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Are These Regimes Victims of Religious Extremism? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Pakistan is an Islamic state but when it was established in 1947, it never crossed Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s mind that it would become a religious state.

Jinnah was part of the Ismaili community. He was one of the Muslim leaders close to [Mahatma] Gandhi during the Indian struggle against colonialism. By separating religion from politics, Gandhi had sought to convince Jinnah to keep the Muslims in India after independence. However, coexistence was impossible between a Hindu majority that sanctifies the cow and an Islamic minority that eats it.

Partition was painful as millions of Hindus and Muslims were forced out of their homes. They immigrated in large groups and whenever they met en route, they slaughtered each other. Over two million Muslims and Hindus died as a result of these massacres. Arab liberalism at that time was too audacious to condemn the partition publicly. The Egyptian Wafd party leader Mustafa Nahas Pasha opposed the use of religion as a pretext to divide India and was indeed correct to do so: Religion has not been a uniting factor in Pakistan, in fact Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan and ethnic disputes are at their worst despite the religious intensity.

India has succeeded where Pakistan failed. The Indian democracy has contained regional and religious disputes, despite their anarchy, with much pain but little bloodshed. There are 150 million Muslims in India who do not think about immigrating to Pakistan. Today’s Pakistan is not that of Jinnah or the early pioneers; rather it is the Pakistan of a religious and military extremist general called Muhammad Zia ul Haq. The general emerged at a time when America drew the religious sword in the Cold War. The interests of America and the General came together in undermining Ali Bhutto’s liberal policy inside Pakistan and his neutral policy internationally. Zia ul Haq was disloyal. Bhutto overlooked his colleagues who were generals and appointed him as chief of staff yet before 1979 was even over, Bhutto was hanged by the general.

In order to adapt to the conditions of America in Asia, Zia ul Haq resorted to relying upon the “madrassas” to graduate the “jihadists” who had been engaged in America’s war against the Russians in Afghanistan, including the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Zia ul Haq raised the number of these schools from hundreds to several thousands. Today, in the era of General Musharraf the number of these schools is estimated between 15,000 and 25,000 and their graduates number approximately one million imams, preachers and “jihadists”.

Pakistani religious schools were completely cut off from that age. Education, clothes, accommodation and books were free but there was no music, no sports, no girls, no photos and no study of social and economic sciences. Even the study of medicine was confined to the study of old Islamic medicine. The focus was memorizing the Holy Quran without explanation or interpretation and the non-critical study of historical military situations. All of this takes place in the complete absence of the state school.

Zia ul Haq died in a mysterious helicopter crash in 1988. His death helped America to rid itself of the “jihadist” sword that was no longer needed. Meanwhile, Mikhail Gorbachev’s empire was crumbling. In the aftermath of the Cold War, Clinton’s America was in need to establish liberal democracy in both the Arab and Muslim worlds, especially with the beginning of the conflict between the West and “jihadist” Islam.

Unfortunately, neither Benazir Bhutto’s liberalism nor Nawaz Sharif’s moderation succeeded in imbedding itself in Pakistan in the 1990s due to many factors such as maladministration and corruption and most notably because Zia ul Haq’s ideology was established in the heart of society and both the military and intelligence institutions. The military has returned to the game of politicizing religion and sweet talking religious and “jihadist” parties and organizations including the Taliban and “Al Qaeda”.

When the regime was no longer able to pacify the wave of religious extremism, it decided to ride the wave itself by demonstrating piety. Musharraf formed a religious party and entered an alliance with other religious parties. Even Benazir Bhutto was forced to add a religious edge to the liberalism of Oxford and Harvard. As for Nawaz Sharif, he Islamized his party in advance.

Contrary to popular belief, I say that Al Qaeda does not benefit much from the pupils of madrassas. Yes, these schools have prepared a suitable environment in which to breed religious extremism, but Al Qaeda chose to fight the “kafir” [infidel] West and the “ignorant” Muslim society with a more complicated, cultured and well-educated young generation! Both Bin Laden and Muhammad Ata are engineers and both Ayman al Zawahiri and Ziad Jarrah are doctors. They however are not religious, steadfast in prayer and fasting and in the cases of Bin Laden and al Zawahiri, they do not have deep knowledge of the religious sciences.

Bush’s America, embroiled in a failing war against terrorism, is reaping what the America of Carter and Reagan had sown. Today it is fighting the “jihadism” that it once approved and financed. When America finally woke up to what it had done, it attempted to rescue the regime of its ally, Musharraf, by injecting it with Benazir Bhutto’s liberalism in order to gain more popularity and urge him to continue his defeatist war against Al Qaeda and the jihadist organizations that are scattered particularly on the borders with Afghanistan.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan only to be surprised by the stubborn general’s declaration of a state of emergency under the pretense of security and combating terrorism. Instead of arresting and pursuing the “jihadists” he had Bhutto’s supporters and the liberals arrested.

Thus, this courageous woman found herself under siege from her intelligence opponents in Musharraf’s regime and the “jihadist” opponents who eventually claimed her life. Bhutto was sentenced to capital punishment. Had she escaped this attempt, she would have not escaped the others. Her assassination, irrespective of its circumstances, was an embarrassment to Bush’s America that deceived her and pushed her towards this upheaval before it could convince the general to form an alliance with her.

Is there a lesson to be learnt from the disaster of conformity with jihadists and extremists by Arab regimes?

Since the 1970s, in an attempt to dry out Arab nationalism and to exploit non-democracy, the Arab regime has followed in the footsteps of the Pakistani regime: It embraced the politicized “brotherhood” without calling for it to renounce its religious extremism and political dogmatism. More violent and extremist jihadist movements seceded from the “brotherhood”. As part of a game of one-upmanship with these organizations, the regime resorted to its traditional religious institution [but] society had [already] been charged by these endless doses of traditional Islam and rituals, which made it more ready and willing to accept the viewpoints and ideologies of jihadist Islam without participating – fortunately – so far in the insurgence of its organizations and their violence.

When the “brotherhood”, jihadist and traditional institutions felt their political power, they advanced to impose their guardianship over ideology, culture, art, media and education. In contrast, the regime also proceeded in conformity with it! It is neither able to adopt a real democracy to nominate these powers to replace it nor it is able to encounter and confront their extremism after having command of intellectual and television hegemony over a society that sees more than it thinks.

Likewise, whenever political Islam made progress, the regime backed down but perhaps one day it may reach the same level as the Pakistani regime, which has become a victim to the powers that it nurtured and developed. These powers are no longer accepting the role of peaceful opposition or even dialogue and participation; in fact they have advanced from the mountainous border region of Tora Bora to the heart of Pakistan in the hope that the fragile regime would fall into their hands just as ripe fruit falls.

If what happened in Pakistan was not enough, what is taking place in Algeria, Mauritania, Lebanon, Gaza and Iraq is a lesson and example for Arab regimes. They might take action before it is too late to stop these powers, not only militarily but by encouraging and spreading freedom of thought and expression, culture, and art if it is too difficult to spread the democracy of dialogue and participation.

Ghassan Al Imam

Ghassan Al Imam

Ghassan Al Imam is a Syrian writer and journalist based in Paris.

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