Religion, Politics and Terrorism in Pakistan

During the 1950s, if one were to attempt to predict which of the new Muslim states that emerged during the 20th century would pose a major threat to global peace and security, Pakistan would be very much at the bottom of the list. Pakistan was then widely regarded as a beacon of moderation: a highly tolerant secular state and a strong ally of the West in its conflict with the Soviet Union. Since the attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, however, Pakistan has come to be regarded as the world’s epicentre of terrorist activity committed in the name of Islam. Currently, the Pakistan state is waging a bitter war with terrorist groups many of whom are also actively supporting the Taliban in fighting the US and its allies in neighbouring Afghanistan. Pakistani nationals have been involved in terrorist attacks on India, Britain and the United States. In Pakistan itself, sectarian violence between extremists from the majority Sunnis perpetrated against the minority Shia sect has involved assassinations, attacks on religious processions and places of worship, and, most deadly of all, suicide bombings.

The major precondition for the emergence of terrorism during the 1980s has been the ongoing structural weaknesses of Pakistan. Ever since its formation in 1947, Pakistan has been ruled either by weak ineffectual civilian governments or military dictators both of whom have failed to address Pakistan’s problems particularly relating to good governance and the maintenance of law and order. Weak governments, both civilian and military, have had a poor record in combating terrorism. Indeed, some politicians and elements within the armed forces have supported extremists for political advantage.

In addition, three specific major political developments provide an explanation for the terrorist phenomenon. The first is the long-standing bitter dispute between India and Pakistan over control of the Kashmir Valley that had been partitioned between India and Pakistan in 1947. Ever since, Pakistan has felt threatened by its much more powerful neighbor India and the countries have waged two major and one localized war over Kashmir. Pakistan governments – both civilian and military – have trained, financed and used terrorist groups to fight a proxy war in Indian–ruled Kashmir. This policy backfired after Pakistan was coerced by the United States into supporting the disastrous highly unpopular invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 which is regarded throughout the Islamic world as an attack on Islam itself. As a consequence, many of the jihadi groups turned on the Pakistani government and security forces which previously had nurtured them.

The second major development was the military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq who ruthlessly governed Pakistan from 1977 to 1988. In part because of his religious zealotry but also to build his legitimacy and power, Zia attempted to Islamize Pakistan according to his own narrow interpretation of Sunni Islam. Under Zia the tolerance so long characteristic of Pakistani Islam began to break down. The most damaging consequence of Zia’s Islamization policy was the outbreak of on-going sectarian violence between the majority Sunnis and the minority Shias, who had been threatened by Zia’s attempts to impose Sunni law on the country. These sectarian terrorist organisations were the forerunners of many other terrorist groups that have plagued Pakistani society since the 1980s.

The final, and, in many ways, the most critical factor was the impact of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The spontaneous uprising of the Afghans assumed the form of a holy war or jihad which was strongly supported by Pakistan. The Pakistan military, particularly its intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), channeled lavish funds and weapons, supplied largely by the United States and Saudi Arabia, to the most extremist groups of the mujahedin or holy warriors who fought the Soviets. After the Soviets had left Afghanistan in 1989, the numerous well trained and well armed jihadists were recruited, with the tacit support of Pakistani governments, by the many terrorist groups active in Pakistan and in Indian-ruled Kashmir. In addition, Saudi Arabia used the Afghanistan jihad to promote its narrow Wahhabi ideology within Afghanistan and Pakistan itself. Wahhabism is implacably hostile both to Shias and to Sufism, the mystical more tolerant form of Islam that is widely practised in Pakistan. Many of the Sunni extremists engaged in anti-Shia and anti-Sufi acts of terrorism have drawn upon Wahhabi doctrines to justify violence whose roots lie in political, economic and social rivalries.

The historical analysis demonstrates clearly that Islam as a belief system played little or no role in the rise of terrorism in Pakistan. Although dubious interpretations of Islamic teachings, which have been rejected by mainstream Islamic scholars, have been used to justify terrorist actions, the history of terrorism in Pakistan refutes the belief held by many Western political leaders, the media and a great many Western academics that ‘Islamic extremism’ is one of the primary drivers of contemporary terrorism and that Islam is a prime security threat facing Western countries. Unfortunately, the mainstream Western media continues to report and explain acts of terrorism largely in terms of their roots in religious extremism without reference to the political and historical contexts. Researchers also need to challenge the assumption held by many Western politicians and the media that Muslims engaged in terrorist actions are irrational religious fanatics whose repression justifies the abuse of human rights through torture, extrajudicial killings and other violent forms of counter-terrorism. Finally, contrary to the popular view held in non-Muslim countries, the major victims of terrorism in Pakistan committed in the name of Islam have been other Muslims – not outsiders. The major struggle today is not between Islam and the West but rather within Islam itself between the majority of Muslims who desire to live at peace with their neighbors and the small but powerful minority who want to impose their extremist forms of Islam on their fellow Muslims and non-Muslims alike. More in-depth studies of Pakistan and other Islamic states are needed in order to understand the complex social, economic and political problems that have nurtured violence that has been committed in the name, if not the essential spirit, of Islam.

For a fuller discussion see: Eamon Murphy,The Making of Terrorism in Pakistan: Historical and social roots of extremism, Abingdon, Routledge, 2013.

This entry was posted in Analysis and tagged , , , . Territories: , . : . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

  • Navigate to regional portals

    North America Middle East South Asia Europe
  • Latest analysis from our experts

    Eamon Murphy · Australia
    Stacey Collett · United Kingdom
    Cas Mudde · USA
  • Get our Extremism Tracker Email

    * indicates required