Friday, June 3, 2011

Economics of religion and peace in South Asia

Muhammad Shafique*
Recent success of the US in tracking Osama Bin Laden inside Pakistan has raised more concerns about the restoration of peace in the region and the world than it addressed. It has brought to the fore the suspicions that Bin Laden and Al-Qaida have been enjoying the backing of at least some elements within Pakistan's military and intelligence apparatus. It also lends credence to the US suspicions that Pakistan is still sympathetic towards certain factions of Taliban.
The recent terrorist attack on a naval airbase in Karachi, reported killing of a journalist in this connection, and official reports on investigation of the attack indicate that some personnel of Pakistan's armed forces are linked to Al-Qaida and associated network. One hopes that it is not the tip of an iceberg. While the military establishment in general does not appear to have extremist bent but it is known to have anti-American sentiment and significant presence of extremist elements within its ranks and its intelligence wing is hard to rule out.
During the 90s, extremist elements linked with jihadist network had assumed enough support within Pakistan military to stage a coup against the military leadership and Benazir Bhutto’s government in a bid to establish a radical Islamic state. The planned coup had been successfully pre-empted and army officers at the ranks of major general and brigadier had been implicated in connection with the coup [1].
International community has already been upset with Pakistan’s alleged involvement in nuclear proliferation and its help to North Korea, Iran and Libya in their nuclear ambitions. Now the fear has surfaced that its own nuclear assets may fall in the hands of extremists. The seemingly probable presence of extremist elements within the ranks of military and intelligence agencies and their links with Al-Qaida network make a nightmare scenario for the region and the world.
What makes the situation alarming is the fact that Pakistan shares a history of mutual animosity with neighbouring India and the two nuclear states have fought three major wars. Though, the bitterness of their relationship has been tamed by the influence of US in the region and Pakistan’s role in the ‘war on terror’. While the ongoing war has mainly remained between the jihadist network and the US-Pakistan alliance, the extremist elements did try to pull India into it though attacks on its parliament and a hotel in Mumbai.
This situation makes South Asia a hotbed of nuclear crisis which has the potential to undermine the already fragile peace in the world. Thus, international community has huge stake in the region.
The problem of peace in South Asia is a complex one having its roots in the history of the region, its geo-political landscape, internal political dynamics of individual nations, and their socio-economic structures. The international community, particularly the US, has acknowledged the complexity of the problem. One way to disentangle this complexity is to see peace as a composite of ‘political peace’ and ‘socio-economic peace’. Unfortunately, all the efforts of international community have so far been focused on the former to the detriment of the latter which may be a reason behind ever worsening situation.
Bleeding political peace
The people of subcontinent lived in reasonable harmony till it fell under British rule. The conduct of British Empire created a split between Hindus and Muslims which gradually turned into intolerance towards each other and eventually led to the partition. The partition of subcontinent was a bloody event resulting in killing of hundreds of thousands of people. This historical event has been part of the psyche of the people within both nations ever since and there is hardly any willingness to break with the history. It is even formally taught during early and late schooling in a way that glorifies ‘sacrifices’ of their own and laments the ‘crimes’ of the other.
Besides the historical reasons, the major source of enmity between the two nations is a well-known issue of accession of Kashmir to either of them. India maintains that Kashmir is its integral part while Pakistan considers it as illegally occupied by India and claims that it belong to Pakistan and Indian occupation makes it a disputed territory as acknowledged by international community in UN resolutions. It is also an open secret that Pakistan has been supporting separatist movement in Kashmir and many of the jihadi outfits in Pakistan justified the need for their existence in relation to ongoing jihad in Kashmir.
Due to the abundance of irritants and unwillingness of either side to compromise on the issue of Kashmir, the dispute has always remained central to the relationship between the two rivals.
Since partition, Pakistan has been weaker than India on all conventional measures which led her into making security as the pivot of its national conduct and hence being India-centric. She also claims this to be the reason for obtaining nuclear deterrence. This reality is often portrayed in Pakistan as a landmark national achievement in the context of the fall of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), which Pakistan alleges was the result of India’s intervention and aggression. Its nuclear capability is often glorified by some elements as the Islamic bomb. Due to this glorification, the general public in Pakistan is also sensitive about its possession and control.
India alleges that Pakistan is a sanctuary of terrorists who attack inside India’s territory. Pakistan alleges that India sponsors separatist movements in her territory, particularly in Balochistan and Sindh provinces. It is probable that both are right in their perceptions that have led to a system of actions and reactions that continuously undermine the peace between the two.
India has its own regional and global aspirations which are largely influenced by China’s position and role in the region and the world. For instance, India’s pursuit of permanent membership of Security Council may be seen in this light. While China and India are comparable rivals on several accounts, Pakistan’s strategy to secure power balance with India, no matter how unrealistic, stems from her historical threat perceptions from India. Due mainly to this reason, Pakistan would also like to see a government in Afghanistan which can help secure its Western border which allegedly provide a corridor for support to separatist factions within Pakistan. In this backdrop, Pakistan took advantage of the clout it had gained during the Afghan war against the former USSR and helped create Taliban in the face of Northern Alliance (NA) which was allegedly sponsored by India.
While the victory of Talibans over NA did provide Pakistan a temporary relief but it created significant discomfort to India and the rest of the world. By backing Taliban, Pakistan had already made sizable enemy out of NA. Ironically, its participation in the US war against Taliban has created even more dangerous enemies out of friends. Now Pakistan finds itself being surrounded by enemies not only on its east and west borders but also within its own territory and system. There are a large number of Afghan refugees integrated within the very fabric of its society and the jihadi outfits that it had helped create and nurture ever since the first Afghan war.
The acrimony between Pakistan and India is also nourished by the abundance of conspiracy theorists on both sides. It is no surprise that many in Pakistan interpret recent onslaught of terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s security installation as a systematic attempt from India and its friends to create the grounds for depriving her of nuclear assets.
What is more, both countries suffer from significant influence of the right-wing nationalists, religious extremists, and vested interest groups who prosper on the lack of peace within and between the two neighbors. It is no surprise that the events like the dispute of Babri Masjid, Massacre of Gujrat, and attacks on Indian parliament and Mumbai pitch Hindus and Muslims against each other. This also suggests the possibility that a minor irritation or act of terror can potentially turn into a massacre or a war.
The persistent lack of trust between the two nuclear states and abundance of events on both sides that reinforce the perceptions of mutual hostility between the two is what makes South Asia the most dangerous political spot on earth. This danger is compounded by the increasing penetration of jihadist network in Pakistan which spans to Afghanistan and is likely connected to Pakistani intelligence and military. The success of this network in propelling its benefactors and sympathizers to corridors of power in Pakistan may realize the worst of the fears of international community.
Battered socio-economic peace
The political peace is largely understood in terms of the presence or absence of armed conflicts between nation states or violence within states. It is, however, not a cause but the outcome of presence or absence of some kind of unrest among a sizable part of a population. The social and economic peace or unrest are among the most important determinants of political peace. So, political peace cannot be achieved without socio-economic peace.
The socio-economic landscape of Pakistan has never been conducive for peace for several reasons yet the core of her problems is embedded into poor relations with India. Pakistan always spent heavily in the defence sector to the neglect and detriment of social sector. This was due to ever-increasing power of military establishment which does not permit any accountability by the state on the pretext of security and institutional dignity.
Whenever a civilian government attempted to hold its reins or judiciary tried to question its conduct, it dislodged the government and displaced the judiciary without having to be accountable to the people or any regard to the concerns of international community. It controls intelligence agencies which may use any means ranging from coercion and bribes to illegal detention and murder in order to enforce establishment’s control. Whoever speaks effectively against its hegemony is swiftly labeled as traitor and treated accordingly.
Whatever the dispensation of the government, Pakistan has always lived under permanent military control and military establishment always dictated at least three things—foreign policy, defense spending, and privileges of military and its personnel. It is alleged that military establishment was instrumental in undermining and disrupting the peace initiatives of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif governments vis-à-vis India simply because peace would make the establishment irrelevant.
Military establishment directly or indirectly owns and runs numerous commercial enterprises in the country while paying no taxes and enjoying virtual monopoly in areas ranging from financial services to real estate management. It always managed to secure top management positions for its serving and retired military personnel in key public sector enterprises ranging from electricity supply to steel manufacturing. The failure of most of public service enterprises in Pakistan is largely attributable to the fact that they were managed for most part of their life by military officers who were not qualified for the job.
Ironically, all the civilian governments in Pakistan proved to be even more corrupt leaving the nation between the devil and the deep blue sea. With all the debt and foreign aid, Pakistan has so far been feeding the military establishment, corrupt politicians, and even more corrupt bureaucracy. While the national debt has been piling up, very little has ever trickled down to the social sector leaving the social and institutional structure in shambles.
What is more, the international community, particularly the US, always invested in nurturing Pakistan’s military establishment to the neglect and detriment of its people. While this unending investment did not influence the views of military establishment about the US, it is no surprise that general public is seldom sympathetic to the US despite all her aid because of her role in promoting the economics which created injustice and corruption in Pakistan. It is worth remembering that the perception of injustice and exploitation is such a powerful dynamic that it led to the partition of the subcontinent, initially into two nations and then into three. Ironically, the establishment and extremist elements always managed to exploit this sentiment to their own ends.
Educational and socio-economic disparity in Pakistan
There has been little investment in infrastructure, institutional structure and social sector, particularly education. The state of education has uniquely affected peace in Pakistan. There are two distinct types of education systems, mainstream and seminaries. The mainstream education system comprises a wide spectrum of public and private institutions imparting varying quality of education according to the affordability of different segments. While quality private educational institutions are fewer and costly, public schools teach a selected version of history and set of values which are assumed to serve Islam, and hence, breed a particular world view.
The poorest of the poor who cannot afford to feed their children let alone buy them education, send their children to ‘madrassas’ (seminaries) scattered across the country. These are resident religious schools, often attached to mosques, and run on charity. These provide food, shelter, and religious education to the students without any charge. These seminaries typically teach religion according to the particular perspective and faction of Islam that the administration of each seminary follows. The parents sending their children to these seminaries are neither capable of determining what their child is taught or how is he treated nor they have the courage to question the benefactor. A student would normally spend the formative years of his life within a narrow system of seminaries.
Regardless of how this system shapes the world view of its members in relation to the purpose of existence of the world and that of life, its members suffer from significant social and economic exclusion. Their education is largely considered inferior to the mainstream education and has little use in normal economic life. The employment opportunities for these students are very few and all they can get is to be employed by a seminary or become a resident prayer leader in a mosque. Although there are scores of mosques spread across the country and new ones keep emerging, the employment opportunities remain far fewer than the demand.
After years of education in the seminary, the vast majority of these students and de facto servants of religion usually have to learn some economically useful skill or rely on occasional bounties and charity from the community for their survival. In any case, most of the graduates of seminaries are bound to live a life full of economic hardships.
Interestingly, this system of education has sustained its organic growth due to increase in population, poverty, and cost of mainstream education. It has also remained unregulated to the extent that government hardly maintains any record of the mosques, seminaries, funding, administration, and student population in this system.
It has already been one of the major sources of sectarian unrest within Pakistan during 80s and 90s. Not only that this fragmented network of institutions and people spans the whole country, the segment of population which is beneficiary of this system is also predisposed to favor any party or group which claims to work for the renaissance of Islam.
The promise that Islam is the only solution to all injustices and social ills that we know today is already an integral part of the belief system of a many Muslims. However, it is particularly used by vested interests to appeal to the underprivileged and religiously indoctrinated segment to seek an Islamic revolution for eradicating social injustice. Therefore, their peculiar education and corresponding social and economic vulnerability predisposes them to be pulled into the extremist network operating in the region. This might be one the chief reasons behind the survival and possible growth of the jihadist network despite a decade of war on terror and consequent crackdown on extremist elements.
Prospects of peace in the region
Given the historical, political, and socio-economic configuration of the region, the prospects of peace do not seem bright in the foreseeable future. Even if there is a demonstrable commitment to peace and restraint by the governments of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan fully supported by international community, it will take quite some time before the negative trend stops and begins to reverse. It requires a significant change in the mental programming and socio-economic configuration of about 1.4 billion people.
At the very least, the two rival nuclear states need to believe that nations come into being and exist not merely for the sake of existence but to afford peace, prosperity and happiness to their people. By failing to secure socio-economic peace, they are failing their people and the world. The prospects of peace and success, if any, lie in a healthy system of collaboration and competition rather than animosity between neighboring states.
In any case, the necessary precondition for peace in South Asia is that the people and the states learn to forget bitter history like Europeans did after the World War II. Use of their history as an ideological tunnel would keep the possibilities of collaboration shut out. Second, people need to learn that religion is something personal and hostility towards each other’s religion does not serve any religion. It must also be learnt that mundane problems would always remain as such even if the whole world comes to believe in one religion. Such a change in collective attitude requires significant reforms in the education system. Third, instead of following the path of mutually assured destruction, India and Pakistan will have to acknowledge and nurture stakes in each other’s peace. Actualization of the SAARC can be a good starting point.
One can only hope that South Asia would not fail the peace of the world.
[1] Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam by Zahid Hussain, Columbia University Press, 2007, page 72.
* The author is a PhD fellow in economics and management of innovation and technical change at Maastricht University, The Netherlands.


  1. Tip of the iceberg?

  2. and,