By James M. Dorsey
Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism is having a field day.
Barely three months after the Taliban claimed victory in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the second most populous Muslim-majority state, is moving to join Kabul in becoming an outpost of religious intolerance and Muslim supremacy.
In doing so, Pakistan, alongside Afghanistan, has come down on the side of countries like Turkey and Iran that advocate various forms of political Islam and public adherence to the faith as opposed to Gulf states and movements such as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama that project themselves with various degrees of sincerity as beacons of a tolerant and pluralistic interpretation of the faith.
That has not stopped Pakistan from forging ties with both sides of the divide. In doing so, Pakistan benefits from shifting battlefields in the Middle East as rivals seek to dial down tensions to avoid conflicts from spinning out of control.
In the latest move, Saudi Arabia revived its financial support to Pakistan, including US$3 billion in deposits to the central bank and up to $1.5 billion worth of oil supplies with deferred payments. Saudi Arabia had suspended aid last year because of Pakistani criticism of the kingdom’s lack of support in its dispute with India over Kashmir.
However, the kingdom’s renewed support results from a desire to counter tightening military and cultural relations between Pakistan and Turkey as well as Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban in the wake of the group’s victory in Afghanistan.
Pakistan is reportedly giving the Taliban intelligence and technical support in its fight against the Islamic State’s South Asian affiliate, Islamic State-Khorasan. Much of the international community is concerned about the Islamic State but has been unwilling to engage with the Taliban publicly to counter the jihadist group.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Javid Ahmad, who was Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates until the Taliban takeover, suggested that Pakistan was well-positioned to do so because of “its tactical presence in the Taliban units, especially the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network.”
Quoting pre-Taliban Afghan intelligence, Mr. Ahmed said that its Pakistani counterpart had an “elaborate network of human informants in major cities, involving local travel agencies, commercial banks, restaurants, hotels, bakeries and taxi drivers.”
The renewed Saudi support calls into question Saudi aspirations to lead the Muslim world in its embrace of tolerance and moderation. It came a couple of days after the Pakistani government caved in to demands of a supposedly banned, militant ultraconservative group that advocates draconian implementation of an archaic blasphemy law.
Saudi Arabia competes for leadership in the Muslim world and the ability to define Islam in the 21st century with the UAE, Qatar and Nahdlatul Ulama. The latter is the only non-state actor in the mix and the only entity to have taken practical steps to anchor principles of tolerance in Islamic jurisprudence.
The competition has particular significance for the kingdom that for decades waged the world’s largest public diplomacy campaign, investing some $100 billion globally in support of ultra-conservative, anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of Islam. Pakistan’s history from the state’s creation in 1947 positioned it to be the foremost success story of the campaign that was designed to counter Iran’s revolutionary Islam.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, since coming to power in 2015, has sought to steer the kingdom away from its global support from ultra-conservatism by sharply reducing funding, liberalising some social mores at home and seeking to replace a religion-infused Saudi identity with one that emphasises nationalism.
However, Prince Mohammed has stopped short of putting into practice his promotion of religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue by failing to legalise non-Muslim worship and the building of non-Muslim houses of worship in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s renewed financial aid package throws Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan a temporary lifeline as he seeks to ensure continued support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for his country’s troubled economy.
Stabilising Pakistan’s finances and reforming its economy is, however, likely to prove an uphill battle without significantly upgrading the country’s education system and creating an environment that encourages creative and free thinking. Mr. Khan’s recent moves appear to be designed to achieve the exact opposite.
This week’s backtracking by the government on an agreement with militant Islamists who threatened to storm the capital, leading to violent clashes in which four police officers were killed and about 250 people wounded, may have laid down a temporary marker but the government’s inclinations are evident.
The initial agreement handed victory to the purportedly outlawed far-right group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) that has leveraged its self-declared position as a defender of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed to repeatedly persuade the government to meet its demands. The group uses mass protests that besiege Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, as its battering ram.
The religious cloak has turned the TLP into the Pakistani version of populist far-right movements and politicians in Europe and elsewhere. The “TLP has packaged this appeal as an unassailable religious tenet - but the white hot core of TLP is rage against the elites,” tweeted columnist Mosharraf Zaidi. He added that the group’s support was “anchored in real socioeconomic appeal.”
In the latest government cave-in, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed had agreed to release from prison members of the group, including those responsible for past killings of law enforcement personnel as well as its leader, Saad Rizvi, and unfreeze its bank accounts.
The only demand rejected by the government was that Pakistan should expel the French ambassador because of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in 2015 by a satiric magazine. Mr. Ahmed said the government would put the issue to parliament.
Militants attacked the magazine’s Paris offices in 2015 and killed 12 of the publication’s staff. The online Pakistan edition of Saudi Arabia’s Arab News appeared to be seeking to undermine anger at France by reporting that French companies wanted to invest in Pakistani tourism infrastructure despite the volatility in the country.
“It is not the job of the state to use the stick,” Mr. Rashid said in justifying the government’s initial surrender.
The government’s handling of the crisis, despite its reversal, was unlikely to inspire confidence in its ability to either reign in the Taliban in Afghanistan as demanded by Pakistan’s partners or properly counter money laundering and funding of militancy and political violence.
Pakistan has since 2018 been on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, because it failed to meet the group’s standards.
With Mr. Khan’s government seeking to Islamicise Pakistani education and establish a body to monitor the curriculum, syllabi and social media for "blasphemous" content, columnist Zahid Hussain noted that “there seems to be little difference between the TLP’s religious extremism and the PTI government’s policy of encouraging religiosity,” Mr. Hussain was referring to Mr. Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.
Mr. Hussain went on to warn that the “government’s policy of appeasement has increased the terrorist threat to the country. Surrendering to terrorist groups will have very serious consequences for the country’s security and stability.”
With the Taliban installed in Kabul, that amounts to a field day for ultraconservatives whether they are jihadist or not.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.