An Indecent Proposal?

by Darryl Li | published November 6, 2012 - 2:28pm

Quite a few eyebrows were raised last week when Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, perhaps one of the most infamous “terrorists” in Pakistan, extended an offer of humanitarian aid to the United States in the wake of Hurricane Sandy -- notwithstanding the $10 million bounty Washington has placed on his head.

Saeed leads Jamaat ud-Dawa, an Islamist group regarded as a front for the banned Lashkar-e Tayyiba, which has waged a bloody armed campaign in Indian-controlled Kashmir over the past two decades. Lashkar’s notoriety reached new heights after it was accused of carrying out the 2008 Mumbai attack. Saeed denies allegations that he is involved in such political violence. After Sandy he gestured to larger issues at stake: “Regardless of what US govt propagates about us…we look forward to act on the traits of our Prophet Muhammad [Peace Be Upon Him] by helping and serving adversity struck American people, considering it our religious and moral obligation.”

Saeed’s offer scored points among those who sympathize with his status as Washington’s bête noire (and New Delhi’s), but otherwise elicited the usual range of derision and fascination that greets “terrorist” attempts to do seemingly non-terrorizing things (a similar reaction produced by the gap between demonization and banality is at work in the popular Tumblr, “Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things”). The US embassy in Islamabad dismissed the proposal on Twitter, only for Jamaat ud-Dawa to riposte in kind:

The hint of caution in the embassy’s refusal (“We respect the Islamic tradition of help to the needy, but…”) reflects some tiptoeing around the not inconsiderable respect that Jamaat ud-Dawa has amassed in Pakistan by aggressively publicizing its social, charitable and relief activities. As Humeira Iqtidar, one of the few scholars to have conducted fieldwork on the group, detailed in the summer 2009 Middle East Report:

How does one measure the depth and significance of the JuD’s societal entrenchment? Quantifiable measures include the number of schools; in 2007, there were roughly 200, mostly in Punjab but a few in Sindh as well, with a total student population in the range of 35,000. Another measure is the number and circulation size of publications; the JuD in-house printing press, Dar ul-Andalus, produces pamphlets, booklets and six magazines, including the monthly al-Dawa with a circulation of 200,000. The number of people treated by its free clinics is estimated at 6,000 patients per year, and 800,000 hepatitis vaccinations were administered in 2007.

As with Hamas, Hizballah and many other armed groups in the Muslim world, Jamaat ud-Dawa’s simultaneous resort to social work provokes the usual hypotheses: Charity is a way of compartmentalizing decision-making in response to state bans; a tool for recruiting or fundraising; or perhaps a path to “moderation.” These instrumentalist explanations may all have some truth; but fundamentally, the need for separate “wings” or “fronts” stems from the absence of that special kind of legitimacy to do harm unto others that we call “sovereignty.” With that license in hand, wings and fronts become ministries and departments.

Of course, we are all supposed to know that there is legitimate and illegitimate violence, and that democratic decision-making is what separates the two. But the unacknowledged drone war unfolding in northwestern Pakistan with the apparent (and deeply unpopular) consent of US clients in Islamabad/Rawalpindi underscores the limitations of national democracy in the face of transnational power. In any event, when purveyors of illegitimate violence -- be they partisans, rebels, pirates or bandits -- offer beneficence as well, others look askance. But the state is expected to provide both, as exemplified by the pride with which the US concurrently rained bombs and humanitarian aid down upon Afghanistan.

Especially interesting here, however, is the international scope of Jamaat ud-Dawa’s vision. The group claims that its offer to aid the US is merely a continuation of previous relief efforts in Indonesia and Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami. Similarly, Lashkar-e Tayyiba’s armed agenda has long been a primarily international one, focused on Kashmir. This history, along with Lashkar’s avoidance of both parliamentary politics and combat with the state, has led many to regard it as little more than a proxy for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), used to wage low-level war against India with the cover of plausible deniability.

While the ISI’s leverage over Lashkar-e Tayyiba is undeniable, Jamaat ud-Dawa’s publications suggest that the critique of world politics embedded in the group’s exhortations to jihad is not reducible to the Indo-Pakistani strategic confrontation. Jamaat-affiliated presses have produced books not only on Afghanistan, but also two on the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

These texts condemn the West for supporting or abiding atrocities against Bosnian Muslims, chronicle the brave exploits of Arab mujahideen, and detail the solidarity work in Pakistan of Jamaat’s predecessor organization, Markaz-i Da‘wa wal-Irshad. Shaped in part by the group’s roots in the Ahl-i Hadith Muslim reform movement (most of whom rejected calls to join the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan), these books cast the Bosnian war in explicitly sectarian rather than nationalist terms. But they are sectarian on a global canvas: not Bosniaks versus Serbs versus Croats, but Muslims versus Catholics and Orthodox, in the best Huntingtonian tradition. One of them even describes the Bosnian Croat nationalist politician -- and one-time Communist party functionary -- Mate Boban as the “Pope of Bosnia.”

It may be tempting to take such propaganda at face value as evidence of a global Islamist conspiracy, yet there is no credible evidence that Lashkar-e Tayyiba ever sent fighters to Bosnia (indeed, the hundreds of Pakistanis who traveled to the country did so as part of a UN peacekeeping force under European command, consistent with the army’s history of imperial soldiering). Instead, the transnational jihad links that did exist were more dispersed and contingent: Markaz-i Dawa literature counts as one of its co-founders an Indian-born Arab called Mahmoud Bahadhiq (Abu ‘Abd al-‘Aziz) who later fought in Bosnia. A Saudi Arabian national of Yemeni origin, Bahadhiq raised money for jihads in Bosnia and likely Kashmir in the 1990s, but was not fully enmeshed in either, much like the Western spies, aid workers and journalists who also parachuted into such conflicts and doled out cash. And while the books mentioned above glowingly spoke of Bahadhiq as the “supreme commander” of the Bosnian jihad (which he was not in any meaningful sense) and praised him for striking fear in the hearts of Christian Europe, Bahadhiq himself gave an interview to a Croatian newspaper early in the war urging cooperation against a common Serb foe.

Bahadhiq’s entrepreneurialism in jihads -- having fought in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia and elsewhere -- upset Saudi authorities and their US allies, so he has spent much of the past decade in prison in Saudi Arabia and was placed on US and UN blacklists in 2008 as a suspected Lashkar-e Tayyiba financier. Yet despite his commitment to globetrotting and fighting, Bahadhiq’s numerous statements published in Arabic, English and Serbo-Croatian until 2002 spoke of jihad in terms of assisting Muslims facing invasion or occupation. Not only is there no mention of Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda, he pointedly passed up opportunities to criticize the House of Saud or the clerics who support it. As I noted in the fall 2011 edition of Middle East Report, visions of jihad sans frontières constitute a diverse landscape of ideological projects, in which al-Qaeda’s global war against the United States is arguably in the minority.

Taken together, the international visions in Jamaat ud-Dawa’s jihad literature and Hafiz Mohammed Saeed’s offer of humanitarian aid after Sandy are attempts, however flawed, to call forth a transnational public counterposed to the official “international community” dominated by Western elites. While Jamaat’s relief efforts after ecological disasters in Pakistan at times brought the state’s incompetence into stark relief, its international pretensions are an attempt at one-upping a global hegemon instead. Yet the domestic and international arenas remain deeply intertwined: As Iqtidar notes, the Pakistani army’s response to the 2005 Kashmir earthquake was held up while waiting for NATO to deliver CH-47 transport helicopters -- assets diverted from the fight in Afghanistan. Once again, the effect is to call into question the rigid separation of violence from humanitarianism that makes Saeed’s offer so striking to some in the first place.

Perhaps the subtext of Hafiz Mohammed Saeed’s proposal is: If we are accused of sending bombs overseas, why can’t we send aid packets with them, just like you? If there is a joke to be found here, it’s not because Saeed speaks about humanity while practicing violence, but because the US does so all the time. The joke isn’t about incongruity; it’s about parody. And the US isn’t the target, but rather the straight man. It’s a joke told at the expense of all those caught up in the wars large and small that have engulfed the region, and it isn’t very funny at all.

Image: In the Jihad Fields of Bosnia, by Muhammad Tahir Naqqash (2002)