Rise of Muslim Extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan
(Originally written on July 16, 2007). At last count, about 100 people had been declared killed in the siege of Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, Pakistan. Once inside, the Army, which led the attack on the barricaders inside the Mosque, found not just a few pistols and rifles, they found machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, hardly something that qualifies as religious or peaceful. The residents, including the two brothers at the head of the Mosque swore to die rather than “surrender” and at the same time, launch “thousands of suicide attacks” against the government. Maulana Abdul Aziz, the senior cleric, was caught trying to escape while hiding a head-to-toe covering (burqa) that women wear. His younger brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, took over leadership and was killed in the final attack. It looks like the promised bombings against the government and the Army, have begun.
How did such extremist Muslims get to such powerful positions in Pakistan?
The Cold War.
When Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto took over the leadership of Pakistan after the 1972 genocidal civil war, the US threw its support to him, because he was supported by the Pakistan Army, which was a useful asset in our war against Communism.
Z.A. Bhutto called himself an “Islamic Socialist” in order to assuage the hardline Muslims who were against anything that smacked of the ungodly Communists.
Still, there were disillusioned political leaders who initially supported him but were now holding him responsible for the loss of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the war with India.
Bhutto needed a non-threatening support base.
The answer lay in the Muslim fundamentalist groups that were getting more vocal and powerful by the day. Bhutto allowed them a freer hand in the operating of mosques and took their concerns to heart when making legislation. Mosques and their clerics continued to be paid for by the state, but the selection of clerics was deferred to local Islamic groups which tended to be very conservative. Unleashed, these clerics were selected more for their blind zeal, than for their scholarship of Islam; in a country where illiteracy rate was about 90-95%, it was a case of the one-eyed men leading the blind; sermons started getting more intolerant.
To demonstrate to the public as to how much of a Muslim he was, Bhutto, known for his debauchery and hard drinking, acquiesced to the demands of the extremist Muslims and declare the Qadianis (a.k.a. Ahmedis), a minority Muslim group, to be non-Muslim. All applications for Pakistani passports began to require an affirmation that if the applicant is a Muslim, s-he swears that Qadianis are not Muslim; an item that no government has dared to remove from passport applications, to this day.
The Islamization of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, had begun, but things were about to get far worse than ever imagined, in Pakistan.
The man Bhutto chose to be the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces was a General of relatively low seniority and ability, known for being a devout Muslim and deference to authority. Little did Bhutto know this man, General Zia-ul-Haq, would one day, overthrow him and have him executed.
In short order, the new Dictator-President Zia-ul-Haq, forced Pakistan into deeper and more intolerant versions of Islamic practice. Sharia councils became more powerful and without guidance from enlightened scholarship, their fatwas (rulings) became more and more bizarre and tyrannical and the law courts began to be marginalized.
At this time, the Soviet Union embarked upon its ill-fated intrusion into Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up. Recognizing an ideal opportunity, the United States paid to set up hundreds of Madressas (schools) through the CIA, for the millions of Afghan refugees that were streaming into Pakistan. Notably, one of the Madressas formed in this period, was the school from which grew the Lal Masjid for which all teachers and clerics were drawn from the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the home of the Mujahideen.
The job of a normal Madressa is to provide education with an Islamic tilt, for its students. The radical Muslims had set up many Madressas that not only provided very conservative education plus food and lodging to the poor students…a definite advantage in a poor country. The CIA-funded Madressas provided Islamic education with a distinct intolerant tone to it; they wanted the students to grow up hating the godless non-Muslims, especially the most visible ones at the time, the Soviets. These Afghan children grew up and went directly to CIA training camps against the Soviets; it was a war of attrition in which the United States was determined to fight the Soviet Union to the last Afghan
At the time, there were voices of concern within Pakistan, about starting a future generation with such deep and intolerant roots, but these voices were buried under the tsunami of US money and weapons coming to Pakistan…the money went to the political and military leaders while the guns went to the Afghan Mujahideen and any Pakistani who wanted them.
The arming of the fanatical elements had become complete and Pakistan was sinking into a drug-based, gun-running economy.
Almost as soon as the Soviets evacuated Afghanistan, the US also packed its bags and left, ignoring the monsters they had created, leaving them without reconstruction opportunities or prospects for any future; Afghanistan fell into factionalized warfare with waves and counter-waves of destruction from every tribe within the country.
Enter a small group of religious students (Taliban) who declared their only aim to be establishment of peace in Afghanistan. They went from tribe to tribe, convincing each tribe to stop fighting and join their movement. The Taliban grew more and more powerful until they no longer needed persuasion; they would issue an ultimatum for a ceasefire that was hard to resist. Afghanistan embraced these peacemakers with relief and obeyed their every command as the Taliban’s power grew, along with their intolerance.
The Taliban were the old Mujahideen, steeped in CIA’s Islamic righteousness. The Pakistan Army helped their formation because they did not want an unstable neighbor plus, as an additional bonus, the Taliban would tilt in their favor instead of India. The US was quite keen to be involved or, at the very least, not hinder the birth of the Taliban because the Soviet threat was still not over.
The birth of the Mujahideen and their “maturing” to become the Taliban, did not happen in isolation. Unfortunately, the Madressas also trained many Pakistanis who in turn, mostly joined the cleric base, especially in the NWFP which shared tribal and blood relationships with the Mujahideen, from just across the border from Pakistan. In just a few years, the NWFP had a Taliban-style provincial government.
This network of Mosques was all over Pakistan; they were fanatical, intolerant, armed to teeth and had guaranteed funding from the federal government of Pakistan. There was nobody who could challenge them or cool their rhetoric as the pitch only grew more frenzied. Today, they are almost an unchallengeable force within Pakistan that is independent of government control yet, funded by the state.
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