Al-Baghdadi, the caliph, and Pakistan

Who will bell the cat?

The ISIS, which broke all records of brutality set by previous militant organisations, has decided to call the areas under its control the “Islamic State”. It has also anointed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph for the entire Muslim world. Once the Islamic State has stabilised itself in the swathes of the Syrian and Iraqi territory, it will seek the allegiance of all Muslim states, organisations and leaders for the new caliph. In the primitive days the custom was to send a messenger carrying the Holy Koran in one hand and a sword in the other and the ruler was asked to choose one of the two. In the modern world the same message can be sent even more effectively. The ISIS has been aptly described as a social media powerhouse.
As Aki Peritz, a former CIA counterterrorism analyst and author, has put it the group skilfully exploits platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram among others, “to promulgate many gut-churning images and videos of its war against the shi’a and the Iraqi government broadly. These include one where the group claimed to have executed some 1,700 captured soldiers. Another video shows ISIS fighters beheading a police chief, then merrily tweeting: “This is our ball. It’s made of skin #WorldCup.” Does it remind anyone of TTP’s Omar Khorasani?
The task of the consolidation of power of the so called Islamic State has been made easier by the divisive policies of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The shi’a – sunni rift, widened by the Maliki regime’s sectarian policies, has led many sunni tribes to side with the militants. The sunni middle class, pampered under Saddam, finds that there is no future for their children under the regime. There are expressions of dissatisfaction against Maliki even in the shi’a south. The Parliament is not happy with him either. The Kurdish troops have moved into oil rich Kirkuk and the Kurdish separatist sentiment is on the rise. What is more Turkey which was once its strongest opponent is now agreeable to the idea of an independent Kurdish state emerging from the ashes of Iraq.

The task of the consolidation of power of the so called Islamic State has been made easier by the divisive policies of the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The conquests of the caliphate in Iraq have put it within easy reach of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Lebanon which shares border with Syria is another potential target. Recently as many as 92 per cent of the Lebanese interviewed by PEW said they were worried about extremism. What is going to become of Jordan in days to come is anybody’s guess.
Unless the caliphate is nipped in the bud, it is capable of playing enormous havoc in the region and beyond.
But who will bell the cat? None in the Middle East is willing to take the Islamic State head on after al Baghdadi’s group put to route a million strong Iraqi army, the best trained and most well equipped in the entire region. This was the natural consequence of the US disbanding a highly professional Iraqi army raised by Saddam. What was left was done by Maliki who closed all openings for the sunnis thus driving a whole lot of experienced soldiers and commanders into the rebels’ camp and from there into the lap of the rising anti shi’a ISIS.
There were expectations that the US would evolve a response after consulting Saudi Arabia and the Gulf allies which have not been fulfilled. As is his wont in situations of stress, the Saudi King has loosened his purse strings, releasing $500 million for distribution among the war affected population “regardless of their religion, sect, or ethnicity”. This is like throwing money into the sea.
Any consolidation of the group once called ISIS would be harmful for Pakistan. Its successes would encourage not only the TTP and its affiliates but also the potential jihadis under training in thousands of seminaries.
Muslims of the subcontinent have a pathological history of running after chimeras. Beginning from the ill-fated jihad by Syed Ahmad Brelvi, a misadventure widely idealised in the text books, they thronged to the Khilafat movement despite opposition by Jinnah. Iqbal, widely respected by the TTP, bemoaned the abrogation of Khilafat by Ataturk in a verse that still continues to stir the jihadis “Chak kar di turk-i-nadan ne khilafat ki qaba”. The leaders of the Khilafat movement are still widely revered by the ruling elite. The pictures of Muhammad Ali Johar and Maulana Shaukat Ali are invariably displayed on national days along with other prominent Muslim leaders. Johar Town in Lahore is named after the former. None mentions the fact that Shaukat Ali attempted a physical assault on Jinnah for his opposition to Khilafat.
Soon after the demise of the anachronistic Khilafat movement a section of the ulema called upon the Muslims to leave British India as it had turned into darul harb. The Quixotic move called “Hijrat Movement” again attracted thousands of people, many selling their belongings at throw away prices, to migrate to Afghanistan. Scores of students left colleges to undertake hijrat. Afghanistan was not able to feed them or provide them employment. The Mohajirs had to beg in the streets of Kabul. Some reportedly starved to death. A few managed to make their way to Turkey or Soviet Union. Those who decided to return to India were arrested and put on trial.

Numerous Pakistani militants are reportedly fighting with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group in Iraq and Syria.

Little was leant from history by the military or political leaders of Pakistan as thousands of seminaries imparting extremist ideas and propagating sectarianism were allowed to be set up with Saudi funding. It suited Zia as these seminaries produced the gun fodder required to defeat the Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan. It mattered little to him if their alumni aimed at setting up a worldwide caliphate. The present Talban leaders on both sides of the Durand Line are the production of these seminaries. The madrassahs which brought forth Mullah Omar, Baitullah Mehsud, Waliur Rehman and Mullah Fazlullah, to name a few, take pride in them while the students are keen to follow in their footsteps.
In Pakistan the ground for the reception of the idea of caliphate has been prepared by the militant orgnisations like LeT and the TTP. Hafiz Saeed is among the earliest supporters of the caliphate. His denunciation of democracy as western conspiracy against Islam and enthusiastic support for caliphate as the ideal system of governance has influenced thousands. The ideas have been spread among the uneducated section of society through recorded speeches and pulpits.
Numerous Pakistani militants are reportedly fighting with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group in Iraq and Syria. When these battle hardened desperadoes along with a contingent of low intensity warfare experts return to the country they can do a lot of harm.
Pakistan army can defeat any militant force sheltering anywhere in the country. But only the government can take action against the seminaries which impart extremism. The government has also revised the national curriculum to remove material that spreads religious or sectarian hatred. Unless a thorough cleansing is conducted fresh supply of manpower to the terrorist networks will continue. Many will idealise al Baghdadi and look for a chance to replicate in Pakistan what he is doing in the Middle East. Is there anyone in the leadership ready to act like Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the father of the Turks?

(Aziz-ud-Din Ahmad)

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