Pakistan's religious aftershocks

By Paul Jeffrey
The Christian Century (this is the unedited version)

New fault lines have emerged in the Himalayan foothills of northern Pakistan, complicating the already daunting challenge of recovering from last October's killer earthquake. As tens of thousands of survivors brace for the coming winter, relief groups are getting caught in a religious squeeze play that makes recovery and reconstruction even more difficult.

The massive quake seemed to do the most damage in communities where conservative Islamic culture holds tremendous power over people's daily lives, where women pass their days secluded from public life, and where fundamentalist jihadi groups have found fertile grounds for recruitment. Many of the these groups are officially banned by the government because of their links to terrorism, but President Pervez Musharraf, already contending with armed insurgencies in several other areas, has studiously chosen not to enforce anti-terror laws in the quake zone.

The International Crisis Group recently claimed the government's tolerance of the banned groups has "empowered extremists" and could "further undermine the prospects of democratization in Pakistan."

Yet the jihadi groups were empowered precisely because they were already present in many rural communities, and responded to the quake victims days before the government showed up. They form the backbone of civil society in some areas, and their prompt and efficient quake response has only emboldened them. "They've reestablished themselves after being on the run," says Marvin Pervez, director of the Afghanistan/Pakistan program of Church World Service (CWS). "They saw this as a public relations opportunity, a time to get new recruits. They're very present today, operating hospitals, putting up billboards. They're in your face."

The fortified activists have made life difficult for western relief agencies, which have always had to work with sensitivity in this Islamic republic. Nongovernmental organizations operating in the quake zone have security officers who hang around mosques on Fridays to listen to the preaching of fundamentalist leaders, a few of whom have issued fatwas that it was acceptable to rape a foreign NGO woman in order to save her honor and eliminate the threat she represents to the community. Weeks after the Danish cartoon controversy died down, renewed controversy erupted in recent weeks when jihadi groups singled out Oxfam and CWS as corrupters of women, leading the Pakistani military to insist on providing armed escorts to foreign NGO staff in several remote areas.

Gender issues are the often the triggers of conflict, and the social dislocation of the quake, which forced many women out of private home environments into public camps for the displaced, has only exacerbated this. While displaced men were in a rush to return to their former homes, displaced women were more reluctant, preferring to linger a bit longer in the public freedom they had discovered in the otherwise horrible tent cities.

Western aid groups, which in the best of times walk a difficult line between respecting local tradition and culture (a basic principle of humanitarian response) and fully incorporating women into local emergency response and mitigation programs, risk antagonizing conservative leaders when they even ask about women's needs. It forces the agencies to be creative. According to Gul Wali Khan, emergency director in Pakistan for Catholic Relief Services, his agency tends to hire only "mature women," whose face supposedly won't tempt any man to impure thoughts, or even better hires couples, even if all the guy does is tag along to provide cover for the woman staffer.

Pervez insists that respecting local culture isn't the same as sucking up to male religious leaders who have imposed strict control on uppity women. "What you see today in Pakistan wasn't here until the seventies. We were a much more progressive country. Women used to drive buses. So when we talk about feminism, we're not talking about a foreign or western agenda," he says.

The foreign agenda that does worry Pervez is that of conservative evangelical Christians who see the earthquake as a God-given opportunity to proselytize. He suggests Franklin Graham and his relief operation "Samaritan's Purse" as an example: "He has made very harsh attacks on Islam, and then he comes here to evangelize. That endangers local Christians, and damages the good relations that religious minorities and some majority people are trying to develop through dialogue and work for communal harmony. What's the need for them here in Pakistan? There's a viable and strong church here. Why do they need to come here?"

Pervez said another Christian organization that focuses on providing shelter offered huge rolls of plastic sheeting to NGOs at a time when it was hard to come by. The group's representative even had a two-inch sample of the material, but Pervez said he was suspicious and insisted on seeing the entire rolls, where he discovered that the material was covered with crosses.

"That's in complete violation of the Code of Conduct [for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief], and disturbs the communal harmony that local NGOs, civil society, the churches and progressive Muslims are trying to build," Pervez says. "I don't want restrictions on religions, but these are not the people who should be evangelizing. This covert, rice Christian kind of evangelization is wrong."

Ironically, both fundamentalist groups have benefitted from U.S. taxpayer support. The Islamic extremists got their start with billions of dollars from the Reagan administration (which was matched with Saudi funding and then channeled through Pakistan's security forces). The conservative Christian groups have benefitted handsomely from President George W. Bush's expansion of government funding for faith-based organizations.

Both groups foster discord in Pakistan today, making life difficult for responsible relief and development organizations. Pervez suggests the two camps are reading from the same script.

"Fundamentalists are the same on both sides of the religious fence," he says. "Sometimes the Sunday sermon in church is about how cable television is bringing nudity and lipstick. And then you'll find the same sermon next Friday in the mosque. It's as if the clergy and the mullahs exchange notes. They're both against cable tv and lipstick. That's the bottom line. If you fix that then you'll fix every ill in this society."