By Salman Rafi Sheikh

While the Ismaili community massacre on May 13 in Karachi is a continuation of Pakistan’s long-standing problem of religious extremism and intolerance, it is stirring many deep, fundamental questions in its wake.

The perpetrators of the attack were arrested several days ago. The mastermind, and many of his companions, turned out to be university graduates. The leader, Saad Aziz, reportedly graduated from the top business studies institute, the Institute of Business Administration, in Karachi.

What’s even more alarming is that the brains behind the operation is more than a well-educated type who comes from a well-to-do family. He’s also a businessman who owns a restaurant called Kava. Nor was he a typical religious school “Madrassah graduate.”

These facts have raised a fundamental question about Pakistan’s approach in focusing on terrorism solely inside Madrassahs and in “underdeveloped” regions, such as Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA. The case also compels us to question the very logic behind the now months-long military operation against the Taliban in FATA. What can be the use of such operations when terrorism has already reached urban centers, when all of the major jihadi groups have a presence inside metropolitan areas such as Lahore and Karachi?

The attack on Christians almost two months ago in Lahore, the attack on the Ismaili community, numerous attacks on the Hazara community in Quetta also offer proof of the deep presence of jihadi groups within Pakistan’s middle class — a class that’s often considered of fundamental importance in promoting democracy and peace. In Pakistan’s case, however, this class seems too weak to counter the menace that faces it from within.

Pakistan, backed by the U.S., has developed a particular (and probably flawed) understanding of terrorism. While for the U.S., the Afghan Taliban are no longer “terrorists,” Pakistan’s problem is no longer limited to the Taliban. The problem now includes equally sectarian organizations. They were long sustained by the state as “strategic assets” and were used in Kashmir to do “jihad.”

Pakistan, therefore, needs to partly turn away from the U.S.- led “war on terror” to focus more on this “metropolitan menace” that’s becoming increasingly powerful, visible and deadly.

As a matter of fact, an even a cursory look would show that attacks by the Taliban inside Pakistan have substantially fallen since the latest anti-terror operations were launched. Government officials have touted the falling number of attacks as evidence of the operation’s success. However, it’s also a fact that dangerous sectarian organizations have since become even more active. These organizations are not only involved in sectarian killings. They are involved in non-sectarian mayhem. This is evident from the murder of Sabeen Mahmud, a human rights activist, about a month ago.

None of these Jihadi outfits is based in FATA. They’re active in urban centers where military operations of the type used in FATA (and previously in Swat) can hardly be launched or deemed successful. As a matter of fact, an operation of relatively limited scale was launched in Karachi in 2013, and since then, numerous arrests have been recorded.

On paper, the Rangers, Pakistan’s paramilitary force, have arrested  over 2,200 “criminals” so far. According to sources, the Ranger report claimed those arrested included members of the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the banned People’s Amn Committee, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Awami National Party (ANP), and hundreds belonging to other banned outfits. Yet, amid such claims of success, another urban terrorist attack has occurred, exposing the myth behind this strategy.

Similarly, Pakistan’s military claims to have killed hundreds of terrorists in a full-scale operation recently launched in FATA. But terrorism seems far being being eradicated in Pakistan in both tribal and urban areas. It’s ironic to see the Pakistani government launch operations against the TTP  in FATA — an extremely poor and underdeveloped region — and in Karachi, which happens to be Pakistan’s largest metropolitan center. While it’s easy to grasp that terrorists have expanded their network to the cities, it’s very hard to tell if the same type of military strategy and operation in tribal areas can succeed in urban battlefields.

Nearly all major “banned” jihadi organizations, according to reports, have a presence in the cities. Not only do they have well-established networks and sleeper cells, they also continue to receive substantial funding both from “internal and external sources.”

The ambivalent situation facing the authorities was very much evident in separate press conferences given by Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan’s interior minister, and the other by Sindh Province’s Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah. The interior minister drew attention away from earlier claims that the Safoora Goth tragedy (Karachi bus attack) was engineered by Indian intelligence agency RAW. He asserted the self-styled IS group and the Taliban were one and the same, acting together to damage Pakistan`s interests, adding that some groups acted in unison to carry out terrorist activities in a coordinated manner. On the other hand, Sindh’s chief minister took an altogether different tack, making overt reference to the involvement of RAW in this incident and many other “such cases.”

This Pakistani ambivalence regarding a “foreign hand” is also evident when it comes to finding the locus of terrorism/extremism in public universities or private Madrassahs. While the stereotypical view of the Islamist militant in Pakistan is that of the madrasah-going-Talib, usually from an economically disadvantaged background, the recent revelations as well as past incidents point to another kind of extremist fighter: the university-educated, tech-savvy jihadi.

It’s well-known that students linked to extremist outfits have been picked up from universities in Punjab. More recently, a public university in Islamabad (A Saudi-funded International Islamic University) was accused of promoting a sectarian doctrine on campus. Internationally, many of the western jihadi fighters involved in conflicts in the Middle East also come from educated backgrounds.

While it’s premature to label Pakistan`s university campuses as hotbeds of extremism, there’s clearly a problem with educated young individuals willing to take up the gun in the name of faith. The general rightward shift of society over the last few decades, as well as the Pakistani establishment`s overt and covert policy of supporting so-called jihad, is partly to blame. Whatever the causes of this menace, the state must team up with academia to effectively deal with the issue of extremism on the campus before more lives are lost to fanatical, murderous ideologies.

On the other hand, the revelation that educated, middle-class students were involved in the recent attacks also proves that the extremism problem in Pakistan and in other Muslim countries isn’t merely a result of poverty and deprivation. By the same token, the Safoora Goth massacre demonstrates that the sacrifices and successes of Pakistan’s security forces in the distant Waziristan agencies is only one aspect of dealing with this existential threat.

The fight against radicalization and its resulting terrorism must be fought in every street and educational institution regardless of denomination, and perhaps every Pakistani home.This can’t be a fight left to security forces alone. A multi-faceted challenge like terrorism/extremism/militancy must be countered with a multi-faceted strategy. While the problem at institutions of learning can’t simply be wiped away, the government can certainly control what is taught in these institutions. This will prevent students with jihadi predilections from being exploited by inflammatory curriculums.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.

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