An authentic take on how most Pakistanis feel about terrorism
The book explains the role that the Pakistani state, particularly the military, has played in fostering an atmosphere conducive to religious extremism and ultimately terrorism.
How do Pakistanis think? Have they really been as radicalised as it is commonly believed? How do they feel about India and the United States? Are things getting better in that country? These are among the many questions writer and academic Madiha Afzal attempts to address in her book Pakistan Under Siege.
The title is a little cliched; Pakistan many believe has been this way for decades and much has been written on the subject. Nothing seems to change: the world purses its lips while Pakistan carries on in its trail of destruction, churning out terrorists, suicide bombers and radicalised clergy from its assembly line madrassas thriving under state patronage.
Where Afzal’s book is different is in its empirical approach. The author uses “rigorous analysis of survey data, in-depth interviews in schools and universities in Pakistan, historical narrative reporting, and her own intuitive understanding of the country” to provide what is hopefully an authentic view of how Pakistanis feel about terrorism, jihad, non-Muslims and their place in the world.
What emerges in her narrative is the role the Pakistani state, particularly the military, has played in fostering an atmosphere conducive to religious extremism and ultimately terrorism. The Pakistan military, Afzal argues, considers its vital duty to be two-fold: defending the country’s territorial integrity as well as its ideological frontiers.
“On its official website, the Army states its motto: Imam, taqwa, jihad fi-sibilillah. “Imam is faith, taqwa is piety and fear of God, and jihad means to fight for God,” the author points out. It is this basic belief coupled with the notion of India being its prime and implacable enemy that has scripted the grand national strategy pursued by Pakistan’s rulers, most of them Army generals.
She further believes it is in the Pakistan military’s interest to constantly play up the “Indian threat” and is one reason why terrorists are seen as assets in the jihad against India. Even though the Pakistan Army has cracked down on domestic terrorists in recent times, it differentiates “between those militants it believes pose a direct threat to the Pakistani state (the TTP) and those it believes are of strategic use to it (the Afghan Taliban and LeT) — the ‘bad Taliban’ versus the ‘good Taliban’.”
The Pakistan Army is extremely sensitive about its “good Taliban” assets and the author recounts how incensed the Army was when a prominent journalist published an article in October 2016 about “an unprecedented showdown between Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab and brother of Nawaz Sharif, and the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in which the civilians asked the ISI to end the protection it gives to Kashmiri and Afghan jihadists.”
The Army termed the matter as a threat to national security while the journalist who wrote the piece was banned from travelling. A military enquiry into the episode was initiated and this probably marked the beginning of yet another feud between the Pakistan Army and the Sharif brothers — not surprisingly Nawaz Sharif has effectively been banished from politics.
What is worse perhaps is the Pakistan military’s strategy of propagating the myth about Islam in danger. Legal Islamisation by General Zia, Afzal writes, made matters worse. The late dictator General Zia set in motion a process to ideologically indoctrinate future generations of Pakistanis by establishing Pakistani studies which was aimed at instilling the idea that Pakistan was formed on the basis of one common religion and guiding students towards “the ultimate goal of a completely Islamized state.”
The author’s account of what Pakistan studies teach makes for dismal reading and it is no wonder then that surveys today indicate a significant support for terrorist groups among students - ten to twenty per cent for the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) and somewhat more for the Lashkar e Taiba. The lower the education level the more the support for terrorists.
Views on India are even more discouraging: more than 50 per cent view India unfavourably. The United States fares even worse as is to be expected given the jihadist narrative. Most frightening is students’ view on apostasy: the overwhelming majority favours the death penalty for leaving Islam.
Pakistanis seem to be increasingly veering towards hard-line views regarding Islam. The author describes how a series of terrorist acts, including the 2016 suicide attack on Sehwan Sharif, the famed Sufi shrine, and assassination of Pakistan’s most famous qawwali singer, Amjad Sabri, closed “the loop between Pakistan’s laws, its narrowing constrains of acceptable religious practice, and terrorism.”
“And while hundreds protested in outrage and grief after Sehwan and blamed the state, ordinary citizens also murmured about how visits to shrines and dhamaal were un-Islamic. Thus the ordinary Pakistani ventured into casual, dangerous takfirism — accusations against other Muslims of apostasy deserving death — their indoctrination in evidence.”
“The loop between terrorism, the narrowing bounds of religion, and Pakistan’s own laws was completed in another way,” Afzal observes. “Pakistan’s own citizens justified terrorist attacks against their fellow countrymen - and they could call on the blasphemy laws and an extreme interpretation of their religion, validated by the Pakistani state, for justification.”