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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2012 > September 2012 > Political Islam in Pakistan

Political Islam in Pakistan

Monday 3 September 2012, by Jan Breman

Abandoned by their government, the poor of Pakistan have turned to the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups for support and solace. At the same time, a growing pressure for emancipation presses against fundamentalism. Which force will triumph? A report based on travel in rural Sindh.

In her prison cell, Asia Bibi has been waiting since 2010 for execution of the verdict brought against her. Blasphemy is the crime she has been accused of and for that gravest of sins the perpetrator is to be hanged. Why and how was she found guilty?

Asia Bibi is an agricultural labourer in Punjab, illiterate, a mother of small children and Christian. When at work in the field as part of a female gang, she went to fetch water to drink and passed around the jug to her fellow workers. A few of them refused, saying that having touched her mouth, the spout had become unclean. Asia belongs to a low caste of Hindu origin that has been converted to Christianity. This attempt to escape from the stigma of physical perversion is not the end of the discrimination to which she is subjected.

A quarrel arose in the field during which sister Asia had the temerity to say that she held her prophet in higher regard than the one of the other women. Back in the village the landlord decided that a case had to be filed with the police. The case against the sinner resulted in her imprisonment and, finally, to the charge of capital punishment. Exactly what she had said when the broil was on in the field has not been put on record because doing that would be to repeat words that cannot be spoken and, therefore, also not written down. Religious professionals have strongly campaigned against pardoning Asia or reducing her penalty.

The governor of Punjab showed civil courage when, together with his daughter, he visited her in jail. His promise to try and arrange for her release, covertly if not overtly, has cost him his life. In January 2011, Salman Taseer was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards. When arrested and taken to court, the killer, a member of a militant sect, was greeted by a jubilant crowd and the Muslim clergy had issued a fatwa against praying for Taseer’s soul at his burial.

A few months later the minister for minorities, the only Christian in the national cabinet, was murdered, and again the government failed to condemn the shocking deed. Between the deafening silence of the state makers and the screaming of hard-line clerics, the voice of sanity was heard from various civil agencies. Unfortunately such opinions were muted, since there is not much public space left in today’s Pakistan. The Women’s Action Forum, amongst others, came out with a strong statement of blame: “Incitement to violence in the name of religion has become widely prevalent in the country and the state has failed in its duty to curb this mischief”.

The Pakistani state has decided to articulate its Islamic identity. As a nation of believers no other creed currentlyfinds acceptance. This exclusionary claim has not been in place from the country’s beginning. The founding father wanted Pakistan to be a home for the Muslims in south Asia but he promulgated that the minorities of the new country – Hindus, Christians and Parsis – would be free to practice their faith. As soon as M A Jinnah made this statement, his solemn promise was not heeded. But the politics of Islamis¬ation truly escalated when Zia ul-Haq came to power.

The sharia-oriented legislation which Zia started to introduce included not only the prosecution of blasphemy but also ordinances which, under the pretext of women’s protection, actually found them guilty of having elicited pre-marital or extra-marital sex. For his infamous hudood laws, the dictator, afflicted with militant-sunni fervour, found inspiration in the monarchy of Saudi Arabia. The military zealot assisted in the recruitment and training of jihadis sent to neighbouring Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight against the godless Soviet forces occupying the country. Financing and arming these bands of volunteers was a mission shared between the American and Saudi allies. Political Islam now became the doctrine of the state directed by an agenda with a strong fundamentalist streak, one which was inspired by the Salafist or Wahabist denomination as preached in Saudi Arabia.

The Islamic republic that Pakistan had turned into led to the denial of a past culture that idealized a different fold. textbooks at school no longer present a land that for thousands of years was the centre of riverine empires in which Hinduism and Buddhism succeeded ancient civilisations, of which only the ruins of urban settlements, such as those of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, are the neglected remains. Only from artefacts exhibited in museums is it possible to learn this history. That rich heritage is renounced by an ideology unwilling to concede that the nation is steeped in traditions much older than those of Islam.

President Zia sent his spiritual counselors for religious instruction to the homeland of the Koran. They brought back not only the true articles of faith, but also a lot of money for the foundation of mosques and madrasas, the educational institutions training the new batches of mullahs and maulvis who fill the lower and higher ranks of the religious profession. The Sunnite orthodoxy is not only hostile to other religions but also militates against all the different interpretations of Islam. The Ahmadis, accused of heresy, have to bear the brunt of antagonism. But Shi’ites, a substantial minority throughout the country, are also exposed to violent persecution.

The politicization of Islam has to be understood in the light of the front Saudi Arabia has thrown up against Iran. The sectarian fundamentalism fuelling in¬tolerance has its hotbed in the Saudi monarchy that owes its origin, less than a century ago, to western protection. Having been elevated as a highly ¬favoured ally of the United States (US) in the region, the fanatical purity of its religious dogma has caused enormous social and cultural damage to civil order. The way the malign role of Saudi Arabia is understated in the media speaks of a state-embedded sectarian power-mongering that defeats citizen’s agency. More than the unpalatable brand of ¬religiosity in and for itself, my critical ¬assessment addresses its ulterior use in a politicized agenda antagonistic to all other ideologies.

Spread of Taliban

It is in this broad context that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) disseminates its orthodox-fundamentalist gospel throughout the country. During my last trip to Pakistan, spent in the southern provinces of Punjab and Sindh, I was mainly interested to find out if, why, and how this movement has gained more popular support. The spread of the Taliban is not a fashionable item of conversation and certainly not with informants belonging to the ruling class who tend to ¬contradict with complacency what is common knowledge.

Until recently the received wisdom happened to be that the Taliban found its flock mainly among the Pashtuns in the mountainous and thinly populated tracks on both sides of the elongated and porous border with Afghanistan. The tribal communities living here are under surveillance as an unruly race obstinately resisting law and order.

Expeditions of Pakistan’s armed forces in these wild lands, backed up by American drones, have not been able to halt the steady advance of the Taliban which was founded in 2002. On the contrary, by treating these people as enemies they have gone over to the other side to confront the state and its foreign allies. The same mechanism explains why the Taliban, officially banned since 2008 but going public through a mix of religious-based welfare associations, has claimed increasing popularity in the densely populated central plains.

A short while ago the chief minister of Punjab admitted what he had denied ¬until then. Extremist fundamentalists, Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif now said, have become well-entrenched in the southern part of the province. Poverty and ignorance were, according to him, are to blame for the turning tide. Indeed, the condition of immense deprivation at the very broad bottom of society had impressed me as the main feature of life in both towns and the countryside during my travels in the past years. But what has the man at the helm of politics in Punjab done to alleviate the deep misery in which the large majority of the people are made to survive? Next to nothing, it seems. Lack of monetary resources is his own excuse for this failure. A very high percentage of the national budget has to be set aside for military expenditure, both hardware and personnel. From what is left over for the social sectors – such as education, health and poverty relief – a large proportion is arbitrarily cut to make up the shortage of funding for the civil warfare that is going on.

But what has been the outcome of half a century of generous financial aid received from the US? Money is not laid out for the fight against poverty or the promotion of social development. The aid budget is meant for a military apparatus not servicing the interests of the reciever, but those of the donor. The current imbroglio is the outcome of a security policy that has prioritized subservience to a foreign power over and above safeguarding the well-being of the country’s citizens. There is enormous distrust in the excessively self-serving nature of the political class. Why does the Taliban movement appear to resonate positively with popular sentiments? The empathy it evokes should be comprehended as a proxy for anti-American, and more generally, anti-imperialist feelings, and not as having its origins in a progressively religious conservatism.


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has recently figured out that the 50 million illiterates in Pakistan are annually allotted two US cents per capita for the promotion of their public education. This will not do, of course, and clarifies why poor parents are willing to send their offspring to the madrasa. In addition to free schooling, the children are provided with food and clothes, thus substantially lowering the cost of maintenance that parents have to bear. Besides, some elementary knowledge picked up on the tenets of the Koran is a welcome contribution to an education in moral rectitude. But not when the catechism taught is full of hate rather than compassion, rejects multiculturalism and encourages ¬intolerance against other beliefs as ¬virtuous. From a milieu steeped in dire scarcity and ignorance how can the urge come to inject a broader understanding into the curriculum? It comes only when the state is willing to create public space foregrounding the freedom of belief, and that is not the case.

It actually means that the Taliban and its front organizations operating behind a religious facade solve all sorts of pressing problems for a cause that the government leaves unattended. What goes on in the field of education is not different for healthcare or relief for the poor. Orphans who have no family to turn to or children who, for a variety of reasons, run away from home are adopted by fundamentalist charities. Similarly, millions of victims who had to leave their submerged habitat during the floods in 2010 and 2011 found shelter and emergency relief in camps set up by religious trusts. This, then, is the underlying answer to the intriguing question as to how the Taliban was able to spiral into a mass movement. Why should people remain loyal to a state that continues to forsake what its citizens insist on: a life acknowledging their human quality, if not instantly, then at least its prospective realization.

Syncretism under Siege

However understandable the disillusionment with the business of government is, an excessively high price has to be paid for gaining access to the material blessings of the fundamentalist doctrine. In my tour around the countryside of Sindh, a province with which I am well acquainted, the flip side of that puritanical alternative struck me once again. Sufism has deeply influenced the practicing of religion in this hinterland. Embedded in a syncretic culture, a composite of beliefs originating in Hinduism as well as tribal-related customs dating back to a pre-Islamic era are kept vividly alive. Old forms of religiosity have been lingering on, a tradition made ¬manifest in Sufism with saints venerated in shrines by followers with heterodox identities. Such a place is the shrine of Bhitshah renowned far and wide, a site where during festivals musicians and singers perform throughout the night for an enthralled audience who sway their bodies in rhythm with what they see and hear. It is a kind of devotion with a pronounced bhakti flavour, indigenous to Hinduism until these reminiscences were swept aside in the Hindutva style of caste-based purity. In Pakistan, the resorts of multiform pilgrimage have become targets of scorn for fanatical Sunni iconoclasts, culminating in the blowing up of these shrines as unholy stains that have to be wiped out.

Sindh has duly retained its rural character. The estates of the large landowners are sprinkled with tiny settlements inhabited by haris, who are the servile sharecroppers attached in a perpetual debt to the lords of the land. The market towns in the region are small in size and are the seat of various government agencies which do not add up to much in this feudal landscape. But in Hyderabad, the one big city in the heartland of the province, a new madrasa has been opened. The complex of buildings offers hospitality to 700 students and, yes, the cost of establishing and running the institution is attributed to Saudi sponsorship. The objective of the madrasa is to spread the truth pure and simple, and in doing so the institution clearly operates as a bridgehead in the region. At a railway crossing on the outskirts of the city I met a group of young men, tablighi, who go around to preach devoutness. Usually these are educated laymen who in their spare hours enlighten the less-informed within their own social circle but, like the perambulatory team which I encountered, they can also be semi-professsionals wandering around wide and far. The Taliban has many tentacles and does not have to rely only on the madrasas to stir up animosity spilling over in hatred against “the Other”.

When the proselytising spirit degenerates into coercion, conversion gets imposed under duress. Fortunately, this is not standing practice and the large majority of Muslims also resist changing the religious identity of others by the use of force. Still, there are a sufficient number of cases to make the minorities feel insecure. Also, Asia Bibi would have been pressurised in her village to renounce her Christian belief. In Sindh, the abduction of three young Hindu women in the last couple of months has created quite a commotion. They were kidnapped and persuaded to marry a Muslim man, an alliance that they were said to have accepted out of “their own free will” and implied their change of faith. The urban middle-class families to which they belong, filed a suit for unlawful detention as well as forcible restraint of their daughters. The court of justice ordered the police to bring the women to a shelter home. Families from both sides were not allowed to go and meet them because the women should be free from any pressure while deciding how to shape their future. All three declared that they consented to their married status and were willing to rejoin their husband. Was their compliance freely attained? As a matter of fact, they could make no other choice. Going back to their own family to reclaim their position as unmarried daughters was out of the question. Besides, it would have meant forsaking the faith they had adopted, the vice of apostasy sanctioned with capital punishment. As Rinkel Kumari, one of the victims, said during the hearing of her case late March in the Supreme Court: “In Pakistan there is justice only for Muslims, Hindus are denied justice”.

While the fate that befell her and two other girls testifies to compulsion stemming from bigotry, the frenzy these kidnappings aroused in the Hindutva circles in India – where in Gujarat a decade ago Muslim women were raped and butchered in a state-supported pogrom – is the height of hypocrisy.

When I was in Hyderabad a small group of civic activists took to the streets to protest against these abductions. In reaction, members of the local Sunni-e-Tehrik chapter were alerted to hold a counter-demonstration asking for the arrest and trial of this bunch of secular activists for their agitation against the ban on blasphemy. The police had no scruples to give in to this demand. I ended my stay in the city with a visit to a middle-class family of tradesmen belonging to the Hindu minority. The male head of the household did not respond when I tried to inquire about the kidnapping incidents. Yes, of course, on Hindu festivals he went to a mandir, the same one where his ancestors used to pray and present their offerings. What he emphasized in our conversation was his identity as a citizen of Pakistan. No, his family did not hail from India but had been rooted in Sindh since countless generations. Back to India, why? He had never been in that country and it was of no concern to him. He was of Aryan stock and, thus, descended from western peoples. “I feel related to you and am not rooted in Asia”, was what he said when I left.

Gendered Hostility

Gendered hostility is definitely the most abject feature of the kind of obscurantism the Taliban preaches. Although she is evidently a human being, it is a species also in dire need of protection against her own base instincts. To begin with, these creatures have to be kept outside the public domain. They are not permitted to move around freely and interact with outsiders. The place of women from the age of marriage onwards is at home. Their care for reproduction and the household makes it necessary to prevent them from seeking work away from home. On reaching puberty, girls are subject to a wide range of restrictions. As a weak gender, women are inherently guilty of trespassing, , because their image provokes men to sinful thought. Uncovered parts of the female body are objectionable and offensive to male eyes. A strict dress code is required to resist that temptation.

In the course of many years, I have been able to observe the growing Islamisation of the gendered relationship. It is just not the followers of the Taliban who are in favour of stringent rules for ensuring the subdued behaviour of women in the public sphere. I have to add here that cordoning off women is not a trait peculiar to Islam. It has been the prescribed mode of conduct in tribal-pastoral civilizations all over west, south-west and south Asia. At the time of my first fieldwork in rural India half a century ago, I could only converse with high-caste women in the company of males of the household and even then with their faces covered. But in the ongoing process of social change, the rule of purdah, which meant a taboo on visibility to outside men, became moderated or even totally obsolete. The female dress code of Muslim origin is graded and to a large extent class-bound. The least strict is the custom to wear a veil which covers the head, as working class women in my own country used to do when I was a young boy. More secluding is the niqab, a headdress that only leaves the eyes uncovered. The burqa, finally, is a black habit that covers the whole body and sometimes also the eyes, with a gauzy tissue, to screen off gazes.

Why are adolescent girls prepared to wear clothes they have not thought of themselves? Following the fashion is the first albeit not the most important motive. Imitating the appearance of peers of the same age-set is common to behaviour everywhere and at all times. Another ¬argument I have frequently come across is to avoid harassment. After all, emphatically not adhering to covering up parts or even the whole body in a way that is agreeable to the proponents of fundamentalism, to go around unveiled, boils down to claiming the right to candour which is considered to be equal to impropriety. Such frank behaviour is in this mindset, deliberately setting a trap for men to make a nuisance of themselves in public encounters, and being provoked in a manner which makes the victim culpable in the impurity. All said and done, family pressure is, no doubt, the most important ground for giving in to censorship and dressing up properly.

Right to Dominate

Not only the women themselves, but their fathers, brothers or uncles are instigated to keep their daughter, sister, or niece captive in a rein of tutelage and restraint. It means that men claim a right of domination over women which does not bear resistance. The consequence is a relation of natural incongruity and inequality which, however, cannot be justified by resorting to religious sanctimony.

The gendered hostility has another dimension equally alarming and also based on a deep-seated suspicion of the moral mettle attributed to the female species. Women are supposed to be vulnerable to adultery and complicit when it happens. Even when they are the victims of such a misdeed, it is the consequence of their blameworthy behaviour which does not pardon them from being found guilty. Honour killing has to follow and that punishment is meted out by a male member of the family. Does karo-kari, as the barbarous custom is known in Sindh, occur more frequently than in the past? For sure, an old man told me in the dusty town of Badin where time seems to have stood still. Why, I asked him. Because shamelessness is more widespread than ever before. Will it then never end, was my stupefied reaction. He tried to set me at ease by saying that when everybody has become shameless the practice will stop. And according to him, that moment is not far away. His reply was in line with what a doctor, who had provided medical help in a refugee camp after the floods last year, told me. While he examined an aged woman, she scolded her pubescent granddaughter who roamed around unaccompanied instead of staying inside the tent that had become their shelter. Being accused that she risked becoming a disgrace to the family and that her life might end in disrepute, the girl answered: “Grannie, don’t be angry with me; here I feel free and not cooped up as at home”.

Is the Taliban doctrine a match for the swelling tide of emancipation? In my optimistic mood I tend to say no, fortified by the bravery of a 13-year-old tribal girl. Malala Yousafzai refused to buckle under the fundamentalist purge when in one of the frontier agencies the Taliban regime occupied her native place and closed down the school she attended. To the extent that the Taliban has managed to filter through to the bottom classes in other parts of the country, it is because these masses have turned away from the government and given up hope of becoming fully qualified for citizenship in the state of Pakistan. But my fear is that inclusion in a religious movement driven by hate and intolerance – with an agenda which is not so strikingly different from the one Hindutva pushed in India – does not offer real solace for the prospect of a more decent and dignified life, to begin with a redemption from excessive poverty.

Jan Breman ( is professor emeritus at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Sciences, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands.