The latest leaflet released by Hizb ut-Tahrir Pakistan (HTP), dated June 5th, 2011, is entitled “Pakistan’s budget is always prepared on IMF’s direction” which criticizes the government’s tax policy for being mainly based upon indirect taxes. The occasion for the release of the leaflet was the government’s decision to implement the RGST (Reformed General Sales Tax) apparently in line with demands by the IMF, in effect causing the general population in Pakistan to carry a further share of the tax burden which was already disproportionately weighed against them. The solution offered in the leaflet is to adopt an alternative Islamic Economic System through an Islamic government or Caliphate, with a brief argument in favor of the various forms of Islamic taxation which focus upon wealth and fixed assets rather than income or consumption based – such as the various forms of land tax – and the return to public ownership of sectors such as energy production.
The leaflet is short – just about 500 words in the English translation – and openly available on the Pakistani website of the group in both Urdu and English. Any journalist or researcher would be able to access them easily with little effort required to understand their content. Yet in the wake of the news that a senior officer in the Pakistani army, Brigadier Ali Khan, had been arrested last month apparently for links to the group, the response of numerous commentators and analysts has been to discuss how the Army can “purge” these elements from within, dismissing any real thought regarding why such officers may be drawn to the movement or engaging in their ideas at any level. Other material on the website includes documents outlining an economic blueprint for any future Islamic State, and a political manifesto for Pakistan, plenty to engage the movement upon in open debate.
However, rather than any attempt at engagement at any level to discuss ideas, it is still often viewed through the prism of how far a threat these individuals are to the interests of the United States and by extension that of its client regime. Therefore, the arrested officer is a suspected “extremist” with suspected links to “militant Islamist movements”. The Brigadier is slurred as an extremist due to the fact that he is critical of Pakistani ties to America, while the movement is slurred as being “militant Islamist” because it calls for an independent political solution based upon Islam rather than the current system of feudal “democracy” or military dictatorship that the regime alternates between while consistently sacrificing the interests of its own people at the alter of American Af-Pak policy whichever it is. By adopting this discourse the media and government thereby exclude any serious consideration of the views of both the Brigadier and the movement.
At the same time there is often an agenda to make a spurious link between HT and al-Qaeda to de-legitimize its political stances by association and further mystify the group. This is a common practice particularly by oppressive regimes who want to crush non-violent dissenting views under the guise of “fighting terrorism”, as seen regularly in places like Uzbekistan and Russia. It also occurred in Mubarak’s Egypt where I was arrested for membership of the group along with several others six months after the events 9/11, with the Egyptian authorities initially trying to claim that we were al-Qaeda operatives.
However, as demonstrated by the materials highlighted, it is clear that HT has a formalized political program far from the lazy caricature encouraged by regime insiders and drawn by journalists seeking insight from “counter-extremism” experts and pundits whose livelihood is dependent upon commentary that serves government narratives. Academics who have undertaken detailed methodological research of the group such as Emmanuel Karagiannis identity its ideology as the pin which restricts it to a methodology based upon intellectual conviction and convincing public opinion, and given that it has eschewed the use of violence to attain its goals since its inception in 1953 despite harsh crackdowns in most countries it operates in there is no justifiable reason to consider it will do otherwise.
It is still not clear whether the Brigadier was arrested for his affiliations, or if it was due to embarrassing the military high brass at a meeting on May 5th by questioning their complicity with the American raid which ended in the extra-judicial assassination of Osama Bin Laden a few days earlier. Whatever the case, HTP has clearly been a thorn for the Pakistani regime for a while. Since the distribution of a leaflet within military bases on May 7th which urged the military to “Rid yourselves now of the traitor rulers” due to the accusation of the complicity of elements of the Pakistani regime with American violation of Pakistan sovereignty, there have been numerous instances of abductions of activists along with the raids on their houses by the intelligence agencies. These raids and abductions occurred after several regional HT pages advertised on Facebook were removed from the internet by the American company without explanation soon after the central press office of HT released a statement condemning the manner of the extra-judicial execution of Osama Bin Laden.
Attempts to dismiss the Brigadier as an extremist or treating the movement as a security threat purposely neglect engagement with the issues raised. As one of the Ali Khan’s military colleagues stated “the problem is that his anti-American views and [opinions on] self reliance were getting popular with middle and lower ranking officers”, something not particularly surprising given that the American drone program has been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of civilians along with all other manner of abuses carried out. A recent PEW opinion poll found that 73% of Pakistani’s had an unfavorable view of the US, with only 12% in favor. With such widespread dislike of American presence in Pakistan, it is not unusual that movements such as HT who articulate such grievances whilst offering independent political alternatives to the perceived servitude of the current regime would grow in size and influence.
Whilst investigations may result in arrests and the stunting of its progress, such actions neither deal with the underlying policy that is creating the grievances, nor challenges the solutions offered. Dismissing discussion of the Caliphate system proposed by the group and expanded upon in its two volume book detailing its constitution because it doesn’t suit Western interests or that of its Pakistani client is unlikely to prevent an increase in the debate of ideas amongst both the general population and the military, especially with the extra attention and publicity as a result of the coverage of the Brigadier’s arrest.
Simply trying to discredit the political program of HT through association with “extremism” and “terrorism” appears a response borne out of weakness, much like the ban of the party by previous President Pervez Musharraf. There is already contact with multiple elements in the Army, as evidenced by cases last year against other serving officers. Other top-level military personnel such as Former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Mirza Aslam Beg are also familiar with HTP and supportive of their program stating that “their people want the implementation of Shariah through a convincing mechanism and their books, some of them I have read, are a research work.”
The question is whether the Pakistani regime has any alternative to offer. At this juncture, it seem not, and the events of the past few days tell us more about the faltering regime’s attempts along with its patron to stifle the obvious growing dissent and disaffection within than anything else.
Reza Pankhurst is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, and also blogs at rezapankhurst.net.