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Wednesday Oct 04 2017

The mainstreaming debate

During a visit to my village in Muzaffargarh in 2000, I was told that Sajid, the younger brother of one of my class fellows, had been killed in Indian Occupied Kashmir. Sajid was an introvert, an obedient young man who was always in awe of his older brother. I had seen him grow up and could not imagine that his life would end in this way. It was after his death that I came to know about his association with Lashkar-e-Taiba.

I knew what to expect at his home when I went for condolences. Two years earlier, the Lashkar had made the mistake of giving me access to their sprawling headquarters in Muridke near Lahore. I was given a chance to interview dozens of its fighters and commanders as well as family members of slain fighters. I also had a chance to visit the home of Hafiz Saeed where I met some of his close relatives and interviewed him at his office at the University of Engineering and Technology (UET). My special report in a leading magazine where I then worked ended up extremely upsetting the organisation – and remains one of the most cited sources on the organisation.

Due to my strong interest in the rituals and anthropology of death, I had noted that the organisation was inventing rituals that had no precedence in Islamic societies. These rituals mainly involved celebrating the death of its martyrs. So I had to congratulate the family on the martyrdom of the young man and I would be served sweets.

I could not muster the courage to congratulate the old man and he did not follow the rituals. After all, I was like his son. He showed me Sajid’s notebooks where he had written S after his name. “I did not know what S stood for till the news of his death reached us – S stands for Shaheed”, he said. As I had seen in other cases, the family had become deeply religious and the father had grown a flowing beard. I had already met a father, called ‘Abu Shaheedain’ (Father of two martyrs), who wanted to go to Kashmir because he did not have a third son to offer for fighting.

I found that just as the Tableeghi Jamaat has reduced Islam to its brand of Tableegh, the Lashkar had reduced the religion of peace to its brand of jihad (or Qital to use the proper vocabulary). Some Deobandi scholars assert that instead of preaching religion (Tableegh-e-Deen), the Tableeghi Jamaat has created a religion of preaching (Deen-e-Tableegh). I don’t want to say the same about the Lashkar because I do not enjoy the authority of a Deobandi scholar.

My exposure to Lashkar-e-Taiba challenged many generalisations I had made about members of militant organisations. I had reported on militant and sectarian organisations for years, regularly visiting their dens, which were no-go areas for outsiders and law-enforcement personnel. I had seen how they bullied the locals and kept them in constant fear.

Militancy, after all, is deviant behaviour – like other crimes. A militant dissociates himself from the larger society and tries to inflict pain on the mainstream. In case of the Lashkar, I found that it was quite the opposite. Its fighters thought that they were sacrificing themselves for the sake of the country and the larger society. There was a socio-economic reason behind it. Unlike other militant groups, the Lashkar’s recruits belonged to the lower middle class of Central Punjab and had attended government school. They appeared to believe from their heart of hearts what they were taught in their Pakistan Studies classes.

The Lashkar’s fighters were not supposed to keep arms at their homes. They were rather required to serve their communities till they were called to make the ultimate sacrifice. I found that they were full of humour and energy and were often the darlings of their mohallas and villages. “What wonders we can do with this kind of youth”, I had thought.

Much has been made of the ideology of militants. ‘Mind-set’ is one of the most popular terms with our commentators. This term, however, does not exist in any psychology or sociology textbook. I did not find the ideology of Lashkar fighters any different from what our children are learning through their school textbooks. Every nation prepares its soldiers for death and teaches them a variant of the ideology of legitimate warfare – which is called jihad in Islam. In Pakistan, soldiers have administered the medicine back on the whole nation.

Four decades of research on terrorism in psychology has yielded nothing. We can conclude that what is most important in this regard is ‘How’, not ‘Why’. Indian Muslims are far more sectarian than Pakistani Muslims. You can find dozens of YouTube videos where men of the whole village have been required to redo the nikkah ceremony because they dared to pray behind an imam of another sect. However, Indian mosques and imam bargahs are safe for worshippers.

Iqbal, perhaps the greatest Muslim thinker of the 20th century, was declared an apostate by an authority no less than the Imam of Kaaba. The move to push him out of the pale of Islam was spearheaded by the Khateeb of Lahore’s second most important mosque, Wazir Khan Masjid. However, he never felt that his life was under any threat and no one dared to use violent means against him. The last laugh belonged to him and not to his tormentors.

In contemporary Pakistan, the JUI has asserted on many occasions that its differences with the sectarian Sipah-e-Sahaba are confined to methodology alone. In the world of organisations, methodology trumps ideology – process is everything.

Mainstreaming provides an answer to the ‘how’ question. It makes the militant groups change their tools from guns to microphones. Guerrillas are hard to defeat in the battlefield. In the democratic arena, they can be outnumbered and outgunned too easily. Islamist groups are a huge threat in countries like Egypt where their democratic rights and the freedom of association was trampled. In countries like Pakistan, they are routinely humiliated on the ballot box by the ‘secular’ parties.

Syed Maudoodi did us a great favour when he converted his Islamist movement into a political party during its most controversial annual gathering in 1956. Hafiz Saeed appears to be doing us the same favour. However, no one appears happy because many questions remain unanswered.

Mainstreaming is often part of a well-debated and well-thought-out strategy. It usually requires a legislative process to grant amnesty to a group or individuals if they have broken the law or committed any crime. If such a policy has been devised, we are not aware of its contours. In the absence of an open relinquishing of arms by a militant group, a political party can be just a political adjunct to a militant outfit.

Mainstream political parties like the PML-N have other reasons to worry as well. During the last three decades, voters of religious parties have become mainstreamed. They have left religious parties and joined larger national parties. This mainstreaming of the religious voter has reduced the leverage enjoyed by the establishment over the mainstream parties. The PML-N fears that this process is being reversed artificially.

Rightly or wrongly, the religious voter is angry. In my opinion, it must be given the political means to express its feelings. For decades, we failed to curb this criminal association. In our zeal, we should not put tabs on the legitimate freedom of association guaranteed in our constitution.

Personally, I would be happy if Sajid were to become a leader of the Milli Muslim League (MML), rather than a fighter who died in Kashmir. This at least would have given me a chance to argue with him. It would also have saved his father from the pain of serving sweets to those who came to condole with him.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

This was originally published in The News.

Originally published in The News

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