The Roots Of Radicalization in Pakistan

Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country with 180 million people, is struggling against a host of complex problems. It inherited some of these in 1947 — like poor industrial and government infrastructure, inadequate educational facilities1 and insecurity vis-à-vis an entrenched rivalry with India—while many of its other troubles are largely self-inflicted. Among this second category, political cum religious radicalization is the most formidable challenge it faces today. It is largely a consequence of military authoritarianism, the failure of the state to invest in the well-being of its people, and a pursuit of controversial regional goals that undermine its internal social fabric.

There have been roughly 250 suicide bombings since the beginning of 2008, all of which have targeted armed forces personnel, police, politicians, and ordinary people not only in the country’s turbulent northwest but also in its major urban centers. This indicates the seriousness of the terrorist threat faced by Pakistan today.2 Large areas of Pakistan-Afghanistan border region – especially the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – since 2004 and Swat district in the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa Province (KPP), previously known as North West frontier Province (NWFP), during the 2007-09 period, came under control of various militant groups aligned with Pakistani Taliban.3 The influence of Arab fighters first over the Afghan Taliban and consequently over the Pakistani component of Taliban played havoc to the region.4 Partly to retain the sympathies of these groups for any future use against India and partly in denial of the reality, Pakistan repeatedly opted for ‘peace deals’ with these groups during 2004-09 timeframe, which were used by militants to expand their area of influence and gain time for consolidation. However, after increases in terrorist activity in the country, exposure of Taliban worldview through media, and growing public disenchantment with the worsening law and order situation, a series of military actions began in the troubled spots in the Malakand area of the North West Frontier Province in May-June 2009. This led to a major humanitarian crisis in the shape of millions of internally displaced people, but militants also received a significant blow in the process. The military operation though belated succeeded in evicting extremist elements from the area and life is returning to normalcy. A state run de-radicalization process is also underway, but the situation in FATA remains unstable and volatile.

A glance at some of the major developments in Pakistan over the years is instructive in this context. In the sixty-five year checkered history, the country faced four military dictatorships collectively spanning about 33 years, whereas democratic governments in most cases were overthrown before the completion of their mandated terms. Two popular prime ministers, Liaquat Ali Khan and Benazir Bhutto were assassinated (in 1951 and 2007 respectively) and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the most popular and accomplished prime minister of the country, was hanged on the basis of a dubious legal verdict from a compromised judiciary that was operating hand in glove with a military junta in 1979.

In 1971 the country broke into two when the legitimate aspirations of Bengalis in East Pakistan were ignored and their protests were curbed through a brutal military operation. A civil war ensued in 1969-70 which lead to the creation of Bangladesh, a separate Muslim homeland for Bengalis. The distancing between Bengalis and the West Pakistan (containing Punjabis, Pukhtuns, Baluchis, Sindhis and Urdu speaking immigrants) occurred during the military rule of Ayub Khan. Social and political radicalization was a consequence of these developments in 1960s. Religious political parties also gained strength over time, though their electoral support mostly remained under 10 percent in national elections.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s regional agenda in Afghanistan and Kashmir, advanced since the 1980s in the shape of support for religious militants, added a new dimension to radicalization of Pakistan. The religious extremism eating into the vitals of the country, and the encroachment of Talibanization from FATA into the NWFP, is directly a product of such policy mistakes. By supporting the Afghan Mujahedeen in 1980s in concert with the West, and later facilitating the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1994-5, Pakistan created a space for religious radicals, not realizing that such a policy was bound to have a local blowback. Supporting insurgency in Kashmir by shifting some of the Afghan year ‘assets’ to Pakistan’s eastern border in early 1990s was also a very controversial policy as it tarnished the real face of the freedom and self-determination movement of Kashmiris. Dozens of militant groups groomed in Pakistan for operations in the Indian side of Kashmir also had local agendas, and their sectarian goals and perverted religious ideals inside Pakistan were initially ignored. The crisis erupted when President Gen. Pervez Musharraf clamped down on some of the Kashmiri militant groups around 2001 and in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Those targeted became Frankenstein monsters that today are active in militancy in Punjab as well as the FATA area, where they had moved in search of a sanctuary in recent years.5

Ethnic tensions in the country are another cause of radicalization. Punjab, the largest province of the country, with disproportionate resources and influence in the power corridors, is seen as overly dominating by smaller provinces. Baluchistan faces a growing insurgency as its people feel marginalized and isolated. Rifts between different communities in Karachi, the largest urban center and port city of the country, especially between the Urdu-speaking migrant community led by the Muttihada Qaumi Movement (MQM – United National Movement), Pukhtuns settled in the city, and local Sindhis, are assuming dangerous proportions due to tussles over resources and job opportunities. Highly centralized and unrepresentative governance has created grievances among different ethnic groups, and the state has failed to create any institutional mechanisms for dealing with such discontent. Provisions for provincial autonomy in the constitution, which could have helped the federation, have been criminally ignored in practice. Violence and conflict has become a routine matter in the country, and the Pakistani youth are especially vulnerable to these radicalization trends.

Rampant corruption in the criminal justice system, lack of access to justice and deficient law enforcement capacity has disillusioned a growing number of people in the country. Extremist ideologues have benefitted from these weaknesses of the state. Some extremist groups in turn have provided a new feeling of empowerment to ordinary people in many instances.

This essay first analyses these strands of radicalization to better understand their true nature and extent, and then focuses on ways by which these trends may be potentially reversed. The spirit of the argument is that proper diagnosis of the ills afflicting Pakistan indicates a natural antidote for stemming the tide of radicalization. Pakistan can still defy the odds provided there is sustained political will to challenge extremism and sufficient resources are diverted towards meeting this menace head-on.

Radicalization – Enabling Factors and Causes

A. Political Radicalization: An Outcome of Identity Crisis

At the time of Pakistan’s independence in 1947, almost all of the religious parties in British India were against the very idea of partition, as they abhorred the secular orientation of the leadership of Muslim League party (which spearheaded the cause of Pakistan) and also believed that they had more potential for successful proselytizing in a united India. However, as the country was created for safeguarding the interests of the Indian subcontinent’s Muslims, the political leadership, during the freedom movement and despite being secular, used the slogan of Islam to mobilize and galvanize the masses. Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876- 1948), Pakistan’s founding father, and many other stalwarts were highly educated and liberal people who were fully committed to making Pakistan a democratic Muslim state and not a theological state. Both Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-98), who provided an initial platform to the Muslims of British India in the shape of an academic institution (the towering Aligarh University), and Dr. Mohammad Iqbal (1877-1938), the poet-philosopher who came up with the ‘idea of Pakistan,’ were progressive and enlightened leaders. Iqbal’s philosophy and message is obvious from one of his famous Urdu verses – Deen-e-Mullah fi Sabeelillah Fasad, meaning ‘the religion of the mullah is anarchy in the name of Allah.’ In the same vein, during his first address to the country’s Constituent Assembly, Jinnah declared in unequivocal terms: ‘You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.’6

Interestingly, many of the major political figures around Jinnah belonged to minority Muslim sects. Jinnah himself was a Ithna Ashari Shia Muslim, as were Raja Mohammad Ameer Khan of Mahmudabad, Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan, M A H Ispahani, Seth Mohammad Ali Habib (founder of Habib Bank), and Lady Nusrat Haroon (wife of Abdullah Haroon).7 Price Kareem Agha Khan (leader of Ismaili Shias) was another important Muslim leader of the British India. Another stalwart of the freedom movement and also Pakistan’s first foreign minister, Sir Zafarullah Khan, belonged to the Ahmedi sect (which was later controversially declared to be outside the pale of Islam by the country’s legislature in 1973). The sectarian identity of these leaders was not an issue at the time.

Rather than following the guidelines provided by the founding fathers, the first constituent assembly of the country became entangled in a debate surrounding the country’s Islamic identity and resorted to Islam to create national unity and order. The state, which came into being as a federation, was trying to meld six different ethnic groups together, but the moment this goal was made public, none but the religious parties claimed to be the most qualified to take it to its natural conclusion: the call for an Islamic state. From then onwards, the clergy and religious political parties claimed their right to define Pakistan’s identity and started suggesting constitutional provisions to make the new constitution of Pakistan ‘Islamic’ in spirit and form. They had limited success in the first three decades (1947-77), but their political strength increased and their organizations expanded over these years. The first signs of radicalization, however, were apparent within the first decade of Pakistan’s creation – in 1953 in the shape of an anti-Ahmiddiya community in Punjab, which is discussed in more detail later in the paper.

General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq’s emergence on the political horizon in 1977 was instrumental in redefining Pakistan. He unequivocally declared: ‘Take Islam out of Pakistan and make it a secular state; it will collapse.’8 Religious political parties were jubilant at hearing this and saw in Zia a ‘messiah’ who would transform Pakistan from above, as their efforts to ‘Islamize’ Pakistan from below had accomplished little. Unlike Sufism, a soft, egalitarian and enlightening message that had originally introduced Islam to the region, the clerical Islam professed by the religious political forces of Pakistan was conservative, intrusive and dogmatic in essence. This worldview proved to be a recipe for radicalization of the religious identity.

The question of what type of polity Pakistan should be – liberal democratic or Islamic – remains a hotly contested one. The quest for shaping the Pakistani state has added yet another dimension to religious and political polarization. The issue of civil liberties and minority rights has suffered a severe setback in the process. The identity crisis faced by the society as well as state has created space for religious activism and consequent radicalization. President Musharraf (1999-2008) tried to empower those forces that believed in a liberal and progressive Pakistan, but his legitimacy and conflicting agendas increasingly came under question. Various dictatorial regimes, though liberal in orientation (except that of General ul-Haq) advanced the cause of political radicalization by closing the doors of democracy.

B. Religious Radicalization: State Sponsorship Gone Awry

As briefly discussed above in the context of political radicalization, religious forces entered the public domain gradually. During the formative years, the state used and abused the antagonism between Hindus and Muslims to define a distinctive identity for Pakistan – an ‘Islamic Pakistan’ resisting ‘Hindu India.’ Religion became a context in this national rivalry. In itself, it was not a cause of radicalization at the outset, but it resulted in the marginalization of religious as well as sectarian minorities in Pakistan.9 Reference to a few historical events is relevant to substantiate this point.

During the early phase of the constitution-making process (1947-53), religious parties remained in the background. Their proponents made a case for an Islamic Pakistan inside the legislature. But in 1953, religious groups resorted to aggressive tactics and in collaboration with some political forces attacked the Ahmediyya community, a minority sect, in the Punjab province. Jamaat-i-Islami (JI-Party of Islam) leader Abul Ala Maududi was among the main organizers of this ‘activism.’ Maududi, one of the most influential figures in contemporary Islamist politics in South Asia and elsewhere, was a beneficiary of the political confusion of the times. The Pakistan Muslim League, the country’s founding party, had spent six years in power without developing a constitution for the state and had repeatedly delayed elections. Disenchantment festered among the people. This gave political Islam a chance to raise its head, and religious political parties started making attempts to frame the issues from their perspective.10 It is also pertinent to mention here that Maududi had opposed the creation of Pakistan and consequently had limited support in Pakistan. The attack on Ahmeddiya community was in essence an attempt on his part to gain sympathy from religious elements and establish himself in the new state.

According to Vali Nasr, the idea of Islamic revivalism projected by Maududi was not simply a cultural rejection of the West; rather it was closely tied to questions of political power and its impact on identity formation, bringing religious discourse in the mainstream, and nationalism.11 Maududi’s aim was to put forth a view of Islam whose invigorated, pristine, and uncompromising outlook would galvanize Muslims into an ideologically uniform and hence politically indivisible community.

JI and other groups, Majlis-e-Ahrar12 being prominent among them, succeeded in holding the government hostage through street protests and rioting during the 1953 crisis. The Pakistan army was called in to bring peace to the area of unrest. Maududi and many of his comrades were given death sentences for the role they played in this turmoil but the punishment was rescinded by the courts. Religious parties, meanwhile, strengthened their infrastructure and expanded their activities. In the mid-1960s some groups including JI were banned by the government of President Ayub Khan with the aim to halt this trend. The religious parties later re-framed their demands and started developing links within the military establishment and intelligence organizations.13 In 1970-71 the Pakistan army sought JI’s support during the army’s strong military operation in East Pakistan as Bengali insurgents were dubbed as anti-Islamic elements for political reasons. Though partially aided and abetted by India, the Bengalis nonetheless had legitimate demands for financial and political autonomy and an equal share in national resources. JI, represented by the Al Badr and As Shams militant groups, tried its best to convince the Bengalis that their loyalties lay first with Islam (and therefore Pakistan) and only secondarily with their ethnic roots, but to little avail. This was an attempt to market Pakistani nationalism under the guise of Islam. Soon, the Bengalis were declared to be the ‘enemies of Islam,’ for which they paid a heavy price, but they ultimately prevailed. A largely secular and pluralist nation by tradition, the Bengalis succeeded when Pakistan split and Bangladesh emerged as an independent state in late 1971.14

At this juncture of Pakistan’s history, religious parties were gradually becoming entrenched, though their vote bank remained in single digits – indicating a failure to develop grassroots support. However, in the national elections of 1971, the religious parties together gained 14 percent of the vote. For these groups, cooperation with military was a potential route to power, particularly since mainstream political forces were seldom interested in partnership with the military. Sensing, perhaps, the rising political influence of religion, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1971-77), a popular democratic leader, introduced many Islamic laws in the country and supported a vote in the national assembly declaring Ahmedis, accepted as a minority Muslim sect then, to be non-Muslims.15 This was partly appeasement and partly an effort to undercut the religious parties. Bhutto wanted to be seen as national leader who catered to the demands of all his constituents. It proved to be a serious miscalculation on his part.

In 1977, the religious parties joined hands and spearheaded a national movement against the Bhutto in the aftermath of serious allegations of election rigging. Being very organized in urban centers and adept in the art of street agitation, the religious parties spearheaded massive rallies. Many died in clashes with government forces, giving the movement a boost.16 Consequently, General Zia-ul-Haq imposed martial law in July 1977 and co-opted these religious forces to legitimize his rule. The effort to create national cohesion through religion assumed greater significance under General Zia.

Zia’s controversial religious policies also provoked Shia-Sunni tensions and radicalized the sectarian issues. Many Sunni political parties, such as Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), then led by Mufti Mahmud, and the Wahabbi-oriented Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Ahle Hadith (JUAH), became actively involved in anti-Shia rhetoric following Zia’s rise to power.17 In response to such attacks, Mufti Jafar Hussain, a leading Shia cleric, called for a national Shia convention to discuss Zia’s controversial Islamization policies, which was held in the Punjab’s city of Bhakkar in April 1979. Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-fiqh-e-Jafria (Movement for the Implementation of Jafaria Law – TNFJ) was formed at this convention to pursue Shia demands.18

Zia was unmoved and continued with his policies. In June 1980, he introduced his Zakat and Ushr ordinance, making alms-giving a compulsory act for all Muslim citizens of Pakistan. Shias responded negatively, as they believe in giving charity privately, especially in cases where they do not recognize the Islamic credentials of a government. Wifaq-i-Ulema-i-Shia (Federation of Shia Clerics), a small group of Shia ulema, and TNFJ mounted a public march on Islamabad in protest. The Imamia Students Organization (ISO), a group of young Shias, also joined hands with these groups to show solidarity with the common cause, thus perfecting a major Shia mobilization. The ensuing three-day siege of the federal secretariat in Islamabad in July 1980 by approximately 100,000 Shia sounded serious alarm in Islamabad’s power corridors. Zia reluctantly caved in and signed an agreement with the Shia leadership, exempting Shia from mandatory annual deduction of Zakat from their bank accounts.

Conservative Sunni groups, for their part, were appalled at the Shia assertiveness. Zakat is a major pillar of Islam, and these groups regarded the Shia refusal to pay this charity tax as refusal to abide by Islamic principles. Extremists among Sunnis declared the Shia as heretics, justifying their claim by referring to some controversial 19th century fatwas (religious edicts) issued by some sectarian ulema in South Asia. Another extremist group, Sawad-e- Azam Ahle-e-Sunnat (Greater Sunni Unity), funded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, came into being in Pakistan around 1980 and argued that the country should be a Sunni state on the basis of its religious majority and, furthermore, that the Shia, like Ahmedis and Zikris, should be declared non-Muslims.19 In pursuance of such goals, Ehsan Elahi Zaheer, who led an Arab-funded organization, published a booklet titled Shias and Shiism, in which he denounced the Shia as infidels and Zionist agents.20 Anti-Shia attacks in Karachi in 1983 provoked by Sawad-e-Azam created serious sectarian violence, and such trends pushed some Shia groups closer to Iran for financial as well as security needs. Zia, biding his time, finally gave the go ahead in 1985 through his intelligence agencies to JUI leader Haq Nawaz Jhangvi to start up a new anti-Shia sectarian outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (Army of the Friends of Prophet).21

Jhangvi, vice president of JUI in Punjab, started his virulent ant-Shia campaign from Jhang city, a town in Punjab where Shia landlords were in a strong political position. The small traders and poor farmers of the area joined him instantly, largely pushed by their economic concerns. Additionally, as insightfully maintained by Prof. Tahir Kamran: ‘Local traders and bazaar merchants [of Jhang], having wealth but no political clout, extended unequivocal support and funding to sectarian Sunni organizations like Sipah-i-Sahaba (SSP) and its offshoot Lashkar-i-Jhangvi(LJ).’22 This constituency was already ripe for an anti-feudal movement. Conservative Deobandi and Ahle-Hadith madrassas in the area provided many activists and leaders for Jhangivi’s cause.23 Anti-Shia wall-chalking and distribution of pamphlets by SSP throughout the country created sectarian hatred and an environment conducive for violence. Radicalization gained momentum in this scenario as some Shia militant groups also emerged to fight SSP.

C. Regional Conflicts as Enablers of Radical Policy Choices

Pakistan’s entrenched rivalry and enmity with India and a complicated relationship with Afghanistan over the decades has hugely influenced Pakistan’s domestic politics. India and Pakistan’s competing claims over Kashmir, and the ensuing wars, have played a critical role in Pakistan’s foreign policy calculus since 1947. Pakistan’s frustration that India refused to abide by any of the United Nation’s Security Council resolutions pertaining to Kashmir in the late 1940s and 1950s pushed it towards opting for a military solution. Unconventional warfare through proxy militant groups was attempted in the 1990s in response to major Indian military operations in the Kashmir valley, but as it turned out, this policy created more problems for Pakistan. Pakistan’s central role in the ‘Afghan Jihad’ of 1980s to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1988) also had terrible consequences for the country. The Mujahideen groomed for Afghanistan were never decommissioned, and they wreaked havoc in Pakistan after their fruitful ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan. These foreign entanglements had repercussions for Pakistan in terms of radicalization of society. The ideas and ideals carefully framed and propagated for
inspiring Mujahideen and militants to fight in Kashmir and Afghanistan have come back to haunt Pakistan in recent years as the dissemination of the ‘Jihadi’ discourse could not remain confined to a limited audience or geographic zone.

From its very inception, Pakistan perceived itself as a state under severe threat from India – and clearly India acknowledged Pakistan’s existence and prospects of survival quite grudgingly. Pakistan’s fear of India drove its domestic and foreign policies. In the present scenario, India’s growing ties with Afghanistan and investments in the war ravaged country are viewed with great suspicion by Pakistan’s security apparatus. India is seen as trying to encircle Pakistan. According to a 2012 poll conducted by Pew Research Centre’s Global Attitudes Project, more Pakistanis consider India as a threat than they do Taliban, despite clear evidence that Taliban and their associated groups have been directly involved in orchestrating terrorist attacks all across Pakistan in recent years.24

Pakistan’s massive military spending has been a consequence of this line of thinking. Rather than buildings schools, hospitals, and dams for electricity generation, Pakistan heavily invested in buying fighter aircraft, submarines, and heavy guns. The military establishment has expanded its role far beyond the national security requirements; in fact, it now maintains a controlling interest in the Pakistani political economy, which only perpetuates its hold on power.25 Fewer resources for development has resulted in growing popular discontent, and more people have adopted radical approaches in response to the state’s inability to meet their needs.

Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan Jihad in the 1980s created similar issues. In pursuance of supporting and sponsoring young warriors to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan, a madrassa (seminary) network was quickly expanded in Pakistan, largely financed by Arab and Gulf countries in order to produce new recruits for this battlefield. The children of Afghan refugees and Pashtuns of the KPP and the tribal belt in Pakistan were the prime recruits. According to a retired Pakistani general, Kamal Matinuddin, General Zia, ‘established a chain of deeni madaris [religious schools] along the Afghan-Pakistan border … in order to create a belt of religiously oriented students who would assist the Afghan Mujahideen to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan.’26 Arabs supported the Afghan struggle based on geopolitics, as they feared the expansion of Soviet influence as well as the popular uprising that empowered the Shia clergy in Iran in 1979.

There is clear evidence that the conservative Ahle-Hadith group and Deobandis, who together constituted around 30 percent of Sunni Muslims in Pakistan, hugely benefited from this development. At the time of its inception, Pakistan had only 136 madrassas, but now it has close to 30,000.27 According to another estimate, in 1947, West Pakistan had only 245 madrassas. In 1988, they increased to 2,861. Between 1988 and 2000, the total increased by a further 136 percent. The largest numbers of seminaries are Deobandi, at 64 percent, followed by Barelvi, at 25 percent. Only 6 percent are Ahle Hadith. But the increase in the number of Ahle Hadith seminaries or madrassas has been phenomenal, at 131 percent, going up from 134 in 1988 to 310 in 2000.28 This comparative gain to Ahle Hadith groups resulted from Saudi and Gulf support.29

In addition, many religious militants were imported from all over the Muslim world. This effort was intelligently choreographed. After all, there was no Mecca in Afghanistan that Muslims from all over the world would have felt obliged to defend, and many secular Arab regimes were more than happy to get rid of their own ‘extremists’ – those who were involved in militant opposition groups that sought to overthrow local regimes. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was an opportunity for Arab autocrats close to the United States to export their own troublemakers, hopefully for good, or at least to redirect their ire away from domestic to foreign, namely Soviet, concerns. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) became a central player in this arena.30

In this power play, Pakistan itself became radicalized.31 Peshawar, capital of KPP, became the strategic headquarters of the Mujahideen, and Osama bin Laden was merely one of the field commanders based in the city. Abdullah Azzam, the mentor of Osama Bin Laden and manager of Service Bureau for Mujahideen, established his network in Peshawar, including a publication house and charity organizations. His magazine, Al-Jihad, is still available in certain Peshawar bookstores.32 After the withdrawal of Soviet forces, Pakistan was left with thousands of trained and battle-experienced jihadis – between 40,000 to 60,000 according to various estimates. It is difficult to produce such warriors and much harder to decommission them. Instead of dissipating after the mission was accomplished, the extremist discourse, largely controlled by the Arabs who had joined the ‘Afghan Jihad’, became more articulate and powerful. According to al-Qaeda strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, ‘Every ongoing discussion and debate [in Peshawar during the Afghan Jihad years] quickly spread out to the rest of the world, through audio communiqués, books, leaflets, audiocassettes, and through couriers and visitors.’33 According to Suroosh Irfani, a leading Pakistan intellectual, ‘the publication in Peshawar of al Suri’s The Experience and Lessons of the Islamic Jihadi Revolution in 1991 might well have signaled the internalization of an Arabist shift in Pakistan.’34 This Arabist shift played a critical role in radicalizing segments of Pakistani society.

Some of the militant cadres that operated in Afghanistan shifted their focus towards Kashmir after 1988 – with guidance from Pakistan’s intelligence services. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET, Army of the Pure), a Pakistan-based armed group supporting insurgency on the Indian side of Kashmir, was a product of these years.35 LET’s main purpose was to hit Indian forces in Kashmir. Though the group was banned by Musharraf after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, some of its operators went underground and others merged into its sister organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD, Party of Proselytizing) – an organization that runs religious educational centers and charities.36 JuD was also banned in the aftermath of Mumbai attacks in 2009 in which this group’s involvement is seriously suspected by India, but its leadership still participates in political rallies in the country.37 Earlier, the group had participated in the rescue operations on the Pakistani side of Kashmir after the devastating 2005 earthquake.38 Support from some segments of country’s intelligence organizations made this possible. Few state strategists in Pakistan realize was that groups like LET and JuD pursue a domestic agenda as well: converting Pakistan into an ‘Islamic’ state as per their orthodox interpretation. JuD, along with many similar groups has radicalized thousands of young Pakistanis through its web and print publications. Challenging the teachings of the Sufi mystics who originally brought Islam to South Asia by promoting pluralism and love for humanity is also a hallmark of such organizations.

Assessment of Prevalent Radicalization Trends in FATA and NWFP

The gradual rise of religious as well as political radicalization in Pakistan hence is intrinsically linked with social, political and security developments in the country. Regional and global factors, however, exacerbated these trends. A strong opinion that Kashmir legitimately belongs to Pakistan and that India is forcefully and brutally occupying it is the major source of inspiration for militants who opt for ‘martyrdom’ in the Kashmir theatre. Similarly, popular anti-US feelings in the aftermath of US military action in Afghanistan in late 2001 and in Iraq in 2003 also made the job of recruiters for al-Qaeda and Taliban easy. KPP and FATA have been the worst hit areas in this context. A brief analysis of what went wrong in these areas provides useful insights about the causes of unrest and radical societal responses in this region39:

1. Traditional tribal structure in FATA started collapsing when Maliks (tribal elders) lost power and influence to clerics, who were empowered with the advent of Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and further entrenched after the rise of Pakistani Taliban in 2007. The elitist Maliks were dubbed as agents of the status quo, as historically they were a privileged class dispensing patronage on behalf of the central government of Pakistan.

2. Consequent to the above transition, the institution of jirga (discussion forum of tribal elders) that used to define the laws, regulations, and general policies in various FATA agencies lost relevance and the younger generation of religious zealots (sons of the Afghan jihad) started listening to the fatwas (religious edicts) of militant leaders.

3. In the process, tribal identity gave way to a radicalized version of religious identity.

4. Most madrassas in FATA and to a lesser extent in KPP became training centers for jihadi/militant causes and traditional religious education became secondary. To be a Taliban with a gun became a hip thing – as these militants were largely seen as part of a resistance movement against foreign occupation of Afghanistan.

5. Talibanization of KPP was a logical consequence of developments in FATA. KPP election victory of Muttihada Majlis-e-Amal (MMA – United Action Forum), an umbrella group of five major religious political parties, in 2002 further empowered religious groups. Though not associated directly with militant groups, this development created more space for extremist ideas to flourish in the province.

6. Gradually, Talibanization and some elements of Pashtun nationalism became identical in the eyes of many young people, especially in the aftermath of Pakistani security forces’ operations in the FATA area in 2003-04. Incidents of collateral damage further enraged people of the area.

7. Resurgence of Tehrik-e-Nefaz-e-Shariati Mohammadi (Movement for the enforcement of Sharia – TNSM) in Swat district of NWFP during 2006-08 can be attributed to the above factors. The demand had popular support not only for its religious dimension, but also because it held out hope for social justice in a society, which, though relatively prosperous, was marked by vast inequalities.

Conclusion: Can Radicalization be Reversed?

Despite the negative trends discussed in the essay, the people of Pakistan have showed resilience in their demand for democracy. With the exception of Zia (who died in a mysterious plane crash at a time when his regime was on the verge of a fall), all military dictators were pushed out of office as a result of mass movements or elections where the popular vote went against them. The 2007-09 lawyers’ movement demanding rule of law and restoration of the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry also indicate that a significant segment of civil society yearns for a progressive and democratic order. Still, radical and extremist groups are deeply entrenched in parts of the country, and they have developed roots in both society and state institutions. Besides an uninterrupted democratic experience and economic stability, Pakistan needs a well thought out counter-radicalization strategy to save the state from further decline. The following measures can be instrumental in reversing the current negative drift:

1. A law enforcement approach can enable the state to expand its writ and support a system based on supremacy of the Constitution and rule of law. Use of force alone has seldom proved to be a durable solution. Major investment in police reforms would be a critical first step in this direction. Police reform efforts from Turkey and Indonesia provide useful models for such an effort.

2. Reform of the criminal justice system is critical. Injustice, whether real or perceived, makes the young more vulnerable to extremist ideologies, whereas association with militant groups provides a sense of belonging (which is lacking in non-democratic societies) and empowerment.41

3. Access to public education can also lessen the role of the divisive and decadent system. Currently, Pakistan spends a mere 2 % of its GDP on education – an allocation grossly inadequate in any context, let alone a society facing such socio-economic crises on the scale of Pakistan’s.42

4. Investment in the country’s publishing industry would counter the sophisticated propaganda war of religious militants and would also serve the cause of education. As things stand today, only a handful of avenues exist for progressive Pakistani writers to publish their works.

5. For those already on the radicalization path, a systematic and organized social reorientation effort is needed to counter ideas and ideologies absorbed in the Madrassas and militant training camps. Lessons from de-radicalization programs developed by Saudi Arabia (especially its emphasis on social support initiatives for the convicted militants) and Yemen (with a focus on debate and dialogue on relevant religious concepts) are especially relevant in this sphere.43

It must be recognized that there is no short cut to reverse radicalization trends. Given the socio-economic dysfunction and overall decline of the Islamic discourse in Pakistan, the change will also not come easily even if the appropriate policy choices are made today. More so, Pakistan will not be able to manage such a transition single-handedly. Regional as well as international powers will have to be supportive as well as sensitive to the ground realities in South Asia.


An earlier version of this paper was presented for a South African research center’s work on radicalization trends in 2009.


[1] Dr. Hassan Abbas is Professor of International Security Studies at the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington DC. He is also a Senior Advisor at the Asia Society in New York. An earlier version of this paper was presented for a South African research center’s work on radicalization trends in 2009.

[2] In 1947, only 16 percent of Pakistan’s population was literate.

[3] Figures based on reported suicide attacks as covered by Pakistani English language newspapers, The News and Daily Times. Also see:

[4] For details, see: Hassan Abbas, “President Obama’s Policy Options in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA),” Report for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, January 26, 2009.

[5] On Arab fighter’s growing influence over Taliban in 1990s, see Barnett R. Rubin, “Arab Islamists in Afghanistan,” in John L. Esposito, ed., Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism or Reform? (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 1997), pp.179-206.

[6] For details, see Hassan Abbas, “Defining Punjabi Taliban”, CTC Sentinel 2, no. 4 (April 2009): 1-4.

[7] The text of the speech is available at

[8] Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future (New York; W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 106. Also see, see Mohammad Wasi Khan, Tashkeel-e-Pakistan Main Shiian-e-Ali Ka Kirdar Vol. II [Role of Shias in the creation of Pakistan] (Karachi; Idara-e-Mehfil-e-Haideri, 1983), 436-488.

[9] “An Engaging Dictator Who Wants to Stay That Way,” The Economist, December 12, 1981, 48.

[10] Rasul Bakhsh Rais, “Islamic Radicalism and Minorities of Pakistan”, in Satu Limaye, Robert G. Wirsing, and Mohan Malik (eds.), Religious Radicalism and Security in South Asia (Hawaii: Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, 2004), pp. 447-466.

[11] For a detailed analysis, see Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism (New York; Oxford University Press, 1995).

[12] Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism.

[13] For details about this religious party, see: Among the contributions of this movement, mentioned on its official website, include: “Participation in Afghan Defense Council after 2001 and help of Taliban on emergency basis besides provision of millions of rupees for this cause.”

[14] For details, see Husain Haqqani, Between Mosque and Military (Washington D.C.: Carnegie endowment, 2005).

[15] For details about secular traditions in Bengal, see Ansar Ahmed Ullah, “Secular Traditions in Bangladesh”, International Humanist and Ethical Union, July 2, 2002. Also see, Tazeen M. Murshid, The Sacred and the Secular: Bengal Muslim Discourses, 1871-1977 (New York; Oxford University Press, 1996).

[16] Stanley Wolpert, Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan: His Life and Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[17] Hassan Abbas, Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism, 84-86.

[18] Mumtaz Ahmad, “Revivalism, Islamization, Sectarianism, and Violence in Pakistan” in Craig Baxter and Charles H. Kennedy, Ed, Pakistan 1997 (Bouldar, CO: Westview Press, 1998), p. 108-109.

[19] Fiqh-e-Jafaria is a school of Islamic jurisprudence which is traced back to its founder Imam Jafar-as-Sadiq. It is also known as Ithna Ashari school – Twelvers.

[20] See, Mehtab Ali Shah, “Sectarianism – A Threat to Human Security: A Case Study of Pakistan,” The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Relations, Vol. 94, No. 382, October 2005, p. 617.

[21] Mariam Abou-Zahab, “The Politicization of the Shia Community in Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s,” ,” in Alessandro Monsutti, Silvia Naef & Farian Sabahi (eds.) The Other Shiites: From the Mediterranean to Central Asia (Bern: Peter Lang Publishing, 2007), 104.

[22] See Hassan Abbas, Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism, 204-205.

[23] Tahir Kamran, “the Political Economy of Sectarianism: Jhang”, Pakistan Security Research Unit, University of Bradford, UK, Brief No. 32, May 9, 2008, p.3.

[24] Vali Nasr, “The Rise of Sunni Militancy in Pakistan: The Changing Role of Islamism and the Ulama in Society and Politics,” 142-143.

[25] For details, see “Overview: Pakistani Public Opinion Ever More Critical of U.S.”, Pew Research Centre, June 27, 2012; available at

[26] See Ayesha Siddiqa, Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[27] Kamal Matinuddin, The Taliban Phenomenon: Afghanistan, 1994-1997 (Karachi; Oxford University Press, 1999), 14.

[28] Vali Nasr, “Islam, the State and the Rise of Religious Militancy in Pakistan”, in Christophe Jaffrelot, ed. Pakistan: Nationalism without a Nation? (London: Zed Books, 2002).

[29] Figures quoted in Herald, Karachi, November 2001.

[30] Stephen Schwartz, The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Saud From Tradition to Terror (New York; Doubleday, 2002), 184 -186.

[31] Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror (New York; Doubleday Press, 2004), 119-177.

[32] For details about the vast network of militant groups in Pakistan, see, Amir Rana, A to Z of jihadi Organizations in Pakistan (Lahore; Mashal press, 2004). Also see, Amir Rana, “Profile of three more banned militant groups”, Daily Times, November 22, 2003.

[33] Author recently acquired monthly Al-Jihad magazine volumes published from 1987 to 1989 from a bookstore in Peshawar. The bookseller told the buyer (my research assistant) that these are in demand and are considered classics among Jihadis. He also offered to get earlier copies of the magazine from Afghanistan.

[34] Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: the Life of Al Qaeda Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (London: Hurst, 2007), p. 87.

[35] Suroosh Irfani, “Pakistan: Reclaiming the founding Moment”, The Islamization of Pakistan 1979-2009, Middle East Institute, 2009, p. 16.

[36] Ayesha Jalal, Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia (Cambridge, Harvard University, 2008, p. 279.

[37] For details about the group, see Saeed Shafqat, “From Official Islam to Islamism: The Rise of Dawat-ul-Irshad and Lashkar-e-Taiba”, in Christopher Jaffrelot, ed., Pakistan: Nationalism Without a Nation (London; Zed Books, 2002.

[38] See “Editorial: Pakistan’s So-called Banned Organizations”, Express Tribune, March 13, 2012; also available at:

[39] See LET/JUD leader Hafiz Saeed’s interview,

[40] For more details about developments in FATA and NWFP, see various articles on the subject by author at:

[41] For a Pakistani perspective about the socio-political causes of radicalization, see Muhammad Azam, “Radicalization in Pakistan: Sociocultural Realities”, Conflict and Peace Studies, Pak Institute of Peace Studies, Islamabad, Volume 2, No.1, January-March 2009, pp. 43-66.

[42] Sohail Abbas, Probing the Jihadi Mindset (Islamabad: National Book Foundation, 2007).

[43] Rabea Malik and Arif Naveed, “Financing Education in Pakistan”, available at:

[44] For details about these models, see Saba Noor and Shagufta Hayat, “De-radicalization: Models and Approaches”, Conflict and Peace Studies, Pak Institute of Peace Studies, Islamabad, Volume 2, No.2, April-June 2009, pp. 47-56.



  1. History says when oppression, injustice, political and military chauvinism and jingoism prevail over good reason and logic and in consequence, injustice and oppression become features of daily life of a particular community, radicalism and extremism come into play. The situation now ruling the life of the Pakistani common people is no exception. After partition it appeared that the new born country was at great risk both from inside and outside. The states willing to remain independent or join Pakistan were forced to be annexed with the bigger and stronger neighbor. The first Prime Minister of Pakistan was assassinated shortly after partition. This induced the military to get involved in politics and administration never to relinquish that. Things developed in the line that the Muslim identity became almost synonymous with Pakistan. And this in turn grew more and more important for Pakistan with the chauvinistic and unjust treatment of her neighbor. But this could perhaps have been averted had there been matured and visionary political leaders there. However, that’s a long story; but things became worse and more complicated with the oppression and injustice perpetrated on both the Kashmiris neighboring both Pakistan and India and also on the Palestinians in the Middle East. Discrimination against the Muslims grew stronger and stronger and the grievance and anger among the Muslims developed equal in proportion to that. The situation grew even more complicated when the West virtually denied the Muslims their right to live a peaceful and oppression-free life. If you look at East Timor, Sudan, Nigeria and elsewhere, you’ll see how shortly they got assistance from the West to get independence. But the over six decades’ suffering of the Muslims both in Kashmir and Palestine failed to make any world power to feel even a prick in her conscience. You look at Bosnia-Harzegovina. The ex-PM of Britain openly declared that he did not want another Muslim state in the heart of Europe. More than 200,000 Muslims got brutally killed before they got a fake independence. So, radicalization is the result of long deprivation, oppression and injustice on the Muslims and you know when deep frustration grips a soul you cannot expect it to accept reason very easily.. That’s the crux of the problem.

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