What a surprise! Apparently, when it comes right down to it, the much-maligned Pakistani state actually faces very little difficulty in establishing its writ. The crackdown on the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s (JeM) leadership and seminaries in the wake of the Pathankot attack in India arguably demonstrates that Pakistan has both the capacity and the ability to take action against militant outfits as and when it chooses. At the outset, it is important to clarify that this is a welcome step in the right direction; while the usual suspects are busy mewling about alleged capitulation to Indian demands, saner heads on both sides of the border seem to have acknowledged the need to continue with the tentative peace process, and to not let it be derailed by the actions of those inimically opposed to seeing stability and prosperity in South Asia. Nonetheless, given the understandable alacrity with which the government of Pakistan has moved against JeM, it is important to continue to ask two key questions: why was action not taken against groups like the JeM earlier, and why do similar groups continue to act with impunity across the length and breadth of Pakistan?
For decades, analysts in Pakistan and elsewhere have decried the military establishment’s nurturing and deployment of militant proxies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Independently of the dubious strategic merits of this policy, one very good reason for opposing it was the fact that it generated tremendous amounts of violence, intolerance, and instability within Pakistan itself. The tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers who have died at the hands of terrorist attacks, and the millions who continue to suffer at the hands of religious persecution and discrimination, are testament to this fact.
Since 2014 and the launch of Operation Zarb-i-Azb, many have come to believe that the military establishment has seen the light, and is now responding to the internal threats produced by years of muddled strategic thinking. This is all well and good, except for the perception that the freedom of operation enjoyed by groups like JeM suggests the continuation of a policy whereby the military punishes recalcitrant, erstwhile allies – the ‘bad’ Taliban – while continuing to support and tolerate the existence of those that remain cooperative and quiescent – the proverbial ‘good’ Taliban.
Fighting Islamist militancy in Pakistan was never going to be easy. While it is tempting to believe that military force alone can work, the reality is that a truly comprehensive solution would require an ideological offensive coupled with a genuine desire to address the root causes of violence and radicalization – deprivation, marginalization, and alienation. It will also require a recognition of the way in which all extremist groups, even the allegedly ‘friendly’ ones, contribute towards perpetuating an atmosphere of conflict. Allegations against JeM have existed for a long time. It should not have taken the state so long to react to them and it is imperative that the net now be extended to include other such groups whose existence continues to be tolerated.
Postscript: Two weeks ago, I argued it would be a mistake to view the Council of Islamic Ideology as being an extreme but ultimately irrelevant entity. Given the Council’s tremendous symbolic power, as well as its institutional links to different political parties and religious organizations, the fact that its recommendations are advisory in nature does not mean that they do not carry any weight. The point was proven earlier this week when the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill of 2014 was rejected by the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony after the Council of Islamic Ideology declared that the law would be ‘anti-Islamic’ and ‘blasphemous’.
It is important to be clear on this point. The term ‘child marriage’ is nothing more than a euphemism for child abuse, and the repugnancy of ‘marrying’ children (almost always girls) as young as nine years of age off to men old enough to be their grandfathers should be self-evident. Under currently existing legislation (dating back to the colonial era with minor amendments in the 1960s), the punishment for ‘marrying’ a child under the age of sixteen amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist. The proposed amendment simply sought to increase the severity of the punishment with a view towards discouraging a practice that essentially results in the sexual exploitation of children.
Last month Maulana Sherani, the chairman of the Council, sought to have Ahmadis declared apostates from Islam. That this would have undoubtedly led to violence and bloodshed is something that could not have possibly escaped the Council’s notice, and it was only a reported intervention by Maulana Tahir Ashrafi that prevented this from happening. Given that the Council of Islamic Ideology appears to be comprised of people who have no qualms about pursuing such a frankly genocidal agenda, it should not be surprising that they would not have second thoughts about subjecting children to a lifetime of cruelty and maltreatment.
Perhaps the worst part of this sordid saga is the obvious cognitive dissonance that is on display. The theological arguments advanced by the Council of Islamic Ideology, rooted in particular readings of Islamic history and scripture, are ultimately theoretical; the reality is that child ‘marriage’ unquestionably leads to injustice and abuse. Take, for instance, the manner in which child brides are bartered to pay debts, retain control of property, and resolve disputes; a reasonable response to such cases would be to unequivocally support any and all measures seeking to bring an end to such practices. Instead, the ideological blinders worn by the Council of Islamic Ideology consistently and constantly lead its members to endorse positions that perpetuate and strengthen a deeply problematic status quo. The Council’s refusal to even countenance a discussion of the context in which their pronouncements are made simply lends credence to the notion that it is full of ideologues more concerned with their own version of doctrinal purity than any broader concern for social justice.