ISSN 2330-717X

Is Pakistan Jihad’s Lebensraum? – Analysis


By Rana Banerji

Much as the conceptual connection may appear attractive, at least to alarmist soothsayers prognosticating the imminence of an Islamic implosion in Pakistan, in actual fact the problem has perhaps to be understood in its historical context.

Islamic radicalism spread in South Asia mainly on account of the export of Salafi-Wahabi ideology from Saudi Arabia in the mid-1970s. It was fuelled partly by the spurt in wealth after the oil crisis in 1973 and the ideological impact of the teachings of the charismatic Egyptian theologist, Syed Qutb, and the Palestinian teacher, Abdullah Azzam, who first came to Pakistan in 1979 to help with the charitable work of the Khidmat foundation in Peshawar. The reaction of the major super power and some regional players to counter both the impact of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution was also relevant.

The growing attraction of pan-Islamic ideas, like the oneness of the ummah, and a changing perception popularized in the Middle East about the possible recreation of the Caliphate, were the immediately perceptible conventional root causes for the spread of Islamic fundamentalist ideas in Pakistan. Others included endemic unemployment and poverty in rural areas, burdened under oppressive and ever-perpetuating feudal structures and the abysmal failure of grievance redressal mechanisms for delivery of justice or implementation of rule of law by institutions of the state. In contrast, there were rough and ready methods of quick justice, which were promoted by protagonists like Maulana Sufi Muhammad first in the mid-1990s and later, in far greater earnest and enthusiasm over a wider territorial swathe extending from Malakand to Swat in the next decade.

During and after the Afghan invasion by the Soviets, madrassa-trained radicals in Pakistan propagated jihad as a purely military concept – it was ‘bellum justum’ or justifiable violence instead of violence only in self-defence. Combating injustice of any sort through violence became passé, including against other civilians. This was accompanied by the justification also of the ulema’s lead role in issuing fatwas of local or geopolitical import. After 9/11 and the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, it also enabled the justification of a visceral hatred of the west and specifically, the United States.

Repressive regimes in Pakistan repeatedly utilized the crutch of Islam to justify illegal usurpation of power and abrogation of nascent democratic processes and institutions. Military dictators like Zia helped invest disproportionate clout in the street power of Jamaatis to scuttle the movement for the restoration of democracy in the mid-1980s. Non-state actors of an Islamic hue started being used to address Pakistan’s insecurity on the conventional military asymmetry with India and to foment insurgency in the troubled state of Jammu & Kashmir from late 1980s onwards.


Pakistan is home to several sectarian traditions. In recent years, it has faced severe violent tensions not only between Sunnis and Shias but between Deobandis and Barelvis within the Sunni tradition. Both have lately also been besieged by the ideological burden of Salafism and the Ahle Hadees’ tradition. Sufism, earlier very popular among a majority of Pakistanis in Central and South Punjab, as also in Sind, is today in retreat, with its shrines under a repeated barrage of suicide attacks from Wahabi-indoctrinated fanatics of the Tehrik-e- Taliban.

According to a recent (April 2009) survey of madrassa students in Pakistan, 80 per cent of whom were from rural areas, 43 per cent favoured revolution as a process of change, 50 per cent favoured mosque-preaching, 70 per cent favoured conflict resolution through war and only 30 per cent professed faith in peaceful means. Only 23 per cent believed jihad was a personal struggle to promote righteousness or protect Islam and 45 per cent said personal struggle could extend to war to protect Muslims. 43 per cent justified use of military force by the government, 35 per cent approved of the use of force by both the government and non-state actors and 7 per cent approved the use of force by only non-state actors.

A majority of Pakistanis today strongly value Shariah and believe in a high degree of religious intensity, at least in their personal conduct. This preference may in a sense have more to do with a desire for better governance rather than a blanket espousal of Islamic militancy.

These feelings of civil society at large cannot but reflect in the organized institutions of state, like the army. Conservative estimates indicate that Islamic sympathies within the army may have spread to 15-20 per cent. Recent trends show the spread of not only pro-Islamic views but also intense anti-Americanism even within the younger officer class. Whether these pressures lead the collegiate leadership of Army Generals to seriously introspect on the strategic culture they have deliberately fostered, only to perpetuate their predominance in society, remains to be seen.

Much would depend on how the end game in Afghanistan pans out – whether the American troops leave, in what strength the post-July 2011 draw-down proceeds, how the US financial and military aid to Pakistan is regulated in the coming months, what sort of US-Pakistani partnership and coordination develops in the process of the reconciliation of the Taliban in the evolving Afghan political set-up. All these factors will be crucial in determining how radical Islamic groups active in the region behave or adapt to greater or lesser pressures of state action, which would surely come against them. It would thus be premature to be optimistic about the threatened success of their lebensraum just yet.

Rana Banerji
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Spl Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat
email: [email protected]

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

One thought on “Is Pakistan Jihad’s Lebensraum? – Analysis

  • June 12, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    T E Lawrence and Allenby were responsible for bring the Wahabi/Salafi rule in the peninsula.
    By not allowing Emir Sharif and his family to rule in Hejaz and the rest of Arabia.Since the present rulers of Arabia the House of Saud are bosom allies of the West, especially USA then it is for Uncle Sam’s nephews and nieces in the
    Congress to tell their protege not to export his version of Islam to South Asia.


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