Qari Muhammad Shoaib, a teacher at a Karachi seminary, has been uneasy for the past one month since Zarb-e-Momin, a weekly jihadi (militant) newspaper stopped publishing. He was an avid reader of the magazine for 23 years and now that it is no more, he feels a void. The magazine embodied his thoughts.
The Zarb-e-Momin suddenly stopped its publishing in May this year, for reasons that remain unknown. It was either shut down for lack of funds or the Financial Action Task Force pressure on the government. It is also unclear whether the magazine has been shut down permanently or temporarily.
Several Jihadi groups and militant charities — particularly the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD, formerly Lashkar-e-Taiba), the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), and the proscribed Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) — publish a wide range of periodicals all over the country, to specifically influence the general reader, including youth and women. Popular publications among them are Zarb-e-Momin, Jarrar, al-Qalm, Ahle Sunnat, al-Hilal and Ghazva.
Although all of these publications exist to serve the objectives of militant outfits, that is to propagate the jihadi ideology and promote their worldview, Zarb-e-Momin was a little different from the other radical publications.
In 1996, when the Afghan-Taliban occupied Kabul and announced their regime, a small seminary called ‘Darul Ifta Wal Irshad’ started publishing the weekly Zarb-e-Momin from Nazimabad’s Mujahid Colony in Karachi, where the seminary is situated. Mufti Rashid Ahmed Ludhianvi, a controversial Deobandi cleric, founded the newspaper mainly to support the Afghan Taliban cause.
Launching the weekly was a part of the overall expansion plan of the Al-Rashid Trust, a charity Ludhianvi had founded in order to provide financial aid to the Taliban administration. However in 2001, after the trust was declared a terrorist organisation by the United Nations (UN) and the United States (US), the Pakistani authorities froze all of its accounts and assets.
Although Zarb-e-Momin was purely a jihadist publication, it was bent on portraying itself as the mainstream press, and like most other magazines and newspapers, it was easily available in the market. Its layout, use of colours and multimedia techniques were similar to any mainstream publication available in the market. The prices of jihadi media products are relatively low and affordable for the poor because of which, their circulation grows easily, especially in villages and small towns.
The publisher of the Zarb-e-Momin also publishes daily Islam (Urdu), monthly Al-Akhwa for women (Urdu) and monthly Truth (English).
The eight-page Zarb-e-Momin, filled with news and analysis, claimed to be “the only newspaper that published authentic news on Afghanistan, Taliban, Islam and the Muslim world”. However, its content was mostly filled with hate and extremism. Four pages of news were in black-and-white and the remaining four pages of analysis were in colour.
According to various claims, the circulation of Zarb-e-Momin during the Afghan rule was around 70,000 copies. However, shortage of funding and preference of Afghan-Taliban and jihadi outfits for the social media had an adverse impact on its circulation.
In the beginning, Zarb-e-Momin’s news stories, opinion pieces and editorials mostly lauded the Afghan Taliban’s rule. After the ousting of the Taliban rule in 2001, the weekly started glorifying the Afghan Taliban for fighting against the US and the West-backed government in Kabul. The weekly also glorified jihad against India, Israel, and other ‘non-Muslim’ states.
It never carried photographs of people. According to a former sub-editor, the weekly was following the decree of Afghan Taliban’s supremo Mullah Omar who declared that using photographs and videos of people was ‘un-Islamic’. The weekly also didn’t have a masthead with names of the publisher, editor or the printing press, despite the current law requiring all publications to do so.
Sami Yousafzai, an Afghan journalist who covered the Taliban insurgency closely, says that the Zarb-e-Momin played a key role in propagating the Taliban viewpoint and their activities. “After the Taliban took control of Kabul, the weekly newspaper became a mouthpiece of the Taliban regime. It started publishing pieces that glorified governance of the Taliban administration, cited examples of their justices, simplicity, and peace.”
He adds that after the fall of Taliban in 2001, the weekly started carrying headlines that proclaimed the “successes” of Taliban and pro-Islamic forces in Afghanistan, and “was sold in huge numbers across the country”.
The weekly also had an association with banned Pakistani jihadi outfits. In the beginning, the weekly provided vast coverage to Harkat-ul-Ansar’s jihadi activities in the Indian-administered Kashmir. However, after the emergence of the JeM in 2000, it limited its focus to covering activities of Maulana Masood Azhar and his jihadi outfit. After splintering of Maulana Abdullah Shah Mazhar’s Tehreek-ul-Furqan (TeF) from the JeM, the weekly started supporting the TeF. As a reaction, the JeM and Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil’s Harkatul Mujahideen started their own publications – Al-Qalm and Al-Hilal respectively.
The Zarb-e-Momin also used to publish content against Shia and Ahmadi communities and supported the proscribed SSP’s sectarian activities in their write-ups.
A number of analysts believe that Zarb-e-Momin served as a popular jihadi weekly among Pakistan’s religious circles. According to After Study Hours: Exploring the Madrassa Mindset, a study conducted by Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), Zarb-e-Momin was one of the favourite newspapers of students in Deobandi madrassas across the country.
Sabookh Syed, an Islamabad-based analyst, and the study’s researcher says that a number of popular columnists wrote for the weekly but used pseudonyms as “they were paid handsomely as compared to other mainstream newspapers”. Renowned TV anchor Orya Maqbool Jan and columnist Irfan Siddiqui were among the ones who wrote for the publication under their real names. He further adds, “Mufti Abu Lubaba Shah Mansoor’s regular column ‘Boltay Naqshay’ was popular among the readers.” The weekly also published Mullah Omar’s messages on special occasions such as Eid.
“Because the Afghan-Taliban declared mainstream media Dajali (anti-Christ), Pakistan’s religious-minded people considered Zarb-e-Momin an authentic source of information. The weekly also used to publish interviews of ministers of Afghan Taliban, photos of their weapons and offices,” says Syed.
Religious publications are not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. Despite their sectarian and political affiliations, the sphere of these publications has been wide — spanning intellectual debates, religious reforms, dialogue with other faiths, and socio-political issues. According to another PIPS report titled Jihadi Print Media in Pakistan: An Overview, several jihadi groups, particularly the JuD, JeM, Al-Rashid Trust and SSP, publish a wide range of periodicals to specifically influence the minds of children, youth, women or the general reader.
“Jihad print media gradually became a lucrative business. Individuals, religious and political leaders in Pakistan started investing in the business and in the 1990s jihad media emerged as an alternative print media with widely circulated daily, weekly and monthly magazines and newspapers,” the report observed.
Although from time to time, the government directs its law enforcement bodies to curb the publication and sale of hate material, authorities are doing little to rein in the rhetoric of newspapers that advocate jihad and focus on the exploits of an array of jihadi outfits.
In November 2008, the Sindh government imposed a ban on the circulation of weekly Zarb-e-Momin and daily Islam, and declared that all copies of both papers, if found in circulation, be forfeited with immediate effect, saying that the two newspapers “contain material that is a source of inspiration for Jihadi outfits, is prejudicial to national integration and intended to promote anti-state feelings. Both papers are liable to be forfeited for containing objectionable materials under Section 99-A CrPC 1898”.
However, after a few months of the said ban, the newspapers started re-publishing.
According to the government and law enforcement officials, there is no mechanism to ban these publications. “To stop jihadi publications, it is important to stop the re-emergence of their publishers that is the jihadi groups that operate with new names after being banned by the authorities,” says a security official.