A Pakistani man walks past a wall graffiti reading "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi". Photo: Getty
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Islamic State faces a complex web of militant groups and violence in Pakistan

The signs of Islamic State moving into Pakistan are there, but what difference does this make in a nation already subject to similar horrors?

On 16 April in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, an American teacher was critically wounded. Debra Lobo, 55, is married to a Pakistani and has lived in the country for around 30 years, working at a private medical college since 1996. She was sitting in her car when she was shot twice in the head by two men on motorbikes.

Terrorist attacks and shootings in Pakistan are commonplace, but attacks on foreigners are unusual. The other thing that marked this incident out was that the gunmen left a note on Lobo’s car implying affiliation with Islamic State. The note promised more ambushes of this type on Americans.

One thing that Pakistan has in no short supply is militant groups. The military is currently engaged in an operation against the Taliban in the north of the country. The main group, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has splintered into numerous factions after a leadership dispute. They join long-established sectarian anti-Shia groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah Sihaba Pakistan.

There have been concerns about IS establishing a foothold in the country for some months now. Back in October 2014, after the killing of British aid worker Alan Henning, TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid pledged the group’s support in a statement: “Oh our brothers, we are proud of you in your victories. We are with you in your happiness and your sorrow.”

The following month, in November, international news outlets quoted several high-ranking TTP officials saying that they had defected to a new branch of IS. These officials claimed that thousands of fighters had defected with them, but there has been little evidence of this in practice. If the group exists, not much is known about its size and capacity. Other Pakistani militants, previously associated with al-Qaeda, have also said that they are now operating under the banner of IS.

But Pakistani military and intelligence officials say that they have detected only scattered signs that there is a rising threat from IS militants in the country. While I was in Karachi earlier this month, a week before the shooting of Lobo, there were murmurs about the group establishing a base in the city. Residents particularly expressed concern about pro-IS graffiti. Certain areas of Karachi have become hotbeds of militancy. In some of these areas, I saw walls daubed with graffiti in support of “Daesh” (the Arabic acronym for the group). In the northern city of Peshawar, there have been reports of pro-IS leaflets being distributed. These are striking visual signs of support for the group, but do they indicate a serious cause for concern?

The brutality of IS already has a clear precedent in the TTP. When the group seized control of parts of northern Pakistan after its formation in 2007, it imposed strict social codes with harsh violence. When the TTP briefly controlled Swat in 2009, barbershops and girls’ schools were closed down. Men who shaved their beards were killed and women who broke strict rules of modesty publically flogged. Beheadings were used frequently to instil terror in the local populations. The TTP beheaded nearly all the 100 Pakistani soldiers it took hostage in 2007. The similarities are not just tactical; both IS and the TTP have a harsh sectarian agenda, viewing Shia Muslims as apostates, and both have seized territory in their localities.

Pakistan is a country inured to violence, where there is news of a bomb attack or a fatal shooting somewhere in the country every single day. More than 30,000 lives have been lost to terrorist violence since 2001. It takes major events, like the slaughter of 150 schoolchildren in Peshawar last year, to shock this traumatised population. Against this backdrop of violence and the already complex web of different militant groups – whose aims converge at some points and diverge at others – it is difficult to see what major difference the entrance of IS would make. Each year already seems to bring a worsening of atrocities. The key concern, of course, is that the arrival of a new group could exacerbate an already dire situation, and perhaps reinvigorate militant movements as the TTP struggles with internal fractures and the pressures of the military operation in Waziristan.

After the Peshawar attack, Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif announced an end to the policy of differentiating between “good” and “bad” terrorists – negotiating with some while fighting others. From here on in, all are “bad”. This is a starting point, but it does not solve the problem that Pakistani extremism is not limited to a single group or a single geographical area. It is hidden in the corners of cities, and governed by scores of different networks that may coordinate at some times but work independently at others.

The military has announced that it will not allow IS to establish a base in Pakistan. But given its poor record on fighting the extremist threat thus far – tacitly encouraging groups which serve its foreign policy goals while proclaiming to deplore militancy – it is difficult to have much faith in this.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.