Vinod Mubayi


Over the last year, the maulavis controlling the Lal Masjid, located in a posh area of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, and the students of its various Jamias and madrasas had begun to act as a private religious police force enforcing their own brand of sharia law in the capital. Many of their actions were ignored or tolerated by the Pakistan government, which was itself facing considerable public protest over a completely different issue – the removal of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, on the orders of President Musharraf. 


However, from the government’s standpoint, the last straw appears to have been the kidnapping, by female students of the Jamia Hafsa, of six women, all Chinese nationals, from an acupuncture clinic that the Masjid militants said was a brothel.  Reportedly, the protests of the Chinese government, Pakistan’s close ally for over 40 years, finally goaded the authorities into the assault on the mosque after several weeks of fruitless negotiation for a peaceful surrender.


The assault on the mosque is said to have resulted in over a 100 deaths, including its self-styled leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, and scores of women and children, who were students. One opinion expressed after the event was that the fundamentalists inside the mosque were motivated by a just cause, opposing imperialism, even though their methods were medieval and smacked of desperation. A corollary to this argument is that Musharraf’s decision to attack the mosque was at the behest of the Americans. While the Americans may have applauded the action, Musharraf didn’t need their urging to do what he did.  No state could have tolerated any further what the Masjid or the various Jamias it controlled were doing like “arresting” Chinese nationals, threatening to throw acid on the faces of women without burqas, etc.


However, whether Islamic fundamentalism is basically anti-imperialist is a question that needs further discussion.  No doubt some Islamic fundamentalists at the present time are on a collision course with U.S. imperialism.  Objectively, one may classify the fundamentalists into two main groups, those who are ruling states (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Yemen, many elements of the current Afghan regime, and perhaps some others) and the second the non- (or anti-) state groups, like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and others. (Some may like to put Iran in the first group, but it may be better to treat it as sui generis).  The first group is either allied with or close to the U.S. It is the second group that is currently in a violent antagonistic confrontation with imperialism. In this regard, Pakistan, however, presents an interesting case study.


Anti-Americanism in Pakistan has a long history going back to the beginnings of military dictatorship when it was largely carried out by the secular/left forces within Pakistan.  This was considerably heightened during dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s regime when widespread Islamization of the country’s polity occurred. In this period, the imperialists, the fundamentalists and the military dictator were all on the same page.  In fact, it is well known that Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan basically have been creatures of or bolstered by the military, which has ruled Pakistan for most of its existence. In all the free elections held in Pakistan, the fundamentalist parties used to get barely a few percent of the vote; it was only in the last election that a coalition of fundamentalist groups was able to form a government in one province, the NWFP, bordering Afghanistan, and that also with the support of the military.  The Pakistan military remains the supreme political and economic power in the country. A student of Pakistan’s military, Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa has written “The military is … into everything from fertilizer, sugar factories, insurance, transportation, agriculture, and cargo handling. The military’s empire is worth billions of dollars but it is run with virtually no transparency or accountability.” Regardless of what happens to Musharraf and his quest for retaining both military and political power, the military as an institution, and one in which the U.S. has had historically a considerable involvement and investment, is not likely to abandon its leading role anytime soon.


The Pakistan military created the Taliban and many in the ISI no doubt still harbor a fondness for it and afford it some measure of shelter and protection. But the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the installation of a client regime there have created a piquant situation for both the Pakistani Islamic fundamentalists and the ruling military. The artificial nature of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan that was created during the British Raj creates a situation where substantial numbers of close relatives of the people living east of the Durand line are being killed by U.S. (and NATO) military actions in Afghanistan and this fuels rage and unrest in Pakistan especially among its Pashto-speaking communities.  How Musharraf and the Army can resolve their fence straddling between the U.S. on one side and the fundamentalist groups on the other remains to be seen. The recent judgment of the Supreme Court defying Musharraf and reinstating Chief Justice Chaudhry has added another twist to the situation.  Whether democratic parties can take advantage of this opening is a matter of speculation.


Meanwhile the Glasgow affair has created another occasion for commentary on Islam as a vehicle for amplifying the anti-Western, anti-modernity impulses amongst Muslims that much of the western media nowadays assumes is part of their cultural DNA. Islam, in this view, is unique among the world’s major religions in seeking exclusive political power, in conflating the spiritual and temporal domains, and in seeking to establish a new caliphate on the lines of the now vanished Ottoman, Abbasid, and Umayyad empires of earlier centuries. No doubt some salafists have these dreams and probably share them on the Internet. 


But what is the reality?  The most populous Muslim country in the world is Indonesia.  It has had its share of political trauma, the slaughter of a million leftists in 1965 followed by 30 years of military dictatorship, but political Islam is a minor element in the country where Islam manages to co-exist quite reasonably with the Hindus in Bali, and assorted Buddhists and animists on other islands.  The second most populous Muslim country is either India or Pakistan, depending on who is counting and when. Pakistan has been discussed above. As far as India is concerned, with the exception of the secessionist political movement in Kashmir, Indian Muslims, by and large, have been mostly victims in so-called communal riots, terrorized and frequently killed, as in the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, by aggressive Hindu forces belonging to the Sangh Parivar. Whatever terrorist actions have been carried out by Muslim groups or individuals in India has been mostly reactive and retaliatory like the bomb blasts in Bombay in 1993 that were a response to the killings of Muslims after the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the suburban train blasts last year in response to the Gujarat pogrom.  These actions were both self-defeating and irrational from the standpoint of the vast majority of the Muslims in India, but blind retaliation actuated by revenge is rarely rational. In terms of numbers, terrorist acts by Muslims in India are a small fraction of similar acts carried out by the many ethnic, separatist groups in India’s north-east region, Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, etc.  (To be fair to the assorted “liberation fronts” functioning in that region, the many terrorist acts that they are accused of committing are probably a reaction to the excesses of the Indian Army, which has been exercising a repressive role in that area for almost 60 years). However, Assamese terrorism is a brand with a very limited unlike Islamic terrorism, which has instant worldwide recognition  


Another large Muslim country is Turkey, home of the former Ottoman Empire, which also presents an interesting case study.  After almost 70 years of fiercely secular rule, to an extent which would be unheard of in a country like India (like forbidding women to cover their heads in public buildings), a moderate Islamic party has been ruling for a few years and recently won again in the general elections.  What this party or any similar organization can do in Turkey, a NATO ally, is limited by both external and internal factors like Turkey’s desire to join the European Union and the ever-present threat of the Army to preserve Ataturk’s secular traditions, by force if necessary.


The threat posed by fundamentalist Islam highlighted incessantly by the Western media emanates in large measure from the disaffected, disenfranchised, oppressed and repressed populations in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Afghanistan and from a small fraction of Muslim immigrants living in Europe and North America who for one reason or another (identity crisis, racism, etc.) have come under the sway of fundamentalism.  A great deal of this rage is reactive; over 50 years ago, the struggles led by left nationalist and socialist liberation groups were able to channel this rage into the anti-colonial upsurge that ousted centuries-old western imperialism and colonialism.  However, it was the failure of the same liberation groups to ultimately create viable democratic societies and economies, and their penchant for appropriation and violent suppression of all democratic opposition, including religiously based parties that has created the situation that exists today. Elections in these countries became a joke, whenever they were even held.  If the opposition by some chance happened to win, as in Algeria, the vote was canceled. In Egypt, candidates who happen to belong to front parties of the Muslim Brotherhood or even the non-religious opposition parties are summarily excluded from the ballot.  In monarchies, like Saudi Arabia or Jordan, democracy is manifested by its absence.  Imperialism, of course, generally sides with and supports the ruling elites of these countries.


Imperial aggrandizement, focused on the oil resources of the region, and the long-lasting Israeli occupation has greatly magnified the reactive rage of the population as has, more recently, the aggressive war in Iraq.  The Global War On Terror (GWOT) could more accurately be termed the Global War Of Terror, a terror exercised by the sole superpower, which now has military bases, armed forces, or similar forms of military intervention in almost a 100 countries worldwide.  If this situation continues, militant Islam is sure to continue to find new recruits, unless of course other forms of opposition emerge and take root as happened with anti-colonial struggles in the 20th century.

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