In-Depth On The Cover

Islam in the garrison

Published 17 Mar, 2015 05:35pm

On March 16, 2004, the Pakistan Army launched its first operation in South Waziristan tribal agency to weed out al-Qaeda and Taliban elements who had crossed into Pakistan after coming under American attacks in Afghanistan. General Pervez Musharraf, the then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and the ruler of the country, held a series of meetings with his top commanders in the run-up to the operation and repeatedly asked them a single question. “Do you see any kind of reluctance among your soldiers to fire at the militants?” a participant of these meetings quotes him as asking. “He was visibly worried. He wanted to be dead sure that he did not face any backlash from within the army as he sent it into the tribal areas,” says a retired military officer who worked closely with Musharraf during his tenure in the government.

The commanding officers told their chief that their men were all set to strike the militants. What transpired during the operation, however, must have surprised many of them. As the militants offered tough resistance to the Pakistan Army, in some cases paramilitary troops and army soldiers surrendered without a fight apparently in response to the calls from religious leaders in the tribal areas that the operation was meant for killing their own “Muslim brethren”.

In the three years between the maiden military operation in South Waziristan and Musharraf’s retirement as the army chief in November 2007, apprehensions and fears persisted among the military high command of a religious backlash from within the army, says the retired official. Not without a reason. On July 3, 2007 security agencies laid a siege around Lal Masjid in Islamabad where militants led by brothers Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi were holed up. Senior security officials planned a commando operation (Operation Silence) – involving the breaching of the wall that the mosque shared with its adjacent Jamia Hafsa madrasah – to flush out the militants. But before the commandos could reach the wall from where the militants were firing, a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) of the army passed on the information about the operation to the militants. Consequently, the operation failed and led to loss of several lives (official figures account for the death of 62 people). The Military Intelligence arrested and interrogated the JCO who was then working as the driver of a senior military official. His investigators soon found out that he had sympathies for the militants. There have been many other incidents in which the military personnel either cooperated or collaborated with the militants to launch lethal terrorist attacks. The most well known of these are the attempts to assassinate Musharraf which he has described in detail in his autobiography In the Line of Fire and which resulted in the arrests, court martial and conviction of many low-ranking military officials.

With the arrest in May this year of Brigadier Ali Khan, who was working at a senior position at the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, and four unnamed majors for having links with Hizbut Tahrir (HuT), a transnational extremist organisation banned in Pakistan, serious questions about the influence of religious ideologies in the army have risen again. The way the army’s public relations machine portrayed their case, laced with strong declarations of not tolerating any sectarian and radical ideologies among the soldiers and officers, is a clear manifestation that the worries about growing religious radicalisation in the armed forces are growing.

Publicly, security and intelligence officials tend to play down Khan’s arrest and HuT’s influence. They insist that a foreign ideology, a handful of disgruntled youth and poorly phrased political messages hardly create the mix that can pose a threat to a military machine overly obsessed with discipline within its ranks. They also argue that the HuT claims of having contacts with army officials should be taken with a pinch of salt. “When I was serving in the intelligence service I used to receive text messages from the HuT. Even now I continue to receive messages from them,” says a recently retired senior intelligence official. “Nobody takes them seriously,” he says. But Maajid Nawaz, a former HuT member, has a counterpoint to make. “The HuT doesn’t pose any threat in itself because it is a very small organisation. The danger emanates from the fact that extremist narrative is getting very popular in Pakistani society,” he says. (See Brothers in Religion)

An intelligence expert who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity, also says there is more to Khan’s arrest than is known in the media. “After his arrest, Khan was handed over to the Special Investigation Branch which investigates crimes and other unlawful activities in the army. This indicates that the investigators want to uncover all his contacts within the army.” Even though implicitly, this shows that the army is unsure about the depth of the HuT’s influence in its ranks.

Independent analysts have more often than not pointed out that religious influence in the military is more deep-rooted than the high command is willing to acknowledge. Islamabad-based writer and commentator Dr Ayesha Siddiqa says Pakistan’s military revolves around the idea of religion just like the Pakistani state. It is false to claim that the military can be secular because the state itself is not secular, she argues. According to Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based historian of civil-military relations in Pakistan, Islamic discourse has been popular among the soldiers for decades. “This discourse creates a situation where everything becomes a function of religion … You explain every situation with reference to Islam,” he says. “You start thinking that there is a conspiracy against Islam and that there is a conspiracy against Pakistan hatched by Jews, Christians and Hindus …You start sympathising with the Taliban.”

The process of introducing this Islamist discourse in the army began in earnest during the military regime of General Ziaul Haq. He relaxed the strict rules governing the garrison’s interaction with the civilians and, thus, made the soldiers highly susceptible to extremist influence pervading the society. His greatest contribution in this regard was to encourage the activities of the Tableeghi Jamaat (TJ), both by allowing the organisation to send its missionaries to the military barracks and encouraging the soldiers and officers to attend its congregations outside garrisons, says Rizvi.

Brigadier (retd) Mehmud Shah, a defence analyst based in Peshawar, agrees. Radicalisation in the armed forces grew under Zia’s regime when the military ruler put into motion his controversial Islamisation programme, he says. (See Brothers in Religion). Zia became the first COAS to attend the annual congregation of TJ in Raiwind near Lahore. Encouraged by their chief, a large number of officers openly associated themselves with the activities of this purely religious organisation. During Zia’s tenure as the army chief, it was not unusual for visibly devout military officials to take leave from their duties and participate in Jamaat’s preaching missions. The other major Zia era development was the setting up of central mosques in garrisons. According to Shah, there was no central mosque in the entire Kharian Cantonment by 1975.

To designate Zia as the only one responsible for putting the military on the path of Islamisation would be too simplistic even though nothing can undermine his role in the process. There were other forces influencing the military and shaping the minds of its troops. Analysts point out, for instance, that several army officers posted to the Arab states around the Persian Gulf in 1970s and 1980s came back heavily influenced by an orthodox interpretation of Islam. They invariably rose to occupy prominent positions in the military hierarchy under Zia. Many more officers came under religious influence as they worked directly with Islamic-inspired mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan against Soviet-backed communists. Analysts say the Afghan jihad became a source of inspiration for young army officers who saw it as a victory of Islam against an infidel superpower. Along with the 1979 revolution in Iran which was led by religious leaders, these developments deepened religious influence among the Pakistan Army’s officer corps.

This coincided with another shift. “The urban middle classes replaced the so-called martial races of Punjab in the officer corps after the defeat in the 1971 war. By the mid-1980s urban middle classes were dominating the army,” says Saeed Shafqat, an eminent analyst of civil-military relations in Pakistan. The 1971 defeat had a heavy impact on the soldiers and officers and it continued to resonate within the military’s educational and training institutions for many years afterwards. The belief that we were defeated in the war because we were not good Muslims was widespread, says Shafqat. “Islam started to dominate the training and educational activities in the military after 1971,” he adds.

All this led to an upsurge in religious activities within the army. Brigadier (retd) Asad Munir, a former member of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) who was a major when Zia was in power, divides these activities into three broad categories. Individual officers used to organise zikr meetings, TJ was active in garrisons and the sympathisers of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) were also engaged in promoting their views in the army, he says. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the writings of JI’s founder Maulana Maudoodi, such as his interpretation of the Quran, started to circulate in army-run educational institutions and many officers began to openly express their support for JI’s ideology. (See Brothers in Religion)

Shah narrates how sometimes the military’s resources were used to facilitate the soldiers and officers in their religious pursuits. “In 1997, I was posted as commandant of [the army’s] Junior Leaders Academy in Shinkiari. One day an officer came to me and said his staff wanted to offer their Friday prayers at a gathering arranged by TJ and they wanted to use the institute’s bus to travel to the gathering’s venue. I told them whoever wanted to go could go on his own but no official vehicle would be used for traveling.”

Zia’s immediate successor as army chief, General Mirza Aslam Beg, continued these policies, Rizvi points out. When General Asif Nawaz Janjua took over as the COAS in 1991, he tried to put an end to the official sponsorship of religious activities in garrisons. “He introduced changes in the functioning of the army. He spoke about reviving professionalism in the army,” says Rizvi. But those who followed Janjua did not make any serious attempt for the revival of professionalism.

Askari cites two reasons for the inability of the army chiefs to reduce, let alone reverse, religious influence in garrisons. “The military top brass spent most of the 1990s manipulating political developments from behind the scenes and hardly had time needed to understand the impact of rising Islamisation within the soldiers and officers,” he says. Secondly, successive army chiefs believed that purging the army of officers and soldiers with strong religious leanings would led to a strong reaction from within the army and the religious parties. “For instance, when the army arrested some senior and middle-ranking officers for trying to stage a coup in 1995, JI raised a lot of hue and cry in the media that Islamists were being targeted in the army,” says Rizvi. That aborted coup is often described as the single most significant Islamist-inspired attempt to eliminate the political and military leadership of the country and takeover the government. (See Timeline of Trouble)

Around the same time that the coup was being planned, the Taliban emerged in Afghanistan. With their brutal diktats, they created a peace of the graveyard in that country but it came as a relief for its war-weary citizens. They also inspired many officers of the Pakistan Army, the likes of well-publicised Colonel Imam, who would always give the Taliban credit for eradicating poppy cultivation, restoring peace and implementing sharia.

General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the incumbent COAS, has, like Janjua before him, discouraged the activities of religious organisations within garrisons. “There can be only one cult in the army and that is the cult of the army itself,” says a senior military official, on the condition of anonymity. But so far Kayani has had little success in his endeavours. If anything, religiosity has sharply increased in garrisons in tandem with increased religiosity in the society in general — and this is throwing up some potentially destabilising by-products.

According to Siddiqa, religiosity in the armed forces has assumed three different forms as suspicions about the outside world in general and the west in particular grow stronger among Pakistanis: a general inclination towards religion; an active radicalism espoused, for instance, by officers such as former ISI chiefs Javed Nasir and Hameed Gul; and anti-American nationalism of the likes of Shuja Pasha, the current ISI chief. In other words, the manifestations of religiosity have become so variegated and so strongly linked to the national and international politics of the day that there can be no single or simple method to do something about them.

Rizvi points to another potentially dangerous development. The influence of religious organisations, once allowed to operate freely within garrisons, has now crossed the boundaries of “safe preaching”, he says. It is possible for the militants to find and meet military officials receptive to their ideas at the gatherings of TJ, he argues.

Some retired military officials strongly advocate that the only way that the army could reduce the influence of religion among its rank and file is to pursue a policy of gradually phasing out officers and soldiers known for their religious links and given to overtly displaying their piety. This is how the generation of the officers influenced by the Afghan jihad was phased out. The same should continue for the current crop of religion-inspired officers, Shah argues.

In Rizvi’s opinion, this policy, on its own, is not the solution. He says there exists a worrying tendency among retired army officers to influence the thinking of young officers. “I have met some retired army officers who have become Taliban supporters. When they interact with serving officials, they transfer the germs of extremism and anti-Americanism as well as sympathy for Taliban.” But Rizvi’s own solution also sounds rather simplistic: “Rules governing the interaction between the civilians and the army men should be strictly implemented and intelligence reports should reflect the correct situation in the units. This will rectify the situation.”

— Additional reporting by Mohammad Ali Khan and Idrees Bakhtiar