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Pakistan: Islam, radicalism and the army.

Pakistan's current political and societal profile is shaped by the cultural and historical influences of the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia as well as the British colonial legacy and the nation- and state-building challenges of the 21st century. Religion and nationalism combined to create the demand for the separate state of Pakistan, but these could not serve as the enduring bases of nationhood. Pakistan found it problematic to establish a participatory, pluralist and decentralised political framework incorporating linguistic, ethnic and regional diversities and economic disparities. Additional challenges were posed by the rise of Islamic extremism and militancy, which had implications for Pakistan's domestic politics and foreign policy.

For decades, groups that the United States considered terrorist organisations have been supported by Pakistan in order to promote its foreign policy goals in the disputed state of Kashmir, a territory to which both India and Pakistan lay claim, and in the neighbouring country of Afghanistan. The practice of supporting militant groups in Kashmir and Afghanistan contributed to intense political violence in the region and to the proliferation of terrorist networks in Pakistan itself. After one of these organisations, al Qaeda, was accused of directing the attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf not only decided to withdraw support from some of Pakistan's former allies, but he also decided to aid the United States in eradicating them. Many Islamists in Pakistan regarded Musharraf's decision as a betrayal, while the most militant opponents of the decision to aid America took to the streets in protest or committed violent acts against the Pakistani Government, including a few attempts on Musharraf's life.

The problem of confronting militant Islamists in the wake of America's war on terror is just one of the major issues facing Pakistan at the beginning of the 21st century. Years of confrontation with India, including three wars and two skirmishes that could have led to a nuclear attack, have contributed to rising public debt, declining economic productivity and widespread illiteracy and poverty in Pakistani society. The country has a tribal and feudal social structure, an Islamic ideology and a legal and political system that is British in origin. Islamic and secular law battle each other. Tribal loyalties, religious tensions and feudal social structure have distorted the democratic process.


Pakistan is based on an idea. It came into existence through the efforts of Muslims to protect their dispersed religious community in South Asia from the antagonism of the much larger Hindu community in India. Different people in it will have some sort of ideal that the place is supposed to be living up to. But too many Pakistanis seemed disappointed. The basic question of how the country should be run does not seem to have been solved, and the matter occupies many Pakistani minds. The country has been torn between conflicting cultures since its birth in 1947.

While Islam is a major force in Pakistan and many Pakistanis are considered devout followers, adherence to the faith has not prevented the development of considerable strife between the various nationalities which comprise Pakistan. This strife has, in fact, done much to undermine the national structure and has contributed to ethnic conflicts.

In Pakistan, the role of religion is not a settled issue. This greatly impacts on statecraft, the status and rights of minorities, and the larger question of internal peace and security.

Complex historical and social factors have shaped the interaction between religion and politics in Pakistan. Islam was at the heart of the political struggle for the creation of Pakistan and has remained at the centre of post-Independence political discourse. Controversy about the role of Islam in politics continues to trouble the political landscape of the country. Even after half a century, the relationship between religion and state is still as unclear as the nature and direction of the democratic enterprise. The question of what type of polity Pakistan should be--liberal democratic or Islamic--evokes different responses from different social sectors and political interests. Military leaders, mainstream political parties and Islamists have all attempted to define this relationship according to their differing opinions of democratic development and the role of religion in society and state affairs.

Among the three main forces in the country, the quest for shaping the Pakistani state has added yet another dimension to religious and political polarisation in Pakistan. As a consequence of this unending conflict of interests and expedient coalitions, the autonomy of the civil political sphere and the general question of civil liberties and minority rights have suffered a severe setback.

Western-educated political leaders and conservative religious groups have struggled for decades to determine the proper way to integrate religious institutions into Pakistan's political system. Those influenced by Western ideologies are generally in favour of separating religion and political power, but religious leaders often reject this separation. In fact, some religious leaders argue for the complete implementation of Islamic law, or Sharia, in Pakistan. The role that Islam should play in politics is a controversial issue that requires resolution if Pakistanis are to achieve political stability at home and if they are to curtail the activities of militant Islamic groups in South Asia.

The inability of modernists and Islamists in Pakistan to reach a compromise is a theme that runs throughout Pakistani history, and it is a theme that has produced several destabilising constitutional crises and military coups. In October 1958, Ayub Khan led a military coup and abrogated the 1956 constitution. He not only wanted to consolidate power in the central government, but also to modernise Pakistani society. As a renowned political scientist states, "Islam had no place in the general's vision of the future and could only serve as an obstacle to it. Hence, Ayub Khan initially tried to extricate Islam from politics." (1) Pakistan's first constitutional crisis thus ended in a military coup, and for a time an autocrat who was determined to centralise political power was able to subdue the Islamists. However, the inability of Pakistanis to reconcile the differences between Islamists and modernists during the early stages of the nation-building process undermined subsequent political administrations.

However, during the reign of Zia-ul-Haq's military regime (1977-1988), Pakistan experienced a revival of Islamist activity and a concerted effort on the part of the military administration to give Islamists positions in the government, including in key military posts.

Zia implemented a wide range of Islamisation policies, including the creation of an Islamic law court, and strengthened his alliance with Islamist groups. Zia's policies were designed to "Islamicise" Pakistani society, and his support for Islamist dissidents in Afghanistan (which, during 1979-89, was occupied by the Soviet Red Army) was a logical extension of his domestic political goals. One result of these developments has been a growing gulf between moderate and fundamentalist followers of Islam.

Mujahideen (holy warriors) and Talibans (a group of Afghan students), who were trained in Pakistan, conducted raids into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan from bases inside Pakistan. (2) With the aid they received from both Pakistani and US authorities, the Taliban conquered most of Afghanistan by early 1996 and installed a conservative Islamist government. The Pakistani military supported the Taliban, in part, because it was an ally that would not fan the flame of Pashtun separation along the Afghan border.

The consequences of Pakistan's strategic depth policy (3) in Afghanistan not only includes the emergence of a radical Islamic regime in Afghanistan, but also a rise in Islamic fundamentalism and militant Islamic groups within Pakistan. Political parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami grew in strength throughout the 1990s, while other militant groups continued to grow. One such group was the Lashkar-i-Taiba (LT). Much like al Qaeda, LT was founded in the wake of the Soviet-Afghan War. After the war ended, they focused on expelling the Indian army from Kashmir by force. The Pakistani military actively encouraged the activities of the LT and, by the end of the 1990s, it had become one of the most active militant groups in South Asia. LT is thought to be responsible for an attack on the Indian Parliament building in December 2001.

The rise of these radical Islamic groups made it difficult for moderate Pakistani leaders to share political power, let alone reform Pakistani society and put it on a path toward peace and prosperity. On 12 October 1999, General Pervez Musharraf led a coup against Nawaz Sharif to save Pakistan from its "sham democracy". Once again, the inability of Pakistani politicians to resolve their differences on the issue of religion in politics contributed to a military coup.

The conflict over the issue of religion in politics and militant Islam is the main source of insecurity in Pakistan. On three different occasions, conflicts between Islamists and modernists over the nature of Pakistani politics and society have contributed to political instability and the destruction of law and order. The Islamists are convinced that Pakistan's future depends on the ability of its citizens to live according to moral standards outlined in Islamic law. The modernists are convinced that Pakistan cannot progress without implementing fundamental political and economic reforms based on Western European models. Islamists and modernists will have to reach an agreement about the role Islamic law will play in government if Pakistan is to create stable political institutions any time soon.

Pakistan's creation, according to eminent Muslim scholar Akbar Ahmed, "was the result of a movement based on a clear Islamic vision and so the peoples of Pakistan continue to feel responsible for defining, guiding and shaping Islam". (4) The fundamental question, however, for Pakistanis has been: what version of Islam is the real Islam? In this writer's opinion, most Pakistanis do not want to live in a theocracy; they want their country to be moderate, modern, tolerant and stable. While many Pakistanis, especially the middle class, favour a secular state and a moderate form of Islam, growing numbers of others are calling for a theocratic Islamic state. Militant groups have presented Islam as an alternative model of political organisation to Pakistani youth. Unable to find employment, a number of young Pakistanis are listening to their message. (5)

It is a fact that, throughout Pakistan's history, no religious leader has been able to translate the possibility of a mass-based Islamic revolutionary movement into reality. Although some religious parties have participated in elections, they have never performed well. It is often said that they have never won more than 5 per cent of the vote in federal elections, though they may have done better in provincial elections in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). There are various explanations for their lack of success, of which the most obvious is their unpopularity.

The fact remains that religious parties have never come close to winning power in Pakistan. The two most significant parties are Jamiat Ulema-e-Islami (JUI) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). JUI's political heartland is in the Pashtu-speaking areas of Baluchistan and NWFP where the party has control of a large number of radical madrassas. It is a grass-roots party that not only promotes Islam but also campaigns against social injustice. It has won seats at the national and provincial level and has joined coalition governments in NWFP and Baluchistan. Unlike the highly disciplined JI, JUI has long suffered from factional splits.

While JUI is a largely rural party, JI draws its strength from the urban middle-classes. It is a well-organised and ideological party, and advocates nothing less than Islamic revolution. Its specific policy objectives include the imposition of Sharia Law, the banning of interest payments, and the establishment of common Muslim defence arrangements so that occupied lands such as Palestine and Kashmir can be liberated. Some elements of Jamaat argue that the party should not participate in parliamentary elections, but rather press exclusively for revolutionary change.

Despite being well-organised, Jamaat has always remained on the fringes of Pakistani electoral politics and has posed little threat to the ruling establishment. Its credibility has always suffered from the fact that its founder, Maulana Maududi, was a strong opponent of the Muslim League's campaign for Pakistan. He viewed the Muslim League leadership, including Mohammed Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, as Westernised elitists with no legitimate claim to represent the Muslims of the subcontinent. JI leaders have consistently shown a similar lack of political acumen ever since.

The third significant Islamic party is Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP). JUP has proved to be a far less resilient organisation than either JUI or JI. Repeated electoral failures have persuaded many in the JUP leadership that their organisation should become a pressure group rather than an electoral party. The religious parties, especially JI, have always had a reputation for being able to organise impressive displays of street power. But the repeated electoral failures of these Islamic parties are evidence that most Pakistanis do not share the Taliban's interpretation of Islam, and that the Islamic radicals do not represent mainstream Pakistani opinion, as they do not really have much popular support through the ballot box.

But this is precisely the reason why they are a threat--their attempts to become a powerful voice are frustrated when they are obliged to adhere to democratic elections, so they turn to other non-democratic methods to achieve their ends, and therein lies the threat they represent. Bombings in Islamabad and Karachi, as well as repeated assassination attempts on Musharraf, have revealed Pakistan's own continuing vulnerability to terrorism and insecurity.


The Pakistan army stands today as the most organised, powerful and influential institution in the country. It has a cohesive and task-oriented profile with a strong esprit de corps. Military leaders, both retired and serving, take an active role in the country's administration and economy.

The fear of an Islamic threat has been the driving force behind most Western countries' foreign policy objectives toward Pakistan in recent years. The possibility that violent Islamists will kill President Pervez Musharraf, throw Pakistan into turmoil, take over the country and its nuclear weapons and escalate regional terrorism has dominated the political landscape. Such fears have usually led to support of the Pakistani military as the only institution able to contain the danger.

Pakistan's current military ruler has criticised Islamic fundamentalists, closed down extremist madrassas (which had played a role in fostering Islamic militancy) and other Jehadi organisations such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Tehrik-e-Jafria Pakistan (TJP), Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Musharraf further banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which attempted to assassinate former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and also purged senior officers in the army who were Islamists.

The army claims it is the only institution to give security to the nation and to be "protectors of Islam". The army continues to grapple with insurgent violence in Baluchistan, after the killing of the leader Nawab Bugti, and is unable to militarily subdue the Federally-Administered Tribal Area (FATA)/Waziristan regions.

The traditional tribal maliks, a cornerstone in governing the tribal belt, are being assassinated in growing numbers. NWFP Governor, Lt-Gen. (retd) Jan Orakzai, who was appointed by Musharraf, has lost credibility with his own people, the Pashtuns, as a result of the recent air-strike in Bajaur Agency in the FATA. Musharraf faces increasing pressure from the Pashtun element in the army. On 5 September 2006, the Government signed the North Waziristan Accord to keep the Pashtun section of the military satisfied.

While the Pakistani army is mainly composed of Punjabis, approximately 20-25 per cent of it is Pashtun. For cultural reasons, these Pashtun soldiers regularly take leave at their homes in the tribal regions, sometimes every two to three weeks. Here they are influenced by developments "back home", which pressures the Pakistani Government to keep this section of the military satisfied. This may be the reason Musharraf has tried to establish peace deals in the tribal agencies.

John Negroponte, Director of US National Intelligence, told the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: "Pakistan is our partner in the war on terror, but it is also a major source of Islamic extremism. Eliminating the safe haven that the Taliban and other extremists have found in Pakistan's tribal areas is not sufficient to end the insurgency in Afghanistan, but it is necessary." (6) While visiting Kabul in January this year, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates also noted a "significant increase in cross-border attacks", (7) and that "al Qaeda networks are operating on the Pakistan side". (8)

Pakistani officials vehemently repudiate this claim, asserting Islamabad's strong interest in a peaceful border with a stable Afghanistan, its rejection of the Taliban's radical ideology, its 80,000 troops in the northwest provinces and more than 900 checkpoints along that stretch of the border, and--as a part of the diplomatic back and forth--Washington's inclination to blame Pakistan for failures that have resulted from other problems.

Let us look at the army's seven-year rule. The Pakistan army, as an institution, has been a major obstacle to promoting better governance and development. With defence devouring a major portion of the budget, key sectors like health and education have been squeezed, and more and more ordinary people continue to fall below the poverty line.

Musharraf took government under false pretences, promising to relinquish power after three years, but he is still around. Law and order in Pakistan have not improved. Prices are still high; unemployment is rampant; the poor lack health facilities; and the population is exploding. According to reports, the defence budget for the next year is being increased from 131 billion to 150 billion rupees. But the "buck" does not stop at what is allocated to defence in the annual budget. A system of "legalised corruption" devours a major share of the country's limited resources.

Army officers are allocated plots in affluent localities for throwaway prices, and their children get the best education for free. Their families receive excellent free health services, in addition to furnished accommodation, domestic help and rations, all at no charge. To ensure these luxuries, resources are often diverted from the social sector to the military through covert avenues.

This, more than anything else, demonstrates Musharraf's primary aim here is to keep his constituency happy and united. The generals wish to remain unaccountable to other institutions or to the public at large. One interesting point to note here is that almost all the major government and semi-government departments, including diplomatic posts, are today headed by retired or serving army personnel. The Pakistan army's whole-scale induction of army officers into civilian bureaucratic appointments is breeding domestic civilian resentment.

By thus sidelining the civilians, the administration indicates Pakistan will remain a military-guided government for some time to come. The country has already experienced seven years of military rule. The army is not prepared to become unequivocally subordinate to a popularly-elected parliament. Nor is it ready to install a genuine and truly inclusive democracy when it considers there are no uncorrupted politicians and no political parties worthy of its imprimatur to govern Pakistan. And the majority illiterate population is not bold or courageous enough to stand up to the army. The army will therefore continue to be heavily involved in ruling Pakistan.

1. Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, Islamic Leviathan: Islam and the Making of State Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.62. Also see Shaukat Ali, Pakistan: A Religio-Political Study (Islamabad: National Institute of Historical Research, 1997).

2. Adrian Sinkler, Nations in Transition: Pakistan (New York: Thomson/Gale, 2005), especially pp.67-71.

3. Pakistani military and intelligence officials came up with a plan in the early 1970s that involved supporting and training Afghan dissident groups that might eventually overthrow the Daud Khan government. This plan was known as the "strategic depth" policy. As former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto observes, "Pakistan formulated its policy toward Afghanistan on the basis of 'strategic depth'. It saw in a pliable Afghan regime a foil to its uneasy relations with India, a country against which it has fought three wars since independence." Cited in Benazir Bhutto, "Pakistan's dilemma: Breaking links with the past", Harvard International Review, Spring 2002, p.14.

4. For details, see Sharif Shuja, "What role should Islam play in Pakistan?", News Weekly (Melbourne), 26 March 2005, pp.18-19.

5. For details, see Hasan-Askari Rizvi, Military, State and Society in Pakistan (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000). Also see Manzooruddin Ahmed (ed.) Contemporary Pakistan (Durham, N.C: Academic Press, 1980).

6. "Toughen approach to Pakistan", The Washington Times, 25 January 2007.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.
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Author:Shuja, Sharif
Publication:National Observer - Australia and World Affairs
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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