The Taliban inside Imran Khan resurfaced last week when he vehemently defended the KP government’s decision to hand out a hefty sum of Rs300 million to a madressah notorious for its links to militancy. He proved wrong all those who had hoped that the demon had been exorcised after the 2014 Peshawar school tragedy. His logic for favouring Maulana Samiul Haq is as senseless as his previous demand to allow the Taliban to open an office.
It is, perhaps, the first time that any government is funding a privately owned religious seminary. A major argument of the PTI chief is that Samiul Haq supported him in the anti-polio campaign. But he was not the only cleric to do so. Why then is he the only one being rewarded? Even some top PTI officials find it hard to defend their leader’s strange logic.
One cannot dispute the argument that there is a need for reforming the seminaries and to bring them into the mainstream. There is, however, no known reform plan in exchange for this massive funding for a radical seminary dubbed the university of jihad. One has not even heard of any KP government move to streamline the madressah education curriculum in the province.
The KP government’s funding of a radical seminary raises questions about the PTI’s adherence to NAP.
The KP government and PTI officials should have come out with a more plausible justification for financing this extremist institution that has been the ideological breeding ground for both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. The proliferation of militant organisations in Pakistan over the previous three decades was the result of a militant culture espoused by seminaries such as Darul Uloom Haqqania.
I remember watching a graduation ceremony at the seminary in 2003. There were thousands of students along with their teachers and religious leaders, who had gathered inside the campus, chanting ‘jihad, jihad’ as a message from the Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Mohammad Omar was read out.
Many of the Afghan Taliban leaders including Jalaluddin Haqqani are graduates of this seminary. Their association with the institution was never completely severed. The seminary drew immense international attention in the 1990s with the emergence of the Afghan Taliban movement. Thousands of Afghan, as well as Pakistani students crossed the border into Afghanistan to join the Islamic militia.
As I have explained in my book, Frontline Pakistan: The Path to Catastrophe and the Killing of Benazir Bhutto, in 1997, the seminary was closed for many months so that the students could participate in the Taliban’s war to capture the Afghan province of Mazar-i-Sharif. This was a large cross-border movement and it is debatable whether it would have been possible without the collusion of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus. The latter was known to have patronised the madressah for long.
I quote this relevant passage: “Just months before the [Sept 11] terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the school hosted a conference of Islamic parties and militant groups to express solidarity with Bin Laden and the Taliban regime. ... [S]everal Islamic leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan congregated at the sprawling auditorium ... vowing to defend Bin Laden and to launch a holy war against the West.”
Maulana Samiul Haq took pride in having met Osama bin Laden. “He is a great hero of Islam,” he told me a week after 9/11, showing off photographs of himself posing with the Saudi militant.
Samiul Haq who heads his own faction of the JUI never hides his sympathies with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. Not surprisingly, Yousaf Shah one of his closest lieutenants, was nominated by the TTP for negotiations with the government in 2014 before the start of the North Waziristan operation. His statements during that period are a testimony to his continued ideological backing for terrorist groups. It is also a fact that the three people arrested in Benazir Bhutto’s murder case and who are facing trial came from this seminary.
Interestingly, the TTP had also nominated Imran Khan in its negotiation team, but he excused himself to avoid further public criticism. Convergence of views on reconciliation with the TTP may well have been the basis of close political association between the two.
Imran Khan actively opposed any military action against the militant group despite its ruthless killing of thousands of Pakistanis. Even after the start of Operation Zarb-i-Azb, he would often express his reservations about the operation. His sympathies with the Taliban never vanished.
Local politics too may have been a factor in this large grant for the seminary. Some senior PTI officials openly accuse the KP chief minister of protecting his own constituency that is in the same district as Akora Khattak, the location of the seminary. Recently, several PTI members of the National Assembly openly revolted against Pervez Khattak accusing him of favouring his cronies and focusing solely on a few districts. But the chief minister could not have sanctioned such a large grant to the seminary without the approval of his party chief.
Such patronage of a radical seminary also raises questions about the PTI’s adherence to the National Action Plan that promises to combat religious extremism. This generous grant for a pro-Taliban seminary has come at a point when Operation Zarb-i-Azb is said to be at its concluding stage. Hundreds of soldiers have laid down their lives fighting the militants who received their ideological inspirations from institutions such as Darul Uloom Haqqania.
Such a move could reverse the gains that have been made so far in fighting militancy and extremism. The irony is that the PTI presents itself as the champion of the rule of law. But it has violated the basic tenet that public money cannot be used for patronising a privately owned institution known for espousing extremist religious views.
It is simply a political bribe and nothing to do with any professed effort to de-radicalise religious seminaries and bring them into the mainstream. In fact, favouring one group of a particular sect could encourage bigotry and fuel religious disharmony. It would have been much better had this money been spent on improving conditions of state-owned educational institutions in KP.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2016