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Killing the Song: Unholy Alliances and Hate-Spawning Surges in the Terror War

by Chris Floyd
Monday, 9 March 2009
The further radicalization and destabilization of Pakistan is virtually guaranteed if Barack Obama continues on his announced path of military escalation in Afghanistan.
William Dalrymple has been one of the more insightful Western historians of South Asia -- especially when it comes to the region's centuries-long encounter and enmeshing with Islam. In the light of the recent terror attack in Pakistan, Dalrymple has penned two articles in the UK press which draw attention to one of the most neglected aspects of the rise of Islamic extremism in the modern era: the vast resources and ceaseless energy applied by the Saudi royals to propagate the harsh, unbending sect of Wahhabi Islam around the world.

The high-living plutocrats and playboys of the Saudi ruling clan long ago made a deal with the obscurantist Wahhabi clerics of Arabia. The plutocratic playboys would get the religious cred needed to "justify" their repressive, corrupt rule, while the Wahhabis would see their narrow-minded zealotry protected and promoted by state -- and, in the last few decades, transformed into a global movement by the endless supply of petrodollars pouring into Saudi coffers from the West. As the Western-backed dictatorships and kleptocracies of Muslim lands increasingly failed to provide a decent life and basic freedoms for their peoples, the flood of Saudi oil money stepped in to fill the social and educational breach with Wahhabi schools, Wahhabi mosques, and Wahhabi doctrines.

It is all very reminiscent of the deal struck between the old-line plutocrats of the Republican Party and the extremist Christian nationalists in the United States. The plutocrats get "God's" blessing -- and "God's" political shock troops and fundraising prowess - for their rapacious economic and militarist agenda, while the Christian nationalists get a slice of earthly power to help push and promote their own narrow-minded zealotry.

These two unholy alliances made a most monstrous beast with two backs when they came together to fight the Great Satan of Communism in Afghanistan. The Plutocrat-Christianist alliance in Washington vastly expanded the relationship with Saudi-backed jihadis in Afghanistan that had begun under Democrat Jimmy Carter. The rest, as they say, is history: the history of our Age of Terror, where the "civilized" world inflicts state terror on a scale unseen since World War II, while "asymmetrical" groups -- most with ever-murky, impossibly tangled, volatile links with various states at various times -- go about their bloody business on a much smaller scale.

[There is yet another aspect of these interlocking dirty deals: the American plutocratic elite has long been in bed with the Saudi royals. This is perhaps best exemplified by the close personal and business relationship between the Saudi elite and the Bush family -- close ties that encompassed the Bin Laden clan as well as the Saudi royals -- but America's eternal coddling of the Saudi tyrants is of course a thoroughly bipartisan affair.]

In his most recent piece, in the Observer, Dalrymple notes how Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi extremism is undermining the traditional religious, social and cultural structures of Pakistan:

Rahman Baba, "the Nightingale of Peshawar," was an 18th-century poet and mystic, a sort of North West Frontier version of Julian of Norwich.

He withdrew from the world and promised his followers that if they also loosened their ties with the world, they could purge their souls of worries and move towards direct experience of God. Rituals and fasting were for the pious, said the saint. What was important was to understand that divinity can best be reached through the gateway of the human heart - that we all have paradise within us, if we know where to look.

For centuries, Rahman Baba's shrine at the foot of the Khyber Pass has been a place where musicians and poets have gathered, and his Sufi verses in the Pukhtun language made him the national poet of the Pathans. As a young journalist covering the Soviet-mujahideen conflict I used to visit the shrine to watch Afghan refugee musicians sing their songs to their saint by the light of the moon.

Then, about 10 years ago, a Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrasa was built at the end of the track leading to the shrine. Soon its students took it on themselves to halt what they saw as unIslamic practices. On my last visit, I talked about the situation with the shrine keeper, Tila Mohammed. He described how young Islamists now came and complained that his shrine was a centre of idolatry and superstition: "My family have been singing here for generations," said Tila. "But now these Arab madrasa students come here and create trouble....Before the Afghan war, there was nothing like this. But then the Saudis came, with their propaganda, to stop us visiting the saints, and to stop us preaching 'ishq [love]. Now this trouble happens more and more frequently."

...This sort of madrasa-driven change in attitudes is being reproduced across Pakistan. There are now 27 times as many madrasas in the country as there were in 1947: from 245 at independence, the number has shot up to 6870 in 2001. Across Pakistan, the religious tenor has been correspondingly radicalised: the tolerant, Sufi-minded Barelvi form of Islam is now out of fashion in northern Pakistan, especially in the NWFP, overtaken by the rise of the more hardline and politicised Wahhabism.

Later, I returned to the shrine and found Tila Mahommed tending the grave. Making sure no one was listening, he whispered: "We pray that right will overpower wrong, that good will overcome evil. But our way is pacifist," he said." As Baba put it,

I am a lover, and I deal in love. Sow flowers,
So your surroundings become a garden
Don't sow thorns; for they will prick your feet.
We are all one body,
Whoever tortures another, wounds himself.

I thought of this conversation, when I heard that the shrine of Rahman Baba had finally been blown up on Thursday, a few hours after the Sri Lankan cricketers were ambushed in Lahore. The rise of Islamic radicalism is often presented in starkly political terms, but what happened in Peshawar this week is a reminder that, at the heart of the current conflict, lie two very different understandings of Islam. Wahhabi fundamentalism has advanced so quickly in Pakistan partly because the Saudis have financed the building of so many madrasas, which have filled the vacuum left by the collapse of state education. These have taught an entire generation to abhor the gentle, syncretic Sufi Islam that has dominated south Asia for centuries, and to embrace instead an imported form of Saudi Wahhabism.

Sufism is an entirely indigenous Islamic resistance movement to fundamentalism, with its deep roots in South Asian soil. The Pakistani government could finance schools that taught Pakistanis to respect their own religious traditions, rather than buying fleets of American F-16 fighters and handing over education to the Saudis. Instead, every day, it increasingly resembles a tragic clone of Taliban Afghanistan.

But of course we will only see more American military materiel pouring into Pakistan: some of it given to Pakistan's draconian military-security elite -- but more and more of it being operated by U.S. forces themselves: more drone missile attacks, more covert Special Forces units, and, as seems increasingly likely, more regular troops and planes in "hot pursuit" of Pakistan-based Afghan insurgents.

The further radicalization and destabilization of Pakistan is virtually guaranteed if Barack Obama continues on his announced path of military escalation in Afghanistan, egged on by such hawkish courtiers as Richard "L'il Kissinger" Holbrooke, Joe "Bankruptcy Bill" Biden and Hillary "The Obliterator" Clinton. Obama has embraced both the Terror War rhetoric and most of the Terror War policies of his murderous predecessor; he has also retained the Terror War's military leadership as well. In the Guardian last week, Dalrymple described the past fruits of this approach:

Eight years of neocon foreign policies have been a spectacular disaster for American interests in the Islamic world, leading to the advance of Hamas and Hezbollah, the wreckage of Iraq, with more than two million external refugees and the ethnic cleansing of its Christian population, the rise of Iran as a major regional power, and now the implosion of Afghanistan and Pakistan, probably the most dangerous development of all.

And here he details this most dangerous development, where, once again, playboys and plutocrats combine with religious extremists to breed a hell on earth:

Few had very high expectations of [Pakistan President Asif Ali] Zardari, the notorious playboy widower of Benazir Bhutto. Nevertheless, the speed of the collapse that has taken place on his watch has amazed almost all observers. Across much of the North-West Frontier Province - around a fifth of Pakistan - women have now been forced to wear the burka, music has been silenced, barbershops are forbidden to shave beards and more than 140 girls' schools have been blown up or burned down. From the provincial capital of Peshawar, a significant proportion of the city's elite, along with its musicians, have decamped to what had, until yesterday's attack, been regarded as the relatively safe and tolerant confines of Lahore and Karachi.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of ordinary people from the surrounding hills of the semi-autonomous tribal belt - the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) that run along the Afghan border - have fled from the conflict zones, blasted by missiles from unmanned American Predator drones and strafed by Pakistani helicopter gunships, to the tent camps now ringing Peshawar.

The tribal areas have never been fully under the control of any Pakistani government, and have always been unruly, but they have now been radicalised as never before. The rain of armaments from US drones and Pakistani ground forces, which have caused extensive civilian casualties, daily add a steady stream of angry foot soldiers to the insurgency. Elsewhere in Pakistan, anti-western religious and political extremism continues to flourish, and there are increasing signs that the instability is now spreading from the Frontier Province to the relatively settled confines of Lahore and the Punjab.

Dalrymple also points out the dangers of the plutocratic strategy of setting extremist forces in motion to advance your own agenda. Like the German conservatives in the early 1930s who thought they could control and manipulate the jumped-up little corporal, Adolf Hitler, elites ultimately find that the extremists they nurture not only end up biting the hand that feeds them -- they often chop off the head of their benefactors as well. For example, Dalrymple says that a "large share of responsibility that must be put at the door of Pakistan's army and its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, or ISI:"

For more than 20 years, the ISI has, for its own purposes, deliberately and consistently funded and incubated a variety of Islamist groups, including in particular Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Since the days of the anti-Soviet mujahideen, the Pakistani army saw the jihadis as an ingenious and cost-effective means of both dominating Afghanistan - something they finally achieved with the Soviet retreat in 1987 - and bogging down the Indian army in Kashmir, something they succeeded in achieving from 1990 onward.

The army's top brass were convinced until recently that they could control the militants whom they had fostered. In a taped conversation between then-General Musharraf and Muhammad Aziz Khan, his chief of general staff, which India released in 1999, Aziz said that the army had the jihadis by their tooti (their privates).

Yet while some in the ISI may still believe that they can use jihadis for their own ends, the Islamists have increasingly followed their own agendas, sending suicide bombers to attack not just members of Pakistan's religious minorities and political leaders, but even the ISI's headquarters at Camp Hamza itself, in apparent revenge for the army's declared support for America's war on terror and attacks made by the Pakistani military on Taliban strongholds in Fata. Ironically, as [Ahmed] Rashid makes clear, it was exactly groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which were originally created by the ISI, that have now turned their guns on their creators, as well as brazenly launching well-equipped and well-trained teams of jihadis into Indian territory.

When you follow the sword, and stop listening to the singer, when you worship power -- whether it be derived from your understanding of God or from your identification with empire and domination -- then you sow thorns that will make the whole world bleed. As I said in a column I wrote the day after 9/11:

Blood will have blood; that's certain. But blood will not end it. For murder is fertile: it breeds more death, like a spider laden with a thousand eggs. And who now can break this cycle, which has been going on for generations?

A song might do it. But a "surge" sure as hell will not.

Chris Floyd at his deskChris Floyd has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years, working in the United States, Great Britain and Russia for various newspapers, magazines, the U.S. government and Oxford University. Floyd co-founded the blog Empire Burlesque, and is also chief editor of Atlantic Free Press. He can be reached at

This column is republished here with the permission of the author.

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This story was published on March 10, 2009.