Ayesha Jalal speculates on the challenges which face this country in future years as part of Dawn.com's launch special 'Flash Forward Pakistan: Where do we go from here?'
Not for the first time in its short and eventful history, Pakistan stands poised to make the proverbial descent into anarchy or, if wiser counsels prevail, settle down to being the normal place so many of its citizens and well wishers abroad would like it to be.
As on many occasions in the recent past, Pakistanis are divided and confused about how to avert disaster without compromising on what they value as emblems of their national sovereignty and Islamic identity. Whether reading newspapers or watching any of the newly set up television channels, it is impossible to avoid the sinking feeling that comes from a realization of an ever-widening gulf between ground realities and the sharply varied perceptions of them among Pakistanis. Being in denial about the threat posed by the expanding web of militancy gripping the northwest of the country is a relatively minor problem compared to the naïveté expressed in some newspaper columns and television talk shows about settling matters with the militants through political dialogue and accommodation.
It is true that purely military solutions never work and have to be supplemented by political approaches in order to resolve intractable conflicts that have got out of hand. Yet, history is replete with evidence that there can never be lasting peace unless all sides in a dispute acknowledge some sort of constituted authority and agree to work within its legal parameters. However well-meaning, suggestions by certain ‘experts’ in Pakistan to bring the bands of armed men galvanized around the likes of Maulana Fazlullah in Swat and Beitullah Masud in South Waziristan into the political fold, are ultimately wrong headed.
Unless they agree to lay down their arms and accept the writ of the state, it is futile to expend energy on engaging in political dialogue with such elements. Talking to random armed militias that are devoid of any legitimate authority – popular, lay or religious – defies all logic. These elements have no qualms about taking human life or destroying public and private property and have shown themselves to be enemies of not just education for girls but all forms of knowledge. The excesses of American firepower in Afghanistan, and of late in Pakistani territory, may be fuelling this tortured line of reasoning that favors concessions to murderous obscurantists. It is hardly the best way of resisting the United States and its self-seeking designs in the region.
Of all the fallacies informing the debate on how to tackle the encircling militancy, none is more misplaced than the notion that those locked in grim battle against the Pakistani state in parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Swat and surrounding areas are ‘jihadis’. By no stretch of the imagination, far less by the principles of Islamic law and history, can the current war being waged by the militants be described as a ‘jihad’. In the Islamic tradition, an armed jihad can only be sanctioned and directed by the state upon the advice of the religious guardians.
Today so-called ‘jihadis’ reject these restrictions by maintaining that those at the helm of modern Muslim nation states like Pakistan are complicit with infidels and, therefore, traitors who cannot be deemed legitimate rulers under Islamic law. This is a debatable argument at best since even by their own supposedly high standards of Islamic morality, these non-state ‘jihadis’ can be found seriously wanting. Those calling so loudly for the establishment of Shariah cannot violate the sanctity of life, property, knowledge, and human dignity without subverting the very basis of Islamic law. This is why Muslim jurists throughout history have always held that these vital principles of human society cannot be protected and preserved without a semblance of order and stability. Those undermining law and order in a Muslim society are perpetrating fitna, literally social and political disorder, and not jihad. This type of fitna is fundamentally at odds with jihad as a central principle of Islamic ethics.
The call to negotiate with those who are fomenting fitna has arisen because the Pakistani state has in recent years surrendered a lot of ground to the forces of disorder. If talking to armed militants has become to some extent a matter of pragmatic necessity, such negotiations cannot be conducted by undermining the legitimacy of parties and popular representatives that won the confidence of the people in the north-west frontier regions as recently as the elections of February 2008. That reference to the people had been a substantially free and fair one and its verdict ought not to be set aside lightly. The electorate rejected the politics of religious extremism by a substantial margin. The recent assassination attempts on Awami National Party leaders and killings of elected representatives by the extremists are instances of a lethally armed minority holding to ransom the will of a democratically inclined majority. To concede to such intimidation would be to acquiesce in a virtual coup by religious extremists.
This is not to say a fitna cannot be dealt with through a combination of firm resolve and a willingness to talk without surrendering the irreducible elements of state authority and the basic principles of democratic governance. The mainstreaming of jihad in its true sense would mean restoration of ethics and humanity in the politics and public affairs of Pakistan. Allowing those who are engaged in the current fitna that violates all principles of humanity and equity to steal the mantle of jihad would be an unholy compromise with injustice and wrong.
Ayesha Jalal is the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University. She achieved her doctorate from the University of Cambridge. She has been a Trinity College fellow, a Leverhulme Fellow at the Center for South Asian Studies in Cambridge, and a fellow of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. She has also taught at Columbia and Harvard. Her most recent book is titled 'Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia'.