The fight against the Taliban on ideological battlegrounds poses a grave challenge, writes Dawn.com's Huma Yusuf.

Scan newspapers and blogs in recent months and you’ll see that the fight against the Taliban in north-west Pakistan has been framed as a ‘war against terror’ or an ‘information war’ over the ‘hearts and minds’ of residents of the Frontier province. Op-eds have argued that the Pakistan Army is fighting the Taliban to restore territorial integrity, safeguard human rights, ensure good governance and establish the writ of the Pakistani state. Books and articles point out that Taliban foot soldiers are young men, lured to militancy by hefty cash dole-outs in the absence of other job opportunities. Indeed, one aspect of the fight against the Taliban has almost been forgotten in recent months – its ideological underpinnings.

The suicide bombing at the Jamia Naeemia mosque in Lahore on Friday, in which the head cleric Dr Sarfraz Naeemi lost his life, is an urgent reminder that the fight against the Taliban is nothing less than a battle for the future of Islam and how the religion is to be practiced and interpreted in Pakistan.

Events in recent months – such as the fiasco of the passage of the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation and increased focus on the Taliban’s funding sources – have made many Pakistanis cynical about their motives. In some quarters, the militants are viewed as money- and power-hungry warlords, hell-bent on claiming territory and control (and revelling in the wealth that Swat’s emerald mines have to offer). But Friday’s blast confirms that Pakistan’s militants are primarily on a broad ideological mission to impose, consolidate and spread their preferred interpretation of Islam.

Dr. Naeemi was not targeted by suicide bombers because he could offer them cash, territory, new recruits, communications technology or weapons. He was targeted because he opposed the Taliban ideology, consistently and brazenly. Earlier this month, he led a rally in Lahore condemning the Taliban. Members of two dozen parties comprising a Sunni alliance known as Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat Mahaz gathered behind Dr. Naeemi as he criticised the Taliban, demanded the eradication of militancy and expressed vociferous support for the military operation in Swat.

For opposing the Taliban ideology – and having the clerical clout that makes his opposition significant – Dr. Naeemi was killed by a suicide bomber in his own office on the premises of the Jamia Naeemi mosque.

He isn’t the first cleric who shuns extremist Islamic views to be assassinated, and he won’t be the last. In fact, the practice of targeting influential clerics with contradicting ideas has been flourishing among Afghan Taliban for several years now. Clerics of the Ulema Shura, a body comprising two thousand religious leaders that opposed the Taliban ‘jihad’, were regularly killed by militants in Afghanistan. Their support for Hamid Karzai’s government and a softer interpretation of Islam ‘displeased’ Taliban commanders who would ‘kill them’ to ‘obtain silence’.

For good or for bad, it’s time Pakistanis realised that once the dust settles in the wake of the Rah-e-Rast operation, the war against the Taliban will continue on ideological battlegrounds. And Friday’s blast reaffirms that these are not metaphorical battlegrounds, confined to the column inches of scholarly journals or the lecture halls of universities. These battlegrounds will take the form of mosques and madrassahs. They have already taken the form of Sufi shrines.

Recently, analysts have criticised the fact that politicians and political parties defer to religious councils to support their secular stance against the Taliban. For example, the MQM, despite its secular credentials, convened an ulema convention to speak out against Taliban infiltration. Similarly, the Pakistan government recently created a seven-member Sufi Advisory Council aimed at combating Talibanisation by spreading Sufi teachings instead. These efforts have been maligned because they “add yet another layer of religious governance to a country wracked by religious conflict” and further entangle religion and the state.

No doubt, having the Pakistan government champion and concretise one interpretation of Islam as the ‘correct’ one in an effort to stamp out extremist interpretations is a dangerous idea. But those who genuinely want to see the eradication of the Pakistani Taliban – liberals, moderates, and those who advocate for the separation of the church and state included – cannot now shy away from an ideological battle.

It is increasingly apparent that the struggle for a Pakistan free of militancy is conflated with a struggle over the soul of Islam. For that reason, in addition to military operations that target Taliban methodology (bombings, attacks, killings), the government – and the people of Pakistan – will have to jointly engage in ijtehad to devise a way to quash Taliban ideology.

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