500 militants, by late October 2007 Fazlullah had established a “parallel government” in 59 villages in Swat Valley by starting Islamic courts to enforce sharia. For nearly a year he ruled without any nudge from the central authorities. The Pakistan authorities acted only after goading from the US and Fazlullah had fled the area. But he continued his recruitment mission of diehard suicide bombers who would wreak havoc in various parts of Pakistan. The latest carnage in Peshawar that took lives of 150 innocent school children was also reportedly masterminded by him.
There are many other such militant leaders who are heading one or the other faction of Pakistan Taliban, including Baitullah Meshud, the self-declared ruler of South Waziristan (reportedly killed recently by US drone attack), Samiul Huq (spiritual guide of Meshud), Sheikh Haqqani (Deputy Leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban), etc., who continue to operate in Pakistan. They have been able to operate and guide their forces under the nose of Pakistan authorities either because the authorities have never shown any seriousness to apprehend them or they connive at their presence. This is also largely because the king makers of Pakistan who created the Frankenstein of religious zealots to start with used them as pawns in the past to change power play in Pakistan suiting their objectives. That is why, even though the so-called war against terrorism began in Pakistan more than a decade ago, it never succeeded in weeding out the extremists from the soil of the country.
There may be a lot skepticism about this latest phase of war against religious extremism in Pakistan, but one thing is certain; a second failure will not only pave the way for greater uncertainty about stability of Pakistan, but also peace in the sub-continent. What is spawned in Pakistan can affect and will affect the rest of the region. It is in the interest of us all in the region that this time Pakistan means serious business and the country's establishment, including the powerful military, bring this evil to an end.
On December 16, the 145 victims of the Army Public School attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, bore the burden of their nation’s failures and paid for them with their lives. The survivors that day witnessed the unthinkable, and lost their childhoods. I went to school in Pakistan too, but it was a different country, one where children could still be children. Yet the seeds of today’s Pakistan had already been sown by the time I was in elementary school. This was the end of General Zia’s time—a man who ruthlessly Islamized the country beyond recognition, changing laws and curricula, restricting freedoms, and transforming society.
After the horror in Peshawar, we have seen Pakistanis unite, at least for now—against the Taliban (TTP), who took responsibility for the attack in Peshawar, and who have killed tens of thousands of their fellow citizens over the last decade. The country is also united against Taliban apologists, such as the radical cleric Abdul Aziz of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, who refused to condemn the TTP until forced by days of protest to do so. But until Peshawar, Pakistan’s media, its leaders, and ordinary citizens shied away from naming terrorists and terrorist groups, refused to acknowledge their identity, and instead pointed fingers at the U.S. and India for creating havoc in the country. This obfuscation and denial has allowed militants to garner sympathy, to survive, and to operate freely.
For the last year and a half, with support from a U.S. Institute of Peace research grant, I have visited public and private schools following the official curriculum in Pakistan, attending classes and talking with high school students and teachers. I asked students about what they thought was causing terrorism in Pakistan. The majority of them said that “foreign influences”—the United States and India, and sometimes Israel—were responsible. Some of these students gave a straight up conspiracy theory version of this argument, that these countries wanted to destroy Pakistan, and so they trained or funded or even sent terrorists into Pakistan. They said that it was impossible that Muslims could be responsible for killing other Muslims. Others argued that terrorists engaged in attacks in retaliation for Pakistan having helped the U.S. in “America’s war”—in Afghanistan—or that they undertook terrorist attacks in response to U.S. drone strikes and involvement in Pakistan.
A smaller set of students argued that the terrorists want to implement Islam in Pakistan, that the country is on the wrong, un-Islamic path now—thus giving a religion-based justification for militant behavior.
These aren’t madrassa students. I visited public and private schools, the kind that reach a majority of Pakistan’s population. This isn’t down to illiteracy either—these students are in high school. What drives them to think this way? It is easy to blame Pakistan’s media, because it often spouts these same conspiracy theories. But the blame rests with Pakistan’s curriculum, society, and state. And, yes, the media.
For the last 35 years, Pakistan’s official curriculum has been an amalgam of religious dogma, historical half-truths, blatant lies, biases, and conspiracy theories. The official textbooks teach children that Pakistan’s “ideology” is Islam; that its foreign policy is ideological—its guiding principle is friendship with the Muslim world; that various other religions and nations are “evil” and “the enemy”—especially India and the Hindus, but these words are also used for Jewish people and Israel. A number of these textbooks glorify armed jihad, or struggle, against non-Muslims. The textbooks depict major historical events as the results of conspiracies—of Hindus and the British against Muslims in colonial India, rendering Pakistan’s independence necessary; and of the “secret arrangement of big powers” that led to the breaking up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. The West is described as having “two-faced” characters, and the United States is portrayed as having betrayed Pakistan at key points in its history.
Teaching revolves around rote memorization—line by line, page by page—and the sole purpose of classes is to ensure rote learning for board exams, where the material is expected to be regurgitated verbatim. There is no room for questioning the textbooks, no discussion in class, no mention of good versus bad sources of information, no alternate views presented. It’s all black and white: Muslims and Pakistan are “good” and the rest of the world is not, and they are out to get us. Little wonder, then, that Pakistanis find it tough to believe the Taliban come from among them and are Muslims.
But for the origin of the specific conspiracy theories about the Taliban, we need look no further than elements of the Pakistani state and radical clerics. They function as “conspiracy entrepreneurs”—a paper by Sunstein and Vermeule sets up a useful framework for thinking about this—who use these theories to divert attention from their internal failings and pin blame elsewhere. Pointing the finger at India gives sustenance to Pakistan’s military, whose power depends on the conflict with India.
Pakistanis rely on the opinions of those in positions of authority to form their own—partly because of the country’s hierarchical society and culture, and partly because they are never taught how to seek and evaluate evidence in school—leading to these theories being accepted and then spreading quickly in “informational cascades”.
The outrage sparked by Peshawar has finally seen the government take an aggressive stance against the Taliban, with a force that has been lacking before. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has announced that military courts will be set up to deal with terrorism cases. There is finally some talk about reclaiming the narrative from Taliban apologists—Pakistan’s interior minister Chaudhry Nisar asked the media not to give airtime to Taliban sympathizers—and the need for madrassa reform. But we have heard nothing about the need for curriculum reform in eliminating the roots of our national sense of denial and sympathy for militants.
That is unsurprising. In part, this is because a decentralization law passed in 2010 saw the federal government delegate curriculum formation to the provinces. In fact, in one province, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, marginal curriculum improvements made over the past few years are currently being reversed under pressure from Islamist parties in the province, and theword jihad is being reintroduced in their textbooks. In part, it’s because the government just doesn’t get the need for such reform. We have an entire generation of policymakers schooled in this system who don’t realize there’s anything wrong with it, and who systematically push back against reform.
But despite the impediments, curriculum reform is urgent. With critical thinking capabilities and a reformed curriculum, when faced with conspiracy entrepreneurs like the terrorist Hafiz Saeed, who has blamed the Peshawar attacks on India, the Pakistani public would be equipped to counter their theories.
So it is time for Pakistan to rewrite its textbooks to give its citizens a real, complete picture of history—no conspiracies attached; to purge religious dogma and hatred toward others; to introduce critical thinking in the curriculum; and to encourage global citizenship. This won’t be easy. Islamic parties will protest, but the government must ignore them. Teachers will need to be reeducated and retrained, and the results will be visible only in the long term. But that is the only way to achieve a Pakistan for the next generation that is even safer than the one where I went to school.