February Issue 2014

By | Published 10 years ago

The other day a member of a popular media chat group called Press Pakistan seemed to be in high dudgeon. Her source of consternation was news regarding the national women’s kabaddi team and the newly launched TV programme, Pakistan Idol. The member, Dr Hina lamented:

“If I am not wrong, we were taught in school that the two-nation theory was the base behind the struggle for a separate homeland. Quaid-e-Azam said, we want a piece of land, where we can practically implement Islamic principles to spend our lives according to religion Islam… but now, after 68 years of existence, we start our day with music broadcast on radio channels and when we turn on the television, we find anchors (half expired teenager aunties and aunty type uncles) doing acrobats (following and preaching Indian culture) in their respective morning shows.”

Presumably, this educated lady expressed her frustration at not seeing Pakistan as an ideal Muslim land or fortress of Islam. In fact, there are many now who believe that the country was intended to be a state with a distinct identity based on religion. This is what the reader in Indian history and Fellow at St Anthony’s College, Oxford University, Faisal Devji has termed the ‘Muslim Zion’ — “a nationalism in an alien geography without a necessary reference to shared blood and rootedness in the soil.”

For people who think that religion was only a minor reference in the country’s identity at birth, one must remind them that 67 years later Pakistan is no longer a state that can take religion casually. It is now formally a hybrid-theocracy in which there are limited visible spaces where Islamic Sharia is formally implemented along with a depleted number of liberals and liberal space, but with a larger space in which religious laws and norms are implemented informally. Try having an argument on revising blasphemy laws or on the treatment of minorities and you might feel like hitting your head against a wall. Matters pertaining to religion indeed posit as a dead-end situation where no argument can be conducted without interference from religious scholars.

Just the other day I was reading a 2009 column by the veteran journalist (late) Ardeshir Cowasjee, Bring Back Jinnah’s Pakistan, in which he lamented how six months after the death of the founding father in 1948, the Pakistani state started to shift towards a religion-laced political discourse. Since the passing of the Objectives Resolution 1949, both civilian and military leaders have compromised with the religious right. Hence, the underlying argument is that Jinnah did not want a theocracy but a state that would not use religion as a principle of governance. Seen from Cowasjee’s eyes or those who claim to be of liberal thinking, Mohammad Ali Jinnah would be shocked to see Pakistan in its present state — a society where the religious right has strengthened considerably, where reason and rationality is not worth claiming even by the educated lest someone doubts their faith, those that do not subscribe to the faith of the majority are shunned and looked down upon, and where the propensity for violence has increased manifold.

The other day I was talking to a Pakistani scientist working on assessing the attitudes of educated medical professionals towards understanding the link between religion and science. His view was that Pakistan was an interesting place where people were hesitant to accept scientific explanations. Even medical doctors were reluctant to express faith in the scientific theory of evolution. He gave an example of a television programme in which they tried to talk about astronomy. However, the anchor constantly emphasised  that the theories on space conformed to revelations in the Holy Book. It was as if the show’s host was afraid to admit that things can be viewed outside the prism of religion.

Religious zealots have been forcing people not to hold Sufi festivals in Sindh. The Sheedis from Makran, who used to have an annual dance festival in Manghopir, were told to desist.

Religious zealots have been forcing people not to hold Sufi festivals in Sindh. The Sheedis from Makran, who used to have an annual dance festival in Manghopir, were told to desist.

Popularly, we would like to believe that sectarian violence is the work of some foreign elements that want to create chaos in the country. However, a look within would help reveal quite soon that such violence is a natural by-product of growing radicalism, which, in turn is linked to the fast disappearing space for liberal or pluralist voices. Sectarian violence or crimes against minorities happen because the overall capacity for pluralism in society has waned tremendously. Thus, communities find it harder to co-exist peacefully. Some people believe the process could be reversed if we subscribe to traditional forms of Islam like Sufism.

The Pakistan People’s Party’s young leadership recently initiated the Sindh festival at which assorted cultural events were planned to let people enjoy, celebrate and have fun. This, the Taliban not just deny ordinary people, but brand unIslamic and thereby punishable, offences. Indeed, one has heard stories of how religious zealots in Sindh have been forcing people not to hold religious Sufi festivals. The Sheedis from Makran, who used to have an annual dance festival in Manghopir, Karachi, were told to desist. Now, besides the PPP, the liberal intelligentsia in Sindh has started investing in poetry contests and Sufi festivals with the hope of reviving the province’s culture, replete with pluralist values.

However, is it really fair to think that Sufi festivals will help revive plurality in a country that has moved miles away from its secular liberal traditions?

The problem is two-fold. First, the Sufi institutions no longer have a secular liberal narrative. The institutions and people that represent Sufi culture have long lost their ability to reach out to people and offer them the message of equality and kindness that Sufi Islam was all about. Over the years, we saw things change — pirs representing the Sufi culture became morally and politically corrupt and began to subscribe to authoritarian values. These days, dacoits and religious militants train and live together in the jungles or kacha area of upper Sindh. In recent times we even have examples like Mian Mithu of Bharchundi who do not look any different from the hardline orthodox in their urge to forcibly convert the entire world to Islam. The problem is that Mian Mithu’s actions are now justified in so many ways — you will even come across members of the Sindh Progressive Movement from the Daharki-Ghotki area who believe Mian Mithu was justified in supporting the forced conversion of girls to Islam. The new form, which is more radical than traditional religious institutions, has seeped deep into the centres of power.

Radicalism and militancy have increased across the length and breadth of the country. Radicalism, as a phenomenon,  is important to understand even if it does not necessarily lead to violence. Extremism can, however, lead to violence, bloodshed and chaos when the elements interested in making that happen decide to.

In the past couple of decades, Sindh, which was traditionally known for its laidback culture, has become host to militant organisations and proliferating madrassas. Visit Nagarparkar and you will come across Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) graffiti everywhere, inciting people to join the jihad against India. Since the 2010 floods, Salafi/Wahabi militant outfits seem to have got ample opportunity to spread their wings, especially vis-a-vis the Hindu population. They do not force people to convert, but then the JuD is very patient; it knows it may take years to succeed in winning over popular support. After all, it managed to entrench itself in the Punjab and other parts of the country where it was not popular to begin with.

It is worth remembering that when the Pakistani state under Zia-ul-Haq had set up the jihadi network to start fighting the Iranian ideological onslaught after the 1979 revolution in Tehran, followed by preparing for the war in Afghanistan later that year, Salafi groups were really not an option. Despite the ideological affiliation, the Saudis could not invest in Wahabi outfits, and instead began diverting money to Deobandi outfits like the Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP) and Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami (HUJI). It was to overcome the internal socio-political barriers that the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was formed in the early 1990s, opted to befriend the Pakistani state by offering to fight its war in Kashmir. The battlefront proved to be a good training ground and opened up options for the outfit in terms of its acceptability by the state. The closeness with the military establishment increased the outfit’s acceptability, which then increased its options vis-à-vis society at large. The manner in which the LeT/JuD (Jamaat-ud-Dawa) network has expanded in the country is a tale of strategic expansion.

The expansion of the various jihadi organisations is based on integrated layers of a political, economic and social presence. Increasing one’s social presence requires building one’s economic and political base as well. Thus, it should not come as a surprise to see the LeT/JuD network build bakeries in posh neighbourhoods in Karachi or maintain a fleet of over 2500 rickshaws in Lahore. It is also slowly building its influence in professional colleges, universities and among the educated urban middle and upper-middle class. People talk about how the LeT/JuD network holds study circles in higher educational institutions to recruit people. And it should not be forgetten that Hafiz Saeed himself represents the middle class and was a professor at the University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Lahore. Clearly, the outfit is not bothered about recruiting foot soldiers but well-placed people it could use for ideological conversion of the state at a higher level.

The Salafi militant network initially started in central Punjab with its Headquarter in Muridke. Today, it has established its influence in central Punjab and is slowly building influence in north and south Punjab. The more urban the area, the greater the chance of its conversion to the Wahabi ideology offered by the JuD. The outfit has a huge presence in Lahore and had, in the past decade or so, eaten into the influence base of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Lahore and even Rawalpindi. Allegedly, in 2006 Hafiz Saeed had a meeting with Maulana Masood Azhar of the Deobandi Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) in which both agreed not to challenge each other and respect boundaries. Since then, the peace deal has helped the Salafi ideology and outfit to grow. The LeT/JuD network in particular has used its closeness with the military to expand its influence in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. Sources claim that Hafiz Saeed has been collecting funds and recruiting men from central Punjab in the last 3-4 years for Balochistan. Interestingly, Al-Qaeda, which is another Wahabi network, has also expanded its presence in Balochistan, often invoking Baloch nationalism and inciting people to establish an independent, Wahabi-Islamic state of Balochistan. Terrorism, it is important to understand, does not follow a linear trajectory. Al-Qaeda, for example, fights the Pakistani state. However, its goals in Balochistan seem similar to the Pakistan state-friendly LeT/JuD network. One of the objectives appears to be to build a support base which could later be used to destabilise Iran.


Courtesy: Dawn

The key challenge to the LeT/JuD network may not be from the Pakistani state but from the Deobandi militant outfits like the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) that enjoy greater influence in north and south Punjab. People in these regions, essentially following the more popular Barelvi and Sufi Islamic orders, find it easier converting to the Deobandi ideology that challenges certain tenets of Barelvi Islam but is closer in thinking to it than Salafism. Therefore, as we discovered during recent field research in south Punjab, most Barelvis leaving their own belief system convert to Deobandism and not to the harder Salafism. It is the Deobandis that convert to Wahabi Islam as they are more prepared to adopt a harder and more conservative interpretation of religion.

The Deobandi outfits have an interesting relationship with the state and society. The various outfits seem to have greater traction among the lower and lower-middle class. Although even the SSP and LeJ are changing their class profile — their leaders are now from the middle and upper-middle class — the outfits are still unable to totally shun their traditional link with criminality. Contrary to the popular myth that the birth of the SSP, which is really the mother-ship for most Deobandi militant outfits, represented a class war between Shia feudal landowners and Sunni peasantry is far from true. Digging into the local history of Jhang, we found that Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the founder of the SSP, had business links with the Nawabs of Sial that were a Shia family. This was the 1980s and both were involved in the drug business. Later, other prominent members of the landed and business elite from the area, including the Sheikh Akram family and the owner of Husnain Construction, aided Jhangvi to eliminate the influence of the Sials. It was a battle of the elite in which a lower class mullah and other ordinary folk were manipulated.

Later, as the SSP grew, other people that joined it also represented the lower-middle class. The SSP and its derivatives like the LeJ continue to have a greater criminal element, and thus the conflict with the state. A lot of the LeJ boys allegedly joined the Pakistani Taliban. One of the prominent LeJ leaders, Malik Ishaq, was also accused of organising the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team from his jail cell. Ishaq is responsible for over a hundred murders, mainly of Shias. However, he managed to escape the law in April 2011 when the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted him. Apparently, the bench overturned the death sentence awarded to him by the lower courts and maintained by the Lahore High Court despite the fact that there was no fresh evidence that could have convinced the highest court to change the earlier sentence. Senior police officers believe that some Arab states have played a role in bribing Ishaq into relative silence.

The SSP was used by the state during the 1980s to challenge the build-up of any Shiite and Iranian influence in Pakistan. Later, the SSP was also used in Afghanistan. However, sectarian ideology is essentially inbuilt into the SSP/LeJ and overall Deobandi thinking. In the past few years, these outfits have also spread out in Balochistan where they seem to be recruiting Brahvis and pitching them against the Baloch. In other parts of the country, like Sindh, they are conveniently using the umbrella of the JUI-F to expand. The rising incidence of Shia violence in Sindh and Punjab is one of the indicators of these outfits spreading out. Out of the 4-5 major Deobandi outfits, the JeM, nevertheless, is more capable in planning and acting strategically. Although the JeM’s leader Masood Azhar is believed to have been involved in the 2002 attack on Pervez Musharraf, Azhar has successfully maintained his relationship with the military. The agencies argue that the reason for keeping good relations with him is to keep the JeM boys from defecting to the TTP. But there are other reasons as well, such as using the militant outfit in Kashmir, Afghanistan or other places where the state requires proxies.

Like the LeT, the JeM has also changed its approach towards indoctrination and recruitment. It has now started to invest in higher education institutions and make long-term investments in human resources. The outfit now puts its recruits through months of ideological training before picking the right kind for jihad. The Daura-e-tafseer involves a 1-3 month training period in which students, who are exposed to semi-military and semi-ideological training, are taught the importance of jihad according to the Quran. Masood Azhar’s magnum opus,Fatah-ul-Jawwad, an approximately 2000-page book, is critical in converting people to jihad. Those that qualify and opt for jihad are then sent for more serious military training to Kashmir, the Northern Areas and other friendly parts of the country. Allegedly, the outfit spends about Rs 800,000 per trainee. In more recent years, the JeM has also started to expand in urban Sindh.



A toll plaza in Bahawalpur with a LeT banner.

The jihadi expansion in Punjab and Sindh has certain common denominators namely an increase in the support infrastructure such as madrassas, and penetration among both urban and rural middle class. While people are made to believe that madrassas shouldn’t be objected to because they are part of the culture, those religious seminaries that were part of the soil are a thing of the past. Historically, most madrassas were attached to shrines. Even others that represented Deobandi or Salafi thinking were far more open in reaching out to the communities around. The madrassas that we now see rapidly emerging in Sindh and Southern Punjab are actually a new type that are closed to their neighbourhoods. Funded mostly by the Arab world, these madrassas are not open spaces where people can walk in and have a debate or discussion on religion. These are madrassas which, according to Pakistani scholar Saleem H. Ali, propagate sectarian hatred. Even if it is not against other sects in Islam, these seminaries bias the innocent mind against non-Muslims. Scanning through Masood Azhar’s book on jihad, one begins to understand the brutal murder of innocent Pakistani Christians in Peshawar. The entire interpretation of Surah Baqarah, which is the second and longest chapter in the Quran, by the JeM leader, puts Jews and Christians at the same level as hypocrites and non-believers. The 2000-page book carefully builds a thesis which extols the importance of jihad and martyrdom. But this is one aspect. The other is constructing a thesis against non-believers, Jews and Christians. It explains and interprets, for example, verse 109 of Chapter 2, such that the reference in the Quranic verse to Jews includes Christians as well.  The detailed explanation of verse 114 of the same chapter reminds the reader of how Christians had depopulated the mosques in Spain. The madrassas and their teaching is getting increasingly rabid, irrespective of what sect they belong to. Not surprisingly, the targeting of minorities and sectarian violence is on the rise.

Also, it is erroneous to believe that all terrorism and extremism is poverty-driven. The poor may be manipulated and used as foot soldiers, but it is the rural and urban middle class that is the backbone of various jihadi outfits and radicalism in many areas, especially Sindh and Punjab. The trader-merchants in all small and big urban centres, particularly in the Punjab, tend to pay money to madrassas and violent extremist organisations. They would rather pay the religious extremist outfits than pay tax to the state. When I asked them why they preferred to pay the militants and not the state, some traders and medium-level professionals said, “because the state is less accountable.” The fact that these outfits ran madrassas or took people to fight for the alleged freedom of Muslims in Kashmir or other places was seen as money well-spent or something that did fall in the ambit of better accountability. Educated professionals and businessmen contribute to religious activities as they expect their wealth to multiply in this life. The benefits of the life hereafter are an added bonus.

Be it Balochistan, Sindh or Punjab, radicalism has increased in the country. And this is not all because of poverty. The increase of radicalism among the middle class is something that is not well-documented. In building a case for secularism in Sindh we tend to forget that Sindhis working in the Middle East, like those from the Punjab, have brought a taste of Salafi Islam back to their homeland. The Sindhi middle class, be it urban or rural, may be a wee bit better than those in the Punjab. However, they also tend to be latent-radical in thinking. These attitudes shouldn’t come as a surprise because radicalism is inbuilt in the nature of the state. One wonders if Cowasjee would still be surprised if he analysed the evolution of the Pakistani state and society — from pre-radicalism to latent-radicalism and finally active radicalism.

People tend to naturally equate radicalism with violence, but the connection is not so linear. Radicalism in itself is not necessarily about violence but it is essentially a thought process that results in a tendency to exclude or include people on the basis of faith or certain core sets of belief and advocate discrimination on that basis. It is at later stages that such an attitude or perspective can mature into active discrimination and even violence. Pakistan is vacillating at this juncture between latent radicalism and active radicalism, with some parts of the country becoming more violent as a result of active radicalism.

But is it a surprise that we are where we seem to be at the moment? Looking at books such as the one by Faisal Devji titled Muslim Zion and the analyses contained in it by some Israeli sociologists on the evolution of their state, one wonders if Pakistan could have afforded to remain secular as many believe Mohammad Ali Jinnah wanted it to be. It is also a huge question if the founding father was very clear himself on how secular he wanted this state to be. It is worth noting that for a state to remain secular or even to retain its pluralist political sensibilities, it has to remain distant from religious governance. Although it is claimed that Jinnah wanted governance to be secular, it is worth asking if a state made in the name of a religious identity (as happened with the Israeli state in Palestine) would not ultimately veer towards religious governance? Israel, too, seems to be going in the same direction. In any case, what the founding father wanted for Pakistan is a matter of conjecture as there is also evidence of Jinnah imagining the country on the basis of its distinct religio-cultural identity. In a speech given during a lunch at Aligarh in March 1944, Jinnah explained Pakistan’s philosophy by arguing that: “It has always been there, only they (Muslims) were not conscious of it. Hindus and Muslims, though living in the same towns and villages, had never blended into one nation; they were always two separate entities.” Perhaps, Mohammad Ali Jinnah did not think too deeply about his capacity and that of his successors to keep a country made on the basis of a religious identity secular. He tended to define secularism in a narrow prism of democratic governance. This was obvious from one of the last interviews he gave to an American journalist Bourke-White in which he highlighted Islam as a democratic religion or a faith that encouraged democracy.

In Pakistan’s case, the state embracing religion as a principle of governance has forced society to transform from pre-radicalism to latent radicalism and then morph to active radicalism and violent extremism in certain places. The formation of the state on the basis of a religious identity and then changes, such as the Objectives Resolution 1949, established religion as a grundnorm of the state. Later, the state’s decision in 1974 to declare Ahmedis non-Muslims moved it towards latent radicalism. With this decision the state indicated its intent to abandon secularism as a principle of governance and to adjudicate in matters of faith. Henceforth, the state took over the power to declare anyone as Muslim or non-Muslim, based on a formula defined by the religious clergy. The laws against the Ahmedi community were hardened even further  during the 1980s, under Zia’s rule.


This is an under-construction madrassa on the Lahore-Karachi highway in Bahawalpur. It is big enough to accommodate 8000-9000 people for namaz.

The late 1970s were critical in strengthening the relationship of the state with religious elements, some of which were required to fulfill the strategic objectives of the military. The army and its ISI started building links with Afghan religious groups for use against the government in Kabul. Subsequently, quite a few of the Afghan mullahs were trained to fight the American war against the Soviet troops.

Like 1974, the entire decade of the 1980s and the 1990s proved to be critical milestones. General Zia-ul-Haq’s 10 years of rule went a long way in making Pakistani nationalist identity more religious. The hudood laws, Islamic provisions in the economy, the system ofnazim-e-salat etc were some of the measures that changed the tone and tenor of society. Furthermore, the encouragement given to religious sectarianism in the form of various outfits like the SSP and others increased violence as well. This trend continued during the 1990s, a decade known for the expansion of Islamic social movements like the Tableeghi Jamaat and Al-Huda. This decade is also important for the manner in which the religious right began penetrating the upper-middle and upper classes. A final move towards greater religionism was after 2001. The events following 9/11 increased a sense of insecurity as well as strengthened the urge for an Islamic identity.

At this juncture, there is very little hope for taking the country to 1947-style governance when there was greater space for minorities to co-exist peacefully with the majority. Most institutions that could bring back social sanity and tolerance seem to have collapsed. As far as Pakistan’s sociology is concerned, religion is the flavour of the day. Even the educated, as is obvious from the latest works by Humaira Iqtadar and Masooda Bano, are going around justifying religious extremism. While Iqtidar’s book on the Jamaat-e-Islami and JuD presents these organisations as having a secularising influence on society, Bano’s work on madrassas presents terrorists and religious zealots as rational believers. These two books present a mindset that can no longer think outside the prism of religion. Perhaps, it will help to admit that what we believe was Jinnah’s liberal Pakistan is now dead. Any case that will now be made for pluralism would have to be made within a religious space.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2014 issue as the cover story.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter