Pakistan: Quake aid gives radical Islam a stage

South Asia Citizen's Wire
Militant groups have become a vital part of Pakistan's quake relief, raising concerns that extremism will spread.
The long-bearded doctor won't reveal his name or where he's from, but he's certain his camp has the best medical facilities in town.
His organization, Jamat-ud-Dawa (The Society of the Call), was once suspected of ties to terrorist groups on the Indian side of Kashmir, but today it's a lauded front-runner in the dispensation of earthquake relief aid. And unlike some donors and nongovernmental organizations, it seems to have no sense of fatigue.

"The camps will close, but we will remain," the doctor says. "We will establish dispensaries in each and every area, in every village."

Radical Islamist groups like his have become an indispensable part of the relief effort following the devastating Oct. 8, 2005, earthquake. Their efforts are greeted with hearty gratitude by survivors and local officials alike. But this newfound prestige has some analysts worried that the extremism of Jamat-ud-Dawa and other groups will only spread, shrinking the space for tolerant thought.

In nearby Balakot, Nasir Uddin is proud of the largess bestowed by his organization, Al-Rasheed Trust, which is blacklisted by the US State Department for its alleged ties to Al Qaeda. Mr. Uddin says the group's popularity has grown so much that its tents are overflowing with donated food items.

"We are working only for the will of the almighty Allah," he says, revealing behind a tent door more than a hundred children attending daily Islamic instruction.

"Being a government official, I have no help from any [nongovernmental organization or international nongovernmental organization]. If someone from Jamat-ud-Dawa offers their help, why should I resist? A hungry person needs bread," says an official in Muzaffarabad, who asked not to be named. Many, including President Pervez Musharraf, have shared in this sense of gratitude, winning radical groups unprecedented praise from Kashmir to Islamabad.

There is hope that groups like Jamat-ud-Dawa, having seen the benefits of relief work, are trading the mantle of militancy for social work. Others say this might be a sign that Jamat-ud-Dawa is following the lead of Palestinian Hamas, saying it wants eventually to pursue more mainstream political ambitions.

"The earthquake suddenly gave them a new opportunity to serve the people. They realize that militancy and violence have no future," argues Ershad Mahmud, a specialist on Kashmir at the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad.

Pakistan officially cracked down on extremist groups after 9/11, when it sided with the US in its war on terror. Groups like Jamat-ud-Dawa, once allegedly supported by the state in Kashmir, were banned, but many adopted new names. The government also allowed the social welfare wings of some groups to continue operating, allowing them to thrive in the gray areas furnished by state policy.

Jamat-ud-Dawa enjoyed a reputation for effective social activism even before the earthquake, with a wide and well-funded network of clinics and schools. It insists it has no militant agenda, although many point out that its leader, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, was once the leader of Lashkar-i-Tayyaba, a jihadi group that some Indian officials suspect for the recent serial blasts in the Indian Hindu city of Varanasi, where 14 died and 40 were injured Tuesday.

"There is no link between Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Jamat-ud-Dawa, as some people think," says Jamat-ud-Dawa's spokesman, Yayha Mujahid. "This is a religious organization to preach, educate, and propagate Islamic teachings in the society."

Many analysts welcome the participation of these radical groups. "It's a good opportunity to transform the militant workers into relief workers," says Mr. Mahmud.

"It's a process, it's a journey from extremism to liberalization to social welfare," says Arif Bahar, an analyst from Muzaffarabad. "If you are giving Hamas a margin in Palestine, why not Jamat-ud-Dawa in Kashmir?"

If such an agenda is in the cards, Jamat-ud-Dawa certainly isn't saying. It denies any such political ambitions, maintaining its only role is to provide welfare. "We do have our own opinion on different issues in Pakistan," says Mr. Mujahid. "But we don't have any ambition to take part in electoral politics like Hamas."

A greater role for Jamat-ud-Dawa is certainly not welcomed by all. "They have not said they have abandoned their path," argues Hasan Askari Rizvi, an independent defense analyst based in Lahore, adding that the group's Urdu language newspapers have never officially renounced a militant ideology.

"If you look at this in a broad context ... inherently it endangers the long-term project of promoting tolerance and democracy," he says.

If radicalism does spread, there's hope it can be counterbalanced by the goodwill generated by the US because of its role in earthquake relief. Because of American efforts, 78 percent of Pakistanis have a more favorable opinion of the US, according to a November 2005 poll released by Terror Free Tomorrow, a Washington-based nonprofit. The US, the poll says, also fared better among Pakistanis than radical Islamist groups.

On March 31 camp dwellers are scheduled to return to their villages, marking the beginning of the next phase of this tragedy. Some feel the influence of radical groups will wane, particularly if the government is efficient in its efforts to build schools and create jobs.

But Jamat-ud-Dawa and Al-Rasheed Trust see themselves as integral and lasting parts of that journey. "If the government decides to close down these camps, there is a lot more work to do in reconstruction; for example, construction of houses, mosques, and schools," says Mujahid of Jamat-ud-Dawa.

Their access to survivors may even surpass that of international agencies, some say. "NGOs are not so big in number that they can make these groups irrelevant," says Rizvi. "[Islamist groups] can go to a local mosque and give a sermon to reach the people. An NGO cannot."

By David Montero | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the March 10, 2006 edition