The religious ideology of Pakistan Army chief General Syed Asim Munir, who believes in jihad, albeit those jihads that are sponsored by his army, has attracted the attention of Islamists who are smitten by the fact that he is the first hafiz (i.e., one who has memorized the Quran) to become army chief. So, it is not surprising that in a public address in Peshawar on August 7, 2023, General Asim Munir relied on terminology from jihadi discourse, using words like shari'a, kalimah, khawarij, jihad fi Sabeelillah ("jihad in the path of Allah"), and so on.
On August 7, a meeting of elders, tribal chieftains, Islamic religious scholars, and others, known as a grand jirga, was called in Peshawar to shape public opinion against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a Pakistani jihadi organization that is a branch of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban jihadi organization that rode to power in Kabul with all the material blessings of the Pakistan army. Now the TTP is killing Pakistani soldiers in the border region with alarming regularity to establish shari'a in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and beyond, and Pakistani military generals are getting worried.
Most of Pakistan's problems are rooted in an unending conflict between the use of religion and the demands of circumstances in defining Pakistani domestic and foreign policy. This is the reason Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has birthed and nurtured a host of jihadi organizations over past decades – the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Hizbul Mujahideen, and others – to advance its foreign policy goals in Afghanistan and Kashmir, while politicians and policymakers have also frequently favored Islamist forces. For example, when he was speaking in Peshawar, Pakistan's Senate passed yet another law on blasphemy to punish anyone who insults the wives and companions of Muhammad.
Pakistan army chief General Asim Munir (center), image courtesy: Express.com.pk
Munir is perhaps the second former chief of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country's most powerful institution known for creating, nurturing, sheltering and using jihadi organizations in Kashmir and Afghanistan, to become chief of the Army. The other was General Ashfaq Kayani. Munir is the third officer, after Lt.-Gen. Asad Durrani and Lt.-Gen. Hamid Gul, who has the distinction of having headed both the ISI and the Military Intelligence.
Addressing the grand jirga, Munir said: "The Pakistan army is the army of martyrs whose motto is imaan, taqwa aur jihad fi Sabeelillah [faith, piety, and jihad in the Path of Allah]. We are from amongst you, and you are from amongst us. After the Riyasat-e-Medina [the State of Medina, the first Islamic state established by Prophet Muhammad], Pakistan is the second state established based on Kalimah. No power of the world can harm Pakistan."
Munir's language is primarily that of Islamists in Pakistan. "We are waging jihad in the path of Allah and success will be ours, Allah willing. Pakistani army's objective and principle is to be shaheed [martyr] or ghazi [one who takes part in jihad]," the army chief said, using language like that of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and other jihadi groups. His language will also confuse young Pakistanis, who hear the same words from jihadis. Munir could have spoken about the need for counterterrorism, since the audience was mainly Pashtun, who are fiercely secular, but he turned to a religious discourse that will buttress TTP's position.
Jihad is a motto of the Pakistan army (screenshot: Pakistanarmy.gov.pk)
Even when Munir dismissed TTP and other jihadi organizations as khawarij, he still resorted to arguments often used by jihadi groups that only Allah's rule, not man-made laws, can prevail. Nowadays, rival jihadi groups describe each other as khawarij they all consider the Pakistan army to be an apostate and an unbelieving force. The Pakistani military website also defines Jihad fi Sabeelillah saying: "The real objective of Islam is to shift the lordship of man over man to the lordship of Allah on the earth and to stake one's life and everything else to achieve this sacred purpose."
Munir told the Peshawar jirga: "Under the Pakistani constitution, the authority is that of Allah alone. Who are these khawarij who want to implement shari'a? I and my brave army will fight till the last drop of blood in this war against terrorism."
Soon after Munir was named as the next army chief, ulema (religious scholars), mashaikh (Sufi mystics), and Islamic clerics celebrated because a hafiz was set to become the chief of the armed forces. Such religious scholars included: Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of Pakistan Ulema Council; Sufi mystic Pir Hasan Haseebur Rahman; Maulana Syed Ziaullah Shah, the emir of Muttahida Jamiat Ahl Hadith; Maulana Hamidul Haq Haqqani, the emir of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam; Muhammad Khan Laghari, the secretary general of Muttahida Ulema Council; Allama Arif Wahidi, vice president of Shia Ulema Council; and many others.
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Mufti Taqi Usmani, renowned Islamic religious scholar and former judge of Pakistan's Federal Shariat Court, tweeted in Urdu: "All praise be to Allah. For the first time in the country's history, a hafiz of the Quran is being appointed as the army chief. Munir memorized the Quran in Medina. It is hoped that he will keep in view Quranic guidelines in discharging his duties. His appointment deserves a whole-hearted welcome."
The grand jirga in Peshawar (image: ummat.net)
Replying to Mufti Taqi Usmani's tweet, many Pakistanis offered their own comments, which reflect on the predicament that Pakistan faces. Noted journalist Taha Siddiqui said: "The country will be further pushed into the direction of religious frenzy and extremism? Already the Pakistan army knows lots of Islam and now more will be loaded [into it]."
Komail Ahmad Muaviah, a YouTuber, said: "In a democratic country like Pakistan, for someone to be a hafiz, alim [religious scholar], or have any such quality is not important; it is a personal characteristic and quality. Here the important point for the country and the millah [global Islamic nation] is how much a ruler ensures the rule of law, delivery of justice, and obedience to the principles."
Shahzad Nasir, another Twitter user, noted that in the past there was a need for hafiz so that the Quran could be memorized as many Muslims were dying in battle, but now it is the era of YouTube, oin which many records of the Quran are available for anyone to hear, and there is, therefore, no need for hafiz. Many Twitter users also questioned Mufti Taqi Usmani for being a durbari ("official") cleric who has backed military dictators and corrected him, saying that Munir did not train as a hafiz in Medina, but in his father's own madrassa in Rawalpindi.
Munir's appointment is seen as the result of a long process of Islamization sped up in Pakistan by military dictator General Ziaul Haq. "Munir is the culmination of changes," said an Indian intelligence analyst, "that Zia-ul-Haq set in motion as a promoter of overt religiosity in the army."
* Tufail Ahmad is Senior Fellow for the MEMRI Islamism and Counter-Radicalization Initiative.
 "Kalimah" is used in Urdu to refer to the words recited to confirm one's faith in Islam "La ilaha illallah muhammadur rasulullah [There is no deity but Allah, and Muhammad is his Messenger]." In other languages this phrase is called shahada.
 Kharijites (literally, "those who come out"), were an early Islamic sect that advocated excommunicating Muslims for even minor sins and was proclaimed heretical by the mainstream Sunna. Today, the term is used to brand Muslim groups as extremist.
 MEMRI JTTM Report, Pakistani Taliban Emir Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud Says TTP Is Branch Of The Islamic Emirate Of Afghanistan, Travels Through Pakistan's Border Regions, December 21, 2021.
 Express.pk (Pakistan), August 7, 2023.
 Roznama Ummat (Pakistan) website, August 7, 2023.
 Roznama Dunya (Pakistan), August 8, 2023.
 MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 831, Emerging Al-Qaeda Strategy Targeted at Damaging the Pakistan Army in Muslim Eyes, Assassinating Its Senior Officers, Annihilating It after U.S. Drawdown from Afghanistan in 2014, May 9, 2012.
 Ispr.gov.pk (Pakistan), accessed August 8, 2023.
 Roznama Ummat (Pakistan) website, August 7, 2023.
 Nation.com.pk (Pakistan), November 25, 2022.
 Twitter.com/muftitaqiusmani/status/1595742709385412613, November 24, 2022.
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