Saturday, August 22, 2015

Pakistan, Sectarianism and Malik Ishaq's Death

Sectarianism has been on the rise for at least three decades as discussed in the last blogpost (See Rise of sectarianism and Pakistani Religious Nationalism). Due to the low capacity, ignorance or benign neglect of the Pakistani law enforcement agencies, the hydra of sectarianism got stronger and stronger and like in the case of mythical creature, banning one sectarian organization resulted in creation of two or more new ones. This is the story till 2015 which has the potential to be a game changer for Pakistan's fight against sectarianism.

However, before discussing what is happening in 2015, it is worthwhile to mention two developments that led to the changes that are witnessed in the current year. First, Nawaz Sharif, a right wing conservative and a sympathizer of Pakistani Taliban (mainly Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)) rhetoric, came to power in 2013 and tried to start talks with the TTP. After months of negotiations, the talks failed to take off ground as terrorist acts continued, making it clear to everyone, except the diehard supporter of the TTP, that the TTP are not interested in peace. Secondly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed General Raheel Sharif (no relation of Nawaz) as the new Chief of Army Staff in November 2013. Compared to  his predecessor General Kayani, General Raheel had a different opinion regarding how to react to the TTP's attacks on Pakistani state assets. General Kayani usually did not immediately react to the TTP attacks. However, soon after his appointment, General Sharif started responding to every major terrorist act by promptly bombing terrorist hideouts in the tribal areas. After it became clear that talks are useless, General Sharif started a large scale military action against the TTP in North Waziristan in June 2014. The TTP responded to this action by more terrorism. On 16th December 2014, seven TTP terrorists entered an army-administered school in Peshawar and killed 145 people, including 132 teenage students (See Peshawar School Massacre). 

The year 2015 thus started with a major change in Pakistani elite mindset. For the first time in nearly three decades, everybody agreed that religious extremism is a threat to Pakistan's existence. After this massacre, any sympathy for the TTP in the public space ended and even diehard TTP supporters, almost all religious parties, had to support strict action against Taliban. It was decided by the civilian and military leadership that a comprehensive National Action Plan (NAP) would be devised to end all kinds of terrorism, including sectarian violence. Special military courts were established under 21st Amendment in the 1973 Constitution to speedily convict and sentence those involved in religious terrorism. Under NAP, it was also decided to ban and take strict action against those making hate speeches and publishing hate pamphlets, books etc. (See Pakistan announces a national plan to fight terrorism, says terrorists’ days are numbered). Some specific points related to sectarianism in the NAP are reproduced below:
  1. We will act against literature, newspapers and magazines that are spreading hate, [ideas of] beheading people, sectarianism, extremism and intolerance.
  2. Banned organizations will not be allowed to operate under another name.
  3. Action is being taken to stop religious extremism and to protect religious minorities.
  4. The registration and regulation of seminaries (madrassas) is being planned.
  5. Decisive action is being taken against elements that spread sectarianism.

However, while there were visible changes regarding NAP implementation in other areas, action against sectarianism was halfhearted at best. Gruesome sectarian violence resumed; banned sectarian organizations continued to operate; and hate literature remained available in print as well as on social media. Just one month after unveiling of the NAP, on 30th January 2015, more than sixty people were killed in Shikarpur, Sindh in a bomb blast inside Shia mosque (See At least 60 killed in blast at Shikarpur imambargah). Two weeks later, on February 13, twenty people were killed in an attack on a Shia mosque in Peshawar (See Pakistan Battles Rising Sectarian Violence). On May 13, forty three Shia Ismailis were killed in Karachi when gunmen attacked their bus (See 43 killed in attack on bus carrying Ismailis in Karachi).   

So, there was widespread skepticism about Pakistani state's commitment to stop sectarianism. It was argued that various political parties and the military continue to see sectarian militias as allies in promoting their agendas. For example, Arif Rafiq, an expert on sectarianism in Pakistan, said to German broadcaster DW (See Examining Pakistan's growing sectarian violence):
The military as well as civilian politicians need to ease out of partnerships with groups that foment hate toward Shiites and other minorities in the country. The longer Pakistan's leaders continue to directly or indirectly aid hate groups, the longer it will be struggling to put out the fires started with its own hands. 

Source: BBC

So, killing of Malik Ishaq in 29th July, one of the most notorious sectarian militant leader, who boasted of killing more than hundred Shias, was against the run of the play. Not only Malik Ishaq was killed but his two sons and his second-in-command was also killed by the police. Malik Ishaq was in and out of jail for most of the last fifteen years, accused of being involved in hundreds of sectarian incidents but he was not convicted as witnesses and judges were threatened by him and his organization. It is widely believed that Malik was killed in a staged fight by police as he could not be convicted in a court. (See Malik Ishaq: Pakistan Sunni militant chief killed by police).

Does this means Pakistani state has finally decide to take on sectarian militants? It is too early to come to definite conclusion. However, things and events are snowballing. Army action in North Waziristan led to the Peshawar massacre which led to action against religious militants all across the country. While attacks by the TTP decreased, sectarian militancy continued, making the NAP a mockery as far as sectarian violence was concerned. There was pressure from public and media to punish sectarian militants. So, Malik Ishaq was killed. The cycle is continuing as according to many analysts Malik Ishaq's killing has led to the death of Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada in a terrorist attack on 16th August (See Punjab home minister Shuja Khanzada killed in terror attack). Khanzada was not an ordinary minister. He was a close confidant of Prime Minister's brother Shahbaz Sharif, who is the Chief Minister of the Punjab province. He was also close to military hierarchy as he was himself an retired army officer, who had served in Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence. His death was widely condemned and both political and military authorities promised to bring his murderers to justice. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

Rise of Sectarianism and Pakistani Religious Nationalism

Religious nationalism often leads to sectarianism. As explained in a previous blogpost (See Religious Nationalism and Sectarianism), when religious affiliation  defines citizen from a non-citizen, sectarian issues attain a political, economic and social significance. Far from being the concern of few theologians and zealots, they became the concern of everyone. For example, if religious law is not the law of the state and there is no chance it ever becoming state law or source of state law, few care how the rival sect differs in interpreting a certain Biblical or Quranic verse or hadith. However, once religious law is considered to be the source of state law, then everybody is concerned as there is a chance that one's religious beliefs maybe declared illegal or these beliefs maybe legal but would not entitle one full citizenship rights. 

An example would clarify. In 1978, General Zia introduced zakat (annual alms tax) system in Pakistan and ordered compulsory deduction of 2.5% from bank accounts that have amounts above a certain minimum level. Beliefs of Shia and Sunni sects about who can collect zakat differ. Sunnis believe state can collect zakat, Shias do not. Not many people, Shias or Sunnis, thought this difference was important before 1978. However, when Zia introduced the new system, Shias immediately protested and when Zia ignored them, they took control of some of the important government buildings in Islamabad and vowed to fight. In the end, Zia gave in and Shias were exempted from compulsory deduction of zakat by state.

So, a sectarian or confessional bias is inherent in a religious nationalist state. If state adopts religious laws, it has to choose between different interpretations. For example, in Saudi Arabia, state has adopted a particular religious interpretation about how women should appear in public. This particular interpretation has been rejected by most Muslims but Saudi state has enforced it. In Israel, marriage registration is controlled by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. If rules set by the Orthodox rabbinate are not followed, state would not register a marriage. Even a marriage under Reform or Conservative Judaism (rules), two other major streams in modern Judaism, is not kosher for the state. 

In Pakistan, sectarianism became an issue after General Zia started Islamizing the government. Before General Zia, there were sects and differences and sometimes violence would happen but such instances were few and far between. The knowledge of sectarian differences and the animosity that one saw in the 1980s and later was not present before. Rise of sectarianism was primarily because of General Zia's Islamization program but not all reasons of this rise were internal. Iranian Revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which made Saudi Arabia a very important player in Pakistan's religious landscape, also helped the rise of sectarianism.

Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal as given at Who is killing Pakistan's Shias and why?

Sectarianism continue to increase and become more violent after Zia due to the following reasons:
  • Madrassas and religious nationalism: Mushrooming of madrassas, which promote religious nationalism and train students along sectarian lines, under Zia started to have its effect on Pakistan in the 1990s. Madrassas provided recruits to religious parties and sectarian militias but were also proponents of Pakistani religious nationalism that Pakistani state was also promoting so taking action against them was difficult. Moreover, religious parties, which had overlapping membership with sectarian militias and leadership of both were trained in the same madrassas, made any strict action against sectarian militias difficult as it was termed as an action against Islam and against Pakistan;
  • Political instability in the 1990s: The nineties decade was highly unstable, with average tenure of Prime Minister being a year (nine Prime Ministers from 1990 to 1999). It not only undermined democratic development but also affected economic growth and law and order. A long term coordinated action against sectarian militias was not taken. Military sometimes used religious parties, which were supported by sectarian militias, to counter politicians' attempt to stabilize their rule and reduce military's power;
  • Sectarian militias as tools to promote religious nationalism abroad: Sectarian militias were used by military (particularly ISI) as tools for promoting religious nationalism in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Any attempt to take strict action against sectarian militias by the civilian governments was undermined by this link;
  • Rise of Taliban: Taliban and Pakistani Sunni sectarian militias had close links as Taliban also believed in same violent sectarian ideology and many members of Pakistani militias and Taliban had studied at the same Pakistani madrassas and fought alongside each other in Afghanistan. Therefore, Taliban rise and success in Afghanistan not only increased the confidence of Pakistani sectarian outfits but also provided them a sanctuary. 
After 9/11, sectarian outfits were banned and there were some attempts to limit them but these attempts were halfhearted at best. Internationally, General Musharraf was fighting against Muslim extremism but in Pakistan, Musharraf was in alliance with religious parties (Muthidda Majlis-e-Amal) that had a soft corner for the sectarian militias and publically supported Taliban's struggle in Afghanistan. Later, rise of Pakistani Taliban provided Sunni militias confidence, support and sanctuary inside Pakistan.

Benazir Shah writing in Foreign Policy in August 2014 (See The Trouble Convicting LeJ's Malik Ishaq) writes about these links between Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, one of the most notorious sectarian militias: 

In Pakistan’s toxic mix of terrorist organizations, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi maintains ideological and operational links with the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda. When need be, its foot soldiers have not hesitated to take their mission of sectarian strife across the border. In 2011, an offshoot of the radical group claimed responsibility for killing 55 Shiites in Kabul, possibly in cahoots with al Qaeda. Other jihadist groups, including Jaish-e-Muhammad, espouse its mission of establishing a Sunni state. More than 600 Shiites were killed in Pakistan in 2013, and over 1,000 were injured in a troubling uptick in sectarian attacks.
Shah also asked the question, will the state act against sectarian militias as it had started acting against Taliban?

For now the state is engaged. On June 15, it launched a comprehensive military operation in North Waziristan, long considered a deadly crucible of local and foreign terrorists. But there is a sectarian face-off brewing in the Punjab heartland, where Jhangvi is firmly rooted. But when the state’s gaze will turn to that fight remains to be seen.
All this history brings us to the recent killing of Malik Ishaq, his sons and other leaders of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. This will be discussed in the next blogpost.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Why a secular party is not allowed in Egypt?

Ahmed Fouad's article in Al-Monitor Is Egypt ready for a secular party? is about a recent attempt to form a secular party in Egypt. It is called Egyptian Secular Party (الحزب العلماني المصري). The article also traces three previous attempts to start such a party in Egypt. All of these attempts failed as Fouad explained:

  1. In 2004, Mohsen Lotfi al-Sayed and other intellectuals submitted incorporation request for a secular party Hizb-Masr al-Um (Mother Egypt Party). This request was rejected by the chamber of political parties’ affairs. After removing the reference to secularism from the incorporation charter and changing the name to Al Hizb al-Masri al-Liberali (Liberal Egyptian Party), another request was submitted but it was also rejected by the Mubarak administration.
  2. In 2011, novelist Alaa Hamed claimed that he wanted to start a secular party but was attacked by some Salafi leaders of Zifta city. Zifta residents denied his claim but no party was established. Fouad informs that Hamid was convicted of blasphemy in 1990 because of his book, The Void in a Man’s Mind: God’s Trial,
  3. In July 2013, after President Morsi's ouster in a coup, Shiite leader Bahaa Anwar called for the establishment of a secular Fajr Party and demanded disbanding of all religious parties. The name of the party was later changed to Secular Egypt Party but again no party was registered.

Egyptian Secular Party is formed by a group of people, most well-known of which is Hesham Ouf. Ouf is an Egyptian businessman and his previous political experience is limited to owning a marketing research firm that worked for Mohamed ElBaradei’s and Amr Moussa’s campaigns in the 2012 presidential elections. Egyptian Secular Party, according to New secular party to 'challenge religious dominance', wants to separate religion from politics, abolish religious education, and limit the power of Al-Azhar University that according to the party has become a state within a state.

Egyptian Secular Party formation has been widely criticized. Its leaders have been called crazy, atheists, extremists and collaborators and its agenda has been declared unconstitutional and against religious values of the Egyptian people. The charge of unconstitutionality is based on two grounds. First, secularism is a termed a religion (as Islam, Judaism etc.) and as Egyptian constitution bans all religion-based political parties, it is declared that a secular party is also unconstitutional. Second, secular party is deemed unconstitutional because it is against sharia, which is a part of the Egyptian constitution.

Fouad is not very enthusiastic about this latest attempt to establish secular party because of the lack of support from the Egyptian state:

The chances of establishing the party remain remote, especially in light of the lack of a clear position by the state. Establishing the party anytime soon could be difficult, given the question of its constitutionality and opposition from those who consider it a violation of religious beliefs.

With it strong stance against political Islam and religion-based parties, it appears strange that Sisi's administration is not only not promoting this party but also reluctant to register it. Registering this party would have paid dividends outside Egypt as many Western governments would have more inclined to consider President Sisi a liberal and support him. However, the attitude of Sisi administration is non-committal. Why governments against political Islam are not supporting secularism when it also helps them improve their international standing and prospects of aid?

The main reasons appear to be an increasing mixing of Islam with nationalism and a general anger against the Western governments in the Muslim societies. These reasons can also be considered as a form of nativism that rejects the Western influences (but accepts its technological, scientific accomplishments) and searches for authenticity. Secularism, in this discourse and environment, is linked with the West, extreme liberalism and atheism and thus becomes illegitimate on two grounds. First, it is wrong because it is linked with the West which is termed as source of most of the troubles; hence the use of terms collaborators and traitors for secularists. Second, it is castigated because it is against Islam that is considered a 'native' religion and an Arab religion. Both these arguments are obviously false as there is a rich tradition of secularism in Islam and one can be a deeply religious Muslim as well as a secularist.

Muslim/Islamic secularism appears to be an oxymoron but it is not. Nader Hashmi in Islam, the State, and Political Authority: Medieval Issues and Modern Concerns (edited by Asma Afsaruddin) talks about a Muslim secularism which accepts (political, not philosophical) secularism 'while still maintaining a commitment to the principles and rituals of Islam.' This indigenous secularism is authentically Islamic, based on Islamic precepts, but is functionally secular. State is not against religion and religious groups are allowed in the public/political sphere but civil rights of minorities, women and others are rigorously protected.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im in his book Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a  goes further and claims that secularism and secular state are more consistent with Sharia and history of Muslim societies than Islamic state and Sharia enforcement as a state law (p-268)

Despite criticism, Ouf is hopeful that his party would be registered:
The Constitution bans religious political parties, yet there are religious political parties operating. Why would the (government) committee then ban a secular political party, established in accordance with the Constitution?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Is religious nationalism rising in South East Asia /ASEAN ?

Is religious nationalism increasing in South East Asia? Michael Sainsbury, a Bangkok-based journalist, certainly thinks so. While explaining the Thai junta's decision to repatriate hundreds of Uighurs refugees to China, he argues in his article, Understanding the plight of the Uighurs:

Yet this action is one more example of how politics in Asia is unintelligible without factoring in the significance of religion. The common frequently focus is on military, trade and national rivalries that culminate in decisive and dismaying actions. But increasingly religion tied to national identity is integral to the events....
It’s the latest visible example that religious fault lines and an emerging trend of religious nationalism is now beginning to appear right across the region. It is one that poses a fresh threat to the ambitions of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Economic Nations Community that will come into being on December 31, 2015.

He mentions increasing Buddhist nationalism in Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar; Muslim nationalism in Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia; and Hindu nationalism in India.  

However, decision to repatriate Uighurs, as Sainsbury also acknowledges is more to do with Thai military junta's need for allies than to rise in religious nationalism in Thailand. Moreover, in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world, last year elections results showed that religious nationalism is stagnant, if not in retreat (See Indonesian Elections: A Victory for Pancasila Nationalism)

In Bangladesh too, although it is not in South East Asia like India, religious nationalism is losing to ethno-linguistic Bengali nationalism (See Bangladesh's secular nationalism asserts itself). Similarly, religious nationalism suffered a defeat when Philippines government agreed to accommodate concerns of Muslims in the Southern islands last year. 

Moreover, like Thailand and Cambodia, Muslim-majority Malaysia also deported fellow Muslim Uighurs to China in 2013 ( See Malaysia Hit for Deporting Uyghurs). More recently, both Malaysia and Indonesia (along with Bangladesh) were reluctant to accept fellow Muslims Rohingyas, who were fleeing worst kind of religious persecution (See Malaysia's Duty to the Rohingyas), making a mockery of Muslim brotherhood and Muslim nationalism. Only after international pressure, some rohingya refugees were accepted.

So, religious nationalism is South East Asia presents a mixed picture. It is rising in some countries but losing in others.