do You know our newsletter? It’ll keep you briefed on what we publish. Please register, and you will get it every month.
Thanks and best wishes,
the editorial team
– by Mohammad Ali Khan
© Mohammad Ali Khan
Demonstration of a radical party
Pakistan is by definition a Muslim nation. It was born in the partition of British India in 1947. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, had campaigned for a separate state for South Asian Muslims, but envisioned a modern state with a secular government. His Muslim League championed the Two-Nation Theory, according to which Hindus and Muslims could not coexist peacefully as a single nation. Nonetheless, Jinnah and most of the Muslim leadership during the independence struggle did not intend Pakistan to become a theocratic state.
The contradiction between the demand for a separate state on the basis of religion and the wish for non-religious governance was evident from the very start. Scholars say that this contradiction is at the heart of Pakistan’s ongoing identity crises, contributing to the extremist challenges the country is facing.
Culture versus faith
“Contradiction is in Pakistan’s essence, and that is why we have not been able to figure out our real identity,” says Ijaz Khan, the chairman of the Department of International Relations at the University of Peshawar. According to him, there are two schools of thought in Pakistan: those who want a state run along religious lines and those with a secular mindset.
Both schools refer to Islam, however. The secularists invented “Muslim nationalism”, stressing cultural matters rather than the faith as such to define Pakistan’s identity. Bangladesh’s secession from Pakistan in 1971, however, dealt a heavy blow to this philosophy because the Bengalis emphasised cultural differences between south Asian Muslims rather than their unity.
Soon after the partition of British India in 1947, the politicians who had led the campaign for a separate Muslim state became marginalised in Pakistan. The military and the bureaucracy assumed crucial roles in shaping policies, especially after the country’s first military coup of 1958. “Both the military and the bureaucracy used religion as a tool to promote their interests,” remarks Professor Khan, adding that some Muslim parties, which originally opposed partition on religious grounds, began to campaign for legislation in line with Islamic law. The military and the bureaucracy considered these parties allies.
All governments, however, whether established through elections or by military coups, “played the religion card”, Professor Khan argues: “Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the Pakistan People’s Party, came up with the idea of Islamic socialism.” Bhutto won a landslide victory against an alliance that included some faith-based parties in the 1973 elections, but he nonetheless continued to further Islamise the country. For instance, he banned the sale of liquor and declared Friday a holiday.
Sunni versus Shia
The late 1970s saw a dramatic growth of politics on religious grounds. General Zia-ul-Haq used Islamic ideology to topple Bhutto’s elected government and later to perpetuate his military dictatorship. Though the military regime strived to project some kind of Pan-Islamist vision, it basically relied on Wahabism-influenced interpretations of Islamic theology and law. This approach offended Shias and accordingly triggered sectarian violence. Sadly, such violence continues to flare up occasionally.
In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan to help the Afghan government to quell an insurgency led of the religious right. The United States called the Soviet invasion an expression of geopolitical assertiveness and considered Zia an important ally for thwarting such aspirations. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) began to cooperate with the CIA in support for anti-Soviet Mujaheddin fighters.
Hardline Sunni groups like Deobandi, Barelvi and Ahle Hadith fought the petro-dollar funded war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. “The Americans sometimes called parts of what is now the central Asian republics the Soviet Union’s ‘soft belly’, because they were largely inhabited by Muslims,” recalls Professor Khan. The Mujaheddin got support from the USA, but from Saudi Arabia too. Washington and Riyadh were not only interested in containing Soviet influence, they also wanted to block the spill over of the Iranian revolution to neighbouring countries and the Middle East.
“Pakistan became an ideological battleground for Iran and Saudi Arabia,” writes Umbreen Javed, a professor of political science at Punjab University. She argues that Saudi-backed Deobandi religious schools became even more influential thanks to funding from Pakistani authorities.
In the 1980s, thousands of armed activists of religious parties and extremist groups in Pakistan participated in the Afghan “Jihad”, the “holy war”. Many returned home after the humiliated Red Army withdrew. Hundreds of trained fighters joined various radical organisations, some of which wanted to take their armed struggle to Indian-held Kashmir. “Jihad and the consequent militarisation of Islam have inflicted permanent damage on civil society and state institutions in Pakistan,” is Javed’s assessment.
There was another twist to the story when the ISI began supporting the fundamentalist Sunni Taliban in the early 1990s. At the time, Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Zulfikar, was prime minister. The idea was to stabilise Afghanistan and gain control of the Mujaheddin who had begun fighting a bloody civil war among each other after the Soviet troops had withdrawn. Once again, the Islamic faith was used for political purposes. The bitter irony was that Islamic extremists killed Benazir during an election campaign in late 2007.
Afghanistan, once more
Rifts and tensions in Pakistani society grew worse after the USA and its allies invaded Afghanistan under the UN umbrella to eliminate Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime two months after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001. Violence has since escalated and spilled over into Pakistan, first into tribal areas along the border and then into major cities.
Many people feel that Pakistan is suffering because of the American interests in the region. “The USA is in Afghanistan because it wants to exploit the natural resources of the central Asian republics and sell weapons,” says Sirajul Haq, deputy chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a hardline Islamic party. Right-wing leaders like him deny Pakistani extremism is rooted in religion. They say extremist violence is driven by social and political injustices – and that their faith would offer the way out of these problems.
Haq contends: “The issue of extremism is inter-linked with economic and political forms of terrorism people of Pakistan are faced with.” He says the military not only serves American interests, but has also forged alliances with Pakistan’s feudal landlords, denying the masses civil liberties.
Such reasoning resonates with many Pakistanis. Secular-minded Professor Khan agrees that the country is ridden with rampant corruption and socio-economic misery, but he argues use of religion to further strategic interests by the State and international players has done more damage than domestic grievances. He stresses that the military has a long track record of fostering such ideology.
Here to stay
Religious extremism in Pakistan has become a brutal menace, a monster that has already killed thousands of innocent people. So far, there is no end in sight.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, a senior leader of the secular Awami National Party that currently rules the volatile north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is pessimistic: “In Pakistan, religious parties do not denounce acts of terrorism the way they should and thus ultimately contribute to extremism.” His only son was killed by militants to punish him for being part of an anti-militant state government.
In Hussain’s view, the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the USA are not serious about fighting extremism: “They are targeting only those militants who are ‘bad Taliban’ in their perception, while retaining relations with ‘good Taliban’.” In his view, this selective approach “is not addressing the roots of extremism”. Moreover, this attitude is causing distrust among the people, but also among the allies according to him. Hussein warns: “Extremism will persist unless a coherent approach is adopted.”
Professor Khan similarly sees a pattern of double standards. He points out that Washington did not mind the Talibans’ fundamentalist Sunni regime in Afghanistan before Al-Qaeda used that country as a base for organising attacks on New York and Washington.
The scholar explains the evolution of extremists: “First they were merely the tools, and then, they became partners; now they want to be in control.” His sad assessment is: “Extremism is here to stay for longer because it has been nurtured well and has strong roots.” There would be scope for containing it by political means, he argues, but that is not being done. In his view, it would be necessary to promote representative democracy while using force against the militants at the same time. Instead, he says, “policy is focused on containment not elimination”.