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Is Pakistan the new home of Al Qaeda

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Originally published on The Pryer: 18/09/2011


In 2010, David Cameron said that Pakistan could no longer “look both ways” when it comes to terrorism. It sparked outraged among Pakistanis, but someone should point out that he did make this speech in India (need I say more) and it is ironic for him to talk about terrorism when his own government is ‘liberating’ Libya yet remaining silent on the atrocities in Bahrain carried out by a government backed by Saudi Arabia, arguably one of the biggest exporters of terrorism in the world.

Everyone these days is a self-proclaimed ‘expert’ on Pakistan. From political analysts to the average Joe Blogger commenting away on articles, they all think they know everything about Pakistan. The majority will insist that it is a terrorist state, the most dangerous place in the world (the fact that bin Laden was found there did not help), and a deeply religious country where many people are demanding Shari ‘ah. They’re not. In fact, if you analyse election results, it is clear that the religious parties never gain more than a fraction of the vote.

As Pervez Hoodhboy rightly said, Pakistanis, especially the elite, do not want extreme Islam or any form of Talibanisation, because too much of it could limit their own personal liberties (they are rather fond of their ‘whiskey-sodas’ ). So that’s a definite no-no.

There seem to be two prevailing narratives of Pakistan: those that completely condemn it and label it a ‘failed state’ (what’s one of those anyway?) and the other from Pakistanis themselves is that their country is the victim of foreign intervention (“It’s all America’s fault!” ).  There is some truth in both sides of the debate, and we must remember that although it is a deeply troubled and volatile country, its people have been some of the biggest victims of terrorism.  The invasion of Afghanistan, and subsequently Iraq, saw the rise of unrest and suicide bombings.

But what one must remember is that Pakistan has had its problems long before Al-Qaeda and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The clock did not start ticking after 2001. One only has to thumb through the history books to get a sense of the instability of that region, where most of its provinces were opted into the new state of Pakistan without the majority of the people’s consent, and are still fighting off the heavy hand of the state and army. It seems to me that the upheavals are merely a continuation of this anti-Pakistan sentiment, a fight for independence or at least for fairer representation.

This, I believe, makes them an easy prey to extremists from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who seem to provide an alternative in their battles against foreign occupiers. Fatima Bhutto was correct when she wrote that the people in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly North West Frontier Province) did not vote for Shari ‘ah, and only put up with the Taliban because they at least provide facilities and some sort of order in a generally lawless region, as opposed to the state which is choosing to ignore them, or bomb them into submission. So in this sense, it is easy to see why one would believe Pakistan to be the new home of Al-Qaeda.

Historically, as mentioned earlier, Pakistanis have practiced a moderate version of Islam that venerates saints and emphasises a personal relationship with God. But over the years there has been an influx of Arab preachers who brought a more austere form of the religion. It becomes even more complex when the current President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, is not so popular with the Saudis, as they preferred former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who introduced more conservative policies when he was in power.

I put this down to a continual identity crisis– how does Pakistan define itself? They’re ‘not Indian’ but they were, once upon a time, and suddenly trying to distance themselves from their neighbour is resulting in looking elsewhere and identifying itself by religion more than anything else.  It’s a predominantly Muslim country so do they look towards another Muslim country, eg Saudi Arabia and borrow Arab customs and terminology or create a new one altogether? Not so long ago, the sight of women wearing niqabs (face veils) was not exactly common. The phrase to say goodbye, Khuda Hafiz (May God be your protector), has now become Allah Hafiz, in an attempt to be ‘Islamically correct’. Strangely enough, even Bollywood is catching on this trend!

There is a refusal to move forward, remaining nostalgic most of the time. For example they, in particular the politicians, look back at the vision of its founder, Jinnah, hoping to find some inspiration, and then there is the possible return of Musharraf, a failed, corrupt dictator who allowed Pakistan to be used as a military base for the US in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle; first they welcomed the late Benzair Bhutto back into their arms, despite allegations of corruption, and now it is the same with Musharraf.

In a way, it is not surprising that there is a strong anti-American sentiment in Pakistan when the people are subject to drone bombs and leaders allying themselves with the US. This will certainly not change, regardless of who is in power, as Pakistan is, and will continue to be, an ally in the ‘War on Terror’. But at the same time, Pakistanis need to take responsibility for what is happening in their country instead of blaming the Americans or saying “this is not my Pakistan”.  If you are part of one country then you all share the problem and likewise you all come up with a solution.

But with bin Laden’s death, did Pakistanis reflect on this and ask why this had happened? No. Instead, their main anger was not at the fact that bin Laden had been able to hide in Pakistan but at the ‘violation’ of their country’s sovereignty. Therein lies part of the problem – they do not ask the necessary questions and direct their energy on questioning the US instead. Ten years ago suicide bombing was virtually unknown, now it has become the norm: “Another suicide bombing, what else is new?”

Last month Pakistan celebrated its 64th birthday, remarkable for a ‘failed state’. Extremists in Pakistan, Al-Qaeda or other fringe groups, may have some support among people in certain areas where the state has failed them, along with the iron grip of the army. But as for Pakistan being the ‘new home’ for Al-Qaeda? To quote Pervez Musharraf: “No sir!”


Written by Iram Ramzan

September 18, 2011 at 3:20 pm

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