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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Pakistan's Dangerous Game with Religious Extremism

December 3, 2014 Snooker is a popular game in Pakistan. Played on a billiards table, competitors wager on who can knock the most colored balls off into the side pockets. The winner is the one who wipes the table clean and scores the most points. In many ways, Pakistani militants are playing snooker against the country's diverse and vibrant civil society and religious communities. Players include recognized terrorist groups like the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban or TTP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), but also mobs whipped up by unscrupulous religious leaders to commit violence. The election of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in May 2013 returned a familiar player to this deadly contest. Now with PM Sharif's third time in office, will he crack down on militants or give the game away in an attempt to win peace? Make no mistake, Pakistani extremist groups are playing to win. A snooker hall was the site of a heinous act of sectarian terrorism in January 2013 when two suicide bombers attacked a Quetta game room frequented by Shi'a Muslims. Nearly 100 died. LeJ claimed responsibility in their declared war against Shi'a, whom they consider the wrong kind of Muslim (see Henderson 2013) In September, splinter groups from the Pakistani Taliban carried out twin suicide bombings on the All Saints Church in Peshawar that killed 119 Christians as they left Sunday services (Boone 2013). The Sunni Muslim majority has felt this onslaught too. The Pakistani Taliban-targeted politicians deemed “secular” during the run-up to the May election and afterwards (Gregory 2013). The killing in January 2014 of six Sufi Muslims at a Sufi shrine in Karachi, four with their throats slit and two beheaded (Menon 2014), and the June 2014 assassination of attorney Rashid Rehman for his willingness to defend a blasphemy case (Sethi 2014), indicate no one is safe. Nawaz Sharif can play this game with a strong hand. His Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) holds a solid parliamentary majority (something the previous government never enjoyed), and Sharif knows these groups from his previous stints leading government and his behind-the-scenes management of Punjab province. He recognizes there is a terrorism problem facing Pakistan that limits desperately needed economic development. With solid religious credentials among conservative Pakistani Muslims and years spent in Saudi Arabia, the Prime Minister is well-positioned politically and theologically to combat religious extremists. But will he? Sharif has repeatedly focused on a grand bargain with the Pakistan Taliban. “Getting to Yes” has been hard, however, due to repeated TTP attacks against the government and Pakistani religious communities. In addition, after the US drone attack killing TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban made it clear they want nothing less than the imposition of their retrograde version of Islamic law and have indicated they will not negotiate (Zahra-Malik 2013). Their brazen attack on Karachi's airport in June 2014 triggered a large military operation named Zarb-e-Azb (Sword of the Prophet), which killed peace talks and makes uncertain the future possibility of negotiations (Santana 2014). And even if militants return to the bargaining table, Sharif has limited options. Much of what the TTP wants is already reality. Consequently, Sharif may negotiate human rights away. Many Pakistani's have not forgotten his support for legislation in 1998 applying shari'a law nationwide, which passed the National Assembly but later failed in the Senate (Ziauddin 2013). The stakes are high for Pakistan. Yet if peace at any price is the desiderata of the Prime Minister, ceding ground to the forces of violent extremism would embolden their efforts to remake Pakistan in their image. Giving militants the writ of law effectively hands the state to extremists, allowing them to own the public space and ban all competing voices, while knocking off religious minorities and Muslims deemed insufficiently Islamic. Pakistan's battered civil society would face further assaults, forced to retreat and retrench. Shi'as, Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus would face existential threats from militants. Such a peace deal would bring no peace, only leading Pakistan inexorably toward impunity and the dystopia of endless sectarian violence. Winning before Playing Again, much of what the Pakistani Taliban wants is already in place. Over the past 60 years, religious dogma has been embedded in the state, sectarianism empowered, and religious discrimination institutionalized. This tilt began with Pakistan's foundational document—the Objectives Resolution of 1949. Providing the guidelines for constitutions to follow, it set forth specific freedoms for Muslims to live out the faith, as prescribed by the Qur'an and Sunnah, and glossed over festering Sunni-Shi'a differences. Also, instead of bringing non-Muslims into the national fold, the Resolution set them apart, referring to them as “minorities” and promising only “adequate provision” of their needs to “freely profess and practice their religions” (Islamic Research Institute 2009). Yet the Objectives Resolution betrayed the vision of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country's founding father. He set forth the goal of a tolerant, progressive, and inclusive Pakistan in his 1947) speech to the Constituent Assembly. There he said: You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State. As you know, history shows that in England conditions, some time ago, were much worse than those prevailing in India today. The Roman Catholics and the Protestants persecuted each other. Even now there are some States in existence where there are discriminations made and bars imposed against a particular class. Thank God, we are not starting in those days. We are starting in the days where there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed and another. We are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens, and equal citizens, of one State. Yet when Jinnah died in 1948, this vision died with him. Pakistan's first Prime Minister, Liaqaut Ali Khan, in his speech moving the Objectives Resolution for approval in 1949, spoke at length about how the state would help construct a “truly Islamic society.” He said Pakistani Muslims would be both enfranchised citizens and followers of Islam. And as if anticipating future intra-Islamic strife between the Sunni majority and Shi'a minority, he declared that this first expressly Islamic state would create a society “free of dissentions” while not curbing the beliefs of any Muslim sect. Liquat also spoke to non-Muslim Pakistanis, subtly urging them to not resist this drive toward governance blessing only one form of religion. While later in his speech he said it would be “un-Islamic” to limit the rights of minorities and that they would not be “hindered from professing or protecting their religion,” it was clear that non-Muslims were a separate, lesser category in this new political union (The Objectives Resolution 2009). The Objectives Resolution embedded this religious perspective into Pakistan's DNA, and consequently, the system defined citizens and their rights by religion. From this starting point, the efforts of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's Prime Minister from 1973 to 1977, and General Zia ul Haq from 1978 to 1988, did even more to empower sectarian forces. Under Bhutto's leadership, the Ahmadi community, a group that considers itself Muslim and follows the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was effectively written out of the Muslim faith through constitutional amendments creating an apartheid-like system. The constitution also was amended to establish the Council of Islamic Ideology to advise whether proposed laws are compatible with Islam (Jones 2002). These were not the efforts of a devout minister, but reflected political gamesmanship to shore up flagging support of religious reactionaries. His gambit failed and General Zia overthrew and eventually executed Bhutto. General Zia took this process further, saturating both statutory law and constitutional provisions with his own narrow religious views. He turbocharged the blasphemy law, a colonial-era holdover, by amending it to include the death penalty with no evidence required. In addition, Zia altered the penal code to criminalize the basic acts of the Ahmadi faith. He amended the constitution to create the Federal Shariat Court to review legislation that may conflict with shari'a law, creating an unclear legal structure that appears to run parallel to or trump the secular system. In addition, Zia Islamicized the educational, banking, and penal systems through the Hudood ordinances. In another form of blowback, Zia's support of jihadis against the Soviets in Afghanistan also helped to establish groups that plague Pakistan of today (Ziring 1997). Fast forward to 2014—if the Pakistani Taliban were negotiating from a blank slate, these would be their top demands. Under this system, the state plays the role of arbiter of religious truth while democratic pressures limit its ability to protect minorities or independent thought. These legal provisions have helped create a witches' brew of sectarianism and vigilante violence. A History of Violence From the perspective of extremists, what has not been accomplished by law can be achieved through the violence of militants and mobs. TTP, LeJ, and other groups openly speak of killing off “fake” Muslims and religious minorities, in an effort to create a pure state for their totalitarian religio-political worldview. When the government fails to enforce their views, they are willing to impose their religious beliefs through intimidation and acts of terror, with little concern for consequences. For instance, the Pakistan Religious Violence Project that I directed for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) documented a staggering number of attacks against religious communities over a 30-month period. Between January 2012 and June 2014, two reports recorded 325 instances of targeted violence against religious groups resulting in more than 3,000 causalities with over 1,100 deaths. The Shi'a community was hardest hit, with 857 individuals killed in 131 separate suicide bombings and targeted shootings. The Pakistani Taliban and LeJ repeatedly claimed responsibility (USCIRF 2013). The state response was feeble, if it existed at all. Politicians and civil society actors have paid a high price for daring to encroach on the religious “turf” of extremists. The 2011 assassination of Salman Taseer, an outspoken critic of blasphemy laws and governor of Punjab province, was troubling enough, but the response of “moderate” parts of Pakistani society was even more disturbing. Lawyers showered the killer with rose petals during his arraignment and later the judge sentencing him to death had to flee to Saudi Arabia due to threats (Shah 2011). The forthright activist Sherry Rehman had charges of blasphemy renewed against her in 2013 while serving as Pakistan's ambassador to the United States. Those outside of government are even more vulnerable. Consider the attempted assassination in 2012 by the Pakistani Taliban of young Malala Yousafzai for her advocacy for women's education, which they deemed un-Islamic (Crilly 2013). Her miraculous recovery and commanding speech at the United Nations were heralded around the world, but she was lambasted in some quarters of Pakistan as an American stooge and spy (Ali 2013). In addition, the Pakistani Taliban delivered on their vows to target “secular” politicians, killing many and hindering the more moderate Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Awami National Party (ANP) from campaigning effectively in the 2013 elections (DAWN 2013a). The aforementioned assassination of human rights lawyer Rashid Rehman in May 2014 for his defense of an individual accused of blasphemy was a high-profile attack on a prominent person for his advocacy. Rehman had been threatened for weeks before his murder. His precarious situation was no secret, but authorities failed to provide protection or investigate the threats. Non-Muslims have suffered too. Entire Christian villages were destroyed in 2009 and in 2013, with no one held to account. The Pakistani Taliban brazenly took credit for the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti in 2011, leaving flyers at the crime scene in an upscale part of Islamabad (Walsh 2011). A friend of mine, Bhatti had warned me his death would send a chilling signal to the Christian community of its vulnerability if the Pakistani Taliban made good on their threat to kill him for his opposition to the blasphemy law. He was all too right, a message compounded by the government's lack of interest in bringing the perpetrators to justice (Nangiana 2013). The September 2013 suicide bombing of All Saints Church in Peshawar killing 119 and injuring 145 more was a grim reminder of the vulnerability of Christians (Craig 2013). In addition to the apartheid system repressing Ahmadis, they are regularly assassinated in drive-by shootings and their mosques attacked. Police are often more interested in tearing down Qur'anic texts from Ahamdi homes and mosques than investigating these murders (Khattak and Bezhan 2013). There are also troubling reports of an exodus of Pakistan's Hindu community for India. Traditionally based in Sindh province, its members see no relief from the forced conversions and marriages of their women to Muslim men, and the sporadic yet predictable attacks on their community members (DAWN 2012). Proof that Pakistan is a “democracy,” Hindus are voting with their feet. In this milieu, Zia's notorious blasphemy law has fostered a climate of impunity. Vague and often abused, the law empowers an accuser to put business rivals or religious competitors on trial for their lives with a mere allegation and no penalty for lying. Advocacy organizations report that at least 14 people are on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy and 19 others serving life sentences, with many more in jail awaiting trial or appeal (USCIRF 2014a). This is a statistic unmatched anywhere else in the world and includes Muslims and non-Muslims. While the state has never carried out capital punishment for blasphemy, those charged have paid with their life at the hands of vigilantes. In an ominous move, the Federal Shariat Court ruled in December 2013 that the death penalty should be the only penalty for the “crime” of blasphemy. If this were to be implemented, it would add fuel to this burning fire. When I raised concerns about blasphemy law abuse with a PPP member of parliament under the last government in 2009, he agreed the law needed reform, but was literally scared to death to take action (Thames 2009). Negotiation Red Lines Prime Minister Sharif must face these and other challenges, such as a confrontations with political rivals, a failing economy, crumbling infrastructure, and a military not under civilian control. Early in his first 100 days, PM Sharif identified the link between terrorism and poor economic growth (Ghumman 2013b). His draft anti-terror policy stressed the importance of better law enforcement to dismantle terrorist groups and proposed a study of the country's education system to evaluate its role in developing extremism and how to reverse this trend (Syed 2013). The Prime Minister also spoke about religious minorities during his maiden speech before the National Assembly (Zaman 2013), and travelled to Quetta in July after a bombing targeting Shi'a and tasked his government to act (Balochistan Crisis, The Tribune 2013). In addition, his All Parties Conference initiative brought political parties together to forge a common understanding on negotiating with the militant groups operating in Pakistan. Some prisoners were released as a confidence building measure (Ghumman 2013a). However, soon after the conclusion of the All Parties Conference, PM Sharif received a graphic reminder about the difficult road ahead. As a precondition for negotiations, the TTP demanded the release of all of its imprisoned members, an amnesty for their fighters, and a withdrawal of the army from tribal areas. In September, the TTP also ambushed a Pakistani military convoy returning from the Afghan border with improvised explosive devices. Seven soldiers and two senior army officers were killed (Ali and Magnier 2013). The attack on the Karachi airport was the last straw, forcing the military to respond with force and ending negotiations. Before the military campaign, Sharif seemed hell bent on bringing the TTP to the bargaining table, no matter how viciously they respond to his overtures. Media reports indicated he would tap Maulana Samiul Haq, chairman of the Pakistan Defense Council, to mediate talks; he is considered the “father” of the Taliban (DAWN 2013b). Sending the Pakistani Taliban's ideological parent to represent the state indicates a worrisome willingness by Sharif to bend the TTP's way. The Prime Minister in January 2014 even announced they would engage immediately, with no preconditions other than the TTP not attacking the state (DAWN 2014). The airport attack abruptly ended negotiations. While a resumption of talks seem remote, the Pakistani military cannot shoot their way to a full victory. Talks will likely resume again. And when that thaw occurs, what are the Prime Minister's negotiation red lines? The Pakistani Taliban's overall position has been clear, stating that in exchange for a cessation of TTP violence, Pakistan's constitution should be brought into conformity with their version of Islamic law and the government should break ties with the United States (Houreld and Zahra-Malik 2012). What can PM Sharif offer in return? The status quo arguably meets TTP demands regarding religious law, as much of what they seek already exists—Islamic law plays a major role in governance, and militants are free to violently force their religious interpretations on the population. In addition, the Pakistani Taliban simply cannot be trusted in any deal. The TTP made similar demands after they took the Swat valley in 2009. The Pakistani government surrendered basic rights, as ANP provincial officials at the time agreed to establish shari'a law in Swat and the broader Malakand Division, which was approved by the national parliament and signed by President Zardari. But the peace did not last, and the Pakistani Taliban, sensing weakness, pushed for more. It was only when the TTP made additional territorial gains that the government responded with force of arms. However, according to the International Crisis Group, shari'a remains in place (2013). Why would things be different now? The Pakistani Taliban is fractured, and its new leader, Mullah Fazlullah, ordered the assassination attempt on young Malala (Rawlings 2013). There are appropriate times to talk with one's enemies, but it is better done with clear non-negotiables. It is not in the interest of Pakistan to retreat from fundamental rights or allow the imposition of the religio-political worldviews of militants over the country. Pakistan has suffered greatly from terrorist violence and many sincere people wish negotiation would restore peace. Yet there is little evidence to support those hopes. Instead, violence and abuse would only increase, further destabilizing this fragile nation. And the response cannot be exclusively military, using kinetic force to kill militants in the frontier areas. Extremists are increasingly embedding themselves in the major cities of Lahore and Karachi, places where F-16s, attack helicopters, and land forces cannot intervene. These urban settings require robust law enforcement. Nothing short of concrete steps resulting in the arrest, prosecution, and jailing of those who perpetrate attacks or incite them will pull Pakistan back from the brink. These are straightforward, basic acts of governance. Clearly, arrests should lead more often to prosecution. In addition, police must no longer turn a blind eye to mob attacks or refuse to file FIRs concerning violence against minorities. The education system needs an overhaul and purging of intolerant texts. Legal reform is essential to address the much-abused blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws. These serve as accelerants in combustible situations, emboldening non-state actors to “enforce” laws on the books through murder and mayhem. In addition, the state should strengthen voices of moderation and peace, giving religious leaders and politicians the protection they need to denounce the Pakistani Taliban's twisted theology. Defusing the Bomb Yet stemming the rising tide of violent religious extremism will be politically costly and dangerous, thereby making negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban an always alluring chimera. So why should the international community care? Since PM Sharif needs to address this challenge, what if a few more rights are surrendered? Turning a blind eye while PM Sharif hands Pakistan to extremists will result in severe human rights violations and acts of terrorism, further destabilizing the young country. The Pakistani government already both perpetrates (through the aforementioned laws and policies) and tolerates (through its inaction against militants and mobs) egregious acts of violence and human rights abuses. Giving even more space to militants to operate under a peace deal would only accelerate this trend. Yet not only human rights concerns, but realpolitik calculations also advise a stronger engagement by the international community. Groups targeting Pakistani civil society and religious minorities have an agenda defying international standards and the current global order. Simply put, if they win at home, they will look abroad. There is chatter that once US forces withdraw from Afghanistan, jihadis will move back into Kashmir to fight the Indians (Daniel and Miglani 2013). One need only remember Mumbai in 2008 to agree on the seriousness of this threat. Furthermore, Pakistan is a nuclear power. If society slides further toward accepting violent religious extremism as normative, one day the person with the launch codes may opt to use these weapons in a religious war or give fissile material to fellow travelers on the road to global jihad. Consequently, the United States and the international community have a role to play by encouraging, insisting, cajoling, and even threatening Pakistan against appeasement. Together they can serve as a counterweight to domestic pressures tempting the Prime Minister to accept an ephemeral peace deal that will only accelerate the rise of these forces. Furthermore, a combination of carrots and sticks could empower those voices wanting a brighter future that benefits all Pakistanis, one based on the rule of law and the protection of rights. For instance, pressing Islamabad through the threat of sanctions could alter the cost/benefit calculation favoring concessions. As its reliance on supply routes into Afghanistan lessens, the United States will be better positioned to urge government action against terrorist groups and to address human rights violations. The United States should seriously consider designating Pakistan a “country of particular concern” for egregious violations of religious freedom. Conditionality on military aid is another option. The European Union could reconsider the recently bestowed Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) Plus status, if the government accepts the Shariat Court's decision for death penalty for all blasphemy cases. Also, when Islamabad fails to act against non-state actors, external actors can move directly through sanctions. The naming in August 2013 by the United States Treasury Department of a Pakistani madrassa is one example of the kinds of pressure that could be exerted (U.S. Treasury Department 2013). But strategic engagement should also extend a hand. Incorporating issues of interfaith harmony into the bilateral U.S.–Pakistan working groups would be a soft-power way to engage these issues and bolster moderates. Also, strengthening the provincial minority affairs ministries through training and resources could help them respond to local situations of concern. Pakistan's Federal Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony visited Saudi Arabia in 2013 and asked for assistance on interreligious dialogue (Husain 2013). Obviously, the United States would bring more to the table than the Saudi kingdom, which bans all religions other than its version of Wahhabi-inspired Islam. A robust effort to strengthen the voices of moderation and understanding could help push back against this intensifying storm of intolerance and hatred. Pakistan's Thirty Years War Considering these challenges, Nawaz Sharif has an unenviable task, but it is the job he sought. If the business-savvy Prime Minister considers himself Pakistan's CEO, does he understand that for Pakistan to prosper economically, the specter of extremist violence cannot be accommodated? Pakistan will only succeed if all its citizens, regardless of sect or creed, can flourish. As a former Pakistani ambassador remarked to me, no multinational company would invest in a country where terrorists run free, seeking to control the social–moral space of society and even the reins of government (Thames 2013) Wilson's (2009) opus chronicling of the Thirty Years War in Europe from 1618 to 1648 described the fissiparous nature of the warring parties resulting from “confessional polarization.” Decades of religious war in Europe brought about the notion of the nation-state and confessional liberties with the resulting 1648 Peace of Westphalia. In contrast, Pakistan's formation around a particular religion ran against the Westphalian system, and, if the Pakistani Taliban has its way today, their religious law will expand and religious violence will continue. Pakistan is beyond quick fixes. Gambling on negotiations with militants without a commitment to human rights is not a winning strategy, as the drivers of conflict plaguing this diverse nation will continue. PM Sharif should not cede further ground to extremists in exchange for notional peace, but instead push for fundamental freedoms and the rule of law. Talk is cheap and promises of peace in exchange for meeting militant demands would have disastrous effects, both now and in the future. Notes 1. This work was authored as part of the Contributor's official duties as an Employee of the United States Government and is therefore a work of the United States Government. In accordance with 17 USC. 105, no copyright protection is available for such works under US Law. References

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