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Poverty has little to do with radical Islam

Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Islamic State in Syria and the Taliban in Pakistan have not taken up arms to create a classless society. Their aim is not social justice. They have taken to the paths of violence, employing terror as a weapon of intimidation, in pursuit of an ideal shaped by a half-baked interpretation of Islam.

The zeal of the Sep 11 bombers was not driven by poverty. Many of the recruits to the cause of messianic or radical Islam are not victims of Third World poverty. Aafia Siddiqui was not a poster-girl of poverty. Nor is Mumtaz Qadri who shot the Punjab governor he was supposed to protect.

Usman (now hanged) who led the attack on General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and the air force personnel who planned and executed the first attempt on Gen Musharraf’s life were radicalised not by poverty (by Pakistani standards they held relatively good jobs, jobs for which there are regularly thousands of applicants) but by a literalist interpretation of the faith.

Pakistan is a poor country, with tens of millions living below the poverty line. If poverty was the spur to radical Islam Pakistan would have been conquered by the likes of Mullah Omar long ago.

From what evidence we have about the phenomenon, the suicide bomber picked up and trained for his deadly mission, or the foot soldier of ‘jihad’, may be from the lowest rungs of society but the terrorist masterminds, those in leadership positions – the Ilyas Kashmiris, the Hakeemullah Mehsuds, the Mullah Fazlullahs – have the rudiments of education, but in most cases no more than that.

Readers of ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ will recall the bandit leader, Luigi Vampa, leader of a fearsome gang of robbers on the outskirts of Rome. Vampa always has a book in his hands…Caesar’s Commentaries, Plutarch’s Lives. Do the commanders of radical Islam read the poets or the classics? Plutarch informs us that Alexander always slept with a copy of the Iliad by his side. Would Mullah Fazlullah ever have come across the Divan of Ghalib? Would he have ever looked into it?

I say this not in disparagement but only to point out that part of the problem with radical Islam is that its worldview is so limited. It is circumscribed by a literal reading of scripture and, for the more learned, a reading of the commentaries of, say, Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Maudoodi. Qutb was a very learned man as, in his own way, was Maudoodi. But it is not for everyone to react with warmth or sympathy to their ideal of the perfect society.

Islam under the Abbasid caliphs was a thing of vigour and colour, not just embracing but celebrating all aspects of life. The golden age of Islam, when learning and culture were honoured, would never have happened if its inspiration had come from the writings of Qutb or Maudoodi. Would they not throw into the fire the Arabian Nights?

Is there any place in the Taliban canon for the Tuzk-e-Baburi, the Rubaiyat of Khayyam or the immortal poetry of Hafiz? If the Taliban had the power would they spare the Mughal monuments of Lahore? Would they even spare the shrine of Data Ganj Baksh or the shrines of other saints? How would they look upon Waris Shah and his Heer, Khawaja Ghulam Farid and Bulleh Shah?

Communist revolutions everywhere, from the Bolshevik to the Chinese to the Cuban, put guns in the hands of an intellectual elite. The CIA-sponsored and ISI-assisted first Afghan ‘jihad’ put guns, Stinger missiles and an endless supply of dollars at the service of a bunch of mullahs…Hikmetyar, Sayyaf, Rabbani et al. Even as they stuffed dollars into their pockets, the mullahs said they were fighting for the greater glory of Islam. The Americans patted them on the back and went along with the gibberish.

Pakistan’s other half-read lot, its generals, congratulated themselves on their strategic brilliance, little realising that what they were pushing their country into was a prolonged festival of ignorance and bigotry.

No sensible society gives power to the priest or the maulvi. Give power to the priest and you end up with the Inquisition and the burning of perceived witches and heretics at the stake. Give power to the maulvi and you end up with the brutality of religious extremism in Swat and the tribal areas. Give power to the generals and they start imposing their strategic theories.

Musharraf committed no treason. If an earlier Supreme Court could endorse his coup, what grounds were there for a later Supreme Court to hold a proclamation of emergency as an act of treason? He committed something worse, stupidity. Even now he says (in his Guardian interview) that, yes, they propped up the Afghan Taliban. Were they out of their minds? Even as Taliban insurgents were sowing a trail of destruction in Pakistan, Pakistan’s ruling generals were helping other Taliban in pursuit of that chimera, India hostility. The idiocy of this is breathtaking. If Musharraf deserves to be tried it is for this.

Take your pick as to which has led to more destructive consequences: the literalism of the mullah and his narrow worldview, or the India-centrism of the General Staff? Is there no one to tell Pakistan’s generals that the fight against extremism (in all its forms) requires concentration of energy and focus, and that this is undercut by any flare-up of tensions with India? If India is funding the TTP, if it is interfering in Balochistan, then the foremost objective of Pakistani foreign policy should be to ensure an end to this interference.

How? By engaging with India, not by unleashing the hounds of Kashmiri intervention, via such holy entities as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, or whatever its latest incarnation may be.

As Hitler prepared to attack Poland he neutralised the Soviet Union by signing a peace pact with it, not out of love for Stalin but out of the necessities of the Polish situation. Necessity not fake sentiment dictates a sensible engagement with India. But bring up this subject and the typical Pakistani product of the Staff College or the National Defence University goes red in the face, losing all power of reasoning.

The extremist problem is only half-addressed by the use of arms. The other half must be addressed by better schools and colleges, more libraries, by a better ordering of economic priorities…away from the extravagant expenditure on unwanted mega-projects and more on job creation. Shouldn’t more money be spent on government schools and colleges? Don’t we need to recruit more teachers, male and female? Isn’t there a dire need to revamp our health services? Don’t we need more nurses and doctors? Here we have money diverted from the provincial health budget to the metro-bus project. Our proclivity for wasteful expenditure and unwanted things knows no bounds.

We can do without foreign donors and consultants. Indeed, Pakistan can never begin its journey towards the light if the last foreign consultant is not thrown out. Rely on your own skills or get help from such countries as Cuba. And let’s learn to live within our means. Islam, Islam, Islam we keep saying all the time. Well, one of the first tenets of Islam is simplicity. Why don’t we inculcate some of that in our collective existence?

Easier said than done, you will say, as the culture of shaadi ghars (marriage halls) and housing societies for the rich or the relatively well-off has already crossed all decent limits.

How best then to state the proposition? Even before strengthening Pakistan’s defences, how do we expand its mental horizons? What do we do about the philistinism now so rampant here? This is Pakistan’s foremost problem.

Email: bhagwal63@gmail.com

Ayaz Amir, "Poverty has little to do with radical Islam," The News. 2015-02-17.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social issues , Social values , Radical Islam , Jehad culture , Islamic education , Taliban-Pakistan , Terrorist attacks , Terrorism law , Islamic theology , Pakistan