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Pakistan’s long shadow over religious extremism and attacks in France

Imran Khan’s leadership of Pakistan and the desire to become the leader of the Islamic world have taken the country further towards religious extremism
Nov 3, 2020 / 04:33 PM IST

It’s frightening at many levels. In three cities in France, terrorists who unsurprisingly included a Pakistani, went on a stabbing spree in a bloody month between September 29 and October 29. Charged crowds gathered in Lebanon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and, of course Pakistan, where Islamist groups called for ‘beheading’ in response to blasphemy. There were the protests in some Indian cities as well.

In the middle of all of this, unsurprisingly Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote a public letter to Muslim leaders for unity against ‘Islamophobia’, citing Kashmir as well.

What were the attacks in Conflans Sainte-Honorine, Paris and Nice about? It was to underline Muslim rage against the ‘blasphemy’ of cartoons on the Prophet, at a time when the now famous Charlie Hebdo  case on the killing of 17 people in 2015 was being heard in a Paris court. That case involving the targeting of the employees of a newspaper which used satire against all religions, by a group of terrorists led to a worldwide outrage, and backing of freedom of speech.

The lone surviving attacker is now on trial, and that seems to have precipitated the present attacks, which included the decapitation of a teacher for showing cartoons of the Prophet, an attack against Charlie Hebdo offices, and random knifing of three at a church. Those details are now well known.

What about the perpetrators? Schoolteacher Samuel Paty was beheaded by an 18-year-old man of Chechen origin, who lived some 200 miles away. He neither knew nor had ever seen Paty. The Paris attack’s chief suspect was a Pakistani who had arrived in France by a boat when he was 15, and the perpetrator of the Nice attack is a Tunisian illegal migrant.

Though blasphemy is cited as the motivation for the attacks, it could have come from the fact that two of the three accused come from countries that has been subject to internal wars for more than a decade.

Ali Hasan, the Pakistani who carried out the September 25 stabbing attacks in Paris, is from Kotli Qazi, in rural Punjab, Pakistan, dominated by the ultra-Right-wing Tehreek-e-Labbaik, the group suspected of having been assisted by the military establishment to defeat Nawaz Sharif in the2018 general elections.

Hasan has won the admiration of his peers and his father is proud of him. With such a milieu it’s hardly surprising that Pakistanis are present in every theatre of conflict, including Azerbaijan. Pakistanis have been indicted for terrorism in the United States, Europe, South East Asia, and China . Pakistani diplomats have been involved in human trafficking, and now a MEP (Member of European Parliament) has accused Pakistan of being the leader in fake passports and documents.

Then there is the reach and links of Pakistan’s poisonous Islamist extremists. Analysts have compiled, for instance, the networking and links of the Jamaat-e-Islami, as well as a variety of wealthy NGO's in the US. In the digital age, a RAND Corporation underlines the ease with which Pakistani extremists radicalised British subjects.

That the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) continues to keep Pakistan on a ‘grey’ list for terrorist finance cannot be overlooked. That’s not a political conspiracy as Islamabad likes to think it is. A US Senate hearing notes how a Pakistani charity that was importing holy water from Mecca funded even the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing.

Capping it all is Imran Khan’s leadership. Khan is dangerously bound to superstition and Right wing beliefs. Respected analysts doubt his ability to make rational decisions in a time of crisis, seeming to live in a ‘hallowed bubble’. Take his letter, where he condemns ‘attacks’ on Islam, without one word of sympathy for the victims. That letter betrays Khan’s ambitions of portraying himself as the (future) leader of the Islamic world —rather than an elected head of a democratic state.

Don’t forget that while the fight between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and French President Emmanuel Macron is out in the open, Erdogan unequivocally condemned the beheading. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Bin Mohamad has since denied that he called for retaliatory attack against France. Incidentally, these three leaders (Khan, Erdogan and Mahathir) are trying to present themselves as new leaders of the Islamic world, in competition with the Saudi Arabia-dominated Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

The unfortunate reality is that Pakistan is home to hundreds of Ali Hasans, desperately poor and trying to enter Europe for a better life — all while heavily indoctrinated by an establishment that is indistinguishable from the extreme Right. Rawalpindi (headquarters to the ISI) will cooperate with the French police to trace others like Hasan, and gain points for ‘cooperation’. But, the reality is that Pakistan, especially under such a leadership, has the potential for immense damage.

France may be racist and insular, but Macron is right in saying that nothing justifies violence. Don’t even try convincing Imran Khan about that — because it’s never a pleasant experience to hit one’s head against a wall.

Tara Kartha is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
Tara Kartha
first published: Nov 3, 2020 04:33 pm

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