Britain, Islamisamation and state terror in Pakistan

This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

by Mark Curtis

Rigid Islamisation affected all areas of public life in Pakistan in the 1980s, as General Zia ul-Haq introduced draconian measures and punishments that, he declared, constituted the true implementation of Islamic law. In this he was guided by the leading Pakistani religious leaders of the Deobandi Islamic revivalist movement, a school of thought with many similarities to the Wahhabi version of Islam in Saudi Arabia, and two important Islamist parties: the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), Pakistan’s largest and most resourceful organisation which played a key role in recruiting for and funding the Afghan jihad; and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Assembly of Islamic Clergy or JUI), which insisted on a strict interpretation of Islamic law and which, along with the JI, ran an increasing network of madrassas throughout the country. By the time Zia was assassinated in 1988, 400,000 boys and young men, known as ‘Taliban’, or students, were being educated in the Pakistani madrassas.

The military and the mullahs under Zia had a common domestic enemy – the secular, more liberal mainstream political parties. Indeed, it was the protest movement instigated by the religious parties in the mid-1970s against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government that created the conditions for Zia’s 1977 coup. Zia’s consequent promotion of the Islamist groups was presented as a vehicle for establishing an Islamic state, and was intended to block the restoration of democracy and justify martial law. This project of defying secular nationalism received strong US and British support – a continuation of London and Washington’s long-standing policy preference for Islamists over nationalists or democrats, in the region.

The July 1977 coup by General Zia, then chief of the army, that overthrew Prime Minister Bhutto had in effect been welcomed by James Callaghan’s Labour government. The Cabinet reported two days after the military takeover that Zia ‘had announced his intention of holding elections in October and of handing power back to those elected, and there was no reason to think that he did not genuinely wish to carry out this intention’ – which in fact never happened. A few months later, in January 1978, Callaghan met Zia for talks in Pakistan. He told the House of Commons that ‘General Zia assured me of his firm intention to restore democratic government in Pakistan at the earliest possible date and described to me how he proposed to do this.’ He added: ‘I have hopes, in the light of what I was told, that we shall see a full return to democracy during the course of 1978.’ This was complete nonsense, as Callaghan surely knew; a similar mantra was constantly repeated by British ministers concerning Musharraf’s supposed commitment to the ‘restoration of democracy’ after his military takeover in 1999.

Once Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979 she abandoned Callaghan-style pieties in favour of exuding praise for the Pakistani dictator at every opportunity. ‘General Zia is a wise man’, Thatcher told the House of Commons in February 1979, at a time when Zia was about to impose sharia law in the country and when a death sentence hung over the overthrown Bhutto: he was hanged two months later.

Britain stepped up its arming of Pakistan and Thatcher consistently fought off accusations that London was increasing the prospects of conflict with India, by increasing Islamabad’s ability to fight Indian forces in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Instead, she argued that Pakistan was now ‘in the front line’ with regards to the war in Afghanistan. After Thatcher outlined this reason for providing arms to Pakistan at a press conference in Delhi in April 1981 she received a memo from President Reagan conveying ‘profound admiration for your forthright and courageous comments to the press in India on Pakistan’s defence needs and on the situation in Afghanistan’.

In October 1981, Thatcher paid a visit to Pakistan and gave a speech at a banquet hosted by General Zia at Aiwan-e-Sadr, the president’s official residence in Islamabad. Reflecting on her host’s response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Thatcher told her audience:

“Mr President … you accepted that a historic responsibility had been thrust upon you, a responsibility to cope with and manage this situation not just in the interests of Pakistan, but in the interests of the international community. It is for that reason, among others, that Pakistan deserves the support of Britain and of all the nations of the world who are genuinely interested in bringing about the withdrawal of Soviet troops. On behalf of Britain, let me confirm to you – Pakistan has our support in the general problems you are facing … We deeply admire the courage and skill you have shown in handling the crisis”.

Thatcher ended with a toast ‘to the health and happiness of His Excellency, the president’ and to the ‘lasting friendship’ between the people of the two countries. Thatcher’s penchant for dictators is usually illustrated by her friendship with Chilean President Augusto Pinochet; yet her alliance with Zia was as least as strong, while his legacy of support for Islamist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan had much greater global consequences.

Zia’s domestic Islamisation drive, along with the money, arms and training pumped into the Afghan jihad, soon led to official Pakistani sponsorship of radical Islamist groups for use in the region. While Britain and the US were supporting Zia throughout the decade, two major terrorist organisations were established in Pakistan with state complicity that would have important consequences for the region and the wider world. The first was the Harkat al-Jehad al-Islami (HUJI), set up early in the Afghan war, in 1980, by the JUI and the Tableeghi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary movement. Initially established to run relief camps for the mujahideen in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, worked with the HUJI leadership to recruit and train militants from Pakistan to participate in the Afghan War. In the mid-1980s, the HUJI split, one faction establishing itself as the Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HUM), whose militants fought in Afghanistan and which recruited a further 5,000 volunteers from around the Muslim world to fight there. The initial batch of HUM volunteers was trained at camps in Afghanistan run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, of the Younis Khalis faction of the Hezb-e-Islami, which was also being covertly supported by Britain and the US. The HUM was regarded as having some of the best fighters in the jihad; the CIA provided it with Stinger missiles and trained HUM forces in their use.

Under its leader, Fazlur Rehman Khalil, the HUM would go on to become one of Pakistan’s most violent terrorist organisations, being especially active against Indian forces in Kashmir. It would continue to run camps in Afghanistan throughout the 1990s and send militants to the jihad in Bosnia after 1992, all the while remaining a protégé of the ISI. The London bombers of 2005 would also have connections to the HUM.

The second key terrorist organisation in Pakistan developed out of the Markaz Dawa al-Irshad (the Centre for Religious Learning and Welfare or MDI), which was founded in 1987 by three Islamic scholars, including Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian Muslim Brother who organised mujahideen forces for the Afghan War who was now at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. Set up as a Sunni missionary organisation, the MDI appears to have received seed money from Bin Laden; so too did its military wing, Lashkar-e-Toiba (Army of the Pure or LET), whose creation was aided by the ISI and which recruited volunteers to join the Afghan jihad, setting up camps in eastern Afghanistan in 1987–8. The LET played a minimal role in the Afghan War, instead turning to the fight against India in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, for which it received ISI support. It has since become Pakistan’s largest jihadi organisation and one of its most violent terrorist groups. The 7/7 bombers would also be linked closely to the LET.

The creation of these two organisations, with the complicity of the ISI, would be as significant for the development of global terrorism as the establishment of Bin Laden’s al-Qaida at around the same time. Yet the effects of this radicalisation in Pakistan were not only felt there and in Afghanistan and Kashmir, but also in Britain. Bahukutumbi Raman, a former Indian intelligence officer and leading expert on Pakistani terrorist groups, notes that ‘the seeds of the radicalisation of the Pakistani diaspora in the UK were sown during the military dictatorship of Zia.’ The general encouraged a number of Deobandi clerics from Pakistan to go to Britain as preachers in the mosques patronised by the Pakistani diaspora. There, they replaced the clerics of the Barelvi school of Islam, who tended to be more liberal and welcoming of Western-style democracy. Raman notes that in Britain today ‘the influence of the more tolerant and not anti-Western Barelvi mullahs has been almost totally replaced by that of the more fundamentalist, anti-Western DeobandiWahhabi ones’. He also argues that ‘the intelligence agencies of the US and the UK went along with Zia’s policy of ArabisingWahhabising the Muslims of Pakistan because this contributed to an increase in the flow of jihadi terrorists’ to Afghanistan.

The first signs of the radicalisation of the Pakistani diaspora in Britain came in February 1984. A group of British terrorists of Pakistani origin in the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) kidnapped an Indian diplomat posted to the Assistant High Commission in Birmingham, demanding the release of the JKLF’s leader, who was in jail in Delhi convicted of murder. When the Indian government rejected the terrorists’ demand, they killed the diplomat. Five years later, a better-known event revealed how some elements in the British Muslim community had become radicalised, when in January 1989 a group of Islamists in Bradford burnt copies of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, and issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie to be killed. The protest was initially orchestrated from Pakistan and India by supporters of the Jamaat-i-Islami and by the UK Islamic Mission, which had been set up in the early 1960s to, as it stated, build a society ‘based on the ideals, values and principles of Islam’ and to introduce the sharia into British law. It also had – and maintains – strong links with Pakistan’s JI. Deobandi and Barelvi associations also organised street protests in Britain and Pakistan against the novel. The Leicester Islamic Foundation – set up by the Islamic Mission in 1973 with JI officers, and still heavily influenced by the spiritual followers of the JI – called on Muslims to sign a petition to have the novel banned; this idea had been instigated by the Chennai chapter of the JI, which was pushing Indian politicians to stop the book being published in India.

The anti-Rushdie protests were supported by only a small minority of British Muslims but sadly placed the broader British Muslim community under a harsh media spotlight. It took a long time for that community to recover; no sooner had it done so than first 9/11 and then the 7/7 bombings dealt it even more severe blows. The radicalisation of elements in the Muslim community in the 1980s was already a case of ‘blowback’, given Britain’s conniving with a Pakistani regime sponsoring Islamist and terrorist groups. The Rushdie affair should have been a wake-up call to British foreign and domestic policy-makers – yet their response in the early 1990s was the opposite: to deepen still further British complicity in Pakistan’s promotion of radical Islam.


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