Madrassas Extending into Pakistani Heartlands

This short analysis from the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute is well worth a read. It discusses the controversy Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader, Asif Zardari set off when, while delivering the keynote address at the 23rd Internationalist Socialist Congress, he described madrassas as propagating Islamist extremism.

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s religious leaders condemned him. But reading the report, and these notes from MEMRI’s Urdu-Pashto Blog also indicates that the madrassas have spread from the Northwest Frontier Province into the rest of the country – including the Punjabi heartland. Although Islam is central to Pakistan’s national identity, the traditional practice of Islam was relatively moderate. In fact there have been skirmishes between different factions within the Sunni community (not to mention the bloody Shia-Sunni violence within Pakistan) – particularly in Karachi.

Considering the endemic corruption and misrule in Pakistan, it is surprising that radicalism has not made inroads faster. Consistently, the Islamist parties do not do terribly well in Pakistani elections (when they proved no better then their secular counterparts, the lost power in NWFP.) But as their influence expands they can, not only expand their parties, they can also re-shape the positions of the major parties, the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML). Although the PPP is generally perceived as secular and the PML is seen as closer to the Islamists – both turn to Islam when it is convenient.

Zardari is a problematic figure (although, despite reports, he is not mentally ill). He often seems to say the right thing, calling for a more moderate approach to India, and criticizing madrassas. He may actually believe these things. It is also possible that, because he cannot match Nawaz Sharif’s popularity on the ground – his wife the late Benazir Bhutto could – that he is appealing the West and particularly the U.S. as a balance. A real Pakistan policy needs to look beyond any given leader and build a deeper relationship.

To that end, the recent meetings between top U.S. and Pakistani military officers on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln for a “brainstorming session” is a step in the right direction. But the relationship needs to be far, far deeper.

According to Mark Bowden’s story in the Atlantic Monthly, “To Kill a Terrorist,” when the U.S. decided Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines was a serious problem they sent a CIA operative to liaise with the Philippine security forces. One of this operative’s key tasks was identifying which Philippine units and commanders were effective and then making sure they had the equipment and intelligence necessary to do the job. This sort of operation needs to be repeated dozens (maybe hundreds) of times if the FATA regions are to be brought under any kind of control.

Also, the relationship has to be more than military. Pakistan assumes that the U.S. will eventually abandon them. They have their reasons, first from the U.S. losing interest in them after the Soviets left Afghanistan and then when the U.S. sanctioned them for testing nuclear weapons. The burgeoning U.S.-India relationship also doesn’t help. When Presidential candidates threaten military incursions into Pakistan, it only heightens these fears.

Pakistan cannot be coddled – the U.S. must push for real economic and social reforms. The Islamist inroads into this nuclear power are too great to be ignored. But trying to achieve these things through threats and intimidation alone is unlikely to be successful.

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks for this piece. I printed it and will read further tomorrow. I’ve been up since 5:30 AM and it’s now 11:25 PM. Btw, I hope Asif Zardari would withdraw his candidacy as requested by the PML-Q’s Presidential candidate, In truth, I rather doubt it.


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