The following (abridged) article by Farooq Tariq from the Labour Party Pakistan was first published on the International Viewpoint website on 28 October 2009.
The conditions he describes — daily suicide bombings by supporters and allies of the Taliban in Pakistan — have worsened. On 1 January a bomb killed 75 people at a volleyball game in North-West Frontier Province. You can read it in its original form on the LPP website here.
What do to about religious fundamentalism?
Once again Pakistan has become the focus of world attention. Every day there is news of the latest suicide attack or military operation, with killings, injuries and the displacing of communities.
With more than 125 police checkpoints in Islamabad, it has become a fortress city. Lahore and other large cities are suffering the same fate : there are police road blockades everywhere. After each terrorist attack authorities issue another security high alert and set up additional barriers. How ironic that, until recently, officials and the media described these “terrorists” as Mujahideen fighting for an Islamic world.
Under immense pressure by the US administration, the Pakistan government has launched a series of military operations in various parts of the country. This has led to an unprecedented wave of killings, with hundreds of thousands more being forced to leave their homes for temporary shelter.
Pushed out of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks in the US, religious fanatics from different countries have found refuge in Pakistan. They have two aims: to make Pakistan more Islamic and to teach the government a lesson for its close relationship with US imperialism. However the price is being paid by ordinary people.
Religious fanatics are the new fascists. They believe in the physical elimination of their political opponents. Although they may appear to be anti-imperialist, they are not a progressive force. Instead they are an extreme right-wing force that wants to turn back the clock of history.
The religion of the state
Pakistan is also known as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Religion is part and parcel of the state. Most of the education syllabus is also coloured with Islamic ideology; even scientific explanations somehow manage to drag in religion. Religion has become a way of life. Every donation to charity ends up in the coffers of the religious institutions.
Although the rationale for the Pakistan state was to be a place for Muslims, it was to be a secular Muslim state. When the state was formed in 1947 the population was not fundamentalist. But as time went on Pakistan adopted an Islamic ideology that today gives these fanatics a more favourable ground for the promotion of their dream of an Islamic country.
At the end of the 1970s, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Washington decided it needed to develop an indigenous counterforce. In order to fight “communism” in Afghanistan, Washington worked closely with Pakistan’s military dictator, General Zia ul Haq, and the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Services intelligence (ISI).
There are dozens of books explaining the rise of Taliban and Mujahideen under the direct guidance of the US, but the ISI had no reason to cut off funding after the Soviet retreat in 1987. The ISI found these jihadis useful in its conflict with India over Kashmir.
There are many religious political parties in Pakistan. Jamaati Islami and Jamiat Ulmai Islam, along with other Sunni and Wahabi political parties, are all for an Islamic revolution. They also give political support to the religious fanatics of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
However, it is not only the US that are harvesting what they have sown. Numerous Pakistan governments were ready to do whatever Washington wanted them to do out of sheer financial greed. Since 1978 different governments have all been close US allies. This includes 20 years of military dictatorship under Zia (1977-1988) and General Musharraf (1999-2008). These various governments enabled religious fanatics to establish religious educational institutions that have changed the country’s religious culture.
One of the main strategies used by the fanatics to bring jihad to the youth of Pakistan was through opening religious schools (madrassas). Of the more than 15,000 registered madrassas [in Pakistan], about half are in the Punjab. Experts estimate the numbers are higher: when the state tried to count them in 2005, a fifth of the province refused to register.
The madrassas found a place among the working people, as they were marketed as offering a free education with religious teachings. The failure of the government to provide adequate resources for free public education paved the way for the progress of the madrassas.
Pakistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. The government spends less than 3 per cent of GDP on education. The enrollment of girls is among the lowest in the world, lagging behind Ethiopia and Yemen.
Though madrassas make up only about seven per cent of primary schools in Pakistan, their influence is amplified by the inadequacy of public education and the innate religiosity of the countryside, where two-thirds of the population live. The madrassas are the real breeding grounds for religious fundamentalism.
More than 15,000 registered religious seminaries in the country cater to more than 1.5 million students and more than 55,000 teachers. Before 2002, according to the Religious Affairs Ministry, the number of registered madrassas in Pakistan was not more than 6000. After 9/11, the religious fanatics who left Afghanistan came to Pakistan, and with the help of the two provincial governments run by the religious alliance MMA — North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan — they were able to quickly establish more madrassas. At this time General Musharaf was a partner in the so-called US-led “alliance against terrorism”. He was manipulating both the fanatics and the imperialists.
The growth of religious fundamentalism was also [aided by] the complete failure of civilian and military governments to solve any of the basic problems of the working class and its allies.
Pakistan’s ruling class has failed miserably to bring about democratic norms. That is why whenever the civilian government has been overthrown by a military dictatorship, the vast majority of the masses have not offered any resistance to dictatorship.
The present civilian government of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has been contradictory in dealing with religious fanatics. In the Swat area, following peace talks, the government entered into agreements with the fanatics to establish Islamic courts. The religious forces were decisively defeated in the general election of 2008. Where in the 2002 general election the fanatics’ parties received 15 per cent of the vote, in 2008 they got less than three per cent.
Just after the 2008 general election, when the masses had rejected the religious forces, instead of a mass mobilisation to end religious fundamentalism, the PPP regime opted for negotiations. This gave the fanatics an incentive to go further: they demanded sharia laws in the Malakand division. This was accepted. The fundamentalists then went further in their attempt to control more areas,therefore giving an impression that they were not far from Islamabad.
In a panic, the regime, with full support of the US, went for a full military operation in the Malakand division in June 2009. The result was more than 3.5 million internally displaced people and more than 5,000 killings. The present government boasted a military victory over the fundamentalists and then asked people to go back home. But this was not the army’s military victory but a temporary retreat of the fanatics.
[One month later] the fanatics were able to attack the military’s general headquarters.
Saying there was no other option, many liberals in Pakistan have supported the military actions against the fanatics. But no military solution can eliminate the religious fundamentalists. It has been the case in Afghanistan and so too will it be the case in Pakistan. It can only push them to other areas.
Short-term and long-term strategies
The military solution has been presented as an immediate step to the ultimate solution to fundamentalism. It is like the old Stalinist theory of minimum and maximum goals. “Demand minimum to get the maximum” was the philosophy. But there were no measures in between the short-term and long-term strategies.
Similarly with the fight against the religious fanatics. The military solution is a short-term strategy while the long-term strategy requires reforms and more development. The long-term strategy never arrives. This is just an excuse to please US imperialism.
If the fight against religious fanatics is to go forward, it must begin with a revolutionary program. It has to start with the political will to separate religion from the state. It has to deal with the question of the nature of Pakistani state. Religion cannot become the basis of a nation. Pakistan was torn apart by the events of the 1960s and 1970s when Bangladesh came into existence. Now a more severe crisis is erupting in Baluchistan along similar lines. There is strong movement developing that calls for the independence of Baluchistan.
There has to be a concrete programme to fight religious fundamentalism. It has to combine immediately dealing with suicide attacks and curbing the activities of the fascist forces from their strongholds, along with an overall plan of action in economic, political and social development. This should include the nationalisation of religious madrassas and the retraining of teachers. It should include an immediate increase in workers’ wages in both the private and public sector to at least 12,000 rupees a month.
All discriminatory laws must go and all citizens of Pakistan should enjoy equal constitutional status. At present there are several laws that make religious minorities second-rate citizens. The government should be committed to fully back local resistance to the religious fanatics. Civil society organisations in the strongholds of the religious fundamentalists should be given full backing by the state so that they can function. The state must help to strengthen and sustain the local defence committees to fight the religious fanatics.
All trade union rights must be restored in the public and private sectors, with full freedom of speech and assembly. Most of the discriminatory laws are still intact, including blasphemy laws.
The forces of religious fundamentalism organise on an international basis. A fight against them has to be organised at that same level. The US “war on terror” is fueling religious fundamentalism. It is seen as a war on Muslims. The occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan by the imperialist forces is providing the religious fanatics a political justification for their terrorist activities.
Campaigns to end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and for no support to the fanatics, can be the basis for a united front of progressive forces internationally. The campaign against religious fundamentalism must be part and parcel of an anti-globalisation campaign by all progressive forces.
We must oppose the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and religious fundamentalism. No support to one against the other. The fight between religious fundamentalism and the imperialists is a fight between bulls. There is not much to be gained by siding with one against the other. The goal must be to end the fight altogether and open the space to create an alternative way of living.