By Najam Sethi
07 Nov 2014
The MQM chief, Altaf Hussain, has warned that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS or “Daesh”) is germinating in the bowels of Pakistan and poses a dangerous threat to state and society. Some analysts concur. They point to the “inspirational” role of the IS in Iraq and Syria in recruiting thousands of Islamists globally to wage jihad against “infidel” regimes in the Middle East. It is claimed that over a thousand volunteers have been trained in terrorist camps along the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan and exported to Iraq and Syria and more are in the pipeline. A couple of splinter Taliban groups have publicly shifted their allegiance and loyalty from Mullah Umar’s Caliphate of Afghanistan to Abu-Bakr Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate of IS. And wall chalkings, posters and pamphlets at random places in Karachi and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have announced the arrival of the IS in Pakistan. How serious is this threat to Pakistan?
There are significant differences between the situation in contemporary Pakistan and the evolving situation in Iraq, Syria and Yemen that gave rise to the IS. This suggests that, despite tall claims, IS offshoots may not be able to make any dangerous inroads and attacks on Pakistani state and society over and above those already attributed to Al-Qaeda and other Taliban groups that are being hunted down by the military. Consider.
First, IS was born amidst the anarchist and violent resistance of Al Qaeda that followed American intervention to overthrow the secular Saddam Hussein regime, dismantle and disband the Iraqi army and install the Shiite Nouri-Al Maliki puppet regime in 2006. This explains the rabidly anti-Shia, anti-West nature of IS. Much the same sort of thing happened in Syria under Bashar al Assad. The western imperialist powers openly encouraged Islamic resistance to the secular Baathist regime that had proved to be a thorn in the side of Israel, both as a conduit for Iranian weapons to the Palestinians and as an effective countervailing state to American-sponsored regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. No such situation prevails in Pakistan that could become a fertile environment for IS – there is no American intervention, there is no Shiite minority rule or secular government that could antagonize the Sunni majority and the Pakistan army remains the most organized and effective counter-terrorism fighting machine in the region.
Second, Pakistan’s Sunni majority is rooted in Sufi-saint traditions and folk practices among the moderate Barelvi sect that accounts for nearly 60 per cent of the population and opposes the hard line extremist version of Islam espoused by the Deobandi and Al-Qaeda factions. This ground is not fertile for extremist versions of Islam.
Third, both Iraq and Syria were secular and centralized dictatorships with repressed factions, groups and regions agitating for greater democracy and freedom. Not so in Pakistan, which is a consensual, constitutional, pluralistic, multi-party, decentralized electoral democracy with a history of popular support for the system? The MQM, ANP and PPP are secular, left of centre parties; the PMLN is a moderate Islamic-democratic centrist party; the PTI is Islamic-democratic right of centre, while the JI and JUI are rightist religious parties with political agendas rooted in electoral politics. They are all opposed to the extremist Islam of the Taliban and IS.
Fourth, the Pakistan army and bureaucracy are trained in the post-colonial tradition that values modernity, “enlightened moderation” and alliance with the West. In fact, even the “external infidel enemy” doctrine of the Pakistan military-bureaucratic oligarchy is slowly being replaced by the doctrine of “existential” threat posed by the internal extremist Islam of the Taliban. This pro-West steel framework of the state will not allow Pakistan to be overtaken by extremist violent Islam.
Fifth, direct foreign military intervention has played a major role in provoking and creating the forces of nationalist-religious resistance in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Indeed, it can be argued that foreign intervention made matters worse by disbanding or weakening the military-bureaucratic framework of the secular regimes in these countries and thereby tilted the balance in favour of extremist insurgents. The opposite has happened in Pakistan where the military has fiercely resisted encroachments on state sovereignty even by the CIA in pursuit of Al-Qaeda.
Sixth, first Al-Qaeda and then IS were greatly facilitated by funding and weapons from public and private sources in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and the West. Later, revenues from captured oil wells financed the resistance. In contract, extremist Islamic forces have no such major funding resources in Pakistan. Even the drug-related funds pipeline of the Taliban is now threatened with the consolidation of a democratic Pakhtun-led Afghan regime defended by a 350,000 strong Afghan army.
To be sure, Pakistan still doesn’t have an effective, institutionalized anti-terrorist state structure. Nor is there sufficient spine or vision in its ruling civil-military classes, media and judiciary to compel a systematic and comprehensive policy response to the creeping “religiosity” in state and society. But this is a recipe for dysfunction and instability rather than a takeover by IS or the Taliban.