MANY look upon militants as irrational creatures, criminals, or a mere bunch of thugs. The story of Ali Haider Gilani, however, offers a different perspective. In his three years of internment by Al Qaeda, Gilani seems to have realised that militants have ideological motives, and that their real strength lies in their politico-ideological narratives.
By contrast, the tale Shahbaz Taseer tells endorses a more commonplace description of militants. The latter brutally tortured him during his confinement. Taseer was kidnapped for ransom, unlike Gilani, who was purportedly kidnapped by militants as leverage to have their colleagues released from Pakistani jails. The self-described accounts given by both young men show two different sides of the Islamist militants. Their contrasting experiences in confinement have social value too. Their stories help us understand the character of militants operating in our region.
Two different groups, Al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), had respectively abducted Ali Haider Gilani, son of former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, and Shahbaz Taseer, son of assassinated governor of Punjab Salmaan Taseer. While both groups have foreign origins, the former has strong links with local militants. Shahbaz Taseer’s abductor, IMU, is a Central Asian militant group, and has always retained its independent identity while operating in parts of Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Notorious for its brutality, IMU did not get along well with most Pakistani militant groups, and some even resisted it. For instance, the then Taliban commander Mullah Nazir expelled IMU militants from South Waziristan in 2007. Recently, the Afghan Taliban, perceiving the group as troublesome, launched a large operation against it in the Zabul province of Afghanistan. The fighting reportedly led to Shahbaz Taseer’s freedom.
The experiences of Gilani and Taseer can help one understand the impact of extremist narratives on our youth.
The impression one gets is that the long periods of confinement have had some impact on the characters of both these young men but to varying degrees and in different ways. Taseer’s recently published article in The New York Times, and his interview with the BBC, basically narrate the five years of his sufferings — during which solitary confinement, loneliness, doubt, and anxiety triggered an internal conflict. Religion came to his rescue in the form of spiritual healing. His confinement became a journey of self-consciousness and self-discovery.
Ali Haider received better treatment from his Al Qaeda captors, and was even allowed to debate with them on different issues. The story he reported to the media explains the ideological context of Al Qaeda’s involvement in militancy. Going by his statements, he appears to understand the character of the militants and their aspirations for the enforcement of Sharia. However, he disagrees with their approach to achieving this purpose through violent means — instead, he believes that it is incumbent on people to incorporate Sharia in their personal capacity through their own will. His captivity has enhanced his religious, political and social understanding in the context of social change. Mainly, his journey has been to explore the outside world.
Both perspectives are important, as these help us understand how different narratives influence the minds of ordinary men and shape their behaviour. Importantly, their experiences could be used to understand how extremist narratives and tendencies are impacting Pakistan’s educated youth.
The state, power elites and clergy have created such a complex web of narratives, that it is hard to breach them with ‘alternative’ narratives. In Pakistan, a variety of ideological models, entrenched in religious tendencies, are available. These offer models of socio-political change in society, ranging from non-violent to violent options. Ordinary men, especially younger ones, have to choose between such models for their socio-political connection with society. Many confuse different models, and many are vulnerable to choosing the more extreme models. Gilani interacted with the sort of men who chose an extreme model, but he thinks non-violent options have not yet been fully exploited.
Gilani’s understanding of the militant groups is also commendable as he can differentiate among various groups. He endorses the perception that the TTP and Jamaatul Ahrar are part of the ‘bad Taliban’, with the former already on India’s payroll and the latter still in the process of making a deal. He himself was kidnapped by the Sajna group, once counted among the ‘good Taliban’, to secure the release of Al Qaeda prisoners.
One important revelation made by Gilani is that the Taliban’s jihad movement is transforming into a nationalist movement and that militants are turning against Punjab, inspired by the notion of Pakhtun nationalism. However, militants’ publications and other open sources do not indicate that they have been divided along ethnic lines.
Yet, they do have grievances against Punjab, as they think the establishment comes mainly from this province. Gilani also cautioned that Al Qaeda’s sleeper cells are still active in south Punjab, while the group has its subcontinental headquarters in Karachi. Most importantly, he conveyed that militant narratives still remain attractive in Pakistan.
While Shahbaz Taseer also hails from a political family, his confinement experiences sound completely different. It seems that he experienced things from a spiritual perspective, with little political or social nuance. His experience might be noteworthy in the context of the argument that Islam’s political appeal is increasing even as its spiritual appeal is decreasing.
Religious discourse has been extensively transformed in South Asia, especially in Pakistan. Groups and parties have taken over such discourse for political purposes, including those who tag themselves as spiritual leaders. The custodians of so-called Sufi traditions have become part of social and political elites. Hyper-urbanisation is also conducive to religiosity, with the latter’s social value that could provide some meaning to one’s daily life and connectivity with other social groups. It is interesting that those religious movements which provide broader connectivity are more popular in the country, such as Tableeghi Jamaat, Dawat-i-Islami, Al Huda, etc. The social connectivity that these groups provide, leans more towards ideological and political exposure than spiritual.
In an atmosphere where the practice of religion is increasingly taking on political and ideological overtones, the Sufi tradition is being undermined, and spiritual experiences are no longer able to generate a counter response to extremism.
The writer is a security analyst.