South Asian News Agency (SANA)
S Iftikhar Murshed
Shahid Zafar and Mumtaz Hussain Qadri have much in common. They were members of security outfits, both committed murder in broad daylight and both were promptly arrested. That’s where the similarities end. Shahid Zafar, of the Rangers, shot dead 19-year-old Sarfraz Shah on June 8 and was sentenced to death ten weeks later by an anti-terrorism court. His six accomplices, five of whom also belonged to the Rangers, were awarded life sentences.
There were no extenuating circumstances because the horrific event had been filmed by a television cameraman who happened to be around. The swift justice was therefore accidental. The judgment was nevertheless lauded in editorials and television talk shows as a landmark in the legal history of the country. The recurrent theme was that the mighty military and paramilitary forces had been finally been corralled within the ambit of the law. Though this was a faulty assumption, there was jubilation that justice had at last been done. Had Sarfraz Shah been framed for blasphemy, it is unlikely that his assassin would have been so promptly sentenced.
There were also celebrations, but for a different reason, after Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was gunned down in Islamabad on Jan 4 by Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a member of the police’s elite force and a part of Taseer’s security detail. Far from expressing even the slightest remorse or regret, Qadri boasted that he had acted in defence of Islam because Taseer had dared to oppose Ziaul Haq’s blasphemy laws. Despite this confession, the murderer has yet to be convicted though more than seven months have passed since the assassination.
Qadri was lionised after his horrendous crime as a ghazi (holy warrior) in massive demonstrations organised by the so-called religious parties. He was festooned with seasonal flowers and acclaimed a hero. The deadly virus of distorted religious tenets was not confined to the streets and also infected parliament. Some of its members objected to prayers for the slain governor, but assiduously avoided expressing similar reservations when fateha was offered for Osama bin Laden during mass rallies in some of the major cities of the country. It was precisely against such sickening displays of false religiosity that Khalil Gibran lamented in the early 1930s: “Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.”
The spontaneous outbursts of public support for criminals and terrorists who strive to impose their convoluted interpretations of Islamic doctrine on society demonstrate the extent to which the country has been radicalised. This has happened with the tacit will and consent of the political leadership, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Punjab. The reason is that the extremist groups are predominant in the southern part of the province and politicians vie with each other for their support. At the end of July an investigative columnist revealed that 86 million rupees had been earmarked in Punjab budget for the Jamaat-ud-Dawa as the banned Lashkar-e-Tayba now calls itself.
Similarly, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah has confirmed persistent media reports that the PML-N government had been providing financial assistance to the terrorist kingpin Malik Ishaq since 2008. Ishaq, a founding member of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (an offshoot of the Sipah-e-Sahaba which has been renamed Sunnat wal Jamaat), was released after 14 years of imprisonment last month. He was acquitted in 45 of the 100-plus terrorism-related cases against him and was granted bail for the remaining charges. Rana Sanaullah justified the monetary help on the ground that the disbursements had not been made to Ishaq but to his family, and that this was in compliance with court orders. Strangely, no such assistance was provided during the Musharraf era and neither has any court injunction to this effect surfaced.
The influence of the extremist parties in southern Punjab is also recognised by the PPP and, like the PML-N, it has pandered to these outfits for political gain. Khaled Ahmed, director of the Lahore-based South Asia Free Media Association, recalls that Sipah-e-Sahaba leader Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi openly bragged in March last year that all politicians who had won seats in the 2008 elections from south Punjab had requested his organisation for help. He also disclosed that Sipah-e-Sahaba’s support for the PPP candidate from the Haroonabad constituency had been announced in the presence of Governor Salmaan Taseer.
It is this power wielded by banned religious and sectarian organisations in south Punjab that has to be kept in mind as the election gimmick set in motion by the PPP for the creation of a Seraiki province gathers steam. In the unlikely event that the proposal is endorsed by a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, Senate and the Provincial Assemblies, as required under Article 239 of the Constitution, then the first time in Pakistan’s history a province controlled almost entirely by jihadi groups will have emerged.
Experts such as Khalid Aziz, chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training, reckon that the population of south Punjab is about 27 million and the influence of religious seminaries, or madressahs, is strong in all the 13 districts which include Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur, Bhakker, Dera Ghazi Khan, Jhang, Khanewal, Layyah, Lodhran, Multan, Muzaffargarh, Rahimyar Khan, Rajanpur and Vehari. These seminaries have spawned armed jihadis and have provided fighters to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Southern Punjab, Khalid Aziz believes “is emerging as an insurgency hub.”
Yet in October 2009, Rana Sanaullah denied on television that there were any terrorist groups in southern Punjab. This was contradicted by the PPP’s Jamshed Dasti who said that the area was saturated with violent Deobandis and south Punjab provided a fertile recruiting ground for the TTP.
In the past it was the feudal landlords, supported by federal deputy commissioners and the police, who controlled the area. This has changed over the last two decades with the ascendancy of the jihadi groups. Two vectors of power have now emerged in south Punjab. Khaled Ahmed writes: “The mutual tolerance of the two is actually hinged on the feudal landlord’s decision not to mess with the armed jihadis.”
The rise of these extremist outfits would not have been possible without massive external funding. The WikiLeaks revelations show that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been providing an astounding $100 million every year to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith madressahs in south Punjab “ostensibly with the support of these governments.” Dr Shireen Mazari, former director general at the Institute of Strategic Studies, claimed that in Dera Ghazi Khan alone there were 11,535 students from JUI-linked Deobandi madressahs and these institutions “receive foreign funding…almost solely from Kuwait.”
The damage done by these petrodollar-rich midget states of the Gulf region outweighs whatever financial assistance they may be providing to Islamabad. They have to be firmly told that the funding of seminaries that propagate violent extremism has to stop. The “fraternal” sentiments they profess for Pakistan is akin to Cain’s relationship with Abel.
But others cannot be blamed for our own shortcomings. Pervez Musharraf mollycoddled the jihadi groups to leverage support from the West, as much as the present leadership has gone the extra mile to appease them for political advantage. Many of those who dared to oppose the obscurantist worldview of the madressahs, such as Salmaan Taseer, have been killed, whereas others, for instance the highly respected theologian Javed Ahmed Ghamdi, have fled the country.
Several years ago the American poet and liberal activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti paraphrased Khalil Gibran’s famous poem when he wrote: “Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silent and whose bigots rule the airwaves.” There can scarcely be a more accurate portrayal of contemporary Pakistan.
The writer publishes the Criterion quarterly. Email: iftimurshed@gmail. com