The South Asia Channel

Pakistan’s Islamist tightrope

It is no longer uncommon to read about attacks on progressive Pakistani intellectuals and politicians.  Islamic scholar Muhammad Farooq Khan, who hosted a popular TV program on the Quran, was gunned down in his office late last year. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who challenged Pakistan’s oft-abused blasphemy laws, was killed by a member of his ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

It is no longer uncommon to read about attacks on progressive Pakistani intellectuals and politicians.  Islamic scholar Muhammad Farooq Khan, who hosted a popular TV program on the Quran, was gunned down in his office late last year. Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who challenged Pakistan’s oft-abused blasphemy laws, was killed by a member of his own security detail this past January. And Minority Affairs Minister Shabbaz Bhatti, who was quietly working to improve the standing of Pakistan’s small minority religious population, was brutally killed outside his home in Islamabad in March.

These killings are tragic, but they are also intelligible. They fit a familiar narrative of liberals versus extremists in Pakistan, reformers versus reactionaries. The militant fringe, we have repeatedly been told, is threatened by intellectual argument, and kills its opponents to intimidate public figures into silence. Each gruesome episode is just the latest battle in the ongoing "war of ideas" in Pakistan.

This story is true, but it is also incomplete. It is not just the liberals who are threatened in Pakistan. To the surprise of many, several high-profile Islamic political figures have been (unsuccessfully) attacked over the last few weeks. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a pro-Taliban figure and leader of the largest faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) political party, narrowly missed two separate suicide attacks in the span of two days, in which several of his party members and supporters were killed. Days later, Shabbir Ahmed Khan, a senior provincial official in the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, was apparently targeted when a bomb was planted outside his residence in Peshawar. These leaders, and the parties that they represent, are not "liberal." Rhetorically supportive of Taliban ideology, they are strong advocates of expanding the scope of shariah, and fierce critics of the United States. The recent attacks have thus raised a host of questions: Are extremists now turning on their own supporters? Who is being targeted, and why? And does this represent a trend?

The JUI-F and the JI, as Pakistan’s two largest Islamist parties, have a great deal in common. They both promote an agenda of legal, social, and economic Islamization. They both have political and rhetorical influence that far exceeds their consistently mediocre electoral showing at the national level. They both have been inclined to defend calls for jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and blame the United States for most of Pakistan’s problems. And they both defend their commitment to the electoral process, and to the proposition that Islam is indeed compatible with democratic ideals.

These similarities aside, the two parties are in fact quite different. The JUI-F is a clerical party, Deobandi by tradition, rooted in the madrassah religious school system, largely ethnically Pashtun and rural, primarily lower and lower-middle class, and poorly organized. It was closely associated with the Taliban in the 1990s, and retains ties to certain Pashtun Taliban leaders today. The JI, by contrast, is a highly organized modernist party with similar intellectual roots as the Muslim Brotherhood, and is focused on the Islamization of Pakistan’s legal system, with a support base that is multi-ethnic and largely urban and middle class. It has a long history of supporting jihadi groups in Kashmir and in Pakistan’s Punjab, and in recent years has for political reasons increasingly turned its attention to the conflict in Afghanistan (as can be seen in its awkwardly-titled campaign against the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, "Go, America, Go!").

But why, despite their Islamist leanings, are these parties now being targeted by militants? In the first place, attacks against the JUI-F are not new, but are evidence of the slow deterioration of the party’s relationship with Taliban groups over the last five years. While the Jamaat-e-Islami has done an impressive job of insulating itself from criticism by Islamic militants by opposing both former military ruler Pervez Musharraf and the current civilian government, the JUI-F has been far more accommodating to state elites. Fazlur Rehman, notwithstanding his heated rhetoric, is known to be a shrewd and pragmatic politician. His party has a history of allying with all manner of governments and parties, including the left-of-center Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). And although he is currently chairman of the Kashmir Committee in the National Assembly, the clerics who form his party’s base of support have long shown an interest in playing upon their sect’s  origins in the Indian city of Deoband to pursue a mediating role between Pakistan and its rival India. Beginning in 2005, these policies started to become liabilities for the JUI-F, as new Taliban groups in Pakistan’s tribal areas staked out positions opposed to the state, and to any Islamist organizations that endorsed democratic means.

Living in Peshawar in 2006, I witnessed this change first-hand: party workers in the JUI-F were becoming nervous about "new Taliban" leaders who didn’t seem to appreciate the party’s long-standing contribution to the Taliban cause. An RPG narrowly missed hitting Fazlur Rehman’s house, but party members were reluctant to talk about it. And the party came under pressure from some Taliban elements near the tribal areas to boycott the 2008 general elections (they did not).

Disillusionment with the JUI-F among militant Islamists is therefore not a new story. What is new, and disturbing, is the brazenness of the attacks on the party leadership, and the willingness of the attackers to target public rallies that would kill not just party functionaries but also unaffiliated supporters of Islamist causes.

Second, the new moves against Islamic political leaders may be related to infighting within the so-called Pakistani Taliban. Fazlur Rehman has often had to contend with decidedly mixed support from Taliban groups; during the 2008 elections in Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan districts adjacent to the tribal areas, for example, both pro-JUI-F and anti-JUI-F Taliban factions were out in force trying to influence the balloting. And after the recent attempts against JUI-F leadership, Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur issued a statement condemning the attacks, going so far as to suggest that the Taliban in North Waziristan "appreciate the role" that Fazlur Rehman plays in protecting religious clerics. The JUI-F is also said to be on good terms with Taliban commander Wali ur-Rehman in South Waziristan, who reportedly once belonged to the JUI-F or one of its affiliate organizations. Taliban politics in the tribal areas is frustratingly opaque, but it seems likely that the attacks on the JUI-F reflect a division among Taliban groups, with opposition to the party coming from Taliban leaders most critical of the state, such as Hakimullah Mehsud and remnants of the Taliban in the Swat and Malakand regions.

Third, the proximate cause of the attacks on Fazlur Rehman can perhaps be traced to the release of a Wikileaks cable reported in India’s The Hindu newspaper. The cable, dating from 2007 but leaked in late March of this year, suggested that Fazlur Rehman offered to serve as a mediator between the United States and the Taliban. While the JUI-F chief’s purported offer is impossible to confirm, it would not be inconsistent with the attitudes of some prominent figures within the party. In conversations with JUI-F leaders over the last year, I have heard a range of views about Taliban "reconciliation" in Afghanistan. On one end of the spectrum, some JUI-F members echo the Afghan Taliban’s negotiating position that the United States must withdraw immediately and unconditionally for a political solution to take hold. Others, however, take a more realistic line, suggesting that there must be an arrangement under which the U.S. can withdraw "with honor." Setting aside the party’s anti-American rhetoric, there does seem to be a recognition among some leaders of the JUI-F that the clerics whom they represent might be able — in the interests of Pakistan — to support a political "reconciliation" process with the Afghan Taliban in the near future.

Fourth, and finally, these attacks on Islamic political leaders may signal a growing ideological divide amongst militants concerning the legitimacy of the Pakistani state. The JUI-F, while strident in its demand for Islamization, is already seen by some militant Islamists as having sold out to a democratic system that is irredeemably "un-Islamic." But the Jamaat-e-Islami has thus far been modestly more successful in balancing its interest in democratic participation with its criticism of the state — in part by boycotting the 2008 elections (a decision that some senior party members now regret). If indeed the attack on the JI provincial leader proves to be the first in a series of assaults on the party, it will be a sign that the rift between anti-state and pro-state groups has deepened dramatically. The last two years have done much to clarify this debate: On the one side are Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), along with al Qaeda ideologues Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya al-Libi, all of whom have written works denouncing the Islamic legitimacy of the Pakistani state. On the other side of the divide are parties like the JUI-F and the JI, joined by groups that are known to be sympathetic to the Pakistani state, such as Jamaat-ud Dawa (formerly Lashkar-e-Taiba).

Further attacks on the JI in particular would suggest that Pakistani Taliban groups no longer regard rhetorical support for their cause as a sufficient endorsement; they may be trying to extract from the Islamist parties more substantive forms of support, such as open endorsements, a decision to boycott elections, or a willingness to actively recruit party members for Taliban activities. More likely, however, they are using brazen attacks on a sympathetic political base (JUI-F and JI members) to intimidate mainstream political leaders into keeping their mouths shut. Facing this new threat, the Islamist parties themselves are left with two unpalatable options: they can present a more moderate face in public, criticizing the Taliban for plainly un-Islamic acts; or they can double down rhetorically, avoiding criticism of the Taliban and displacing blame for the attempted killings.

Not surprisingly, the parties have opted — at least for now — for the latter approach, blaming everyone but the Taliban for the attacks. If anything, we should expect from them in the coming months more intense invective against the West, and more fervent defenses of the Taliban. They can, after all, hardly afford to appear conciliatory on matters of Islam and politics in the face of increased violence against them. But that rhetoric should not obscure the fact that they are no doubt worried, and that they still overwhelmingly prefer a future in which politicians, and not militants, determine the course of the state.

Joshua T. White is a Ph.D. candidate in South Asia Studies at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Joshua T. White is a Senior Associate and Co-Director for South Asia at the Stimson Center.

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