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November 8, 2018

Learning from history


November 8, 2018

The TLP’s recent assault on law and order and its subsequent retreat have triggered a furious debate over the means required to curb violent fanaticism in our society.

Arguments by proponents of different narratives overlook the factors behind the genesis and rise of fundamentalism in Pakistan. It is generally taken for granted that General Zia was the patron saint of these two movements. This view, however, won’t enable us to understand their roots.

A year ago, at the time of the 40th anniversary of the military coup against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, The Friday Times carried a letter on July 21, 2017 from a Pakistani residing in Australia that drew attention to how usurpers changed the course of Pakistan’s history and, among other things, made Pakistani society intolerant. As a result, Zia bowed to the Americans to plunge Pakistan into the never-ending conflict in Afghanistan.

The writer’s claims, however, made no reference to the regional and global context that might have pushed the military regime in a particular direction. It has not helped so far nor will it help in the future if we don’t keep in view the wider events taking place around Pakistan in the late 1970s and the subsequent decades.

Among these, three tectonic shifts in and around Pakistan merit particularly close consideration: the Iranian Revolution in February 1979; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979; and the cumulative reaction to these major events in the Muslim world, especially in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and in the West, particularly in the US.

Lest we forget, the biggest challenge to the monarchy in Iran wasn’t from the clergy but from the Tudeh Party, the country’s communist party. The US intervened by lending support to the Islamists led by Imam Khomeini, who was exiled in Iraq and then France, to assume power in Iran and offering exile to the Shah. This was a blow to the Soviet ambition to dominate countries bordering the Central Asian Republics, which were then part of the Soviet Union. The first part of this plan was already in operation through a communist takeover in neighbouring Afghanistan.

We can blame General Zia and his team for ‘Islamising’ Pakistan, but there were forces beyond their control at play. A centuries-old balance between Shia and Sunni power in the region had been upset by America’s move to replace a secular order led by the Shah with a staunchly religious regime. The Soviets literally went berserk over the setback to Iran’s communists and retaliated by occupying Afghanistan towards the end of 1979. Cumulatively, these events changed the course of history in Iran, Afghanistan and their common neighbour, Pakistan.

Of particular importance is the philosophical basis of the Iranian Revolution. In his book ‘The Shia Revival’, Vali Nasr explains that the religious leadership with Imam Khomeini as its head considered the Shah’s secular policy and his vigourous drive for modernisation as well as Ali Shariati’s call for an Islamic (leftist) revolution to be a threat. So they decided that the best way to defeat both was for the religious leadership to seize power.

Now, consider Zia, a Wahabi facing an Iran ruled by Shia clerics and an Afghanistan under communism and Soviet occupation. From that point onwards, it was relatively simple to build Sunni defences with Saudi help. However, while forging an alliance with religious parties, Zia kept the reins in his hands. The same cannot be said about his successors. As a result, fundamentalist and jihadi groups gained greater autonomy and lethality.

Among the consequences of these tremors was the coordinated action by Zia and the Saudis to forestall the export of Khomeini’s revolution and prevent the rise of political Islamic movements in their countries. It took a practical shape when the Islamic jihad in Afghanistan was sponsored via America’s help.

The Shia-Sunni power balance in the Middle East was later impacted by the US move to overthrow Saddam Hussain’s rule. In a span of 25 years, the superpower made two far-reaching decisions, resulting in Iran’s growing power. That the US is now tightening the screw on Iran is partly to assuage the Saudis while selling them state-of-the-art weaponry.

Thus, the US opposition to Iran’s nuclear plans goes beyond its traditional support to Israel. This is the historical background to Saudi Arabia and its allies’ discomfiture.

In Pakistan, the patronage accorded to Deobandi movements has been extended to the Barelvi mullahs. But as the proverb goes, if you ride a tiger, you always run the risk of being attacked by it. Unlike older religious parties, the TLP likes to show its strength through violence on the streets. The challenge posed by it has to be met with a combination of force and reason.

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