‘The alarm is ringing’

November 22, 2015 by  
Filed under newsletter-asia

Christian persecution in PakKarachi, November 18, 2015: Former Pakistani leaders have admitted the country has indeed played a role in launching religious militancy in the region.

The latest to do so is the former military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who told a leading Pakistani news channel on Oct. 27 that Pakistan gave training to Taliban militants starting in 1979, before sending them in to Afghanistan to fight the invading Russians. Pakistan again helped religious militant groups in the 1990s against India in disputed Kashmir.

Early on, Musharraf said, groups such as the Taliban and Haqqani, as well as al-Qaida personalities Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, were glorified as heroes because they brought jihadis from all over the world to fight the Russians.

Musharraf was quick to add that people need to understand this policy of state-sponsored militancy in the context of the Cold War. But the militants, once viewed as heroes by some in Pakistan, have turned into villains, killing their own people in Pakistan and across the world.

This was not the first time that Musharraf has admitted to Pakistan’s role in what the West has been quick to call a policy of state-sponsored terrorism. He’s not even the first former Pakistani leader to do so — the then-president, Asif Zardari, in 2009 told a conference in Islamabad that Pakistan had created terrorist groups as a tool for its own geostrategic agenda.

For some, these confessions may be a revelation. But for an ordinary Pakistani who grew up here in the 1980s and 1990s, I can tell you how jihadi organizations were created, nurtured and trained while being given a free hand to raise funds and recruit militants.

‘Islamization’

Stalls containing jihadi literature and cassettes of sermons were a common sight outside mosques everywhere in Pakistan.

Mullahs, or clerics, would give lengthy sermons at Friday prayers to propagate the state narrative of jihad and mobilize support among the masses to join in the wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Wealthy Persian Gulf states pumped billions of dollars into Islamic seminaries.

Pakistan’s most underdeveloped areas, such as the southern Punjab and the North West Frontier Province, now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, became breeding grounds for terrorists.

The United States and its allies shut their eyes, as it was serving their interests during the Cold War.

Meanwhile, however, Pakistan’s minority Shia Muslims and other religious minorities became a regular target for extremist groups, such as Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (Army of Caliphs). At the same time, “Islamization” became the central policy of the government of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, ruler of Pakistan from 1977 until his death in 1988.

Zia is largely responsible for turning a moderate and progressive Pakistan into a global hub of militancy through his Islamization drive.

His administration added new criminal offenses for adultery, fornication and blasphemy to Pakistani laws. Authorities overhauled school textbooks and libraries to remove un-Islamic material. Female TV anchors were ordered to wear a headscarf.

This went on for two decades until the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States. Anticipating a potential backlash, Musharraf put a ban on many militant outfits, who changed their names but continued their terror campaigns.

It was too little too late for Pakistan and the world community, as the jihadi mindset became well entrenched in society. Pakistan’s first attempt to rein in jihadi groups in the wake of post-Sept. 11 pressure mounted by the U.S. was met with violence, as many of the Taliban turned their guns toward Pakistan.

A deadly campaign of terrorism ensued, leaving some 50,000 Pakistanis dead in a decade as militants targeted civilians, religious minorities and security forces with impunity.

Shift in policy

However, the despicable December 2014 massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar enacted a clear shift in government policy to deal with the scourge of terrorism.

Some 150 people — 132 of them schoolchildren — were murdered when Taliban gunmen, disguised as troops, stormed a military-run school.

The gruesome nature of the attack drew strong criticism of the country’s terror policy, prompting civil and military leaders to chalk out a national action plan against terrorism.

While doubts remain, Pakistan’s recent military campaign against terrorism in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan has reduced the number of attacks dramatically, according to analysts.

“At least all those groups who were challenging the writ of the Pakistani state are being dealt with strictly at this stage,” said Imtiaz Gul, a security analyst and director of the Islamabad-based think tank Center for Research and Security Studies.

Traditional enemies Afghanistan and India are not convinced, with both countries continuing to accuse Pakistan of sponsoring militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Islamic State

The big question today, given Pakistan’s previously acknowledged support of militant groups, is what foothold the Islamic State group may have in the country. Pakistan’s top diplomatic official, Aizaz Chaudhry, has said the terrorist group has no presence in the country.

“Our policy is clear. Daish is a terrorist organization and we treat it this way,” Chaudhry told media in Islamabad, using another term for the group. “Pakistan is capable of confronting any threat from the group.”

Still, Chaudhry’s remarks are nothing more than a denial, considering the group claimed responsibility for a deadly gun attack on a bus of minority Ismailis in Karachi in May this year. Nearly 50 people were killed in the attack.

“I don’t know what made Aizaz Chaudhry make such a sweeping statement,” said Gul, who believes the group has a presence in Pakistan, although its strength or ability to strike is debatable.

Gul, however, ruled out a Paris-like attack by Islamic State militants in Pakistan.

“The Islamic State controls large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, where they get money, training and resources. The [group] doesn’t have any organized network in Pakistan,” he said.

‘We are all feeling it’

Still, many Christians in Muslim-majority Pakistan fear they may be next.

“The alarm is sounding again. We are all feeling it,” said Father Morris Jalal, founder and program director of the Lahore-based Catholic TV.

Father Jalal held a condolence Mass for victims of the Paris attacks at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lahore on Nov. 15.

In August, Pakistan banned the Islamic State group and it has since repeatedly denied the group’s presence in the country. But ordinary Pakistanis are not convinced — given our history and background with militancy.

After years of violence and neglect for religious minorities in Pakistan, people like Father Nasir William of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Sargodha have a right to be wary.

“We are asking parishioners to avoid talking about any religion,” he told ucanews.com. “We never know what will happen next.”

Zahid Hussain is a Pakistani journalist covering human rights and issues affecting minorities.

– ucan

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