Counter-Terrorism: Folks For The South Asian Sharia Blues

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March 11, 2011: Two recent assassinations in Pakistan, of the governor of the largest province, Punjab, and of a government minister, were both carried out to discourage Pakistanis from opposing Islamic radicals. The Taliban took credit for both murders, and said the reason was that the victims had supported elimination of blasphemy laws. The government minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was the only Christian in the cabinet, and that was another reason why the Taliban killed him. The Taliban is quite emphatic about its goal to drive all non-Moslems from Pakistan, and kill any Moslem who commits blasphemy (speaks or acts against Islam.) The Taliban has a lot of support, because even secular schools use textbooks that encourage hatred of non-Moslems and anyone who does not favor conservative Islam.

Despite Pakistan's reputation as an Islamic conservative state, it increasingly isn't. But current law is heavily influenced by Sharia (Islamic law), and a panel of Islamic scholars can rule on the "constitutionality" of laws, at least in terms of Sharia. This has caused increasing unrest recently, because more and more Pakistanis are pushing back at Islamic radicals who want Pakistanis to live according to sedate, and strict, Sharia religious rules.

Then there is the blasphemy law, which can be invoked against Moslems and non-Moslems (who are three percent of the population) alike. The maximum penalty is death, and while this punishment is rarely carried out, many people are convicted, and forced to wait months, or years, in prison until a judge finally lifts the death sentence. Most Pakistanis are appalled at this sort of thing, and the movement to get religion out of civil law gains momentum. But how did this mess come about to begin with?

Back in the late 1970s, when the army generals running Pakistan (for the third time since it was formed in 1947), the guy in charge, general Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, decided to back the many Pakistani Islamic radicals, who believed Sharia (Islamic) law, not the secular common law inherited from the British, should be the law of the land. The problem with that was that Sharia, in the fine print, called for a religious dictatorship, run by clerics. Neither the politicians nor the generals in Pakistan wanted that, but many local Islamic radicals did, and they used general Zia's support for Sharia to push for an Islamic republic. The Islamic radicals got a boost in the 1980s, when the Russian (Soviet) invasion of Afghanistan brought in billions of dollars a year from Saudi Arabia and other pious Gulf oil millionaires. Along with the money came Arab volunteers, to join the fight against Godless communism in Afghanistan, and conservative Saudi clerics, with plenty of cash to build mosques and religious schools.

The war also brought in some U.S. money and the CIA, but the major players, and paymasters, were the Gulf Arabs and their very conservative form of Islam. Pakistan served as the base for millions of Afghan refugees. Protected by American military power, the Afghans used these bases to wear down the Russians, who eventually left Afghanistan (in 1989, the same year communist rule collapsed in Eastern Europe, followed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union over the next two years).

Islamic radicals in Pakistani military intelligence came up with the idea for creating the Taliban in the mid 1990s, as a way to settle the civil war raging in Afghanistan in the wake of the Russian withdrawal. The Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan in the late 1990s, alienating most Afghans in the process. Many Pakistanis were similarly dismayed by the failure of Islamic rule in Afghanistan, but the Taliban also took hold in some parts of Pakistan. After all, pro-Taliban Pushtun tribes lived on both sides of the border. In fact, there were twice as many Pushtun in Pakistan as there were in Afghanistan. While the tribal people (the Pushtuns and Baluchis) are less than 20 percent of the population, many non-tribal Pakistanis (over 80 percent of the population) still believe that Islamic law is a cure for the corruption and inefficiency that cripples the country. But most Pakistanis recognize that general Zia's use of Islamic conservatism and Sharia did not work. Islamic rule was a disaster in Afghanistan, and was equally harmful in Iran and Sudan.

However, the minority in Pakistan that still believes in Islamic rule, are fanatical about it, and willing to kill, and, more importantly, die for it. This is where the Pakistani government is in big trouble. Up to a third of the population are believers in Islamic law as the cure for the country's problems. Many of these true believers are in the army and government bureaucracy. Thus going to war with the Islamic radicals risks rebellion and mutiny in many parts of the government. For that reason, the government must constantly reassure the West that Pakistan's nuclear weapons are "safe" (under the guard of troops who are immune to calls for Islamic radicals to have nukes). In the meantime, the government is paralyzed with fear that if they take decisive action against the radicals, the nation might collapse into civil war.

The Pakistani government and people are split on the issue of Islamic rule, and how to deal with corruption. The latter is the primary curse in the country, inhibiting economic growth and effective government. But much of the corruption is wrapped up in traditions that many Pakistanis are comfortable with. This web of feudal, religious and familial obligations keeps most of the population poor, and a minority (which has always run the country, and the military) quite wealthy. India bit the bullet sixty years ago, and passed laws stripping many Indian nobles and landlords of rights and properties that kept many poor Indians in a state of feudal servitude. No such reforms were implemented in Pakistan, and the country continues to suffer for it. Islamic radicals like to promise freedom from feudal obligations, and this is very popular. But many Pakistanis note that religious rule in Afghanistan and Iran simply replaced one form of economic tyranny and corruption with another, and the poor people were still poor and without power. But many Pakistanis are so desperate that they ignore (or are ignorant of) the lessons of Afghanistan and Iran, and step forward to fight, and die, for the Islamic revolution.

 


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