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The first self-styled Islamic state of the postwar era was established not in the Arab world but in south Asia, in Pakistan. It was followed by Mauritania in west Africa, Iran and then Pakistan’s neighbour, Afghanistan. Thursday’s attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, where at least four people were killed in a series of explosions, have heightened fears over the rise of terrorism in the world’s largest Muslim majority country.
While the world frets over the spread of violent Islamist extremism through the Middle East, most recently under the banner of Isis, there is a tendency to forget the menace of violence and creeping religious bigotry among the vast Muslim populations of Asia. It is in Asia, after all, that most Muslims live.
In Asia, as in Europe and the Middle East, Isis is a popular brand among young Islamist militants. But the puritanical and bloodthirsty Sunni ideology it represents has been extending its influence there for decades under the guidance of other groups and governments, including al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia and a plethora of local organisations.
Many westerners — because their own troops have been fighting and dying there in the recent past — are aware of the savagery of the civil war in Afghanistan between the ultra-conservative Taliban and the government in Kabul.
But how many recall that Sunni extremists in Bangladesh have in the past few months hacked to death liberal writers and attacked foreigners, police officers, Shia Muslims, Hindus and Christians? That scores of recruits from the Maldives have gone to fight for Isis in Syria? Or that Pakistani terror groups routinely slaughter the perceived enemies of Sunni puritanism at home as well as launching occasional murderous raids into neighbouring India?
East Asia is not immune either. Just as south Asians once revelled in their religious diversity and syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture, so it was long argued that the brand of Islam practised in Indonesia and its neighbours was “milder” than the harsh versions of the Gulf. Yet in recent decades we have seen terrorist bombings in Bali, Islamist separatism in the Philippines and Sumatra, the burning of churches in Java and increasing Wahabbi religiosity that runs counter to the tolerant and heterodox traditions of Islam in the east.
Analysing the role of postwar nation states and their constitutions is crucial for understanding the crisis of Islamist violence in Asia: the very name of the country is one reason why the problem is so severe in the pioneering Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
When Muhammad Ali Jinnah separated Pakistan from the rest of India in 1947, it was to protect the Muslim minority of the Raj. He envisaged a secular, tolerant state where Christians, Hindus and others could worship freely.
That was not the way it turned out. Pakistan has become a place where the supposed will of the religious majority is imposed by violence. By becoming an “Islamic” republic, it by definition discriminated against non-Muslims. Non-Muslims are vilified not only in madrassas but also in government school textbooks.
Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of the Pakistani national assembly, describes in her book, Purifying the Land of the Pure, how the non-Muslim share of the population dropped from 23 per cent at independence to 3 per cent today.
But the “drip, drip genocide” — 60,000 Pakistanis, she says, have been killed by jihadis — did not stop there. Members of the Ahmadi movement were persecuted and declared non-Muslims. Extremists then started massacring Shia. Now the targets are Sufis and other “soft” Sunnis considered insufficiently orthodox by clerics.
There is, nevertheless, a glimmer of hope that Pakistan might, one day, become a moderately open Muslim society. The army seems to have realised that violent Islamists who slaughter Pakistanis pose an existential threat to the state itself.
Unfortunately, the generals make a specious distinction between “good” and “bad” jihadis, supporting the “good” who stage terror attacks on Pakistan’s neighbours. The four men who crossed the border and attacked the Indian air base of Pathankot this month were believed to be from a group supported by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Yet, as Ispahani points out, the same people who kill Indians or Afghans in the summer will return home when the fighting season is over and murder Pakistani Shia or persecute the few remaining Hindus and Christians.
If Pakistan and other Asian nations want to survive as modern, constitutional states rather than descend into the communal violence now common in the Middle East, they will have to enforce a minimum level of religious and cultural tolerance and suppress all their extremists.
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