On the evening of 4th September 2008 Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed, Associate Professor of International Relations at the Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad was invited to the SPO national centre to speak on Terrorism in Pakistan, an issue that is presently agitating the minds of many in the country. Among the audience were students and members of Islamabad based rights based NGOs.
Tracing terrorism’s historical roots, Dr. Ishtiaq said that in the case of Pakistan the mushrooming of religious extremists began with the decision of western powers to launch a ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Several groups were armed to fight against the Soviets and pro Soviet Afghan forces. Seven of these factions were supported by Pakistan and eight by Iran. They were used by international powers to fight against the Soviet Union, and later by Pakistan to fight in Kashmir.
Typically, after the war was over, these groups became independent and, as has happened throughout history, turned on their erstwhile supporters. They invited Al Qaeda to Afghanistan, engaged in cruelties and excesses and, despite pleadings by the Pakistan government, destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas.
Madrasas were set up with foreign funding to prepare fighters for the jihad, but the talibanisation of Pakistan began in earnest when the Taliban seized control of Kabul. Sufi Mohammad launched his Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi in Swat, which was financed by criminals who had cases against them in courts of law for murder, rape, kidnapping and other heinous crimes, and sought to escape punishment by subverting the criminal justice system. ‘If Pakistan is seen as an ideological state there will always be people who will demand Shariah’, Dr. Ishtiaq pointed out. He believed that though the Partition had taken place because the Muslims as a group were economically subservient, the Muslim League had raised the slogan of Islam in order to mobilise support. Realising that this could lead to problems, Mr. Jinnah in his famous 11th August 1947 speech emphasised that tolerance and respect for diversity, not religion, would be the guiding principles for the country.
To overcome terrorism Dr. Ishtiaq recommended that: Firstly, basic concepts needed to be debated so that a national consensus on the raison’etre of Pakistan could be arrived at. The nation has to decide if Pakistan was an Islamic state or a secular state guided by the 11th August speech of the Quaid-e-Azam, in which he declared that religion had nothing to do with the business of the state, and that citizens of different religions were equal. Secondly, the ambiguous attitude towards suicide bombers and terrorists had to be discarded. It must be clearly understood that religion does not permit the killing of unarmed civilians. The concept that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ is basically wrong. He emphasised that violence against unarmed people could never be justified, and that terrorism and violence could not succeed, only peaceful means lead to success. He cited the examples of Ireland and South Africa, where freedom was achieved when violent means were discontinued and peaceful means adopted. And thirdly, civil society should persuade religious political parties and scholars to oppose suicide bombings and violence.
He reminded the audience of the golden age of Islam, and said that fundamentalists ignored the science and culture of this period when Muslims were not afraid of learning from others, and sought their inspiration from the tribal age before enlightenment. Defining terrorism, he said that terrorism was violence, which was politically motivated, deliberate and planned, against unarmed civilians, with the purpose of creating fear in a wider audience, by an individual or group of people.
Should states also be called terrorist if they killed and inflicted violence? And if people killed by the terrorist were military or armed soldiers or police, would it count as terrorism? Answering these questions Dr. Ishtiaq reminded participants that international law permitted only states to use force. However, the state had to abide by the Geneva Conventions.
During the discussion some thought provoking points were raised. For instance, what relationship did the arms industry have to militancy? And what part did poverty play in provoking people to adopt violence? It was pointed out that exploitation by capitalism could not be ignored. All Muslim countries, with the exception of Turkey, had undergone colonisation. Global injustice too molded societies to support radical movements. And international law cannot be applied equally because of great inequalities between nations. In response Dr. Ishtiaq gave the example of Africa, which too was poor and had undergone colonisation, but had not turned to terrorism to achieve justice. Perhaps there was a problem with the Muslim psyche?
On this provocative note the discussion came to a close, as it was Ramzan and time to break the fast.