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Asia Diplomacy & International Relations Pakistan Relgion

Pakistan’s Sectarian Crisis: It Begins and Ends with the State

In Pakistan, sectarianism and religious extremism not only run rampant, they are ingrained in social reality.

In 1947, after two centuries of colonial rule and a contentious schism with the Indian Dominion, a fledgling Pakistan established itself as a new state, free from corruption, nepotism, and religious discrimination. But, on the eve of its eightieth anniversary, sectarianism and religious extremism permeates the state’s social strata and threatens a government whose sovereignty continues to wane post-2011. Indeed, this is a trajectory that is unlikely to change without external pressure. However, if there is one thing decades of regime change and “democracy in boots” has taught the United States, it is that this pressure must be supplemented by an endogenous, socio-religious effort to curb Pakistan’s sectarian dilemma. The external pressure that experts call for will not be sufficient to reduce extremism and promote religious equity in Pakistan, for its problems are internal. The problem’s persistence is due almost entirely to opportunistic leaders whose legacies plague the country to this day.

Humble Beginnings 

Despite popular belief, Pakistan prior to the 1970s was not the vehemently Islamic state—in the traditional sense of the term—as it is today. In fact, in his Presidential Address to the Constituency Assembly of Pakistan, Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Jinnah—credited with developing Pakistan as a political entity—explicitly championed religious equality and freedom of religious exercise. Make no mistake, Pakistan was certainly established under religious pretenses, as it was a safe haven for Indian Muslims escaping religious persecution across its eastern border. However, it would not be designated as an explicitly Muslim nation de jure to help coalesce the diverse ethnic and religious groups that existed in the country pre-independence. Whether this was truly an act of good will or a strategy to distinguish Pakistan from its eastern neighbor remains debated; what was certain was that the emerging government had no plans to underwrite its raison d’être with sectarian exclusion. At least, until Jinnah’s death in 1948. 

Upon the death of the state’s de facto vizier, Pakistan’s religious disposition was thrust into a state of uncertainty, though this is not to say Jinnah’s remarks went unfulfilled. Without a state-sponsored religion, the mid-twentieth century witnessed healthy, intellectual political discourse between those “Islamically-minded” and political leftists, neither of whom were silenced nor disproportionately overrepresented. This was the era from which the famous photos of young women wearing skirts and attending universities emerged; this was the era of pan-Arab, and to a certain extent pan-Asian, progress; this was the birth of South Asian civil society. Though Jinnah would not be present to witness it, by-and-large, his wishes had been fulfilled. The only pitfall to this optimism, was that the role of religion in Pakistan remained uncertain throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and the developing civil society was then too young to formally adopt secularism or religious freedom without the possibility of reversal. Indeed, Pakistan may have enjoyed an auspicious start on a societal plane, but political instability still plagued the country. 

This instability—and its subsequent decline into sectarian disarray—came to haunt the country in the 1970s, ignited by Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and intensified by military general Muhammad Zia ul-Haqq. 

Igniting the Sectarian Flame 

The most significant impetus for Pakistan’s novel sectarian order came in the early 1970s, with the accession of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to the presidency and the declaration of martial law upon East Pakistan’s—now Bangladesh’s—secession from the Islamic Republic. Reeling from the loss of its eastern satellite, Bhutto was responsible for initiating Pakistan’s “shariatisation,” as he used Islam as an instrument to generate a national identity rooted in a common religious experience to buttress the already-weakened state’s integrity. Though it is often overlooked, the proverbial flame that ignited Pakistan’s sectarian crisis was not only endogenous to the state, but was the byproduct of a nationalistic mechanism deliberately theologized by Bhutto’s political opportunism. With the framework laid, Bhutto’s successors would augment and reinforce the developing state-sponsored religious rhetoric in its domestic and international endeavors.

Though Bhutto’s “shariatisation” plan was short-lived, owing to the 1977 coup staged by General Zia ul-Haqq, the sectarianization ceased; in fact, it intensified. While submerging the country into a protracted period of military rule, Zia shifted the country toward adopting Islamism as its de jure state ideology through the 1973 constitution: the product of the state’s first meaningful reform. For the first time, Pakistan’s constitution codified provisions for blasphemy, recognized Islam as the state religion but, most importantly, both provisions were enforced with exceptional scrutiny. 

With the legal framework established, Zia effectuated his reforms by radicalizing the populace in the madrasah: an Islamic—and increasingly Islamist—religious school common in the Middle East. By funding the madrasāt with mandatory zakat payments, Zia built a lasting bridge between the government and a private body of scholars—the ulema—that administered the schools and produced graduates who enjoyed a direct path to the increasingly Islamist bureaucracy. It is important to note that these institutions and their graduates were scholars in exclusively Hanafi Sunni jurisprudence, never Shi’a, nor Sufi. Though the process was only in its early stages under Zia’s regime, its persistence ensured that the Pakistani bureaucracy was composed almost entirely of Sunni scholars, who advocated for a patently Pakistani breed of Sunnism that would consciously discriminate against their Shi’a or Ahmadi adversaries. As Johns Hopkins Professor Nasr shares, the state “initiated the ulama to the Islamist discourse and by so doing also universalized Islamism as Islam [emphasis added].” From 1960 to 1980, aided by Zia’s top-down Islamization program, 11,841 self-styled scholars graduated from these institutions and permeated nearly every facet of the Pakistani bureaucracy. 

Though Zia’s regime only lasted a decade, from 1978 to 1988, the policies described above were profound, and violence became commonplace among the newly unemployed, frustrated, and armed ulēma. These individuals began to establish their madrasāt as autonomous institutions with tacit consent from the Pakistani state, and gathered arms, participated in wars, and illegally raised capital. The power vacuum Zia’s death left accentuated these problems and, by the election of 1988, Islamist groups had allied themselves with the Pakistan Muslim League to form the Islami Jumhoori Ittihad: a coalition supported by the madrasa and committed to stemming any threat of restoring the quasi-socialist status quo ante. More importantly, the IJT carried Zia’s legacy, and as Pakistan entered the 1990s, inter-sect and even inter-madrasa conflict ran rampant. 

Though Pakistan’s history is complex and multifaceted, it would be a mistake to understate the endogenous nature of Pakistan’s religious conflict post-partition. This trend continued throughout the remainder of the twentieth century and into the first decades of the twenty-first. 

A Reforming Pakistan? 

While Zia’s legacy dominated the 1990s through much of the early-2010s, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s election stoked a sense of optimism among the international community that had lost any hope of democracy or equity in the Islamic Republic. While he may be the only Prime Minister to have lasted a full term, instilling some optimism in a skeptical international community, his ability to make meaningful change remains in question. First, Khan’s premiership is itself a product of the hegemony the Pakistani military enjoys, as prominent army officials had allied

with the campaign to suppress Khan’s electoral opponent in the media. These officials then courted the Inter-Services Intelligence agency— an ally of the army—to stage and fund Khan’s rallies. Most dangerously, in 2019, the army and the ISI jointly lobbied the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group, the IS-affiliated Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik to support Khan for Prime Minister in the general election. Though the means by which Khan rose to power should not be equivocated with a meaningful policy platform, it is hard to remain optimistic when Khan was elected ostensibly under undemocratic pretenses. 

Two years later, Khan’s platform respecting sectarianism remains somewhat unclear and his actions do not correspond with his rhetoric. For example, after the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi for blasphemy, Khan initially stood by the Court only to reassure the Tehreek-i-Labbaik—outraged at the acquittal—that Bibi would not leave the country. Shortly thereafter, he began a “crackdown” against senior TLP members. A noble effort, certainly, but Khan’s lukewarm response to one of Pakistan’s most publicized blasphemy trials is not promising. Further, Khan’s campaign of media suppression through television and social media censorship, whether executed by the military on his behalf, has persisted well past the election. If Islamabad is interested in making progress with its sectarian troubles, the Prime Minister’s office is not the place to begin. This is not to imply that Khan is solely culpable; it is merely the result of the army-intelligence complex that comprises the Pakistani deep state and that pervades Pakistani politics. 

If a top-down schema is not expected to alleviate Pakistan’s sectarian tension, perhaps one from the bottom up might be; however, the reality of public opinion seems to paralyze this hypothesis. For example, a 2009 Pew Research report revealed that 78% of Pakistanis supported punishing apostasy with the death penalty, 83% supported “stoning adulterers,” and 80% supported amputating the hands of convicted thieves. Moreover, Shi’a deaths continue to rise, with many attacks perpetrated by the very groups that the military recruited to ensure Khan’s victory in 2018. To be sure, this data should not be taken to imply that Pakistanis are inherently intolerant, nor that they support fundamentalism or sectarian violence. Rather, it exposes the slow pace of reform in Pakistan’s social strata, hampered by select groups working in concert with the state to promulgate a sectarian order. 

Interestingly, the same Pew report did reveal that 87% of respondents supported equal education both for school-aged boys and girls, and that this high favorability correlates with lower levels of sympathy for extremism and extremist actors. For the complex sectarian issues that plague Pakistan, then, education may be the cross-cutting “bottom-up” and “top-down” answer. The benefits education provides are twofold. First, they curb an individual’s propensity to resort to extremism. Second, and most interestingly, they catalyze the very complex process of “reintegrating” former extremists into a developing civil society; a program of interest to the Pakistani people since it facilitates participation for all Pakistanis while promoting religious tolerance among key populations.

As part of this plan, instilling notions of basic human rights, civic responsibility, civil society, and critical thinking within the umbrella of Islam in Pakistan’s youth will be paramount. Rather than emphasizing a religious curriculum, educators must diversify their pedagogical approach with more secular elements, though this need not be at the expense of religious education, nor need it be antithetical to the more explicit principles of Islam. Prime Minister Khan has also expressed interest in educating the populace, meaning this plan’s implementation may be more likely than any top-down military or intelligence efforts to curb extremism. After all, it is time we begin treating religious extremism as a human condition, not solely a political threat to be met with military might. 

Education is not a monolithic panacea to the exceedingly complex problem of sectarianism, but it may be one of the few remedies available to a state with a heavily limited repertoire. Effects will not be immediate, and there is a high likelihood Khan’s successors may not wish to continue encouraging civic education, but it would be an injustice to the Pakistani people not to try. A plan of this sort would have to carefully reconcile the society’s religious identity with a philosophy of tolerance, all while ensuring equal access and broad participation. This is a social solution to an inherently socio-political problem. 

The Pakistan of Tomorrow 

Owing to its geopolitical troubles with its neighbors and the West, Pakistan currently has little incentive to stem its sectarian tension with a concrete policy directive. The state is recovering from nearly five decades of corruption and is actively negotiating a precarious balance between explicit and covert military rule. Still, we should remain cautiously optimistic and recognize that Pakistan can look within its own state for the roots of its sectarian problems and their solutions. As Brookings Fellow Madiha Afzal notes, it would require a fundamental realignment in the state’s ideology to derive its legitimacy from a new nationalism disassociated with Islam. With a cross-cutting government-sponsored and popularly accepted educational schema, it is well within Islamabad’s reach. 

The government must acknowledge and target the underlying social factors that produce extremism and treat religious extremism as a dangerous and powerful human condition; not a diplomatic problem to be remedied militarily. While the Pakistani deep state preempts much meaningful change by continuing to support extremist sectarian groups in exchange for political capital, it will be forced to come to terms with a social readjustment paradigmatic of a more open-minded and tolerant populace. The change will not occur quickly, and the strategy posited above will not be easy for Islamabad to implement, but the very legitimacy of the state and its disposition in the international community may come to depend on it. 

As with any broad international, political, and social problem, only time will tell. Yet, let us remember, the conflict is by-and-large endogenous to the state. The solutions are thus in Pakistan’s hands.





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By Mustafa Ahmedani

Mustafa Ahmedani is a third-year Political Science and History student at UCLA concentrating in International Relations. He is a Managing Editor for the Journal on World Affairs and has published work in supranational organizations and campaign finance.

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