SOUND BYTE: ‘Convergence of militant groups worrisome for Pakistan’

02 Dec 2014

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Dr Joshua T. White is deputy director for South Asia at the Stimson Centre, a global security think tank in Washington. He has previously worked with the US Secretary of Defence and spearheaded an effort to assess post-2014 strategic risks and US policy options in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
Dr Joshua T. White is deputy director for South Asia at the Stimson Centre, a global security think tank in Washington. He has previously worked with the US Secretary of Defence and spearheaded an effort to assess post-2014 strategic risks and US policy options in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

The religio-political parties of Pakistan are now fighting for space alongside more hardline, jihadi groups. In most cases, their rhetoric or slogans may be same, but both sides are very conscious of the threat posed by the other. To understand what the implications of a conflict between the more radical groups and the religious mainstream may be, Dawn spoke to Dr Joshua White, who has studied the dynamics and narratives of religious parties in Pakistan.

Q. The Jamaat-i-Islami seems to be changing tact; they’ve ditched the more extreme Munawar Hasan in favour of the more statesmanly Sirajul Haq and now are looking to move away from their traditional role of being the party the establishment turns to for expression of street power. Do you think this is a necessary evolutionary step or could there be a deeper motive?

A. The Jamaat-i-Islami has lurched from identity crisis to identity crisis since at least the 1980s. Under Munawar Hasan, many of the party’s internal contradictions came to the forefront as senior Jamaat cadres began to worry that his hyperbolic rhetoric and open flirtation with the anti-state Taliban would bring neither electoral success nor advance the party’s technocratic Islamisation agenda.

They were right. Sirajul Haq clearly has a different, more mainstream, approach. I followed his career closely when he was the senior minister in the MMA government in NWFP, and he managed to take a hardline approach in public while effectively reaching out to international donors and stakeholders behind closed doors.

The World Bank and IMF, for example, were utterly surprised at how capable and pragmatic he was in that role. He is clearly trying to chart a middle path in the current political environment. Although I don’t expect him to give up the strident street politics, he may be in a better position to extract concessions from the government and to modestly grow the party’s electoral base in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over time.

Q. Deobandi groups are now feeling increasingly threatened by militant organisations with a sectarian streak and are looking for strength in numbers. Do you think attempts to create a common platform will help their cause much?

A. On paper, the Deobandi groups seem like they should have a great deal in common and would be natural partners. In practice, as we all know, this rarely happens in any meaningful way. There are too many outsized personalities, and too many divergent priorities (Afghanistan, Kashmir, local politics, and so on). I expect this fragmentation will continue, or even increase, as Afghanistan becomes less and less a focal point for Deobandi mobilisation and discourse. The most likely area of cooperation is still through the Wafaqul Madaris, but there too they have been relatively cautious and have strayed rather far from their scholarly roots.

Q. As a more moderate Barelvi cleric, Tahirul Qadri has attracted considerable attention, both inside the country and outside. Does he seem a more attractive prospect or do you think people are now just too jaded to trust clerics, no matter what their denomination?

A. Tahirul Qadri, as a technocratic-minded cleric, is by any standard a curious figure. I’m not sure that Pakistanis have ever really trusted their clerics to hold political or legal power. That tradition just is not very strong in South Asia. Except in the hallowed halls of International Islamic University Islamabad I have found relatively limited support in Pakistan for the Saudi model of clerical political supremacy. That said, it seems to me that there is still a substantial longing for some kind of technocratic revolution – the idea that an incorruptible governance-minded figure can swoop in, set aside politics for a season, and put the system right. It’s an appealing narrative, particularly given how exhausting Pakistani politics has been of late, but I worry that it’s a false hope. Democracy is messy, but technocratic rule would just defer the real compromises that are necessary to govern well.

Q. With a lot of religious groups and militant outfits jostling for position within the same paradigm of the Islamic fundamentalist narratives, do you think we’re going to see this competition manifest itself more violently?

A. I don’t expect the Islamic State (or ISIS) gain a mass following in Pakistan. Its ideology and its view of the caliphate are sufficiently foreign to Pakistani Islamic norms. But I do worry that the Islamic State as a movement and as an idea brings together two powerful stories – the anti-state narrative, and the anti-Shia narrative – in a way that could further drive together Pakistan’s anti-state and anti-Shia organisations.

Already we are seeing deeper interaction between TTP fragments and LeJ fragments in Balochistan and Karachi, and it would be very worrisome for Pakistan if these groups were to substantially converge. For this reason alone, I think that the Pakistani state has real incentives to contain the growth of sectarian organisations, and should think twice about using those groups for its own purposes in places such as Balochistan. The blow-back – not only for Pakistan’s vulnerable minorities, but for the state itself – could be huge and long-lasting.

— Text by Hassan Belal Zaidi

Published in Dawn, December 2nd, 2014