Friday, October 01, 2010




The rise of the Jihadist movement in Pakistan is driven primarily by ideological and religious factors. Decades of indoctrination of a virulent version of radical political Islam has motivated thousands of people – young and old – to take the path of violent jihad to capture political power and through it transform the society, economy and culture in order to bring about what they consider to be a pristine Islamic order. But underpinning the quest for an ideal Islamic state in Pakistan are also the harsh socio-economic realities that make jihad extremely attractive to the mass of underclass that sees jihad as the only way out of the deprivation and morbidity that comes with a low-level existence in which the vast majority of Pakistanis find themselves caught.

The Islamists cleverly manufacture and exploit grievances (some real, many imagined) to build support for their cause. But while the support for Islamist causes is found across a cross-section of Pakistani society, bulk of the feedstock of jihad comes from an underclass for whom jihad is an expression of dissent, even rebellion, against an unequal, unjust and unfair social, political and economic system which has been fostered by a corrupt, uncaring and self-centred elite and propped up by the bourgeoisie. Ironically, the social, political and economic oligarchy that rules Pakistan, and which has blocked any real opportunity for advancement to those at the bottom of the ladder, has inadvertently given rise to the very forces that today threaten its hold over the power structure in Pakistan. This they have done partly through their neglect of the social sector, partly through their rhetoric on Islam, and partly through the use of jihad as an instrument of state policy and the power shift effected by this policy in favour of non-state actors who are today challenging the state.

According to a former Pakistan army officer who is better known by his nom de guerre 'Col Imam', the feudals in South Punjab denied the children of their peasants' education in normal schools but allowed them to go to the madrassas that were proliferating in the area. These same children are today part of the larger Punjabi Taliban phenomenon. Like in FATA, where the taliban have wiped out the Maliks, Col. Imam believes that in South Punjab too, a similar transformation in the social power structure is going to take place, with the Punjabi Taliban replacing the local landlords and elite as the real power wielders.

The fear that the ranks of the jihadists could swell in the aftermath of the 'mother of all floods' that have swept through Pakistan has once again brought the focus back on to the socio-economic factors that are fuelling the jihad factory inside Pakistan. Even top officials in Pakistan, from President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Pakistan's ambassador to the US Hussein Haqqani, have been ad nauseam warning the world that if it did not come to Pakistan's aid fast enough, the Islamists would exploit the extreme distress in which some 20 million people find themselves after the floods.

There are a number of studies that link radicalism and militancy to poverty, joblessness, bad governance, failure of the state to provide social goods like education and health, and the failure of education and the 'system' to create social mobility. What emerges from these studies are interesting trends relating to the social base of jihad, the educational background of the jihadists and the conditions in the regions which have been in the eye of the jihad storm.

An analysis of the profile of jihadists suggests that most of the leaders and cadres are not from the abjectly poor sections of society. The very poor in Pakistan are probably too poor and too oppressed to rebel against the existing order. Most of the jihadists, therefore, belong either to the lower or the lower-middle classes. A majority of them are not unlettered but are half-educated and semi-literate. While many of the jihadists have attended state schools, the leadership is generally held by people with some madrassa education, at least in the Pashtun areas and South Punjab. Spatially, some of the most troubled areas – South Punjab and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – are also the most backward in terms of social, economic and political development, and are areas where inequity, injustice, oppression and barriers to social mobility are very high. Paradoxically, despite the continuing existence of an oppressive socio-political power structure, in some of these areas the hold of the traditional elites has been breaking down as a result of a combination of economic and political factors and the emergence of new socio-political forces that have begun challenging the traditional elite.

Among the most significant transformations to have occurred in Pakistan has been the steady loss of power of the feudal elite. Contrary to popular perception, feudalism is alive in Pakistan not so much as an economic mode of production but more in terms of the attitudes associated with feudalism. The loss of economic control has, however, meant that the feudal attitude has become something of an anachronism, and is being challenged by the rise of new socio-economic realities. The rise of Islamist militias is one such reality. In South Punjab, for example, the extensive network established by the Sunni extremist organisation Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) has given it a pivotal role in local politics.

The head of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), the latest avatar of the SSP, Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, has claimed that nearly 25 Members of National Assembly (MNAs), including a couple of federal ministers, got elected with the support of the ASWJ. Ludhianvi was courted by the Punjab Law Minister, Rana Sanaullah, during a by-election in Jhang in South Punjab, while other SSP members were seen supporting the PPP. The old feudal elite can no longer depend on their traditional status either to keep the underclass in check, much less win elections without any effort. The story in the more developed Central and North Punjab is no different with old landed families struggling to maintain their dominance in local politics. Although some of the old political families continue to win their elections, the important point is that they do so only because they have compromised on their power and have reached out to the new political forces those have emerged in their areas.

In FATA, the jihadists systematically wiped out the tribal Maliks and Khans who served as the lynchpin of the Pakistani state which used to depend upon their influence and power to maintain its writ over the tribes through the jirga system. The Maliks were notorious for their corruption and were completely unaccountable and a reaction to them had started developing in Waziristan way back in the 1970s. With the rise of the jihadists, the Maliks came in cross-hairs of the militants. Hundreds of Maliks were killed, and most of the others ran away from the FATA region to save their lives, with the result that the mullahs replaced the Maliks as the power elite in FATA. The reason for targeting the Maliks was quite clear: they were the only people who could pose any kind of a challenge to the domination of the jihadists by mobilising the people of the area to form tribal lashkars to take on the militants. By eliminating the Maliks, the jihadists effectively ended any possibility of opposition to their dominance over the entire tribal belt. This was exactly the trajectory that the 'Mujahideen' had adopted in Afghanistan where the tribal chieftains were replaced by the jihadists.

In Swat, while the Taliban movement was built around the demand for imposition of Shariat, there was also a socio-economic dimension to the support that the Swat Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah received from the people. Unlike the 'establishment' mullahs who have traditionally opposed land reforms in Pakistan, Fazlullah won over a lot of recruits by promising them land redistribution. The Taliban storm-troopers targeted the big landlords in Swat and either killed them or forced them to flee, after which they occupied their land. By exploiting the conflict between the landless tenants and the wealthy landlords in Swat, the Taliban not only won grass-root support for their movement, they also hit at the socio-economic and political power structure that was dominated by the landed gentry which could have become a major obstacle in the path of the Taliban. Apart from one big landowner, Afzal Khan Lala, who successfully resisted the Taliban onslaught, all the other big landholders turned out to be pushovers for the jihadists.

Not just in Swat, but in the entire Pashtun tribal belt, the jihadists have attracted support by holding out the promise of a more equal and just social order an important component of their political programme. Indeed, the absence of justice has been one of the primary factors for the rise of the Islamist groups who have exploited the arbitrary, corrupt and unfair justice system to win support for their cause, a fact that has been admitted by none other than the Chief Justice of the Balochistan High Court. For instance, the now slain head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Baitullah Mehsud, used not only Islam to consolidate his power base, he also targeted big landowners to give the TTP an image of being a people's movement. In the Khyber agency, the head of the Lashkar-e-Islam, Mangalbagh, acquired a Robin Hood-like reputation which pulled in a lot of young people to his fold. According to the Pakistani journalist, Rahimullah Yusufzai, Mangalbagh used to criticise the Maliks and would always try to solve the problems of the common tribesmen.

Although all politicians in Pakistan, including the big landowners, never fail to pay lip-service to the cause of a more just and equitable social and political system, their social background has ensured that nothing of the sort will ever happen as long as they control the levers of power. Unlike the politicians, the promise of social justice that the jihadists hold out sounds far more credible. For one, the politicians represent status quo which makes any revolutionary reform in the social system extremely unlikely. The jihadists, on the other hand, seek to change the system which means that what they are promising has a pretty good chance of coming true. Secondly, given the lower and lower middle class backgrounds of almost the entire jihadist leadership – Baitullah Mehsud was a gym trainer, Mangalbagh a bus conductor-cum-cleaner, Mullah Fazlullah was a chair-lift operator – makes it easy for the people to identify with them and believe in what they promise since they are from the same background.

A study into the mindset of jihadists by a Pakistani clinical psychologist, Sohail Abbas, has revealed that the value system of the lower middle class exercised a dominating influence on the militancy. According to this study, "this able to provide leadership and inspiration to the teeming masses...[it] has been an important actor in the religious movement in the country. It is deeply influenced by and now controls the mosque-religion." Abbas has found that anger against the exploitative socio-political system has been exploited by the religious groups who have "succeeded in mixing jihad with political change by the implicit promise of a Taliban type government in Pakistan".

With the normal social and political processes failing to address the growing morbidity and hopelessness in society, jihad has become an instrument of empowerment against the real and perceived depredations of the venal elite and the struggle for a genuinely Islamic system is seen as the only way to change the status quo and also gain spiritual fulfilment.
Despite the fact that other than slogans and targeting the landed elite, the jihadists have not really laid out in detail how they will ensure social justice, provide employment opportunities, improve the education system and healthcare etc., the jihadists have managed to give a sense of empowerment to their supporters. There is enough anecdotal evidence of how people on the margins of society, powerless to change their lot, have overnight become 'men of respect' after having joined a Jihadist outfit – the social status of the family improves, the police is wary of them and the local influential sections of society don't mess with them. In other words, jihad offers a sense of purpose and social mobility that is simply not on offer otherwise. The case of the Ajmal Kasab, the sole surviving terrorist involved in the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, is a classic case in point.

While lack of gainful employment opportunities has been another major factor that has drawn the youth towards jihadist outfits, there has also been a steady rejection of the fatalism that had been infused in the people by the traditional, syncretic school of Islamic theology which is commonly referred to as Barelvi or Sufi culture, which had in the past played a critical role in keeping social unrest from boiling over. Not only has 'Sufi' Islam been receding in the face of the onslaught by the more radical, jihadised versions of Islam, it has now come to represent the 'establishment'. Sufi Islam's popularity in the past was in large part because it represented dissent against the doctrinaire Islam of the established religious
and political order. But with the descendants of the Sufi saints having become the ruling class, the jihadist philosophy espoused by the radical Islamic groups has replaced Sufi Islam as the expression of dissent.

Clearly, if Pakistan is serious about combating the growing power and influence of the jihadists, then it must simultaneously address not only the ideological dimension of Islamism, but also the socio-economic dimensions of the problem that are fuelling the Islamist insurgency. Fighting talibanisation through only the use of military force, while important, even unavoidable, is at best only a holding operation. While the Pakistani establishment is tirelessly making a pitch to rest of the world to pump in money to finance development in the country so that the socio-economic factors behind jihadism can be addressed, the fact remains that taking care of socio-economic factors without coming up with an effective counter ideology to radical Islam is a strategy that is doomed to fail. Conversely, evolving an ideological framework to counter the Islamist without concomitant socio-political and economic reform too will not succeed. The problem however is that other than a torrent of verbiage, there is absolutely no sign of the Pakistani state having taken even the first step to concurrently address both the ideological and the socio-economic dimensions of jihadism.


    <2570 Words>                    10th September, 2010



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