Pakistan, an important South Asia regional ally of the US, is home to approximately 175 million Muslims, the vast majority of which practice moderate traditional Islam and reject the Al-Qaeda/Taliban’s brand of religion.
To effectively counter the rise of religious extremism or “Talibanism” as it is often referred to, the US needs to establish relationships with moderate traditional and cultural leaders in Pakistan. The network of traditional Muslims known as the ASJ [an acronym for Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l-Jamaat] are amongst the most respected community leaders, clerics and activists who wield considerable influence in the troubled frontier which is otherwise inaccessible to outsiders. For decades, they have been primary providers of social services and education throughout the country and are therefore a critical resource for mobilizing the population at the grassroots level.
The challenge is recognizing which religious leaders to work with, and how their institutions can help in countering Talibanization. US policy makers must be able to distinguish jihadi fighters from traditional Muslim leaders who are our natural allies because confusing the two will invariably alienate the local population. Understanding the ideological divide in Pakistan is critically important to developing both effective military strategies and economic development programs.