Roots of terrorism

By:  Shahid Javed Burki

Although there are still a couple of weeks to go before the new year, 2009 will go down in Pakistan’s exceptionally turbulent history as the country’s bloodiest year — bloodier than the time of ‘Operation Cleanup’ in the early 1990s in Karachi. The security forces then dealt with a situation that was confined to one city, albeit the largest in the country and that was the result of warring groups seeking to establish their political and economic writ. It was not aimed at destroying the Pakistani state or establishing a new political, economic and social order. It was about control of the city. This time the state is the target. Pakistan is dealing with an insurgency that poses an existential threat. Complicating the situation is the fact that the germs of this insurgency were planted by operators both within and outside Pakistan. According to popular belief the main reason for the development of extremism in the country was the involvement of the US in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the decision by Washington to pull out of the area that, in policy terms, it now refers to as AfPak.

The US left once the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan. But that is only a quarter of the explanation. There were several others. Among these was the social and political engineering of Gen Ziaul Haq who decided on his own and without the aid of public support that Pakistan needed to adopt Islam as the basis of its economic, political and social systems.

Under him, the country went through a wrenching change which was aided and abetted by the several Arab states with which his government had become closely associated. Saudi Arabia was particularly important in pushing Pakistan in that direction. It had helped finance Mujahideen efforts in Afghanistan and also financed the founding and development of a number of madressahs in large cities.

These madressahs taught a version of Islam that was mostly foreign to Pakistan. This is how Wahabi Islam struck roots in Pakistani soil. It flourished in particular in those areas whose people had been exposed to it because of their sojourn in Saudi Arabia.

One relatively less understood reason for the rapid growth of this more orthodox interpretation of Islam is the channel it found through the temporary migration to the Gulf states from Pakistan’s northern areas. This lasted for a decade and a half, from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, and involved several million people from northern Punjab and the NWFP. These workers were hired on fixed contracts, stayed in camps near the construction sites, and spent a good deal of their spare time in the mosques. They thus came under the influence of the local imams steeped in the Wahabi tradition. They brought this interpretation with them when they returned to Pakistan.

Also contributing to the problem is the fact that Pakistan’s political development was arrested because of the repeated involvement of the military in politics. The state’s priorities kept on changing as the leadership provided by the military in politics changed. But there was one thing common in the way all four military dictators governed. They had little confidence in the political will of the people they governed; all knowing, they ruled the country according to their particular whims.

Ayub Khan believed in limited democracy. He called it basic democracy. Ziaul Haq believed in what he thought was the Islamic way — the people should be governed by a pious leader who should not be constrained by the expressed wishes of the people. His only obligation was to consult a group of wise people chosen by the pious leader and assembled in a forum he called the shura.

Pervez Musharraf went back to the Ayubian formula by limiting democracy to a system of local government and a king’s party controlling a largely inconsequential national legislature. Being military men, these leaders believed in strong command and control systems in politics and economics .Since they were distant from the people they could not build popular support for their policies.

By far the most important contributor to the rise of extremism was the way a series of administrations managed the Pakistani economy. For many decades Pakistan experienced one of the sharpest increases in the rate of population growth. The country’s population at the time of independence was only 32 million of which 10 per cent lived in urban areas. It has increased almost five and a half times to 170 million on the eve of 2010.

This implies an average rate of growth of over three per cent sustained over a period of 60 years. Although the country has not held a population census for many years, I believe that nearly a half of this large and growing population is now urban. The urban population has increased at the rate of 4.5 per cent a year, again one of the highest in the world.

Unfortunately these demographic developments were not factored into the making of economic policy. Islamabad should have focused not only in getting the economy to grow rapidly — which it did on occasions and during the periods when the military was in charge – but also on ensuring that the rewards of rapid growth were widely distributed. The result is that the country now has millions of alienated youth with little faith in their future. They have been successfully recruited to jihadist causes. The latest of these is the destruction of the Pakistani state.

In developing an approach towards growing extremism and terrorism it is breeding, policymakers as well as the citizenry must first understand its complex causes. By focusing on just one aspect — the American pressure to go after the perpetrators of terrorist activities — the country will not be able to evolve a cogent response.

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