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February 16, 2017

Changing names


February 16, 2017

We need to start drawing up a linear list of organisations – somewhat along the lines of a family tree – if we are to keep track of the extremist groups operating in our country.

Most organisations have been able to playfully dodge bans and other restrictions by simply altering their name. The Jamaatud Dawa – whose chief, Hafiz Saeed, was rather unexpectedly placed under house arrest after Trump’s travel ban was slapped into place and a call from Washington alleged that the JuD was involved in the 2008 Mumbai siege – has now resumed its activities as the Tehreek-e-Azadi Jammu and Kashmir.

There has been no attempt to prevent this ‘new’ group from staging rallies or collecting funds. The same group had previously been known as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, until it was banned, along with dozens of other organisations, in 2002. This has, however, done nothing to alter its operations.

The same is true of other groups as well. The Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan – an organisation that was founded in 1995 and has been responsible for igniting the sectarian tensions which began in that time – now operates as the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. It has also used the name Millat-e-Islamia. Under its new name, the group has, oddly enough, been allowed to at least indirectly participate in elections. Other groups have used similar tactics. Maulana Masood Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed is now the Khuddamul Islam. After being banned in 2002, it has also used the name Tehreekul Furqaan. The Swat-based Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi of Sufi Mohammad Khan, who initiated an extremist movement in the valley, has called itself the Tehreek-e-Islam since it was banned in 2002.

There are many examples – so many that it is difficult to keep track of the various groups belonging to all sects and schools of extremist thought. But for the law-enforcement and security agencies, locked in a war against terror since 2014, it is obvious which groups are still engaged in subversive activities. During the highly publicised Operation Zarb-e-Azb, it should, ideally, have been possible to root out these groups. The recent bombing in Lahore, which killed at least 13 people, is a reminder – a terrible one – of how these groups should have been dealt with. Instead, we allowed the JuD to rename itself and openly seek donations for ‘jihad’, and leaders of the openly sectarian Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to urge Sunni Muslims to rise against those whom they believe are ‘infidels’.

These shockingly vitriolic speeches and campaigns by the LeJ – which of course is also banned – are easily available on YouTube and on social media pages. It is obvious that, despite the ban imposed on hate speech under the National Action Plan, these organisations have faced no barriers. Their web pages still remain available even though the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority has, since the Musharraf era, become accustomed to closing down websites run by Baloch and Sindhi nationalist organisations.

Many of these websites carry material that is far less inflammatory than the web pages of the banned organisations. Some of these spaces consist of prose or poetry in Sindhi or Balochi while others carry material that falls under that wide umbrella of ‘anti-state activities’. But without a doubt, none of these sites are as dangerous as the open calls to kill people on the basis of their beliefs. This hatred is one of the reasons for the breakdown of rule of law in our country and the consequent chaos we have tumbled into.

The disguise that the extremist groups working openly in our society use is rather thin. It does not take any serious skills of deduction to know that banned groups are operating under new names. If we go by logic, renaming themselves should not make these groups legitimate.

It is assumed these groups were banned on the basis of the activities they were engaged in. A change in their name does not mean a change in the state’s policies. If Jack the Ripper had renamed himself Frank, George, or Harry, this would not have undone his terrible deeds of slaying in Victorian London. He should have been punished just the same and the same rule should apply in the case of banned groups, which so easily evade efforts made to investigate and take action against them by printing banners under new names.

Why is this permitted and who has the final say? The answers are perhaps not easy to find in a system like ours which runs essentially in secrecy. We are often unclear as to which institution or which individual makes the final decisions. We have limited access to the true working of our state and the constitution is certainly not a reliable guide. But there are some clues which we can depend on to complete a puzzle which has many scattered pieces.

Some of the groups which remain most active position themselves as organisations struggling for the liberation of Kashmir. The old divide between jihadi and terrorist organisations resurfaces in this respect. Beyond the jihadi organisations, there are groups active in Waziristan which are seen as crucial in the greater game played out in the region.

The game, however, has become dangerous. The allegations of the involvement of the JuD in attacks in India places extreme external pressures on Pakistan to confront the organisation. We should also be facing pressure because of the problems within the country. When one kind of militancy appears to have leeway, it becomes difficult to effectively combat other organisations engaged in similar acts.

In some cases, a nexus exists between jihadi and terrorist organisations. Can the two really be seen separately? To do so will require a strong lens – a microscopic one that can distinguish between the finest of fibres.

The difference may be strategically large but, in real terms, it is not very wide at all. When we speak of combating militancy, we have to combat all forms of militancy.

If we make distinctions and exceptions, confusion is created and the task becomes more difficult as a direct consequence. The narrative that prevails at present is that jihadi organisations are ‘good’ organisations which need public support. Many have received huge funds from the public over several decades and continued to do so.

The question of whether Pakistan can afford to continue pursuing these activities needs to be pondered within the wider context of the need for a stability within the country and in a region which has seen turbulence for far too long.


The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]