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It was under a secular leader that Pakistan began its policy of appeasing Islamists.
Until the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the American view of radical Islam and its many discontents was shaped more by the Middle East than South Asia. The U.S. has long been at odds with the raging Ayatollah in Iran, the murderous truck bomber in Lebanon and the masked Palestinian “freedom fighter.” Only over the past decade has the geographical footprint of this scourge expanded in the popular imagination to include Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In this sense, the Navy SEALs raid on Osama bin Laden’s home in Pakistan, a year ago, marked the culmination of a widely shared intellectual journey. Its milestones include the war against the Taliban, the capture or killing of dozens of al Qaeda leaders in Pakistani safe houses, and the tracing of some of the world’s most prominent terrorist acts—including the 2005 London bombings and the 2008 Mumbai attacks—to Karachi, Islamabad and the badlands straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Even so, our recently updated understanding of radical Islam tends to halt at Pakistan’s border with India. Despite India’s 150-million-strong Muslim population, its status as the birthplace of Islamist thought in South Asia, and a clutch of jihadist groups operating on its territory, the country figures only tangentially in the best-known books on the subject. It is this lack that the London-based journalist and historian Dilip Hiro seeks to address in “Apocalyptic Realm: Jihadists in South Asia.” The jacket announces it as the “first complete history of Islamist terrorism in South Asia.”
Compressing the contrasting trajectories of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India into 300-odd pages is no task for the fainthearted. In Afghanistan alone, the conflict between Islam and the West spans more than 150 years and includes wars with the imperial British, the Soviet Union and, of course, the U.S. Less well known are the domestic struggles between Afghan modernizers and reactionaries. In this drama, the mercurial Hamid Karzai is the latest in a roguish cast that includes the early-20th-century modernizing monarch Amanullah Khan, the communist strongman Mohammad Najibullah and the one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Mr. Hiro attempts to make a fist of these disparate stories. His purpose: “to show that the interrelated jihadist movements in Afghanistan and Pakistan have infected India, and that they pose a serious threat to the Pakistani state.” In a familiar refrain, he blames the U.S. for its role in nurturing the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which he sees as the genesis of today’s problems, and for a ham-handed campaign in Afghanistan since 2001 that has only made matters worse. He argues that, thanks in part to the poor economic and social condition of India’s Muslim community, the “cycle of violence” between “Muslims and Hindus in India is yet to run its course.”
Along the way, the book offers potted histories of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India though not, oddly enough, Bangladesh, South Asia’s third Muslim-majority nation. To readers familiar with the region, Mr. Hiro mostly covers old ground: In Afghanistan this is largely the story of three decades of fighting, as first the Soviets, then the Pakistan-backed Taliban and finally the U.S. failed to pacify the fractious land. In Pakistan, much of the blame for the country’s continuing love affair with jihadism—used by the army’s spy wing, Inter-Services Intelligence, to destabilize both India and Afghanistan—lies at the doorstep of Pakistan’s military dictator of the 1980s, Gen. Zia ul-Haq. But it was under his ostensibly secular predecessor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, that Pakistan took its first major steps down a slippery slope. Eager to court a vocal Islamist fringe, Bhutto shuttered nightclubs, made Friday a holiday instead of Sunday and, to his undying shame, had the tiny Ahmadi sect declared non-Muslim, a green light for violent persecution that continues to this day.
The zealous Zia deepened what Bhutto had started, although out of conviction rather than convenience. He began the wholesale Islamization of government, including mandatory prayers and instruction for military officers on the “Quranic concept of war.” He also introduced the harsh blasphemy laws that later governments have been powerless to repeal, including the death penalty for insulting the prophet Mohammad.
Independent India’s brush with radical Islam is more recent. Though the country has experienced periodic Hindu-Muslim riots since the 1947 Partition, Islamic terrorism was virtually unknown to Indians before erupting in Kashmir in the late 1980s and spreading to the rest of the country. For this, Mr. Hiro blames not only the ISI but also the rise of Hindu nationalism and New Delhi’s heavy-handed rule in Kashmir.
Mr. Hiro ought to be commended for attempting to bring a regional lens to a subject too often written about in narrower terms. Nobody can seriously disagree with his assertion that instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan is bound to spill over into India. Nonetheless, “Apocalyptic Realm” falls short. Mr. Hiro spends too much time retelling events—at times month by month—and too little analyzing their import. He also fails to connect the dots between the Middle Eastern and South Asian strains of the ideology, represented not only by bin Laden but also by, among others, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the man who now leads al Qaeda. The intellectual cross-fertilization between Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), chief ideologue of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and Abul Ala Maududi (1903-79), founder of South Asia’s Jamaat-e-Islami, goes unnoticed, though between them the two organizations have spawned most of the world’s Sunni jihadist offshoots.
It is hard to know precisely what threat is posed by the collection of violent incidents that Mr. Hiro surveys. One lesson of recent years has been that the West, if it does not view this conflict as a war of ideas, risks returning to the complacency of the 1990s that led up to 9/11. But one thing is certain: In South Asia, neither Islamism as an ideology nor jihadism as a tactic has run its course.
Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com.
A version of this article appeared May 3, 2012, on page A13 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Where Modern Jihad Flourishes.
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