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Pakistan: ’More radicalism than violent extremism in Punjab’ - interview with Ayesha Siddiqa

20 April 2016

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The News on Sunday - 17 April 2016

Waqar Gillani

The News on Sunday talks with Ayesha Siddiqa, a prominent security analyst, on the recently declared military operation in Punjab, following the March 27 attack on Gulshan-e-Iqbal park in Lahore.

The News on Sunday: What is the history of extremist groups in Punjab, particularly in south Punjab?

Ayesha Siddiqa: There’s more radicalism than violent extremism in Punjab. The province is an interesting place to study. Most of the violent extremist groups based in Punjab carry out violent acts outside Punjab. It is in incidents of sectarian violence or violence against minorities that one begins to feel their presence. These are basically expansionist groups that think in terms of Pan-Islamism and their leadership has more religious training and is conscious of religious revivalism than the Taliban. Their issue is not territorial but to capture state and spread Islam. This they do through slowly and gradually expanding their support base both within the state and society without attracting too much attention.

For instance, unlike the Taliban, they will not outrightly force certain behaviour on local population. They tend to co-exist other communities and belief systems without forcing their own views. The JeM followers or the LeT have aversion to Shia ideology but will resist from killing them as it is not strategically favourable.

In my view, these groups are far more dangerous than those in northern areas of Pakistan. They have enjoyed a long partnership with the state. They are inactive in Punjab but rather active outside Pakistan, in Afghanistan, India and Kashmir.

TNS: These extremist groups have a history of sectarian violence in Punjab. Do you think they are linked with extremist groups from outside Punjab?

AS: The differentiation between militants and sectarian groups is a flawed categorisation. Talk with the police in Punjab and you’ll hear them say we don’t have violent extremism but sectarian violence. It is a problematic differentiation. Their sectarian agenda is one dimension of the work they do. How can we differentiate between Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). They are all Deobandi, and dislike Shias and Ahmadis. Their literature will shock you. In his 2000-page magnum opus Fathul Jawwad Masood Azhar has explained how it is ordained to launch jihad against Jews, Christians and other non-Muslims (or those considered non-Muslims) as they de-populate mosques. He even states that killing women and children that take part in war against Muslims (of course the categorisation of who has launched a war depends upon the sheikh) is permissible.

I have talked to JeM followers; they say they don’t attack Shias because they don’t have orders to do so. The one difference between JeM and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, another Deobandi militant organisation from which JeM was born, is that its leader Fazlur Rehman Khaleel did not desist from attacking Shias. Many JeM followers believe that had Maulana Azam Tariq been alive, the parliament would have passed the bill declaring Shias as non-Muslims. Sectarian violence existed in Sindh in the 1950s but the systematic violence of the 1990s, which started with the 1980s, was a result of the state’s encouragement for the SSP to counter the growing influence of Iran. General Ziaul Haq was worried about this growing influence so he encouraged these groups.

Same goes for the Ahle Hadith sect. They are very anti-Shia but they are constrained because of their partnership with the state.

The nature of militancy in Punjab is different from KP, which is not just a hub of violence but next to a conflict region. It has tribal associations across the border which also means the intensity of violence by Punjab-based militants is often more acute than that of their tribal counterparts. The militants based in Punjab are driven by pure ideological passion. But this is also where these groups are different. They have a cooperative relationship with the state not to conduct major acts of violence in Punjab.

From this perspective, I consider the March 27 attack in Lahore, Punjab as a bit of an anomaly. The ideology of groups that exist here and have given guarantees to the state for relative security is full of hatred and violence. However, bloodshed doesn’t happen every day. This means that the trigger must be something else.

TNS: What is the major factor contributing to the strength of these groups? Is it religion is it poverty?

AS: The general impression is that they are driven by poverty. But, in my opinion, it is not poverty that really drives them. I believe it is essentially a middle-class phenomenon. The foot soldiers may be poor but it is primarily the middle-class which supports and finances the extremist groups. The middle-class has always used religion to renegotiate power because it wants to rise to power. The eternal reward and sawaab is a non-issue. In fact, the sawaab builds an individual’s or group’s social value. They essentially aspire to gain social, political and economic power much more than piety. For example, when you build a mosque or contribute to a madrassa, people consider you important and your social status increases. This is how the middle-class contributes to its social status.

In Punjab and Sindh the trend has changed. Today, there are more schools that offer a hybrid between madrassa and modern school. Ideologically, they deliver a potent breed of youth who are better educated and advanced. It is a misunderstanding that all madrassas are backward. The militant groups have now entered universities as well.

TNS: Do you think the militant groups have weakened after the army operation launched soon after the APS attack in Peshawar? What is the current status of these groups in your view?

AS: What is the evidence of these groups weakening? Their ideological base is strong and nothing was done to address the problem of radicalism. At best, many have gone underground. Those that were followed such as LeJ parts of such groups have joined safe groups like JeM or others while some members have gone to seek other partnerships. This sudden clamping down or the Operation Zarb-e-Azb will not change their ideology overnight. For instance, in Bahawalpur, the hot pitch of sectarian violence, the pro Malik Ishaq graffiti and sectarian slogans have disappeared only because the groups have gone underground. But, when the need arises, they will return.

The state is clueless about how to counter radicalism. It is taking an easy approach. Law enforcement agencies want to maintain law and order and are therefore disallowing these groups to conduct violent activities. So, for the sake of survival these groups are not conducting violence. But violence is there. For example, in 2013, there were Uzbeks in Multan. The headquarters of Lashkar-e-Khurasan was in Basti Malook in Multan and they were supported and protected by their like-minded members of the Council of Islamic Ideology. They have not disappeared anywhere.

TNS: So, you believe, the situation has not changed for these groups in the recent past?

AS: From the perspective of violence, Punjab was always more manageable. So, you may have limited spikes of violence but it remains largely in control. In order to clean up entirely, you require the following: the state’s decision that it will no longer keep proxies of any kind, initiate a de-mobolisation, disarmament and Re-integration programme, and carry out a well-thought out and integrated police and intelligence operation to clean up troubled spots.

Now, for years, the problem with the police is that every time they try to clamp down or arrest somebody they get orders from the top, mainly military, to stop them from taking action. I can give you an example from the past when a senior police officer (now retired), posted in south Punjab, had an issue with the JeM. The group surrounded the town hall and warned the police not to divert their attention from India and Kashmir, and threatened of bloodshed. The matter was resolved with the intervention of Inter Services Intelligence. But within a month the police officer was posted out of Punjab. So, what do you expect? There are other examples as well. Lastly, the police needs training and commitment from the leadership.

TNS: In this context, do you see the ongoing operation in Punjab, launched after the attack at Gulshan-e-Iqbal park on March 27, likely to curb terrorism in Pakistan?

AS: The current operation is not impressive at all. Here is an intriguing scenario. On the one hand, you have seriously dangerous militant groups sitting in the heart of Punjab, Sindh and even Balochistan. JeM’s flags went flying high in many places in Balochistan after Pathankot. However, the main operation being conducted is against gangsters in the provincial tribal areas. The Chotu group is not an old phenomenon. It is a new one and has arisen out of the badly-managed and greedy feudal system. It was a relatively small gang involved in kidnapping for ransom which has now become big for its boots. Reportedly, it has contacts with some of the Baloch liberation guys. The kacha area is dangerous. Even the colonial state had neglected these areas near the riverine-bed which created criminals and out of control crime in the kacha or tribal belt. The police is ill-equipped and has lesser cover to conduct the operation which does not mean that the military would manage either.

It seems the intention is to use firepower which may partly solve the problem as long as there is willingness to sacrifice hundreds of civilians that have been turned into a shield by the Chotu group. Eventually, the problem will resolve but the militant groups will remain. There has been a sizeable expansion of Ahl-Hadith ideology in the DG Khan area in the form of both madrassas and mosques. That issue will remain because no one wants to address it.

Under the circumstances, the military operation, which does not even seem to have started as yet, may just be aimed at pressurising the political government. It’s political gimmickry and nothing more. People feel something is happening but nothing is actually happening. Groups like JeM and JuD will remain intact. Without acting against these groups there cannot be a real operation.

TNS: How do you see the targeting of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s Malik Ishaq and his group? Has it not shown some commitment by the state to curb these elements?

AS: Malik Ishaq was killed when he was no longer of any use. But his ideology remains very vibrant. The bias against other sects of minorities that Ishaq was guilty of is rife even amongst law enforcement officials. What is really the difference between Ahmed Ludhyanvi and Malik Ishaq’s ideas? Moreover, start looking through literature of most organisations, even those that may not on the surface seem militant, you will find a common thread between many of them including al-Qaeeda, Jamaat-Ahl-Hadith and others. This does not mean that people should be killed left, right and centre but at least have a grip on where the problem lies.

TNS: What are the short-term and long-term solutions then?

AS: There is no short-term solution. One solution is to get rid of these groups but the state has not decided to do so yet. And getting rid of these groups does not mean killing everyone but telling them now that the days of extremism and violence are over and they will have to decide what to do. The only solution is long-term in which these groups have to be engaged in a debate. The state itself has to decide what direction to take. We cannot go on killing each other for ever either on behalf of groups or on behalf of the state.

TNS: Don’t you think such military operations announced in Punjab will increase civil military tensions as it seems the ruling PML-N is not in favour of a military-led strategy against terrorism in Punjab?

AS: I don’t see the army playing a role in eliminating ideological terror groups in Sindh, so what to speak of Punjab. The operation is at best a way to empower the military leadership vis-à-vis the civilian government. This is a smart martial law. But we will not have a solution.


The above article from The News on Sunday is reproduced here for educational and non-commercial use