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Faith-based discrimination

Myth of the Muslim monolith

In Pakistan, a radical minority of Muslims has usurped the definition of “Islam”. Since the 1980s, government policies have supported their radical and violent ideology, and the judiciary confirmed that trend. The bitter irony is that the militant groups that benefited from state action are now not only terrorising the people, but rising up against the state itself.

Pakistan’s first democratic constitution was passed in 1973, after more than a quarter century of independence. It declared Pakistan to be an “Islamic Republic”. Earlier constitutional frameworks had oscillated from an “Islamic Republic” (1956) to simply a “Republic” (1962), before swinging back to “Islamic” in 1973.

The religious provisions in the Constitution were meant to ensure that all laws would henceforth conform to the primary sources of Islamic law, the Quran and Sunnah (the sayings and practices of Prophet Muhammad). At the same time, the Constitution sought to protect religious freedom. Its bill of “fundamental rights” included the right of every citizen to “profess, practice and propagate his religion”. It further entitled “every religious denomination and every sect” to “establish, maintain and manage its religious institutions”. Moreover, it included safeguards against taxation on the basis of religion, and compulsory religious instruction in educational institutions for a religion other than one’s own.

Whose Islam?

The imposition of Islam as the state religion and the simultaneous provision of religious freedom led to contradictions and ambiguities, especially as the Constitution did not clarify whose version of Islam was the official one. While at least 95 % of Pakistan’s people were – and are – Muslim, there is great intra-faith diversity among them with many historical, political and ideological distinctions. Historically, the two main sects of Islam are the Sunnis and the Shias. The schism is an ancient one, rooted in a dispute over succession after Prophet Muhammad’s demise in the seventh century. About 80 % of the world’s Muslims are Sunnis, but the Shias make up the majority in Iran and some regions of predominantly Sunni countries. Making things more complex, both sects have sub-groups.

In Pakistan, prominent Sunni sub-groups include:

  • the Sufis – a largely non-political, mystical and ritualistic tradition organised around fraternal orders of saints that developed in the Indian sub-continent centuries ago,
  • the Deobandis – an anti-imperialist, socially conservative and religiously dogmatic movement that emerged in colonial India in the 19th century to “purify” Islam,
  • the Barelvis – a movement that arose in defence of Sufism in reaction to the Deobandi agitation and
  • the Salafis/Wahabis – a puritanical movement that originated in 18th century Saudi Arabia, and found a jihadist foothold in Pakistan during the Afghan war and formed close alliances with extremist Deobandi groups .

Within Shia Islam, the main groups in Pakistan are the Ithna Ashariyah and the Ismailis. A third group, the Ahmadis – part of another 19th century revivalist movement in the colonial era – constitute a small minority. Their main distinction is their heterodox belief in successor prophets after Prophet Muhammad.

Politicisation, militarisation and polarisation

Pakistan’s internal diversity within Islam led to sectarian contests over who was and was not a Muslim. As early as the 1950s, there were anti-Ahmadi riots spearheaded by Deobandi groups, in particular the Jamaat-i-Islami and Majlis-e-Ahrar.

In 1974, however, the Deobandi ideology prevailed in parliament. Only a year after the Constitution of 1973 came into force, the legislature passed an amendment to the Constitution, declaring that people who believe in prophets after Prophet Muhammad are not Muslim. One sectarian version of Islam had thus managed to impose its world view on the constitutional order. Because Pakistan’s president and prime minister must be Muslims, Ahmadis have since been excluded from these offices.

Things got much worse when, in 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq toppled the civilian government in a coup and suspended the Constitution. Soon after, with the start of the Afghan war in 1979, billions of dollars worth of military aid began pouring into Pakistan from the USA and Saudi Arabia. The goal was to resist the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. In the process, Zia set the country on a “jihadist” path.

Deobandi and Salafi Madrassahs (religious seminaries) proliferated and became more radical. They were sponsored by the state and benefited from Saudi money in particular. These Madrassahs were integrated into mainstream education to train, recruit and mobilise Islamic fighters called the “mujahideen”, who joined the insurgents in Afghanistan. The military regime’s policies facilitated an arms and drugs trade across the border, and silenced the opposition at home through despotic laws and harsh repression.

To more firmly establish his power, moreover, Zia “islamised” various laws in a way that reflected an extreme and rigid version of Deobandi doctrine. All Muslims who did not subscribe to rigid religious fundamentalism – the majority – were thus legally reduced to a minority status. Moderate Sunnis as well as non-Sunnis had no choice but to be regulated by these harsh laws. The only exceptions were “personal laws” concerning private matters like inheritance, marriage and divorce et cetera. All religious groups, whether Muslim or not, were allowed to apply their traditional rules to these matters.
Deobandi ideology increasingly marked various kinds of legislation. Examples include:

  • the “Hudood” laws that criminalised and severely punished drinking and extra-marital sexual relations for example,
  • constitutional amendments that introduced religious “Sharia Courts” to police compliance with Islamic principles,
  • changes in Pakistan’s criminal laws that introduced corporal punishment for various offences and “blood money” for murder for instance.

Zia’s Islam-centric blasphemy laws proved to be especially problematic. Earlier blasphemy laws had served to prevent all kinds of religion-based hate speech. But, under Zia, special laws were added to exclusively protect the sentiments of “Muslims”. It must be pointed out that a significant majority of the people reportedly accused of blasphemy since the changes have been Muslims.

Zia directly targeted the Ahmadis. His blasphemy laws criminalised their religious practices. Ahmadis were restrained from “preaching or propagating” their faith and forbidden to “pose” as Muslims.

Unfortunately, the judiciary did not fight back. In a period of democratic transition in the early 1990s, the Supreme Court should have redefined minority rights and ruled against the increasingly puritanical and punitive interpretation of the faith for legal and even constitutional matters. It not only missed its chance, but even compounded the problems. In 1993, it ruled that the criminalisation of the Ahmadis’ religious practices did not violate their religious freedom. Instead, the judges argued that Ahmadi beliefs were an assault on the religious sentiment and freedom of the majority Muslim population.


Dominant extremists

Sectarian violence increased in the 1990s. The Pakistani military and intelligence agencies continued to sponsor and support the veterans of the Afghan war and other radical elements. The goals were to suppress internal insurgencies, resist Iranian influence, and fight regional turf wars, including the Kashmir conflict between Pakistan and India.

Radical forces coalesced into extremist and militant organisations. Since 9/11, they have grown in influence and spread to different parts of the country. They have also formed labyrinthine connections and alliances with each other as well as state institutions and political parties. Nonetheless, some of them have begun to rise up against the state, infuriated by the fact that the government aligned itself with the USA and the international community in Afghanistan after the Al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington.

New militant groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, for instance, have emerged from the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. Typically, they are marked by fundamentalist Sunni ideology of the Deobandi, Salafi/Wahabi and related traditions. Not only do they attack government institutions, they are also at the forefront of sectarian violence, targeting Shia communities for instance. Thousands of Shias have been killed in the last decade alone, leading to claims of “Shia genocide”. The Ahmadis are being brutalised in a similar way.

It is important to note, however, that the Sunni militants are also targeting fellow Sunnis. Some killings may be ideologically motivated, but many are heavily political. The recent attacks on Sufi shrines and the deadly Peshawar school massacre in 2014 that left more than 130 school children dead are examples of Muslim extremists terrorising defenceless Muslim communities in retaliation for state action against – and public opposition to – the Taliban in general, and military offensives and drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas in particular.

In Pakistan today, Muslim extremists have become a dominant minority. The bitter tragedy is that the state has not merely abandoned the majority of the people, it has actually played an active role in breeding the militant organisations that are now undermining its own institutions.

Judicial failure and military courts

Sectarianism is deeply embedded in Pakistan’s legal and socio-political order today. Among other things, this is evident in Supreme Court’s complete silence concerning the religious freedom and other rights of groups who do not adhere to the dominant state-sponsored doctrine. In the past 25 years, the Supreme Court dealt with many cases under its original fundamental rights jurisdiction. Only four out of a total of 208 reported cases dealt with “religion-based rights”, and three of these were dismissed. The only case that was upheld related to an insignificant logistical issue of rescheduling an election because of a religious ritual. The Supreme Court has avoided dealing with more important issues, such as considering sectarian violence in the context of either freedom of religion or the rights to “life and liberty” and “dignity.”   

For practical purposes, the Supreme Court has abdicated its authority to uphold the religion-based rights of most Pakistanis. As a consequence, persecuted groups do not regard the judiciary as an institution that protects them. Making matters worse, the Supreme Court has contributed to sectarian violence by acquitting hundreds of alleged terrorists for lack of evidence. Post-acquittal, many of them are reported to be involved again in anti-state activities.

Therefore, a new political consensus has recently emerged to empower military courts to investigate terrorist offences and try suspects. A six-year long moratorium on the death penalty has also been lifted. The military has thus gained substantial judicial relevance.

However, expert opinion on whether military courts are really a speedy and effective way to deal with terrorist sectarianism is divided. Critics point out the irony of expecting a fair, neutral and transparent process of justice from the state institution that has historically and systematically sponsored sectarian extremism.

Months after the transfer of judicial authority to the military courts, many terrorist ringleaders remain at large, and there is little indication that things will change. The government, the military and the intelligence agencies do not have a track record of effectively curtailing faith-based violence.


Maryam S. Khan is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) in Lahore, Pakistan.


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