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The futile politics of Osama and religious parties

Published May 02, 2012 11:40am


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A year after his assassination in Abbottabad, Osama bin Laden is as irrelevant today to the welfare of millions of starving and suffering Muslims as he was when alive. The same holds true for almost all Islamist political movements who are singularly concerned with enforcing their ideologies on the often unwilling Muslim populace, while these movements have no plans for alleviating poverty, hunger, and disease.

Last year when I learnt of Mr. bin Laden's assassination, I headed straight to the Parliament in Islamabad to report on the mass protests that many had predicted would erupt in case of such an eventuality. I walked up and down the Constitution Avenue but did not spot a single protester. I visited the Lal Masjid, the fundamentalist hotbed in the centre of Islamabad, hoping to capture some action there. Again, there was nothing to report. After walking through the capital for hours I realised that there may not be any mass demonstrations to protest against Mr. bin Laden's sudden demise.

In the weeks following Mr Bin Laden's death hardly any protests were witnessed anywhere in the Muslim majority countries. Unbeknown to most political pundits (especially in the west), Mr. bin Laden had gradually become a nonentity to the ordinary Muslims who have been busy fighting a losing battle against food price inflation, violence, and hunger. Whereas the majority of Indonesians and Pakistanis held a favourable view of Mr. bin Laden during 2002-2005, his popularity declined significantly in most Muslim majority countries by 2011.

Source: Pew Global Attitudes Project

In the recent past, religious (Islamist) parties active in the political arena have advocated using force to impose their ideologies on the populace and have evoked religion to mobilise the society against the ‘heretics’ within and the infidels elsewhere. Osama bin Laden followed the same approach. He evoked Islam to mobilise the Pashtun and Arab youths to fight first against the Soviet Union and later against America and its allies. His protégés, including the Afghan Taliban, followed the same ideology while brutally enforcing their puritan version of Islam where armed men entrusted themselves to hold sway over matters regarding vice and virtue. The Islamists projected public executions and flogging of men, women and children as the ‘true’ face of Islam.

Similar to the Taliban, the Islamists, regardless of being in Pakistan or elsewhere, are almost always busy creating mass hysteria about the ‘infidel’ killing and pillaging through the Muslim lands. Hence, the Islamists are found campaigning for pan-Islamic movements to raise Muslim armies for the doomsday Armageddon between the Muslims and the rest. Islamists not active in the electoral politics propagate this through sermons delivered from the pulpit, whereas those active in the electoral politics propagate the same on the floor of the House.

The Islamists' political philosophy almost always is focused on first wrestling the control of governments and militaries from the ‘heretic secularists’ before the Islamists would be able to offer any relief to the populace. Their political manifestos therefore seldom list any policies about what is needed by the masses in the short run. One therefore knows a lot about where the Islamist parties, such as Jamaat-I-Islami, Jamiat-i-Ulama-e-Islam (JUI) and others stand on Kashmir, Israel and President Obama, but one knows almost nothing about how these parties would address the immediate challenges, such as dengue fever, power shortages, poor water supply and sanitation, and generating employment opportunities for millions of unemployed youth.

For decades Mr. bin Laden lived in countries where poverty, hunger, and disease were the biggest concerns of the poor and disenfranchised. However, despite having access to millions of dollars of his own money and billions more that others would have readily donated, he did not initiate any mentionable projects to address poverty, hunger or disease in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen. He could have founded hospitals, schools and vocational training institutes. Instead he sponsored military academies in the most deprived parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If one were to look back at the communities today where Mr. bin Laden had lived in the past 25-odd years, would one see a transformed people with improved access to health and education facilities, or would one see more hunger, disease and hardship. Had Mr. bin Laden used his celebrity to address poverty, hunger, and disease, he could have transformed the very communities, which hosted him for years.

This lack of imagination also ails most Pakistan-based Islamist parties. Consider JUI, which is an astute Islamist party that has often outsmarted non-religious parties in political maneuvering. JUI does not have a policy for sanitation, water supply or primary healthcare. Apart from claims that if elected JUI will fix all of the above, it offers no blueprints or hosts expert panels to debate the same. JUI's central leadership comprising the Rahman brothers could be seen active in Parliament’s standing committees for foreign affairs (Mr. Fazl-ur-Rahman is a member) and Kashmir/religious affairs (Mr. Atta-ur-Rahman is a member) thus conforming to the ideological bend of  the most Islamist parties that see all threats being exogenous and the only internal concerns are reserved for vice and virtue.

Jamaat-i-Islami also champions issues that fail to address the immediate challenges faced by the poor in Pakistan. Jamaat’s recent drive against obscenity is one such example of using a red herring to demonstrate street power, command airtime, control political discourse, yet offer no relief to the masses on poor job prospects, or inadequate healthcare and education opportunities.

Jamaat is also a smart political enterprise whose leadership is intimately aware of its limited vote bank in Pakistan that is not sufficient to put the Jamaat in control of the federal government either by itself or in a coalition. The Jamaat uses this almost certain lack of a possibility of a Jamaat-led government to its advantage and spoils the governance for others by promising the world to the electorate. Jamaat's manifesto is therefore filled with promises that other parties with a shot at forming the government cannot match. Since the Jamaat knows it will never have to deliver on its promises, its electoral commitments include an unsustainably high minimum wage in a welfare state that will provide for the basic needs of all. Nowhere in Jamaat’s manifesto is any mention of how these projects, requiring hundreds of billions of dollars, will be financed.

Even the most celebrated Islamists became irrelevant to the masses soon after their death. Who can forget the hundreds of thousands of mourners at the funeral of late General Zia-ul-Haq in August 1988, which suggested to some that his legacy would last well beyond his death. While General Zia’s legacy is alive in Pakistan in the form of religious violence and intolerance, however within a couple of years after his demise his family and a few close friends were the only ones observing his death anniversary.

On the other hand, political, social, and religious reformers in the subcontinent have remained relevant to the masses even decades after their death. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s final resting place in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh is always alive with visitors who shared Bhutto’s political philosophy. The mausoleum of Bulleh Shah in Kasur and Data Darbar in Lahore are evidence of lasting legacies of the reformers who have remained relevant to their followers.

A few decades from today few will remember, if at all, that on May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden was assassinated in Abbottabad. However, most will remember the several thousand victims of religious extremists who followed in Mr. bin Laden’s footsteps.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of

He tweets @regionomics

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (57) Closed

Simon May 03, 2012 01:49am
I totally agree with the sentiments expressed by the author Mr. Murtaza Haider. It is high time the Pakistani mindset is changed. Wake up and do something for improving the lives of the common man, by good education on an international level, good scientific research, reviving the economy, job opportunities, etc. etc. Simon, Canada.
GAF May 03, 2012 05:54am
Great article. One thing needs to be highlighted is that OBL gained his so-called "celebrity" status in the name of violence and terror. For a long time, leadership in this country has been promoting an intolerant version of Islam to gain political mileage, and results are showing now right and left.
Manek Shergill May 03, 2012 05:30am
Very well said
samar wylie tx May 03, 2012 11:58pm
ejaz you are 100% CORRECT
Aamir May 02, 2012 04:54pm
100% correct
babar May 04, 2012 12:26am
Mutuza, you often bring up different perspective and out of box thinking and ideas. I often respect your views.
Junaid May 03, 2012 05:00am
Well written.
Yawar May 03, 2012 01:59am
Excellent article. Greatness is not measured in how many people one has killed or caused to be killed to attain a certain goal. Greatness is measured in how much a person thinks of, cares for, and helps others in need, especially those who are outside his or her circle of immediate family, extended family, school of thought, religion, locality, province, country, etc. True heros are the types of Abdul Sattar Edhi and Madam Teresa who sacrifice their own selves unconditionally for the sake of humanity.
Nusheen May 03, 2012 02:29am
Dear Mr. Haider, your narration has highlighted facts and displaying how the Islamic parties in Pakistan exploited the name of Islam. Islam is the religion of peace , tranquility , love and helping the mankind, terrorism and extremisms have no place in Islam.
ejaz ali May 03, 2012 02:31am
Murtaza i would rather urge you to kindly read the book" Inside Al Qaida and the TALIBAN Beyond OBL and 9/11" of saleem shahzad (murdered pakistani journalist). Though i am not big fan of OBL. But the cause for which AL-Qaeda was formed and still its gross root functionaries may be operative though weakened. 1. The questions arise that HOW and WHO would respond to the hate and desperation against corrupt and despotic muslim regimes? These regimes all over the globe are subservient to US or one of its ally one way or the other. These regimes are insensitive to public and their demands. 2. How the issue of Palestine and Kashmir has been handled by OIC? and Do you think that these two issues would be resolved by the west according to the wishes of sufferers. 3. Dear writer do u think that the way the natural resources of these muslim countries are exploited and plundered by the west are hidden from now more aware desperate general public? and how these puppit regimes are responding to that right on their faces. While sitting in USA plz avoid looking through their prism only. Masses are more aware than ever before.
humbe May 04, 2012 07:23am
does 2 wrongs make 1 right? moreover, people's povert etc is not linked with OBL. infact people are more inclined towards fighting with poverty, hunger etc than to anything else
Imran A. May 02, 2012 03:36pm
To add to this, countries from ME could financially help us alleviate us from poverty. Instead we get more financial aid from US, which comes with a price. Most of the financial aid from ME countries goes to invest in the same fashion as Osama Bin Ladin used. They don't care of the poor suffering, they only care that we become true Muslims like they are. I guess God has not put in their hearts to earn some good deeds in this world.
Rehan May 03, 2012 08:10pm
Osama was not a social welfare worker. Moaning on his lack of contribution in this field is as irrelevant as Obama's contribution to the music industry. What Osama aimed at achieving, he managed to do it pretty well, more than he evisaged himself... either by his own strategic acumen or circustances that played in his favour by the permission of God. I wonder what is the facination with some people to dismiss him or his efforts from history. Isn't it the same kind of extremist mentality, working in the opposite direction, as of those jihadis who want to make a Prophet out of him.
Devendra May 03, 2012 03:45pm
BRAVO!! BRAVO!! & BRAVO!! If only people like you were running Pakistan.......
Guest May 02, 2012 01:02pm
Vijay , I was born and lived my first of life ( 26+ years ) In Pakistan and I NEVER EVER Heard either OBL or Alqaida as such or any taliban or suicide bombing , In fact the biggest wepon in those days in my life , used by the streat holigans ( Ghundas ) was a 4 inches long Knife when opened it would give 7 ticks ( Saat Comani Chakoo ) . AK , RPG , etc were only the creation of that so called Jehad ( with Ameerican financial and military support ) to fight USSR in Kabul . Today is the 1st death aniversary of OBL . OBL & its leadership including the Org was a creation of CIA, ISI and When this Frankenastien Monster went out of thier controls and started eating them out , BOTH CIA & ISI joined forces to Kill him off on this very day , a year ago . So
Capt Mansur (Namibia) May 02, 2012 12:30pm
Yarana May 02, 2012 02:46pm
Great article
akhatrtak May 02, 2012 06:40pm
what you say.everybody knows but no one takes any notice.
Mubashir May 02, 2012 04:11pm
Obama is giving Osama undue honour by visiting Afghanistan on the anniversary of his death. In Islam, there are ways to address grievances and nowhere it says to kill innocent people to address them.No injustice done to Muslims anywhere can ever justify the taking of innocent lives. For the Muslim, this world is like a testing ground to show whether he reacts his way or Allah's way. Funny thing is Osama did not mind US aid when fighting the soviets; However, upon their departure, he suddenly remembered that they are our enemies !! Talk about using and dumping!! He should have directed his energies towards doing something worthwile for suffering poor in the Muslim World.
Mizan May 02, 2012 06:59pm
Salvation of common man will come when common man will be empowered to be their own ruler.That will happen when democracy .i.e.rule of majority will be initiated at the grass-root level & go upwards in a pyramid like formation. Doing away with the colonial system of bureaucratic governance is the prerequisite to establishment of the good of the good majority.
AHA May 03, 2012 11:52am
So true. The religious readers have no accountability as all their promises are deliverable in the hereafter. This, I think, also explains the poor human conditions in Muslim states
Ilyas Khan May 02, 2012 10:22pm
Congratulations for expressing so lucidly what every rational person thinks. After the destruction of Afghanistan, it was the duty of the rich 'International Brigade' headed by Bin Laden scion to assist, indeed mastermind, its reconstruction. But that needs a positive, humane, vision - a quality sadly lacking in all hardline Islamists.
Another concerned May 02, 2012 04:10pm
Mr. Haider's comments are well taken However, the Islamists almost never promise rewards or success in this world. So they dont have to deliver improved socio economic conditions. How else can they recruit suicide bombers.
Concerned May 02, 2012 11:50am
Good article. Hope more people write such articles, and that too in local papers to show the selfishness and empty promises of people using religion as a political tool
ahmad May 02, 2012 07:28pm
Excellent piece of work..raising basic question about programs and manisfestoes of these religious fanatic orgasations.... if ever they devise some program it will be based on philosophy of hatred.
Chaman May 02, 2012 01:05pm
Great article. I read Dawn regularly as other papers published elsewhere. Dawn is a great paper and it's policy to elicit divergent views is well appreciated. I am surprised that on issues of such vital issues concerning Pakistan, the comments mostly come from people outside of Pakistan. Is at that people are so frustrated and pessimistic that they have given up their hopes or they have been so brain washed by the their religious leaders and the formal education in the schools that they find nothing wrong with the things as they are. God helps only those who help themselves. If people don't realize what is being fed to them and continue to follow the leaders based on blind faith, may be they deserve the outcome.
B Shehriar M May 02, 2012 01:04pm
Thank you Mohammad Ali Khan for speaking my mind. Let it be known that man's merit lieth in service and virtue and not in the pursuit of evil and corrupt affection.
Saad May 04, 2012 06:17am
Osama bin laden was incapable of helping his fellow people just like the rest of the Arab world. Arab countries are still spending extravagantly for their own pleasures, while the muslim world is suffering around them. This just goes on to show the level of Self indulgence and intolerance sweeping the muslim countries. The only way forward for us is to educate the masses about their duties and responisbilities towards their fellow human beings.
Ram May 02, 2012 04:13pm
Dear Murtaza, I agree with you that it would have been great if OBL had taken up the cause of the poor and social reform in Islamic countries. Unfortunately he is not from that school of thought and his whole emphasis was to punish the infidels, be they Hindus, Hebrews, or Christians. Ram
Tauheed Ahmed May 02, 2012 02:07pm
Excellent article.
Rajbir Singh Aulakh May 04, 2012 06:13am
I am surprised after reading the article and all the comments posted by gentlemen, that when there are so many good and educated people like yourselves whio understand everything, then why Pakistan is still in this it that we simply watch a good and meaningful movie in the theatre ..clap for few minutes and when we leave the theatre we forget very thing. Or we simply say..its not my problem.
Zahoor Ahmed May 02, 2012 07:48pm
You are very right Chaman that most of us are brain washed by religious leaders and formal education and remaining are afraid of extremists. They don't want to loose their life without any reason.
dr mustafa shaikh May 04, 2012 04:13am
But two wrongs does not make it right.the killings cannot be justified on any pretext otherwise this mad game of killing will go on.
Talha May 02, 2012 07:46pm
Good read...compared to a bad article written by famous Hamid Mir for Geo recently..where he praised OBL of carrying a legacy of "self proclaimed" "martyrs"...As the author correctly points out at the end of day OBL and the other so called "islamic" political parties are trying to push their own agendas and coating it under "islamic" as to appeal to an already ignorant but majority part of population that considers saints burried in graves to be their god!!
Aamir May 02, 2012 04:56pm
A great and bold article. You have hit where it hurts the most. But it should be this way. The so called 'solution of all the problems' is in fact the problem it self, I mean the religious movements.
Guest from US May 02, 2012 08:13pm
An Extremely well written article. It should also be remembered that the current social and political situation in Pakistan was helped in it's creation by the Nato and American money's in 60s and 70s. It only helped the politicians and military people got rich. Unless the free money bond from US is broken, the few powerful people will always find ways to manipulate and stay in power for theit benefit and not for people. For a society to sustain a long tern success, the prosperity needds to be self created and earned. Good people have to rise up and claim the power. Murtazabhai, you are doing a great job.
Honorliving May 02, 2012 05:17pm
So what's your point?
Nasser Ali Khan May 02, 2012 05:59pm
Great article; it takes a Pakistani living outside Pakistan to bring in the REAL issues. I believe Islam does deal with the real issues for all mankind. However, it seems to have been hijacked by Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and their supporters. But then the death of this man, did not result in any protests by Muslims anywhere, as pointed out by you. That says there is still hope. Well done once again!
WellWisher May 03, 2012 08:01pm
A good person once said... An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind. So, the common thread in your all three points is to answer hate and violence with more hate and violence. I will leave it up-to you to judge whether its the right approach. Though you can try this approach within your family, for starters, to see how it works out.
Sakib May 02, 2012 12:22pm
You said it all. Thanks for writing this up.
Mohammad Ali Khan May 02, 2012 12:26pm
The environment which helped create Bin Laden still prevails around us.Ever increasing irrationality among Muslims in their beliefs nourishes extremism.Muslims attribute supernatural power to so many places, acts and people, and seek help from them. The salvation of common man will come when he will realize that elements of good character, for example,honesty,discipline,compassion,appreciation of knowledge and hard work,etc are essential for the progress of the society.This culture should dominate and thrive in the social institutions. Pakistani bureaucratic,political,commercial,educational,institutions need a transformation in their culture.Unless this happens,the extremism,corruption,tribalism will continue to thrive. Poverty,ignorance will not go away with the death of one man.
Hammad Virk May 02, 2012 06:14pm
Couldn't agree more! Great piece and I guess we need to prevail such thought among herds of these so called religious extremists. They are doing nothing but giving Muslims and Islam a bad name. Had Osama been so smart, he could have done alot for Muslims suffering in the world. I appreciate you effort to bring this up. Cheers!
Ali May 02, 2012 09:51pm
Thanks for speaking my mind. It is people like him who have made us famous all over the world. No foreign ariline comes to Pakistan except for few Arabs and no tourist comes to see our wonderland and each time I flash my green passport at any airport in the world I am made to wait and wait and wait.
Nishtar May 02, 2012 08:24pm
It is seldom that one comes across a person like OBL. A human who hated another with a vengeance . He took very good care of his family while at the same time planned how to destroy the families of others. He lived illegally in Pakistan and hid while telling others to kill or be killed. It is unclear what religion he followed, certainly not the religion of peace. He was an opportunist, and took advantage of the impressionable . In summary, he was a yellow bellied coward who got what he was dishing out to others.
Aamir May 02, 2012 04:53pm
I think you miss the point here. Bin Laden was not a Pakistani citizen and was not annoyed at powerty. This is what exactly the writer is trying to tell. And he is quiet right. Extremism in the Muslim world is not linked with corruption. Osama could have used this money to help make a better society. He did not and no extremist movement does that. Their goal is not removal of corruption, rather they use it as an argument to hide their dark acts of persecution.
Vijay K May 02, 2012 12:10pm
"Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it for religious conviction". –Blaise Pascal, 17th century philosopher and mathematician
concerned May 03, 2012 12:36am
I'm a bit surprised that you are indirectly blaming poverty, death, education and other disasters that Muslims face today, on OBL only. Look around yourself and you will realize that a Pakistani blood has no value when compared to a white person's blood. If OBL has innocent blood on his hands ( and I'm not denying this at all), so does the coalition forces and ANA in Afghanistan, political parties within Pakistan.
raj May 03, 2012 12:56am
Good assessment but starts with a narrow minded view...welfare of starving/poor/ millions of ... Muslims... Not souls regardless of them being Muslims or Christians or Hindus. And that is what Osama lacked. And that is why with the time people like him fade. Neither Mohamed (may peace be upon him) or Jesus or any other prophets preached that. They all tried to do good for the human kind regardless of their faith.
taj yargatti May 02, 2012 02:48pm
Very good article. hope wisdom prevail in the community for betterment of the society
Ajit May 03, 2012 01:27pm
Talha, i agre with your view but has anybody asked the question why when things are coated under "islamic" wrapper appeals. i think the answer lies is the fact that religion has encompased almost every aspect of a muslim's social and political life that when anythign iis sold under the "islamic" wrapper it finds ready acceptance as nobody thinks rationally to oppose it.
AHA May 03, 2012 11:48am
So true. May 03, 2012 12:00pm
Difference between Osama and mother Teresa say it all. After listening all if and buts. A simple way out is to change mind set of Pakistani awaam. Seeing the anchors like Zaid Hamid or so called dr. coming on main stream tv channels and preaching hate and making conspiracy theories against Zionists, Hindu and Christian has landed Pakistan to this situation. There is hope after this dark period it is to listen to people like Hassan Nissar, Najam Sethi or Marwi memon. Calling them traitor and some ill words from any mullah is not going to do good. A hope for Pakistan is to start its priority’s by forgetting and politicalising past glory days, treating everyone at par Shia,Ahmadies, Hindu,jews and women. The reconciliation will heal the nation and make you better person too.
JV khan waziristan May 13, 2012 09:49am
Murtaza! Bravo. U ve hit the nail at the head.U ve spoken my mind.U faltered in using the term FUTILE in the title.All they do is not without output. They ve an agenda ....agenda of acheiving heroic/celebrity status,fame,popularity and political power.And they ve got it and still going their way. And all this on the cost of our children blood.Theirs wil never hurt.So they deal n a business....Ane they NEED OUR HEADS TO RUN THEIR BUSINESS.
Sameer May 18, 2012 05:17pm
Nausheen you are right slam is the religion of peace and tranquility. But then why violence,intollerence, killings of innocent men and women are the order of the day in almost all countries inhabited by muslims? Can anyone enlighten on this querry?
Cyrus Howell May 20, 2012 07:23pm
Tariq K Sami May 21, 2012 10:05pm
Now as to who won the fight. ? Osama may have lost it in Pakistan but he has won big in USA "everything changed since 9/11". Actually he changed America in a fundamental way . He has also changed Europe and indirectly influenced the lives of millions of Muslims who live in the diaspora. USA now is closer in its psyche to the Jacksonian era rather to the Jaffersonian one. Rush Limbaugh,Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Bill O'Rielly, and of course Glenn Beck , just a few examples from radio talk shows. It is too early to say but if my hunch is right Osama might just be considered the most influential person in the last 100 years.
abdal May 27, 2012 05:22pm
a thought provoking comment