Pakistan: Religious extremism, military operations and increased intolerance

Revolutionary movement of the working class needs to finally defeat religious extremism and intolerance

Pakistan’s armed forces launched massive military operations against the Pakistan Taliban and other reactionary, violent religious groups after the gruesome attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar on 16th December 2014. In this attack, nearly 150 young students were brutally killed. Since then, military and paramilitary forces have been engaged in a fierce battle against these religious extremist armed groups, not only in tribal areas but across the country.

The brutal attack on the APS, in a way, has changed a lot in Pakistan. Pakistan’s military high command took a clear stance against the groups involved in militant attacks and, since then, has confronted them head on. However, this action has been limited to the groups involved in military struggles against the army, and some sectarian groups linked to Al-Qaeda and ISIS. No action yet has been taken against those groups which are not directly involved in armed struggle, but which also spread hatred and extreme religious ideas in society. This policy by the military represents a departure from the decades-old policy of organising and protecting such forces in order to use them in Afghanistan and gain a strategic advantage (‘strategic depth’) against regional powers.

Pakistan’s military establishment, with the help of imperialist powers, especially US imperialism, organised and trained many jihadi outfits to fight against Russian forces following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan’s military establishment and governments since the late 1970s have promoted jihadist and religious extremist ideas, both inside the country and outside to serve their own interests. Thousands of religious schools and seminaries were allowed to be established across the country purely on sectarian lines. The religious extremist forces, both armed and unarmed, used this opportunity to increase their influence and spread their extremist ideas in society. This continued from 1976 until 2001 and the 9/11 attack in the USA.

The military was forced to make some cosmetic changes to this policy and joined hands with the US in the so-called ‘war on terror’. On the one hand, the Pakistani state provided every possible help to US military forces in their battle against the Taliban, but on the other, they continued to provide shelter inside Pakistan to Taliban fighters. This dual policy was exposed when the Taliban increased their attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan. As a result, relations between Pakistan’s military and the US administration became strained. Pakistan sent its army into the tribal areas, for the very first time, to placate the US.

Sending the military into the tribal areas in 2004 sparked a new wave of indiscriminate violence and suicide attacks against civilians and state forces. The Pakistani military launched selective operations against some extreme religious groups but this half-hearted effort failed to stop the Taliban. It continued to control the tribal areas and the Swat valley in 2009-10. At that time, some commentators started to talk about the possible takeover of Islamabad by the Taliban forces! The military launched massive military action against the Taliban and ended their occupation of this scenic and beautiful valley. The military leadership signed many peace agreements with different Taliban and other groups. Since September 2001, nearly 56,000 civilians and more than 3,800 police, paramilitary and army personnel have been killed. The cost to the economy is estimated at $89billion, according to the latest figures.

The crippling of the economy, the worsening law and order and security situation, rapidly falling foreign and local investment and mounting pressure from China to improve the situation forced the military to launch a massive operation against the violent militant groups. The attack on the APS and brutal killing of young innocent students belonging to military families provoked the military high command to act and they launched a massive offensive.

Promised Chinese investment of $46billion to establish a ‘Pak-China economic corridor’ also played an important role in changing the strategy of the Pakistani military and ruling elite. The multi-billion dollar projects involved in this project are already underway. Most of these projects will be completed in 2017 and 2018. There are massive infrastructure development activities taking place throughout the country. The work on different projects – new motorways, airports, industrial estates and power stations – has already begun.

The military and civilian government evolved a joint strategy called the National Action Plan (NAP) to get rid of religious violent groups which threatened these developments. The police, intelligence agencies, paramilitary forces and the army have since been able to control the situation and bring down the level of violence. New, harsher and draconian laws have been introduced, which give sweeping powers to the police and other law enforcement agencies. Parliament amended the constitution and allowed the establishment of military courts to try terrorist-related cases for up to two years. New legislation has massively curtailed democratic rights, freedom and liberties. The present PML-N government lifted the unannounced ban on executions and has started daily hangings.

The violent groups are on the run; most of them have been forced to leave the tribal areas and have gone into hiding in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been ranked, alongside Iraq and Syria, as the most violent and dangerous country in the world for more than five years. Now the situation has improved.

The Pakistani military is effectively gaining control of the tribal areas which were the strongholds of the Taliban and other extremist religious militant groups for years. The military has also destroyed and closed down many religious schools and seminaries. These functioned as factories to produce suicide bombers for these groups. A relative peace and calm has returned to these areas. However, the question remains: how long will this situation last? What happens when the military withdraw from these areas?

The experience of Swat valley tells us that a permanent military presence will be needed to keep the situation under control. The civilian administration is not capable of running the administration and keeping a ‘normal peace’. The tribal areas need radical reforms and complete integration with settled areas of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK – formerly North-West Frontier) province. Pakistan’s ruling elite is not interested in providing the necessary resources to change the material conditions of the tribal people, who have been forced to live in isolation, backwardness, poverty and ignorance for many decades. The capitalist system is not capable of transforming the lives of the millions of tribal peoples living in the shackles of the reactionary and repressive tribal system and traditions.

There is no doubt that violence has decreased in the last year. The security situation has improved in relative terms. Violence in Karachi was getting out of control; on average 2,500 to 3,000 people were killed every year for purely political reasons. There were areas in Karachi where it was not possible for the police and paramilitary forces to enter. These have now been cleared, although some areas still remain under the effective control of the different extremist groups. But the overall security situation in Karachi has improved a lot compared to the last few years.

The support for extremist religious groups amongst the working masses is at its lowest level. This can be judged from the recent local election results where they got less than one per cent of the seats. They are not dangerous because they enjoy massive support but because they can cause destruction. They are brutal, ruthless and use fascistic tactics to spread the reign of terror. The masses do not love them but they fear them. The military and the government are using the media to propagate against these extremist groups and ideology. But it would be wrong to declare Pakistan free from religious extremist groups. These groups still enjoy support in some areas of the country. They have supporters and sympathising groups all over the country. They still can cause damage, mayhem and panic anywhere they choose. They showed this when they attacked an air force base near Peshawar in KPK couple of months ago.

The situation is contradictory in the sense that, on the one hand, extremist ideas have little support among the working masses but on the other, religious sentiments are running very high. Religious intolerance has increased in the last few years. This was manifested a couple of weeks ago in the northern Punjab city of Jhelum. There, an angry mob set fire to a chipboard factory just on the basis of allegations that it had burnt the pages of the holy Quran. Many people lost their lives including factory workers.

This intolerance is not just confined to the poor and illiterate sections of society. It exists even in the most educated upper and middle class layers of the population. The whole process of intellectual discussion and discourse on the issues related to religion and sensitive social issues has already came to an end because of this increased intolerance amongst sections of the population. The murder of a secular and liberal female rights activist in Karachi by a group of highly educated young professionals clearly indicates this tendency. These young men were ex-students of an elite and prestigious education institution and belong to the upper middle class.

The nursery schools which turn out extremist religious minds are still flourishing in the country. The religious schools and seminaries are producing one million students every year with their minds full of sectarian hatred, intolerance and a narrow world view and outlook. These religious schools are the perfect hunting ground for extremist violent religious groups to recruit new members. The ruling class is not in the position to fully confront the religious schools and establish control over them. There are more than 30,000 registered or unregistered religious schools in the country and their numbers are still increasing. The majority of the students come from Southern Punjab, rural Sindh and parts of KPK province, which are the most impoverished and deprived areas of the country. Poor families send their children to these religious schools not because they are very religious but because they are very poor and they cannot feed their children. These religious schools provide free shelter, food, clothes and education to these poor children. Families would not send their children to the religious schools if they were provided with a viable and sustainable solution and alternative. This is not possible on the basis of capitalism and feudalism in Pakistan. The capitalist and feudal system has created the conditions in which poverty, hunger, intolerance and religious extremism are thriving.

The capitalist system is based on profits, exploitation, class repression and the protection of the interests of the handful of the rich and the ruling class consisting of capitalists, feudalists and bureaucrats, both civilian and military.

It is urgently necessary for a movement to be built that will unite together the working class, peasants, students, the rural and urban poor together with the middle and upper middle classes and all those exploited by capitalism and the feudal landowners. Only such a united non-sectarian movement can offer a way forward for Pakistani society and remove the threat of violence and economic destitution and toxic corruption which grips society. Only such a movement can fight to secure the democratic, national and economic rights of all. A movement that will fight for an alternative socialist system based on the public ownership and democratic control and planning of the economy is urgently needed. The introduction of a democratic socialist planned economy is needed.

The working class and poor masses, together with all those exploited by capitalism and feudalism, need to organise themselves on a class basis from below and embrace the ideas of socialism to further the struggle to get rid of the present rotten and reactionary system.

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December 2015