A WATSONBLOG, hosted by THE WATSON INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL STUDIES at BROWN UNIVERSITY

December 20, 2009

Urdu interview on Madrassa problem in Pakistan

Posted by Saleem Ali at 06:47 PM | TrackBack

April 11, 2009

Treating Pakistan's "Cancer"

President Obama’s recent statement on US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan had some rather stark superlatives, labelling the border region “the most dangerous place on earth for Americans”, and sharply referring to extremism in Pakistan as a “cancer that could destroy the state”.

If the administration’s diagnosis for an acute malignancy is to be followed, then the response clearly needs to be systemic as well as targeted. Any reputable oncologist will tell you that a symptomatic approach still does not deal with the systemic causes of “cancer clusters” in the first place; that requires far more introspection on behavioural patterns.

The administration appears to be following a path whereby systemic causes of extremism are still being given minor importance in comparison with the larger tough-talk of drone attacks and threats of “no blank cheques”. The cushioning of the tough talk with the incentive of conditional development aid of $1.5 billion per year is also facing greater resistance in Congress, even though this is a relatively small amount in the larger scheme of US investment in fighting terrorism.

Just to give Americans an idea of what this amount means in the larger scheme of US counterterrorism operations overseas, $1.5 billion is approximately twice the cost of building the new US embassy in Baghdad. For a country of 160 million people, providing such a “carrot” will hardly satiate many appetites, especially when the Pakistani government has announced that it needs $30 billion in foreign assistance to meet its development challenges that have been hindered by the “War on Terror”.

(Oops, sorry, Secretary of State Clinton has decided to not use that term anymore — “Overseas Contingency Operations” is the new name of the game. Congratulations to the new administration for moving from hyperbole a la Bush to euphemisms a la Obama!)

Adding to the administration’s equivocation, American journalists who are obsessed with the narrative of “failed states” continue to present story after story about Pakistan with some level of repulsive bemusement. The latest example is an Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan published by the Carnegie Endowment’s Foreign Policy magazine.

As if to add insult to injury, General David Petraeus and Admiral Michael Mullen also recently admonished Pakistan about “indications” that the country’s intelligence services may be involved in helping the Afghan Taliban. Such vilification will further infuriate the Pakistani public, which feels victimised by the Taliban far more than the West, with thousands of soldiers killed and its own society further fractured by dissent and suicide bombings.

Such rhetoric also demoralises the Pakistani intelligence services, which can be credited for helping in the arrest of some of the major Al Qaeda kingpins, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaidah.

There may indeed be some nefarious activities within the ISI just as much as there have been manipulative activities by the CIA in the past. However, the way to approach this issue is to look at the ultimate cause of such activity, rather than hurling vacuous accusations. In the context of the Afghan conflict, both Pakistan and India have been interfering at various levels in the country, as noted by eminent scholars such as Christine Fair.

To deescalate this perverse Indo-Pak competition for dominance over Afghanistan, a regional solution is needed to resolve conflicts between India and Pakistan, including Kashmir and Balochistan. However, the Obama administration succumbed to Indian pressure and decoupled the Kashmir conflict from the regional strategy, and has threatened drone attacks on Balochistan that can only further destabilise the situation.

India has spent over $1.1 billion in aid on Afghanistan in the last five years when more than 80 percent of its own population lives in abject poverty. The goal of such neighbourly munificence should be questioned internally by Indians as well during their upcoming election. If neighbourly kindness is India’s ultimate goal, I can assure you that Pakistan and Bangladesh, India’s closest contiguous neighbours, would be most appreciative of such aid as well!

As for the Obama administration, if they are truly interested in a reform strategy towards Pakistan, they must first recognise the importance of building peace through a sustained strategy of diplomacy and development. I voted for Mr Obama and his “audacity of hope”, but his current approach to South Asia has left me disenchanted.

So what can the Obama administration do to bring back the sparkle in my eyes and those of many other Pakistani-American constituents?

There are many alternative strategies that need to be explored within the development mandate. Development aid must be specifically targeted towards key projects that can highlight America’s direct commitment to the Pakistani people — for example, direct aid to build desperately needed power plants or dams rather than more “capacity-building” for NGOs that USAID adores. Such intangible programmes often end up providing inflated overhead for consultants and have little palpable impact in winning “hearts and minds”.

Wide-scale weapons buy-back programmes such as those carried out after the Yugoslav conflict need to be implemented as they have proved to be fairly effective. Within one year, the programme in Croatia recovered 10,000 rifles, 7,000 anti-tank rocket launchers, 15,000 grenades and almost 2 million rounds of ammunition. In impoverished parts of our region, a carefully conducted programme of this kind could yield very positive results. Some hardliners will still need to be fought, but any combat must follow such ostensibly “softer” strategies that will gain much wider and lasting results.

A primary reliance on armed tactics is based on the false premise that terrorism is somehow a static phenomenon. The metaphor of “cancer” is particularly apt for our purposes: highly targeted radiotherapy, analogous to commando-style raids that have yielded important Al Qaeda targets, are essential to kill cancer cells. But excessive radiation (in the form of repeated drone attacks) itself spawns further cancer cells.

That is just what Al Qaeda is hoping for — a propaganda victory with further examples of US military intervention to gain more recruits and create more “cells”. Even beyond Pakistan, the damage that a heavy-handed approach to conflict resolution has done to US relations with the Muslim world is evident. The protests against Mr Obama’s first official visit to Turkey, a Muslim country that recently hosted a Pak-Afghan summit, clearly show that artful oratory and some mild palliatives of development aid will not be enough to gain sympathy for America’s objectives in the region.

Dr Saleem H Ali is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s research centre in Doha, Qatar and an associate professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont. His latest book is Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs (Oxford University Press, 2009). www.saleemali.net

President Obama’s recent statement on US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan had some rather stark superlatives, labelling the border region “the most dangerous place on earth for Americans”, and sharply referring to extremism in Pakistan as a “cancer that could destroy the state”.

If the administration’s diagnosis for an acute malignancy is to be followed, then the response clearly needs to be systemic as well as targeted. Any reputable oncologist will tell you that a symptomatic approach still does not deal with the systemic causes of “cancer clusters” in the first place; that requires far more introspection on behavioural patterns.

The administration appears to be following a path whereby systemic causes of extremism are still being given minor importance in comparison with the larger tough-talk of drone attacks and threats of “no blank cheques”. The cushioning of the tough talk with the incentive of conditional development aid of $1.5 billion per year is also facing greater resistance in Congress, even though this is a relatively small amount in the larger scheme of US investment in fighting terrorism.

Just to give Americans an idea of what this amount means in the larger scheme of US counterterrorism operations overseas, $1.5 billion is approximately twice the cost of building the new US embassy in Baghdad. For a country of 160 million people, providing such a “carrot” will hardly satiate many appetites, especially when the Pakistani government has announced that it needs $30 billion in foreign assistance to meet its development challenges that have been hindered by the “War on Terror”.

(Oops, sorry, Secretary of State Clinton has decided to not use that term anymore — “Overseas Contingency Operations” is the new name of the game. Congratulations to the new administration for moving from hyperbole a la Bush to euphemisms a la Obama!)

Adding to the administration’s equivocation, American journalists who are obsessed with the narrative of “failed states” continue to present story after story about Pakistan with some level of repulsive bemusement. The latest example is an Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan published by the Carnegie Endowment’s Foreign Policy magazine.

As if to add insult to injury, General David Petraeus and Admiral Michael Mullen also recently admonished Pakistan about “indications” that the country’s intelligence services may be involved in helping the Afghan Taliban. Such vilification will further infuriate the Pakistani public, which feels victimised by the Taliban far more than the West, with thousands of soldiers killed and its own society further fractured by dissent and suicide bombings.

Such rhetoric also demoralises the Pakistani intelligence services, which can be credited for helping in the arrest of some of the major Al Qaeda kingpins, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaidah.

There may indeed be some nefarious activities within the ISI just as much as there have been manipulative activities by the CIA in the past. However, the way to approach this issue is to look at the ultimate cause of such activity, rather than hurling vacuous accusations. In the context of the Afghan conflict, both Pakistan and India have been interfering at various levels in the country, as noted by eminent scholars such as Christine Fair.

To deescalate this perverse Indo-Pak competition for dominance over Afghanistan, a regional solution is needed to resolve conflicts between India and Pakistan, including Kashmir and Balochistan. However, the Obama administration succumbed to Indian pressure and decoupled the Kashmir conflict from the regional strategy, and has threatened drone attacks on Balochistan that can only further destabilise the situation.

India has spent over $1.1 billion in aid on Afghanistan in the last five years when more than 80 percent of its own population lives in abject poverty. The goal of such neighbourly munificence should be questioned internally by Indians as well during their upcoming election. If neighbourly kindness is India’s ultimate goal, I can assure you that Pakistan and Bangladesh, India’s closest contiguous neighbours, would be most appreciative of such aid as well!

As for the Obama administration, if they are truly interested in a reform strategy towards Pakistan, they must first recognise the importance of building peace through a sustained strategy of diplomacy and development. I voted for Mr Obama and his “audacity of hope”, but his current approach to South Asia has left me disenchanted.

So what can the Obama administration do to bring back the sparkle in my eyes and those of many other Pakistani-American constituents?

There are many alternative strategies that need to be explored within the development mandate. Development aid must be specifically targeted towards key projects that can highlight America’s direct commitment to the Pakistani people — for example, direct aid to build desperately needed power plants or dams rather than more “capacity-building” for NGOs that USAID adores. Such intangible programmes often end up providing inflated overhead for consultants and have little palpable impact in winning “hearts and minds”.

Wide-scale weapons buy-back programmes such as those carried out after the Yugoslav conflict need to be implemented as they have proved to be fairly effective. Within one year, the programme in Croatia recovered 10,000 rifles, 7,000 anti-tank rocket launchers, 15,000 grenades and almost 2 million rounds of ammunition. In impoverished parts of our region, a carefully conducted programme of this kind could yield very positive results. Some hardliners will still need to be fought, but any combat must follow such ostensibly “softer” strategies that will gain much wider and lasting results.

A primary reliance on armed tactics is based on the false premise that terrorism is somehow a static phenomenon. The metaphor of “cancer” is particularly apt for our purposes: highly targeted radiotherapy, analogous to commando-style raids that have yielded important Al Qaeda targets, are essential to kill cancer cells. But excessive radiation (in the form of repeated drone attacks) itself spawns further cancer cells.

That is just what Al Qaeda is hoping for — a propaganda victory with further examples of US military intervention to gain more recruits and create more “cells”. Even beyond Pakistan, the damage that a heavy-handed approach to conflict resolution has done to US relations with the Muslim world is evident. The protests against Mr Obama’s first official visit to Turkey, a Muslim country that recently hosted a Pak-Afghan summit, clearly show that artful oratory and some mild palliatives of development aid will not be enough to gain sympathy for America’s objectives in the region.

Dr Saleem H Ali is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s research centre in Doha, Qatar and an associate professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont. His latest book is Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs (Oxford University Press, 2009). www.saleemali.net

Posted by Saleem Ali at 09:58 AM | TrackBack

December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto's Tragic Demise

Benazir was a charismatic yet polarizing politician who showed remarkable courage in returning to Pakistan earlier this year despite numerous threats to her life. It is a tragedy for the country that those who follow absolutist ideologies are armed to the teeth and can inflict such damage both literally and figuratively to Pakistani society. The only way to address the problem is to have a massive campaign to disarm militants, and also strengthen civil institiutions so that people have a voice and the fanatics lose their recruiting ability. At the same time it is important for Americans to keep things in perspective about Pakistan. While this is a terrible tragedy, America has also shown to the world that strong societies can recover after such dreadful assassinations and the vast majority of Pakistanis have a vibrant national commitment that will allow them to recover as well. The next few weeks will be crucial in terms of how fast this recovery will be -- the international community must remain engaged with Pakistan's transition towards democracy and keep the pressure on President Musharraf to hold free and fair elections in coming months.

Linked below is a long audio interview that I gave to our local press about the Bhutto tragedy which they have posted online with a slide show about Bhutto's life and tragic passing which can be heard from the link below:

http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/legacy/slideshows/122707bhutto/index.html


Benazir was a charismatic yet polarizing politician who showed remarkable courage in returning to Pakistan earlier this year despite numerous threats to her life. It is a tragedy for the country that those who follow absolutist ideologies are armed to the teeth and can inflict such damage both literally and figuratively to Pakistani society. The only way to address the problem is to have a massive campaign to disarm militants, and also strengthen civil institiutions so that people have a voice and the fanatics lose their recruiting ability. At the same time it is important for Americans to keep things in perspective about Pakistan. While this is a terrible tragedy, America has also shown to the world that strong societies can recover after such dreadful assassinations and the vast majority of Pakistanis have a vibrant national commitment that will allow them to recover as well. The next few weeks will be crucial in terms of how fast this recovery will be -- the international community must remain engaged with Pakistan's transition towards democracy and keep the pressure on President Musharraf to hold free and fair elections in coming months.

Linked below is a long audio interview that I gave to our local press about the Bhutto tragedy which they have posted online with a slide show about Bhutto's life and tragic passing which can be heard from the link below:

http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/legacy/slideshows/122707bhutto/index.html

Posted by Saleem Ali at 10:38 PM | TrackBack

November 10, 2007

Pakistan's Lessons from Lebanon

By Saleem H. Ali, November 10, 2007, The Daily Times

http://dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2007\11\10\story_10-11-2007_pg3_6

I received news of Pakistan’s latest state of emergency during a visit to Beirut, Lebanon for a conference on regional conflict resolution. While driving past the shattered remains of the Saint George Hotel, where Rafik Hariri had been assassinated, I pondered the fate of my ethnic homeland that sadly is just as fractured today as Lebanon.

Interestingly enough, only a month earlier, Saad Hariri, the son of assassinated Lebanese prime minister and business tycoon, had been mediating to resolve the dispute between General Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif. As with many other cases of political exile in the Muslim world, the Saudis had also played a questionable role as interlocutors. Yet the lessons which Saad Hariri and the Saudis most acutely needed to highlight to President Musharraf and his opponents were that neither autocracy nor democracy are sufficient solutions to civil discord within nations.

The Saudis tried autocratic curtailment of civil liberties and cooptation of the religious establishment that led to further empowerment of Al Qaeda. The Lebanese, being a highly educated society, focused on democratic channels through a creative constitutional arrangement for governance based on devolved religious leadership but are still dealing with discord.

What then is the key to concord in multi-ethnic societies?

First, absolutist ideologies that dehumanise other points of view must never be used as political tools as was done by the American and Pakistani alliance during the first Afghan war and which has led to the current situation. Now that the militants have overwhelmed the army with their weapons, the only option left is to disarm these groups without compromise and strictly enforce laws about the sale of weapons.

In many cases, this can be undertaken through international programmes for household weapons purchases such as what was undertaken in Bosnia and Serbia after the Yugoslav civil war under the auspices of the United Nations. In an impoverished country like Pakistan, if enough money was put into such programmes rather than in buying more weapons for the army, there is immense likelihood of success. Any remaining hard-line elements would be much more easily dealt with through police action.

The only reason why militant groups are able to wield such widespread influence in Pakistan is because they are armed to the teeth, similar to the militias that existed during the Lebanese Civil War. Preventing vigilante anarchy is the responsibility of the government that has so far not been taken seriously in Pakistan because of a general acceptance of an armed culture of tribal fiefdoms. There is of course a dark side to having a defenceless populace. If the military is malevolent and willing to abuse its power to suppress the people, as has been the case in Burma, we are left with an agonising status quo. This is the argument that the founders of the American Bill of Rights used to give citizens the “right to bear arms”.

However, the Pakistani military generally has, until now, not shown abject physical abuse of citizens that military juntas elsewhere often demonstrate. This is largely owing to a fairly strong civic culture within the armed forces. Interestingly enough, this culture of relative civility may have evolved as a result of the army’s forays into private enterprise and institutions such as the Fauji Foundation. However, what is most troubling in the recent action has been the government’s disregard for the judiciary and the independent media that are both important institutions to prevent the abuse of power by the state in the absence of arms-bearing militias. The subjugation of the judiciary and the media has, in reality, given the cause of violent militias much boost, which the Musharraf regime should consider as an ominous and self-defeating sign.

Even well-intentioned rulers can fall prey to a grandiosity complex, feeling that only they have the ability to lead the nation to salvation. Sadly, it appears that General Musharraf, despite his sincerity and commitment to Pakistan, is now beginning to exhibit severe symptoms of such a psychological situation, just as the Lebanese leaders did before the civil war began.

In crises, rulers are often reinforced into believing that they are indispensable because of a circle of servile sycophants that inevitably surround them. Instead of falling for such self-indulgence, what must be considered is the power of due process that gives power legitimacy.

Let us not forget that President Abraham Lincoln, whom General Musharraf so emphatically quoted, followed due process throughout his career and was an elected president. Lincoln’s main emergency actions pertained to suspending the writ of habeas corpus (convincing body of evidence) for arrests of dissidents which is incidentally allowed by the US constitution in “cases of rebellion” and when the “public safety” requires it. Furthermore, unlike General Musharraf, Lincoln did not interfere with the authority of the Supreme Court, and Congress and the Courts subsequently validated all his actions.

Apart from the justification of a war on extremism, General Musharraf’s second justification for his actions has been to continue the path towards development that he takes credit for in terms of economic growth indicators. Here too, there are important lessons to be learned from Lebanon. Following the end of the civil war in 1990, private capital flowed to Lebanon and Beirut was rebuilt to its days of mid-century splendour. Yet many of the underlying tensions remained since income inequality and tribalism were not directly addressed in the economic euphoria that followed the investment boom.

Indeed, this is a lesson even Pakistan’s neighbour India must learn as it tends to gloat over its rival’s predicament. As Martha Nussbaum has argued in her important new book The Clash Within, India also has many structural symptoms of radicalisation and inequality that even a robust democracy and economic giant must be willing to address if it is to prevent conflict.

Peace is fragile in a fractured world and until institutions of human tolerance and economic and political justice are carefully nurtured at the most fundamental level in societies, there is little chance that either elections or martial law can salvage countries as far afield as Pakistan or Lebanon from such perennial cycles of crises.

Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment. He is the editor of the new book: Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution (MIT Press)


Posted by Saleem Ali at 01:08 PM | TrackBack

September 16, 2007

Israel and Pakistan: comparative perspectives on the judiciary

Paradoxical protests of victory were recently held on both sides of the famed barrier fence that Israel has been constructing to prevent suicide bombings. On September 6, the head of the village council of a Palestinian village called Bil’in won a ruling at the Israeli Supreme Court that declared that the route taken by the barrier had illegally appropriated land from the village. Palestinians had accused Israel of seizing around 200 hectares of land in the village to make way for the barrier, and charged that thousands of olive trees had been uprooted for construction. This week’s ruling provides residents with the opportunity to reclaim at least 100 hectares of confiscated land.

Paradoxical protests of victory were recently held on both sides of the famed barrier fence that Israel has been constructing to prevent suicide bombings. On September 6, the head of the village council of a Palestinian village called Bil’in won a ruling at the Israeli Supreme Court that declared that the route taken by the barrier had illegally appropriated land from the village. Palestinians had accused Israel of seizing around 200 hectares of land in the village to make way for the barrier, and charged that thousands of olive trees had been uprooted for construction. This week’s ruling provides residents with the opportunity to reclaim at least 100 hectares of confiscated land.

Celebration among the villagers of Bil’in was understandable, but even the losing side in this case was celebrating before cameras and applauding the objectivity of the courts. The Israeli government spokesman remarked to the BBC that the decision made him proud to live in a country where “the rule of law prevailed over politics”. Soon, comparisons were being made with Muslim states where such independent decisions would never have happened. Israel was once again heralded by Washington policy-makers as the bastion of good governance as compared to its neighbours.

Clearly, many neighbouring states have a long way to go before they meet international standards of human rights, particularly with regard to women. However, the independence of the judiciary is also significant in other Muslim states that are often maligned in such contexts. Consider the example of our own Pakistan, which shares with Israel the characteristic of being the only other country in the world that was formed exclusively on the basis of religion.

Two weeks earlier, the Supreme Court in Pakistan ruled against the government of General Pervez Musharraf by allowing the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to return from exile in Saudi Arabia. The court also ruled that extrajudicial arrests of street suspects on grounds of terrorism need to be justified by the government. Of course, these decisions came after the reinstatement of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, following months of street protests by lawyers. However, this strong stance of the courts, as well as the Pakistani civil society, was not given the credit it deserved in terms of positive governance. Instead of applauding the independence of the judiciary in Pakistan, think-tanks in London and Washington continued their complaints of “poor governance,” and “state failure”.

Since comparisons are so often made between countries in the region to justify favouring one country over another, it is worth mentioning that Israel has not necessarily abided by all legal standards itself, despite the celebration of the Bil’in ruling. In 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a non-binding ruling that parts of the 650-kilometre (410-mile) barrier along the West Bank are illegal and should be torn down. However, among many American political circles these days, the ICJ and the United Nations are quickly dismissed as “politicised institutions”. Such selective celebration of judicial high ground only furthers cynicism about the West in most Muslim countries.

As the next US presidential election approaches, the world should consider which politicians are willing to go beyond such trivialisation of international institutions. The only candidate in the race who currently shows promise to be balanced in these matters is Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and currently Governor of the state of New Mexico. He understands global politics better than any of the other front runners like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Rudolph Giuliani. Understanding and contrasting measures of justice are essential if we are to move towards resolving global conflicts.

While recognising these asymmetries of power and double-standards, it is essential that Muslim countries applaud the Israeli court’s decision and perhaps use this as a positive means of self-criticism. The Saudis in particular should reconsider their recent snub of the Pakistani courts by suggesting that their ad hoc exile deal with Musharraf regarding Sharif should override the Pakistani Supreme Court’s decision. This intervention led Musharraf to forcibly deport Sharif when he arrived in Islamabad earlier this week. This is not to exonerate Sharif, or for that matter, Benazir Bhutto: they should face all court cases in which they have been charged.

Despite these cautionary comments about reading too much into the Bil’in decision, we should certainly use this as an opportunity for further peace-building. Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad’s visit to the village, to gain some credit for what was basically a grassroots action, is nevertheless heartening. His comments were the most explicit to date about the prospect for peaceful co-existence between Israel and Palestine. Fayyad stated unequivocally that it was a sign that both Israelis and Palestinians could live “side by side” in peace. The work of Michael Sfard, the Israeli lawyer for Bil’in municipality, also shows the potential for working across physical and political barriers on such matters.

At the end of the day, Israelis, Palestinians and Pakistanis alike seek justice just as much as any other human community. The perception of how justice is configured and dispensed on either side of an issue is just as significant for conflict resolution as the substance of the cases themselves. It is high time that the West and the East become more discerning about giving credit and censure where it is due, regardless of our own political proclivity.

Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment. He is the editor of the new book Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution (MIT Press). Email: saleem@alum.mit.edu

Posted by Saleem Ali at 04:42 PM

July 15, 2007

Peril in Pakistan

The siege of the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) in Pakistan has ended but there are lingering questions about the causes and ultimate consequences of this unfortunate incident which might possibly have been prevented by earlier action. Several Pakistani governments countenanced the extremism of this group for years and tried to placate their behavior in the interest of winning favors with the Islamist parties. Occasional arrests were made but then perpetrators were released on mild assurances. Arms and ammunition accumulated in the compound and then the government claimed it was too dangerous to engage the group. The authorities could have exerted nonviolent pressure on the institution far earlier on by cutting off communication, power and water but they decided to be reactive rather than proactive. In many ways, this siege was reminiscent of a fanatical hold-up by the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas more than a decade ago which ultimately led to the death of dozens of women and children. The Waco siege showed us that prevention must occur at a much earlier stage when weapons are being accumulated by such groups. Once the matter reaches a siege stage, there are no winnable options since suicidal fanatics are in question. While the Waco raid was also assailed by the news media and was the motivation for Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma bombing, in retrospect there were few options that the Clinton administration could have pursued at that point.

The Waco comparison shows that non-Islamic fanatics are also capable of many horrors. Yet the reality is that mainstream churches in America condemned the extremist’s behavior and largely distanced themselves from the group. In contrast, Pakistan’s Islamist politicians and clerics offered very mild condemnation of the mosque’s fanaticism and only recently did the Wifaq-ul-Madaaris (federation of madrassas) suspend the membership of the Lal Masjid seminaries. The media-savvy Maulana Abdul-Rashid Ghazi continued to give interviews to Western news outlets with aplomb. In one recent interview with the BBC, Maulana Ghazi, the vice-imam of the mosque, dismissed comparisons with the Taliban by stating that unlike the Afghan strains of Islamists, they were in favor of educating women. Yet what this education entailed, few cared to ask or question and by each passing minute the group was further emboldened.

Three years ago, when I interviewed the clerics at Lal Masjid for a research project, they were quite adamant that the most fundamental purpose of educating Muslims was to claim political ascendancy in the world. The confusion over what this “ascendancy” really means continues to bedevil policy-makers in the West. First we had the cavalcade of reports expressing concerns about Muslim schools soon after 9/11. However, this was followed by numerous revisionist accounts from a panoply of experts (including one study by the World Bank) who claimed that all this concern was in vain. Perhaps, they argued, there were only a few madrassas we needed to be worried about? We seem to revel in a world where contrarian commentary is given much credence even when it is not supported by all the facts.

As I personally watched the events in Islamabad unfold, the issue became much clearer and far more sinister than the revisionists had assumed. An exchange of gunfire between militants at the madrassa and government rangers outside the building quickly escalated and within hours the environmental ministry building was randomly attacked and set alite. Scores of people on both sides had been killed. Yet the perpetrators of the arson as well as numerous other acts of vandalism across the city were not just from the madrassa itself but from an entire network of seminaries spread out across the city. In a country where one-third of the population has cellular phones, it is quite easy to mobilize action when a network of militancy exists as it does with the madrassas.

It is high time that we become more aware of the perils of extremist educational institutions which have a far broader base in Pakistan than we care to admit. The only way to address the problem is for Muslims countries to independently monitor and control madrassa vigilantes, while ensuring curricular reform. Muslim governments must make it clear to all clerics that the most important verse in the Quran is Surah 2 Verse 252 which states quite clearly that “there is no compulsion in religion.” Those militants who are not willing to tolerate alternate views and assume the writ of the state without consensus from the public are nothing more than thugs. Tolerating the intolerant is a recipe for disaster.

The good news is that there are now emergent organizations that are attempting to combat this fanaticism. For example, The Council on Islamic Education, based in California is also trying to professionalize the curriculum in Islamic schools and promote greater tolerance and context to Islamic texts by differentiating between jihad (a just struggle for rights) and hirabah (unjust war) through a detailed training program. According to the training manual: “The jurists prohibited hirabah because Islam places an absolute value on public safety and protection as God-given human rights. Hirabah is punishable by the most severe penalty mentioned in the Qur'an, where it is called fasad in chapter 5, verse 33, meaning in this case mayhem and destruction.” The Islamic Cultural, Educational and Scientific Organization (ISESCO) based in Morocco is a nascent pan Muslim-organization deserves greater support at an international level.

The challenge of preventing cooptation of Islamic institutions by external interests for political conflict, while preserving their independence and social service is reaching a critical juncture in Pakistan and across the Muslim world. A multifaceted strategy is essential to tackle this challenge – one which accepts the empirical insights that are provided by research and avoids sensationalistic or sanguine accounts of the problem.

Saleem H. Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont. His book titled Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan is currently under review

Posted by Saleem Ali at 05:23 PM | TrackBack