In late November of last year, a Pakistani Muslim cleric, eulogizing the murderer of two CIA employees in Virginia, elicited the enthusiastic and resounding assent of his audience by calling upon Allah to “destroy and completely annihilate America.” Anti-American rants have become a daily ritual in the world of radical Islam, and this one could have been dismissed as so much hot air but for a singular fact: the cleric and his audience made up the newly elected parliament of Pakistan’s key North West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Indeed, an alliance of Islamist parties is now in power in NWFP, and, together with its coalition partner in the neighboring province of Baluchistan, it is dead serious about installing an Islamic order not only there but eventually in all of Pakistan. Already, the NWFP government has ordered traffic stopped during the five daily prayers, banned music and video from public transport, and permitted radical clerics to start destroying cable TV networks. It has also passed resolutions to forbid banks from charging interest, change the weekly holiday to Friday, and set up a committee for stricter enforcement of Islamic punishments, including the death penalty for blasphemy, stoning to death for adultery, and the cutting off of hands for theft. These and other promised “reforms,” coupled with existing ordinances, threaten to transform the two provinces into a Taliban-like haven for Islamic extremism not much different from Mullah Omar’s original across the border with Afghanistan.
Even more ominously, the victorious Islamic coalition shows every sign of flouting its early promises not to interfere in the anti-terror policies of the government of Pervez Musharraf. NWFP’s chief minister has announced that his province will not allow any American-assisted activity against al Qaeda and Taliban elements on its territory, and has called for the expulsion of all American personnel from Pakistan as a whole. The parliamentary leader of the extremist coalition has also threatened to “disrupt and disable” the national government in case of a U.S. war with Iraq and promised “financial and physical” assistance to Baghdad. In a direct challenge to Islamabad, the provincial head of Baluchistan has ordered the release of imprisoned terrorists from five outlawed jihadist organizations.
Worst of all, it is becoming increasingly clear that the central government is either unwilling or unable to stand up to the zealots. The radicalization of Pakistan’s society has been going on for two and a half decades, and despite much rhetoric to the contrary, Musharraf’s half-hearted policies have clearly not succeeded in curtailing or even slowing down the process. Nor has he been helped by his quest for a modicum of democratic legitimacy by scheduling elections last October. Paradoxically, it was the Islamist parties—obscurantist, intolerant, and misogynist to the core, and openly preaching violence and hate—that were the real winners of Musharraf’s sop to democracy. United in a political coalition for the first time, they polled more than twice as many votes than ever before, vaulting into power in NWFP and Baluchistan and emerging as the nation’s third largest political party.
If this state of affairs is allowed to continue, the U.S. war on terror in a crucial theater could suffer a crushing blow. To understand how it has come to pass is to understand what makes extremism and terror thrive in Pakistan—and far beyond.
In 1947, when Pakistan came into being as a result of India’s partition, few would have voted it most likely to succeed as a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was an urbane, secular man whose vision for the country he almost single-handedly created was of a democratic, tolerant, secular nation. Most Muslims in the new country were also anything but Islamic fundamentalists. The vast majority of the Sunni Muslims who made up some 80 percent of the population belonged to the syncretic Barelvi school of Islam; Pakistan’s Shiites were likewise moderate, influenced by Hindu traditions. It was only among the 10 percent of Sunnis who practiced the Deobandi creed and were concentrated in the Pashtun areas that one could find fundamentalist attitudes.1
Thus, for the first 25 years of Pakistan’s existence, religious extremism was rare, sectarian strife was limited, and the two religious parties that predated partition—Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) and Jamiat-i-Islami (JI)—played, at best, a marginal political role.
Ironically, their fortunes took a turn for the better during the tenure of the secular socialist Zulkfikar Ali Bhutto (1971-1977). Seeking to create a sense of national identity in the aftermath of the civil war between East and West Pakistan, Bhutto promulgated a new state constitution in which the religious parties for the first time were allowed to play a key role. The new constitution declared Islam to be the state religion and endorsed a variety of measures for the progressive Islamization of Pakistani society, complete with a watchdog institution, the Council of Islamic Ideology, to oversee the process. In nationalizing education, Bhutto also carved out an exception, allowing the Islamic boarding schools—madrassas—to remain free of state control. In another move that was to have lasting repercussions, Bhutto established close relations with Saudi Arabia.
With the coming to power of the military dictator Zia ul Haq, who overthrew Bhutto in 1977, the process of Islamization only accelerated. Using Islam to legitimate his own rule and suppress his political opponents, Zia expanded the role of radical Muslim clerics by allowing them to collect and distribute Islamic donations, such as the zakat and usher tithes, thus greatly enhancing their political clout. He also began to enforce shari’a justice, introducing such gruesome spectacles as public hangings, “amputations” of limbs, and whippings. An amended blasphemy law imposed the death penalty for any real or imagined insult to the prophet Muhammad.
Islamization received still further impetus in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The powerful Inter-Services Intelligence organization (ISI), controlled by the Pakistani army, worked closely with the country’s Islamic parties to train and assist the Afghan mujahideen, providing them with the lion’s share of American-supplied equipment. During this same period, the government tacitly sanctioned, and perhaps organized, paramilitary units that had been set up by the religious parties but that were soon transformed into terrorist organizations. All of these groups operated in Afghanistan (and later in Kashmir), actively supporting the insurgent Taliban and al Qaeda. They also frequently fomented violence and intimidation at home, committing hundreds of murders of innocent Shiites and Barelvis. By the time Zia’s tenure ended in a plane crash in 1988, Islamic extremists had become a virtual state within the state, lavishly funded and protected by the military.
In the ten-year period of democracy that followed under Benazir Bhutto and then Nawaz Sharif, some policies changed. But one thing that did not change was the willingness of the rulers to curry favor with the extremists. Thus, Mrs. Bhutto legitimized the fanatics of the JUI by bringing them into her government as a coalition partner and by appointing their firebrand leader, Fazlur Rahman, as chairman of a parliamentary committee. It was also her government that, in close collaboration with the JUI and the Deobandi mullahs, put the Taliban in power in Afghanistan and thus set in motion the events leading to 9/11. Nawaz Sharif, in turn, appointed a prominent Islamic zealot as director general of the ISI, and contributed in no small measure to the growing infiltration of extremist elements into the Pakistani military. As the “democratic” period came to an end in 1999 with the overthrow of the Sharif government by General Musharraf, its only lasting legacy seemed to be the further entrenchment of Islamic fanaticism in Pakistani society.
No other area of Pakistani society has been penetrated by radical Islam to a greater extent than the educational system. In a brief quarter-century, Islamists have been able to build a huge network of religious seminaries in every region of the country. They now churn out hundreds of thousands of fanatics year in and year out. Fairly rare at the time of partition, these schools began to increase in number under Bhutto, but it was Zia who allowed them to build wherever they pleased, who began recruiting their graduates into government service, and who, in 1980, upgraded their certificates to the level of an MA degree in Arabic or Islamic sciences. Zia’s tenure also marked the beginning of the spread of Islamism into the government-run and nominally secular school system.
The Deobandis (after a north Indian town where the doctrine originated) practice a fundamentalist creed marked by obscurantism, hatred of Western civilization and of Jews, misogyny, and violent dislike of Shiite Muslims. Their seminary curriculum contains little but indoctrination in their radical philosophy. Not surprisingly, students often graduate functionally illiterate, with virtually no job skills, but thoroughly prepared for a career in extremism and jihad. A third of the seminaries also provide military training, supplying the vast majority of recruits for Pakistani terrorist organizations. Since approximately 15 percent of the students come from foreign countries, virtually all Islamic terrorist groups around the world have benefited from this “educational” system.
While no official nation-wide study of these madrassas exists, estimates of their overall number range between 10,000 and 20,000; unregistered seminaries may add another 10,000 to the total. As for the number of students, here the estimate ranges from a conservative half-million to over 2 million. (By comparison, some 1.9 million Pakistani children reportedly attended primary schools in 2002.)
Clearly, despite their extremist bent, the madrassas are highly popular. The reason for this is very simple, having less to do with public sympathy for Deobandi doctrine than with the fact that the schools are free of charge, covering not only tuition but room and board and even providing pocket money. In a country that spends only $8 per capita on education, and where the government is unable to offer even the most basic education to its masses of poor—60 percent of Pakistan’s children are now denied a chance to enroll in primary school, and in literacy Pakistan occupies a place at the very bottom of the list of developing countries—the alternative to a madrassa education for many destitute parents is no education at all, plus an extra mouth to feed.
Running this huge network is not cheap. A recent study by a Peshawar think tank gauges that the cost of food alone in schools in the North West Frontier Province is something like $129 million per year, while total running costs for the madrassas in Pakistan are said by another source to be significantly higher than the “federal government’s budgetary allocation for education, health, family planning, etc.” The sum total is almost certainly well in excess of $1 billion a year.
Needless to say, the clerics themselves refuse to divulge the sources (or the magnitude) of the funding they receive, and, since the madrassas are exempt from normal auditing procedures, the government has no means of obtaining such information. Domestically, the schools have access to a variety of sources, including religious endowments, zakat funds transferred by the government, income from real estate, and direct fundraising on the street. But however substantial these sums may be, they seldom exceed 25 percent of the total needed; thus, three-quarters of madrassa funding comes from abroad.
Here the sources include diaspora communities, revenues from offshore businesses, and donations from wealthy individuals, as well as tuition fees collected from some foreign students. But the one major source, and the only one with both the willingness and the wherewithal to provide truly large amounts of money, is Saudi Arabia. In the end, in education as in every other relevant area, it is impossible to understand the exponential growth of hard-line Islamic attitudes and organizations in Pakistan without reference to the Saudis.
The extreme puritanical version of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia—known generally as Wahhabism (though the term is one the Saudis and their acolytes consider derogatory and never use)—has historically been very close to the Deobandi creed. But it was not until the late 1970’s that this affinity led to a partnership to spread militant Islam in the subcontinent. The Islamization of Pakistan under Zia coincided nicely with the emergence of Saudi Arabia both as the globe’s most important oil exporter and as the key sponsor of fundamentalism in the Muslim world and beyond.
Starting in the 1980’s, the four largest Wahhabi front organizations—the World Muslim League (WML), the Al Haramain Foundation, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), and the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO)—became the main sponsors of Deobandi seminaries and jihadist organizations in Pakistan, as well as of the most extreme of the Afghan resistance groups and later of the Taliban and al Qaeda. The WML alone is said to have provided more than $200 million for various projects. How the funds are actually transferred is not known, but according to Pakistan’s finance minister, the informal and untraceable hindi system (known as hawala in Arab countries) brings some $4 billion into Pakistan every year, a sum considerably higher than all formal bank transfers put together.
While neither the donors nor the recipients of this aid are in the habit of talking, occasional bits of information in the Saudi press hint at the magnitude of the effort. In December 2000, the Saudi government paper Ain-Al-Yaqeen reported that over the previous year, the Al Haramain Foundation had “founded 1,100 mosques, schools, and Islamic centers” in Pakistan and elsewhere, printed 13 million Islamic books, and employed 3,000 callers (proselytizers). Over the same period, IIRO had completed the construction of 3,800 mosques, spent $45 million on Islamic education, and employed 6,000 teachers and proselytizers, while WAMY, for its part, provided $26 million in “aid to students and founding mosques.” Nor have these activities declined after 9/11, despite the fact that all four Saudi fronts have been directly implicated by U.S. authorities in terrorist activities.2
Still another aspect of Saudi influence is the emergence and rapid growth of openly Wahhabi groups in Pakistan. The relevant date here is 1986, when a Saudi-trained cleric revived a largely forgotten organization of Indian origin called Jamiat Ahle Hadith. Since then, with generous support from the Al Haramain Foundation, Jamiat Ahle Hadith has emerged as a major factor on the Pakistani scene with some seventeen subsidiary organizations, a violent youth wing, and three jihadist groups affiliated with al Qaeda and implicated in terrorist activities in Pakistan and Kashmir. Jamiat Ahle Hadith also conducts an active program of building Wahhabi madrassas, whose numbers are currently growing faster than those of any other group in Pakistan.
Saudi funding is also behind the transformation of the Tablighi Jamaat organization from an association of peaceful proselytizers into world-wide jihad recruiters. Tablighi’s annual Muslim revival meetings at Raiwind, near Lahore, attract up to two million people and have become the second largest Islamic gathering in the world after the Mecca pilgrimage.
Finally, the Wahhabi/Deobandi symbiosis extends beyond Pakistan. With the help of Saudi money, Deobandi and Jamiat Ahle Hadith fanatics have increasingly taken over the mosques of Great Britain’s 750,000 Pakistani Muslims and steered them in an extremist direction. As a result, the United Kingdom has become a major source of funding for terrorist Pakistani groups; two such groups, Lashkar-e-Tayba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, reportedly collect $7.5 million in mosque donations each year despite the fact that they are banned in both Great Britain and Pakistan.
Similarly, in the United States, Saudi/Wahhabi domination of the Muslim establishment means that many ordinary donors end up subsidizing extremism without necessarily knowing it. For example, the innocent-sounding Pakistani Educational Development Foundation (PEDF), registered as a non-profit in Michigan, collects funds among Pakistani professionals in the United States for the ostensible purpose of providing educational opportunities for poor Pakistani children. In fact, these donations invariably end up subsidizing extremist madrassas under Wahhabi auspices.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Pakistan faced the stark choice of siding with or against the United States in the looming war on terrorism. Pervez Musharraf made the logical choice. In a striking about-face, he switched his country’s stance from tacit support of terrorism to an alliance with Washington—in return for a sizable aid package, debt forgiveness, lifting of trade restrictions, and, most importantly, a change in Pakistan’s status from a pariah state to a member in good standing of the international community. Occasional violence by Islamic extremists notwithstanding, this radical change occurred without significant popular opposition.
This was hardly surprising. Most Pakistanis are clearly aware that their society has deteriorated radically ever since the onset of Islamization. Indeed, arresting this decline was the reason Musharraf gave for his 1999 overthrow of the civilian government. And although it would be unfair to blame all of Pakistan’s problems on the religious extremists, there can be no doubt that a strong correlation exists between the growing obscurantism, intolerance, and sectarian violence and the fact that Pakistan regularly places at the very bottom of the United Nations Index of Human Development.
As part of his deal with Washington, Musharraf obligated himself to deny the use of Pakistan as a base of terrorist operations and to control activities encouraging the growth of Islamic fanaticism. While there have been some successes on this score (notably in connection with the police probe into the January 2002 killing of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl), they have been limited to the capture and transfer into U.S. custody of several hundred terrorist suspects, including important al Qaeda officials. But the vast majority of these—nine out of ten, according to one source—have been non-Pakistani; domestic terrorists have yet to be confronted.
Early on, pressured by the U.S., the government did ban a number of jihadist groups. But they promptly reconstituted themselves under different names, in at least some cases before they were even outlawed—suggesting that they had been tipped off. (Similarly suspicious is the fact that only token amounts of money were left in many of the 50 terrorist accounts frozen in early 2002.) Nor was a serious effort undertaken to move against the leadership of the extremist establishment: a number of the most strident leaders were placed under comfortable house arrest, only to be released three months later without any charges filed. Many of them are now prominent members of the political establishment.
Finally, little progress has been made in reforming madrassa education, touted as one of Musharraf’s priorities even before 9/11. It has long been recognized that any true reform would have to modernize the curriculum, provide for financial accountability, and subject the seminaries to mandatory registration and some regulation. Predictably, the clerics are violently opposed to all of these measures. That the government is not willing to take them on is apparent from Musharraf’s proposed reform ordinance, issued in June 2002, which made the measures voluntary.
“Jihad Inc. Back in Business” is the way one Pakistani headline has aptly summarized the resulting situation. The initial shock of the post-September 11 crackdown has worn away, and Islamic extremism in this nuclear-armed country is today once again on the offensive.
What is to be learned from this bleak survey? First, the rise of religious extremism in Pakistan was neither inevitable nor the result of a revolutionary upheaval. A radical fundamentalist fringe did exist in Pakistan, as it has throughout the Muslim world since the Kharijite movement in the 7th century; but it remained on the margins until self-serving military dictators and corrupt politicians promoted it for their own purposes. All of them ultimately failed as leaders, but in the process they endowed extremism with the kind of legitimacy and power it was unlikely ever to achieve on its own.
The most cursory look shows a similar or identical process taking place in virtually every country where Islamic militancy is on the rise. Thus, in Bangladesh, the military dictator Zia ur Rahman courted Islamists as allies in his battle with the secularists in the mid-1970’s. His successor, another military dictator, continued along the same road by co-opting and legitimating the extremist Jamaat-e-Islami party and declaring Islam the state religion in 1988. After a brief interruption, the Islamization project was reinstated in 2001 by the current government, in which Jamaat extremists participate as a coalition partner for the first time. Jihadist groups are now active throughout Bangladesh, attacks against prominent secular figures and the Hindu minority are the order of the day, and a fanatic cleric regularly calls for the destruction of the United States from the national mosque in Dhaka.
Indonesia, a country whose people practice a very moderate form of Islam, is not yet so acutely threatened, but the coddling of extremists and terrorists is plain to see. The former president, Abdurrahman Wahid, had a tacit agreement with the Laskar Jihad terrorists to ignore their murderous anti-Christian campaign in the Molluca Islands in return for political neutrality in the crisis that eventually toppled him. More recently, vice president Hamzah Haz, a prominent Muslim leader, vigorously denied the existence of terrorist organizations in Indonesia despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is well known that, in the face of numerous warnings, Jakarta refused to act until the bombing in Bali last October. Even more incongruously, Haz kept on defending known terrorist kingpins even after the Bali massacre.
In Nigeria, President Obosanjo, a Christian, looked the other way as Islamic zealots imposed shari’a law in a dozen provinces, thus threatening to rend asunder the precarious political balance of a country evenly split between Muslims and Christians. In once-prosperous Lebanon, Syria-sponsored terrorist groups, not welcome in Damascus, have been allowed to transform the country into a ticking time bomb. And so forth.
The lesson is plain. Whenever and wherever political leaders have tried to exploit or appease extremism, the latter has invariably emerged stronger and more intransigent. Conversely, in Muslim states where governments and politicians refuse to play games with the radical Islamists, the latter have difficulty making headway, despite prolonged campaigns of terror and assassination. This has been the case not only in places where terrorism has been ruthlessly suppressed, as in Egypt, Algeria, and most of Central Asia, but also in countries with relatively mild regimes, including Morocco, Tunisia, Malaysia, Jordan, Turkey, and Albania.
Pakistan’s experience also shows that, in addition to acquiring political legitimacy and government protection, radical Islam needs to penetrate key parts of society, especially the education system, in order to ensure its staying power. Indoctrination of youth is a major objective, guaranteeing a supply of cadres for the streets, for political intimidation, and for jihadist causes both foreign and domestic. For many of the semi-literate clerics who are in charge of the schools, this is also a very profitable line of work, a fact that partly explains their determined resistance to any efforts to control and regulate their activities.
Not surprisingly, Islamic seminaries have sprouted like mushrooms wherever extremism has sunk roots in the past decade. There are at least 10,000 Deobandi schools in Bangladesh, and an equal if not larger number in India. None of them is supervised or even registered by the state, and nobody knows for sure the number of their students.
In India, an increasing number of madrassas are being taken over by the even more extreme Jamiat Ahle Hadith and Tablighi Jamaat groups, which does not bode well for the world’s largest democracy. In Indonesia, likewise, Islamic boarding schools, called pesantren, number in the thousands. In the aftermath of the Bali bombing, it was revealed that at least some of them have provided assistance in terrorist operations and offered sanctuary to terrorists on the run. Even in relatively peaceful Malaysia, inspections conducted after 9/11 showed the spread, unbeknownst to the government, of madrassa-type schools.
Nor is Islamist indoctrination limited to Muslim countries. Over the past decade, numerous fundamentalist schools, sponsored more often than not by Saudi Arabia and operating in conjunction with Wahhabi mosques, have appeared in such non-Muslim areas of the world as Russia, the Balkans, Western Europe, and North America. North America also hosts at least a dozen Deobandi seminaries.
Still another lesson is that Muslim extremism costs money—lots of it. While cutting the flow of funds has been a priority of the war on terror from the beginning, this has usually meant an effort to interrupt those financial streams directed specifically at terrorist operations. This is indeed essential; nevertheless, such funds are only a minuscule part of what sustains the vast worldwide infrastructure of Islamic extremism, without which the terrorist component would shrivel. In Pakistan, as we have seen, the maintenance of the indoctrination network alone costs $1 billion a year, not including the sums necessary to keep the numerous jihadist groups going.
Foreign financing plays a vital role in extremist activities in Pakistan and elsewhere, and foreign financing essentially means Saudi Arabia, the only country with both the ideological incentive and the financial ability to spend between $3 and $4 billion a year to support radical Islamic activities. While Saudi funding of al Qaeda has increasingly come into public focus, the Pakistani experience documents a less well-understood but no less crucial aspect of Riyadh’s involvement: the fact that for more than twenty years, the House of Saud has been the primary financial enabler of Islamic extremism around the world.
What has this money—$70 billion by the end of 2002, according to the Saudis’ own admission—accomplished? For starters, it has made their militant and aggressively expansionist brand of Islam the main idiom of much of the Islamic establishment, and its doctrine the prototype ideology of virtually all jihadist movements, including those that violently dislike the House of Saud. Wahhabi money has bought and co-opted much of the Islamic scholarly establishment; even venerable institutions like Cairo’s Al-Azhar University now spew extremist propaganda. In the West, fat Saudi endowments have placed paid apologists of extremism in charge of Islamic-studies departments at renowned universities, including Harvard, the University of California, the University of London, and many others.
Islamic publishing has also been co-opted: four out of five publishing houses in the Muslim world today toe the Wahhabi line, while a gigantic printing center in Medina churns out reams of free extremist propaganda in many languages. Huge Islamic centers built and maintained by the Saudis in the world’s greatest cities are currently in the business of spreading intolerance, as are many thousands of new mosques run by imams under Wahhabi auspices. Alongside hundreds of Saudi front organizations and charities, these institutions have become part of an enormous international network that has become the main incubator and sustaining habitat of terrorism.
Where does this leave us? From the point of view of the war on terrorism, tolerating allies who refuse to face down domestic extremists is both costly and counterproductive, and renders us less rather than more secure. The same goes for tolerating schools of hate. Indoctrinating children to believe that murdering innocent people is justified is not a matter of religion; it is criminal sedition, and governments permitting it, including our own, must treat it as such.
In the end, if we are to succeed in the war on terror, we must be able to disrupt and dismantle the entire edifice of extremism. Al Qaeda, murderous as it is, is but a symptom of a greater malignancy, and even a total victory over that organization will not cure the underlying disease. For that we need to cut off its blood supply, which in the first instance means confronting and ending Saudi sponsorship of extremism. Washington’s failure even to acknowledge this problem is the greatest failure of our anti-terror campaign to date, one that not even the removal of Saddam Hussein will repair. No lasting progress in the war on terrorism can be expected unless and until we deny the fanatics their lifeline.
1 Recent studies of contemporary Pakistan include Mary Ann Weaver, Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan (2002) and Owen Bennet Jones, Pakistan: The Eye of the Storm (2002). See also David Warren’s essay in last month’s COMMENTARY, “Lahore; or, the Islamic Gale.”
2 It is worth stressing that, contrary to Saudi propaganda and Western reporting, these foundations are not “private and charitable” but invariably state-controlled and -financed. Indeed, a royal Saudi decree dating back to 1994 bans the collection of funds for charitable purposes without government permission, and every request for aid from Muslim groups or institutions must be approved by the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs.