Why Does Pakistan Not Crack Down On Its Own Religious Extremists?

The Pakistan State’s extremism was exposed when Imran Khan failed to enforce lockdown due to religious opposition.

5 min read

This week, a rather affable looking man was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury for attempting to join the Islamic State. Muhammad Masood, a licensed doctor who got his medical degree from Rawalpindi, worked in various posts in Pakistan, till he was accepted as a trainee in the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in 2018. As it happens, he didn’t stay long. He left the job in March this year, as he readied himself to join the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.

Reports of the investigations show his hatred of the country that had given him an opportunity, and his wish to carry out lone wolf attacks in the US itself.

The report didn’t get much traction in the media. For one, COVID-19 dominates news stories. More importantly, arrests of Pakistanis are no longer ‘news’. Pakistanis, or those of Pakistani origin, have long been part of terror plots the world over for anyone to be surprised about it. While a great many countries have had their nationals recruited into the ISIS, no other single country can claim such a global presence in terror plots everywhere and of such diversity.


US & UK’s Trysts With Pakistani Attackers

Take a look. The US has arrested several Pakistanis, including one five months ago, for planning a 'lone wolf' attack in New York. Earlier was the San Bernardino attack described as the 'most lethal attack since 9/11', by a Pakistani couple, who pledged allegiance to the ISIS. Shift to the UK, where in November 2019, Usman Khan of Pakistani origin, was arrested after stabbing 5 in the London Bridge attack that shocked Britain. Khan had spent time in Pakistan with his mother, and had plans to set up a terrorist camp on a plot he owned in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

He was earlier arrested together with seven others of the same origin for an organised attempt to stoke terrorism in the UK.

Another eleven Pakistani nationals were reported arrested in 2009, and another one in 2010. Don’t forget the terrible metro bombings of 2005, again linked solidly to Pakistan. Italy broke up a terrorist cell of Pakistanis that was planning to attack the Vatican as part of a 'big jihad' , while a more recent case involved money laundering operations that included funds for the Uri attack in 2016.

The Global Pakistan Terror Connection

Spain arrested some 24 Pakistanis till 2008 after the Barcelona bombing plot, and continued arrests in 2016 and 2017, with further detentions for human and narcotics trafficking in 2019. Norway arrested a Pakistani-origin man and his son for joining the ISIS in 2016.

In January 2020 an ISIS wife from a Norwegian Pakistani family, was arrested when she returned from Syria. Germany had a dramatic arrest of a Pakistani-origin terror financier in 2008, and a horrific truck attack on Christmas shoppers by a Pakistani asylum seeker in 2016. Even Islamic nations haven’t been exempt.

Saudi Arabia arrested 69 Pakistanis for involvement in terror, including a 19-year-old woman. Riyadh then deported some 40,000 Pakistanis due to fears of terror involvement. The list is endless, but the above should be indicative of the widespread terrorist activity by Pakistanis in countries that have accepted them.


Why Isn’t Islamabad Taking Action Against Its Own Radicalised People?

It is true that Syrians, Algerians, Yemenis and Chechens have been part of terrorist plots as also at least two Indians. But none can claim to have operated in so many locations across the world.

Respected analysts have pointed out that Pakistanis have often been radicalised in their country of adoption, like the UK.

That is true, but begs the question why Muslims of other ethnic backgrounds have resisted the radicalisers. There is also the fact that the most popular such firebrands responsible for radicalisation was Anjum Chaudhry, himself of Pakistani origin.

Again, India does have a Zakir Naik who has inspired many a violent soul, but New Delhi has been moving heaven and earth to get him. Islamabad doesn’t seem to be much affected by all this activity by its people. Indeed, the world saw the unusual spectacle of a Foreign Minister calling Pakistanis abroad to come out on the streets and protest on the issue of Kashmir. They did, and it was extremely violent. It doesn’t get stranger than that.


Why Imran Khan Couldn’t Enforce a Lockdown Amid COVID, And Shared Dais With A Regressive Scholar

Why does the Pakistani government, and increasingly, parts of the Pakistani population, behave the way they do?

The extremist mindset was most recently revealed when the government of Imran Khan seemed unable to enforce a lockdown, due to opposition by its religious right.

After a series of negotiations, President Alvi caved in to their demands to allow congregations during Ramzan; this, at a time when even Saudi Arabia ordered an unprecedented closure of the Mecca.

A second instance is even more worrying. At a telethon on national television to raise money for a cash-starved Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan shared the dais with Tariq Jameel who blamed ‘immodest women’ for the pandemic. Far from admonishing the cleric, he followed it up with his own comments the next day on vulgarity of Bollywood and divorce, expounding the value of the Islamic system. Given his history of rapid divorces, that’s even stranger.


Pakistan’s Religious Extremism & Its ‘External Adventures’

It is true that the Pakistani constitution has always given religion a central role. According to a comparative analyses, the constitution has unique clauses not common to any other Islamic nation. For one, it requires that parliamentarians not ‘violate Islamic injunctions’, a Federal Shariat court to monitor ‘Islamicity’ of laws, and in an even more unique clause, a definition of just ‘who a Muslim is’, which excludes entire swathes of its population.

That led to the systematic targeting of Ahmadis since its inceptions. Over the years this expanded to include rising violence against Shias and Hazaras, as well as Christians, Hindus, ,and of course, women, all justified by the clerics.

A sitting Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, was got rid off, by using these clauses, and justified by the politicians. And for the last thirty years, the country has fought religious wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir, which were justified by the military.

In this litany, one fact emerges. Much, though not all, of this religious extremism rose in tandem with Pakistan’s external adventures. Hillary Clinton, in 2011, warned Islamabad that ‘it could not expect snakes that it reared to only bite its neighbours’. That warning seems to have come too late. The snakes have not just returned home, but the poison of extremism now seems to be the new normal. That’s the real danger, and the fact that this is no longer limited to the religious tub-thumpers. It’s got to the very top.

(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

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