COLOMBO: If there is a threat to Pakistan’s stability and progress or even to its very existence, it is not from India, its arch rival since 1947. New Delhi is yet to find a deterrent to the devastating terror strikes by Pakistan-based outfits.

The threat is not from the financial crisis that the country is facing because it can recover from it with help from time tested friends like Saudi Arabia and China, and grudging assistance from the IMF.

The threat is clearly from the growing power of extremist Islamic groups, which, ironically, have been fostered by the State’s long standing policy of appeasement aimed at gaining peace in the short run, and political legitimacy in the long run in an avowedly “Islamic” Pakistan.

Basically, the trouble lies not in the power of the Islamic extremists but in the weakness of governments.

History shows that strong Pakistani governments have been able to rein in such groups, and weak governments have given in to them and encouraged them in the process. It is now accepted by all Pakistani political parties that appeasing Islamic militants will ensure political survival, even if the government has to subject itself to the humiliation of taking dictation from them.

In a sense, this approach makes political sense. According to a 2011 Pew Poll on religion in Pakistan, 75% of Pakistanis believe that blasphemy laws are necessary to protect Islam. 75% believe that apostasy deserves death. And these figures are valid across educational levels. Therefore, it is really hard for any government to take on the extremists, at least on this issue.

But, as stated earlier, strong, self-assured Pakistani governments have quelled Islamic extremists successfully. In 1953, Governor General Ghulam Muhammed imposed martial law to quell anti-Ahmadiyya riots in Lahore. Ahmadiyyas are a sect considered heretical by orthodox Muslims.

When Gen.Ayub Khan was in power (1958-69), no leniency was shown to Islamic zealots who opposed his modern family laws and the takeover mosques, shrines and Islamic seminaries.

But things began to change after Pakistan was defeated in the war against India in 1971 and East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh. In 1974, a weak Prime Minister Z.A.Bhutto felt that he had no option but to give in to Islamic agitators. But this bought him peace only for three years. In 1977 Islamists rose against him again, and he gave in to them this time too.

Bhutto had played into the hands of the Islamists to such an extent that an arch Islamist army General, Zia-ul-Haq, took over with no difficulty as he had the ideological backing of the population.

Between 1977 and 1988, Gen. Zia thoroughly Islamized the country. Islamic radicalism became a basic ingredient in Pakistan’s political culture, the impact of which is felt till date.

In 2009, the Swat Valley became a focal point of Pakistan’s war against militancy and terrorism. The government signed a peace agreement effectively ceding control of the district to the local Taliban faction, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) allowing it to enforce its interpretation of Islamic law in Swat. But in 2014, the TTPslaughtered 140 army school students in Peshawar. TTP is banned in the UK and US.

Islamic Militant Groups

Currently, the important Islamist radical groups are Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), led by radical preacher Khadim Hussain Rizvi. Founded in 2015, TLP entered politics in 2017, when it blockaded Islamabad for several weeks calling for stricter enforcement of Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws. It wants automatic death penalty for anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Prophet Mohammad.

The TLP contested the last National Assembly elections but won no seat. However, it polled over 2.23 million votes in the National Assembly elections and more than 2.38 million provincial elections.

Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek (AAT) is headed by Hafiz Saeed, who India accuses of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai bomb attacks which killed 166 people. The UN has designated Saeed as a world terrorist with a US$ 10-million prize on his head.

AAT was founded after the Milli Muslim League, the political party of hardline Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), was banned. None of AAT’s candidates won seats but they got 435,000 votes.

Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) is a Sunni group which frequently spews venom against Pakistan’s Shia minority. “If we get power in the evening and if a single Shia is alive by the morning in Pakistan then change my name,” said the leader of ASWJ, Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi.

ASWJ is considered to be the political face of sectarian militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which has been behind numerous on Shia Muslims.

“While votes for extremist parties did not translate into many seats in a first-past-the-post system, their sizable vote banks will give them clout in an increasingly competitive political landscape,” an AFP report said.

The current situation is disturbing. When newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan appointed Dr.Atif Mian, a leading Princeton economist, as one of his economic advisors, radical groups protested saying that he is an Ahmadiyya, a heretical sect. Imran said that he was not aware that Dr.Mian was an Ahmediyya and let him resign.

When the TLP protested violently for three days all over Pakistan over the Supreme Court verdict exonerating Christian woman Asia Bibi of the charge of blasphemy, the government entered into an agreement with the outfit to buy peace. It agreed not to oppose a review petition that had been filed; to put Bibi on the Exit Control List; and to release all arrested agitators.

This, despite the fact that the TLP had called for an army mutiny and had threatened to kill the concerned Supreme Court judges. The judges did not consider such remarks contempt of court.

The army ignored the call for mutiny and politely asked the TLP to go to court with a review petition. The army is apparently worried about a repeat of the bloodshed following the military raid on the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007 in which 50 madrassa students were killed. It triggered the Third Waziristan War which resulted in 3000 casualties.

It is not clear as to what the Supreme Court judges will do with the TLP targeting them. A former Governor of Punjab and a minority affairs minister were killed for seeking a modification of the blasphemy law.

Instead of confronting the extremists head-on, the Imran government is trying to educate Pakistanis about real Islam, which is moderate, peaceful and tolerant. A national level “Rehmatul-il-Alameen Conference” is to be held on November 20, inaugurated by the Prime Minister. “Rehmatul-il-Alameen Conferences”' will be held across Pakistan.

A two-day 'Khatm-i-Nabuwwat’ International Conference' will be held in Islamabad to shed light on the life and philosophy of Prophet Mohammed. Among the participants will be the Imam-i-Kaaba, Vice Chancellor of Egypt's Al-Azhar University, the Mufti of Syria, and religious scholars from Iraq and Tunisia.

While these measures will be useful in spreading a moderate version of Islam, extremists are unlikely to be won over as they have a vested interest in keeping up militancy. Militancy gives them power without responsibility. They cannot get votes or seats in legislatures but they have power over governments.

Appeasing such forces does not help the rulers or the country but only fosters extremism and a culture of impunity as Minister of Human Rights Shreen Mazari said, recalling Britain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich before World War II. The Munich deal was meant to buy peace for a while, but it only increased Hitler’s appetite for dominance through aggression.