Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


How to fight back

June 25, 2011


THE arrest of Brig Ali Khan, among others, from the army HQ for suspicion of his affiliation to my old Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) are necessarily about far more than merely ‘fighting militancy’ in Pakistani society or within the army.

Army spokesman Maj-Gen Athar Abbas has stated that the army follows a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards such recruitment.

Despite the many grave errors the army has made of late, here they deserve praise for having done the right thing. However, these arrests must be seen as indicative of a wider intellectual malaise in Pakistani society surrounding the civilisational direction the nation should take.

When a nation suffers from such intellectual paralysis, the solution involves the painstakingly slow process of creating an intellectual consensus that can form the fabric of society — like a social contract, redefining the nation’s image at home and abroad, and reclaiming Islam from the extremists who seek to monopolise its interpretation. Just as it took years for us to get into this mess, it will take years to get out. As far back as 2003, journalist Ahmed Rashid reported on another purge of such elements by Musharraf. Regrettably, I had helped to recruit some of these officers while they were studying at the famous Sandhurst military academy in the UK.

Indeed, the particular problem of HT infiltration inside the Pakistan Army was exported to Pakistan from Britain. HT advocates violent overthrow of democratic states through illegal military coups in order to enforce a single interpretation of Islam. I call this ideology ‘Islamism’, and they have hijacked the term ‘caliphate’ for their utopia.

Recruiting from the world’s Muslim-majority armies is a fundamental tenet of their call. And though groups like HT are not terrorists, this only makes them even more able to recruit from the Pakistani elite for their paralysing call.

So whilst the media focuses on the high drama of terrorist attacks carried out by groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and others of their ilk, there is another non-terrorist but equally dangerous war raging in Pakistan. Enter the intellectual warfare of ideas and narratives. Winning this struggle is far more crucial in the long term. The ideology that fuels this struggle portrays Muslims and the West — both perceived simplistically as monolithic entities — as eternal enemies and competitors for world domination in a zero-sum game.

Muslims are encouraged to unite and rise up in order to attack the West and impose a single interpretation of Islam on the entire world. But in order to do this they must first overthrow their existing governments, for which they have a very particular plan.

Groups such as HT do not seek to launch a mass movement; rather they specifically target the intellectual elite and the military apparatus of the countries in which they operate. For years, leading journalists and the intellectual elite of Pakistan have been targeted by highly educated English-speaking Islamists. They have been seeking to convert prominent opinion shapers to their supremacist ideology. Once this sector is taken, a military coup can be staged by key officers sympathetic to the cause, who would in turn face minimal resistance from society.

As one of HT’s texts from Britain reads, this would “normally be done by the Party seeking to access the military in order to take the authority ... After this the military would be capable of establishing the authority of Islam. Hence a coup d’état would be the manifestation of a political change....”

The work of groups like HT is being made easier by other Islamist groups, who have long planned to dominate civil society and government institutions in order to normalise their hate-filled ideology and narrative. It is also being made easier by current events in the region like the war in neighbouring Afghanistan and instability within Pakistan. But brave civil society figures and groups in Pakistan are staging a fight-back against extremist propaganda, although the battle ahead is long and hard.

Ultimately, peace and stability in Pakistan can only come about once democratic culture takes root in Pakistani society.

Democratic culture is not just about holding elections every few years but rather a sustained commitment to values such as the freedoms, equality, human rights, pluralism and respect for the rule of law.

Just as Islamist social movements have for years been preaching their ideology to the grass-roots in Pakistan, counter-narratives are needed to spread the values of democratic culture and reclaim Pakistan and Islam. Who are the leaders of democracy in Pakistan today? What are the symbols of democracy? Where are the social movements working hard to reverse the drift towards Islamism and to create ‘buy-in’ for democratic culture on the ground?

Islamist leaders, symbols and movements exist in abundance, but one struggles to think of more than a handful for genuine democratic activism. This much-needed change will not come about automatically or overnight. It requires a concerted campaign by individuals and organisations that are prepared to work together, promote each other (not drag each other down) and stand up to the forces of disorder and chaos.

The fight-back has begun but it will require a lot more energy and resources to rescue Pakistan from its current downward trajectory. Crucially, it will require courage.

The writer, a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, is director of the UK-based think tank Quilliam.