Pakistan: Will Osama bin Laden's assassination end religious fundamentalist attacks?

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By Farooq Tariq, Lahore

May 7, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In the first four days after Osama Bin Laden’s assassination by US forces, the mass reaction in Pakistan is very mixed. In Punjab there is a general sympathy towards bin Laden, however not many are expressing it openly. In Sindh, the responses differ in different cities. For example, in Karachi there is more active commiseration for bin Laden and condemnation of the US attack.

Surprisingly, not much happened in Khaiber Pakhtoonkhawa, where bin Laden was killed. Similarly, Baluchistan responded meekly against the killings. However the reaction against the attack on the compound in Abbotabad is growing and it will spread to other areas. Many religious fundamentalists fled Afghanistan and took refuge in Baluchistan and Khaiber Pakhtoonkhawa. They ruled those provinces from 2002 to 2008.

This fundamentalist rule occurred while Pakistan's dictator General Pervez Musharraf was playing a binary game with US imperialism. On the one hand, he joined the "war on terror" coalition. While on the other he depended on the fundamentalists' growth to receive more military and economic support from US imperialism in the name of fighting the fundamentalists. During this period, Osama bin Laden must have crossed into Pakistan.

The May 2011 attack took everybody by surprise; people were bewildered and speechless. No one expected such a brazen act so soon after the release of David Ramond, the CIA operative who killed two Pakistanis in broad daylight earlier this year in Lahore. In contrast to the mild reaction to bin Laden's assassination, the mass reaction to Ramond’s murders was so strong it put the government in a defensive position. With this attack it seems that US imperialism has advanced its conquest of Pakistan.

Religious political parties like Jamaat Islami and Jamiat Ulemai Islam are silent about the killings and atrocities committed by al Qaeda, but they slam Americans for their “violation of Pakistan sovereignty”. Hardliner Jamat Dawa of Hafiz Saeed is the most active religious fundamentalist consoling Osama bin Laden and offering Nama Jenaza (the prayer upon death of a Muslim) in some areas. It will not be long before these parties organise sympathy toward bin Laden and take to the streets against the attack.

Bourgeoisie parties like the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League (Q) and Pakistan Muslim League (N) support the US action, seeing it as a great victory against the rise of religious fundamentalism. The government has not yet come up with a coherent explanation. Instead, various officials have nade contradictory statements.

Pakistan and US alliance

Over the last year the Pakistan and US governments have cemented their relationship. This can be seen through more exchange visits among intelligence officials and in the number of visas provided to CIA agents. The government has also given Washington a free hand for launching drone attacks, abandoning the pretence of condemnation that was practiced during the initial phase of the attacks. Washington has known Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan.

The US government has provided political backing to a very fragile PPP government. Without hesitation the PPP government acted on the advice of US imperialism, the IMF and the World Bank. The US government could not have a better partner than this government, which is led by the most corrupt and anti-people elements. Further, Washington seems to have blessed bringing the Muslim League Q -- which shared power with General Musharraf –- into the government. On the very day bin Laden was killed, 14 ministers from the PMLQ took their oath and joined what one newly inducted federal minister called a “drowning boat”.

The open violation of Pakistan's sovereignty by sending the US Navy SEALS [commandos] to take out bin Laden will not worsen the relationship between the two ruling classes. Notice that US President Barack Obama and his aides have not uttered a single word against the Pakistan government. On the contrary, they have praised the mutual sharing of intelligence.

The attack on the Osama group has been a joint effort of Pakistan and US intelligence agencies. General Kiani, who has headed the army since Musharraf was president, is the former head of Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He has a long history of working closely with US imperialism. In 2007, he was the one who began negotiations with Benazir Bhutto for sharing power with Musharraf. As Bhutto put pressure on Musharraf to resign his position with the military, General Kiani took over. Under his watch, the Pakistan military establishment began to break its traditional links with the religious fanatics, launching military operations against them. The fanatics fought back, targeting military headquarters and killing top military officers.

Polarisation in army ranks

As a result, there is a polarisation in the military between the officers and the ranks. Top military officers have formed close relationships with their US counterparts. They are in control of vast assets and maintain a more liberal way of life. But the lower ranks are still religious, sympathetic to fundamentalism and the religious parties, and still hold to anti-Indian and anti-Western feelings. Because of this polarisation, Washington hesitates in trusting the ability of the army and intelligence agencies to carry out vigorous prosecution of its war on terrorism.

Despite the big blow of bin Laden's death, al Qaeda and other religious extremist terrorist groups will grow.

In his excellent pamphlet, “Why Marxists oppose individual terrorism”, Leon Trotsky remarked, “The most important psychological source of terrorism is always the feeling of revenge in search of an outlet.” The feeling of revenge does not end by with bin Laden's death. Both his murder and the throwing of his body into the Arabian Sea will not put an end to terrorism. In fact, religious terrorism will grow as a result of US imperialism's actions. A certain portion of Muslim youth who are looking for ways to oppose US imperialism may be attracted to terrorism. New terrorist groups will form.

This does not mean that the religious fanatics can capture power in Pakistan. The Pakistan military is a brutal force and it has demonstrated several times how much violence it will use once its power is threatened. The Pakistan army will work hand in glove with Washington to ensure that the fanatics do not take over Islamabad nor get their hands on the country’s nuclear technology.

The threat of individual terrorism by fanatics with a worldview is not confined to one country. They are not so much like IRA who fought in the name of national liberation but more like the Red Brigades in Italy, who fought an ideological war that was successfully crushed because it had a very narrow social base.

Al Qaeda and other religious fanatics are exploiting the religious feelings of millions of Muslims. Although these fanatics represent several different trends and sects within Islam, nonetheless they have been able to lay down a mass social base in several countries.

Al Qaeda is no doubt one of the most successful terrorist organisations the world has seen. It has survived over two decades and successfully planned and struck targets several times. It has a brigade of suicidal missionaries who are ready to go heaven by killing themselves and others. Despite their main leader’s murder, there are no signs of its demise. However acts of individual terrorism have their limits.

The limitations of individual terrorism

State terrorism cannot be separated from individual terrorism. Both have the same nature and direction; both give rise the same consequences.

The most successful al Qaeda act of terrorism on 9/11 has not benefited Muslims and the lives of millions of Muslims are ones of absolute misery and sadness. It has satisfied the souls of the few fanatics like bin Laden but damaged the souls of the millions. Imperialism responded to the attack with barbaric fury.

Commenting on the situation in Russia after the killing of a minister in 1911, Leon Trotsky, one of the main architecture of the Soviet Revolution, wrote the following:

Whether a terrorist attempt, even a ‘successful’ one, throws the ruling class into confusion depends on the concrete political circumstances. In any case, the confusion can only be short-lived; the capitalist state does not base itself on government ministers and cannot be eliminated with them. The classes it serves will always find new people; the mechanism remains intact and continues to function.

The more ‘effective’ the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organisation and self-education. But the smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only the police repression grows more savage and brazen. And as a result, in place of the kindled hopes and artificially aroused excitement comes disillusionment and apathy. ("Terrorism", Leon Trotsky, November 1911

Will bin Laden's killing end religious fundamentalism?

Examine the following 2009 quote from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, about Washington’s past support to the Mujahidin in Afghanistan:

Let’s deal with the ISI and the Pakistan military and let's go recruit these mujahedeen... It wasn’t a bad investment to end the Soviet Union but let's be careful with what we sow... Because we will harvest. -- Hillary Clinton, April 23, 2009.

Over the last 10 years, both Washington and the fanatics have been harvesting what they have sowed. One act of revenge leads to another.

Religious fundamentalism cannot be defeated by force. The war and occupation policies of US imperialism present examples of failure, not success. The lesson is clear: “You cannot kill ideas.” Instead there must be a political fight to expose the real meaning of religious fundamentalism to the lives of ordinary people.

The rise of political Islam

The rise of political Islam is linked to the weakness of left parties in the Muslim world. On the one hand, during the 1990s, after the fall of Soviet Union, socialism seemed to have failed. On the other hand, populist, anti-imperialist, mass-based parties such Bhutto’s People's Party also lost credibility. Religion seemed to be the only available anti-imperialist platform. In reality religious extremists such as the Taliban and al Qaeda in no way represented an alternative against imperialism. They themselves exploit, oppress and kill those who do not share their beliefs. They believe in the physical elimination of political opponents. They are not a progressive force fighting against imperialist hegemony but an extremely right-wing reactionary force. They want to forcibly turn the clock of the history backwards. Religious fanatics are the new fascists.

Religious fanatics and the imperialist powers provide each other with justification for escalating violence. This is a never-ending cycle.

The growth of religious fundamentalism is also a response to the complete failure of civilian and military governments in Pakistan to solve any basic problems of the working class and peasants. Successive regimes have been unable to end the grip of feudalism, the repressive and exploitive nature of Pakistani capitalists and their humiliating treatment of workers, the repression of the country’s smaller nationalities and exploitation of their natural resources.

The Pakistan ruling class has failed miserably to bring about any democratic norms. As a result, when civilian regimes have been overthrown by military dictatorships, the vast majority of the masses did not offer resistance. Today, the policies of the civilian government are dominated by US imperialism and institutions such as the IMF and World Bank that dictate misery for the people of Pakistan. War and economic misery, along with daily suicide attacks, have left the population in a fearful state. The general psyche has become one of uncertainty about the future. Hope vanishes.

Clearly the Pakistan government must change its political and economic priorities. It must end corruption and cut its ties that bind it to US imperialism.    

Confusion among the left was at its height after 9/11. There were those advocating cooperation with NATO forces against the religious fanatics, saying there was no need to build an alternative. “Religious fanatics are fascists and NATO is powerful enough to eliminate them”, was the argument put forward. “NATO is doing our job. A military solution is the only alternative; we must keep quiet, close our eyes and cooperate with the Americans. There is no need to build the antiwar movement involving the masses” was the line of argumentation.

On the other side, to reinforce the central paradigms of the dominant actors of the conflict, the problem was presented as “Us vs. Them”, “the battle of Good against Evil”, “crusade against Islamic terrorism”, “civilisation versus chaos”. The state, the media and the liberals, hand in hand with some progressives, were able to dominate the discussion.

What should we do?

The killing of Osama bin Laden opens a new era of conflict. The groups and individuals linked to al Qaeda, as well as other terrorist religious fundamentalists, will use the incident to mobilise people in support of their reactionary agendas.

We have to oppose US imperialism, the fundamentalists and the complicity of the Pakistan government with both of these forces. In this debate, we have come forward with our own position on imperialism, the capitalist state and religious fundamentalism. We have to expose their propaganda and dead-end solutions.

  • We call for a comprehensive and wideranging political and economic strategy to fight the fanatics. The Pakistan state must end all forms of support to religious madrassas [schools]. At least 10 per cent of the national budget should be spent on education; education must be free to university level for all. The state must delink itself from religious practices and provide an institutional alternative to madrassas.
  • We call for an end to subservience to the economic policies of the IMF and World Bank. The government must serve the interests of workers and peasants.
  • We call for an end to ties with US imperialism and the war machine.

The rise of religious fundamentalism is a direct result of government policies of a ruling elite and its dependence on US and other imperialist forces. A fight against imperialism and colonisation and neocolonisation must be the main priority of all our propaganda, with no concession to the fanatics.

An alternative has now been presented by the great Arab Spring. The era of suicide attacks, bomb blasts, drone attacks and other violent means is far less effective than the mass upsurge of the great Arab people against dictators and dictatorial regimes. The Arab way of fighting back will ultimately bring confidence to the masses to go all the way from changing regimes to a socialist alternative.

[Farooq Tariq is spokesperson of the Labour Party Pakistan. Visit]