Occasional PapersPublished on Jul 23, 2023 PDF Download
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Understanding Jihadism in Pakistan

Pakistan is often accused of being a state sponsor of terrorism. This article bases itself in the belief that though the problem of ?Jihadism? may well have originated from some of Pakistan?s security paranoias, it is now assuming proportions far larger than Pakistan itself. At this stage, Jihadism will be a problem for Pakistan itself as much as for the rest of the world. At the same time, the ability of the Pakistani state to counter this phenomenon is becoming increasingly constricted. In this context, it is article seeks to examine the strands that go into the making of the larger phenomenon of ?Jihadism?.


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It is easy to dismiss Pakistan as a ‘failing state’. Indeed, Pakistan today is a strange, shadowy world where disorder is rapidly gaining ground. The threat emanating from Pakistan has now been greatly magnified by the fact that semi-autonomous actors from Pakistan’s fragmented society have both the capability and the willingness to contest for control of the Pakistani State, as well as to carry their conflict out into the larger world. However, an outright condemnation of Pakistan does not lead us towards a solution. It may be better to try to work towards a comprehensive understanding of the problem.

Pakistan as a state may or may not be the problem; it may or may not survive the coming months and years. The territory will remain, however. The people will remain and, more importantly, their problems and predicaments will remain. It is these aspects that need to be addressed.

More than a decade ago, the Pakistani scholar Eqbal Ahmed wrote that there exist “indications that we might be at the threshold of the outbreak of organised violence aimed at system change. If it does occur, it is unlikely to be selective in the manner practised earlier by the secular revolutionary movements in China, Vietnam, Cuba, or the Algerian struggle for independence. This lack of selectivity shall be ascribable to the fact that the perpetrators of revolutionary violence in Pakistan are likely to be religious and right wing organisations which have not set theoretical or practical limits on their use of violence. In the countries where Islamists have so far engaged in violence with revolutionary objectives, i.e. with the objective of system change, they have tended to be quite indiscriminate in its use.” Contemporary evidence does not offer us any reason to differ from this assessment. Our concern then must be to try to understand this disorder that is gaining strength in Pakistan.

Too often, we tend to look at Pakistan from the perspective of International Relations or of Security. We tend to adopt a state-centric view. Existing analyses have made extensive documentation of the key actors and trends within Pakistan and, within these, searched for the possible causes of Jihadism. Thus excellent studies are easily accessible on the Pakistan Army, the rise of sectarian groups or ideologies and the failure of Pakistani education, or even its nationalism.

Most analysts today tend to agree that there is a problem with Pakistan. Beyond this, however, when it comes to characterising and defining the problem, opinions begin to diverge. This disorder in Pakistan has variously been referred to as Terrorism (War on Terror); Talibanisation (from the experience in Afghanistan); Islamism (in the sense of the political utilisation, including distortion, of Islam); Islamic Fundamentalism (within this, we need to distinguish between Traditionalists [anti-modern], Literalists and the newer cohort of Activists); Jihadisation of Pakistan; or State Failure. Yet these labels capture only a part of Pakistan’s current reality. As much as they seek to describe the phenomenon, they also represent the particular perception and the vantage point of the observer, thus failing to be holistic in their conclusions and recommendations.

The phenomenon that most grabs our attention today is the gradual build-up of what can best be called ‘belligerent opponency’. It is not just one small marginal group that is being nihilistic; large swathes of the Pakistani population, covering a cross-section of all walks of life, seem to have worked themselves into a mood where reasonable, ‘settled’ behaviour seems completely alien. One of the recurrent analytical problems, moreover, seems to be what we can call the ‘changing face syndrome’: at different points in time, everything and everyone in Pakistan seems to be a part of the problem. In such a situation, any policy prescription directed at any one aspect of the dysfunction would tend to have failure already built into its design.

What is happening in Pakistan is often described as ‘the unfolding of a Jihad’. In reality however, it may be something else, and its relationship to the idea of Jihad, to religion or even to tradition, may be only superficial.

The word ‘Jihad’ comes from the Arabic root-word ‘JHD’, loosely translated as effort or struggle. Even in the political domain the term Jihad can, at best, be stretched to include a war only in the sense of a struggle against an oppressor.

In today’s world, however, some groups of Muslims across the world who seek political change have crafted an ingenious artifice. By their reasoning, the regimes in their own countries are oppressive and stand in the way of the emergence of the larger Muslim Nation or ‘Ummah’. These local regimes (the ‘Near Enemy’) are propped up by the support of the West (led by America). Therefore, by extension, America becomes the ‘Far Enemy’ and a legitimate target for Jihad. A similar set of distortions is deployed against other countries like Israel, India, Russia, and the Western European countries.

However, the modern-day Jihad narrative does not stay limited to this perceived culpability in oppressing Muslims. Several disparate themes are pulled in and inter-woven into this narrative. Western moral values and ways of life are all made out to be threats to the Muslim way of life. Any discussion about ‘the oppression of Muslims’ becomes one on ‘threat to Islam’. Effectively, this is little more than a two-pronged strategy: Firstly, to create an impact on the ability and willingness of ‘outside’ powers to support the ‘oppressive’ local regimes; and secondly, to consolidate the position and support base of those depicted as ‘defending’ Islam itself. What is most important, however, is that somewhere along the line, the rational, limited political strategy becomes a self-perpetuating, amorphous body of hate. It is this latter stage that we will refer to as ‘Jihadism’.

We must distinguish the term ‘Jihadism’ from ‘Islamism’ which is more in the nature of an attempt to rediscover Islam in modern life. Moreover, we need to distinguish Jihadism from Terrorism which is, at best, a tactic or an instrument. Equally, we distinguish Jihadism from Jihad itself, which we understand to be a religio-cultural construct denoting a struggle (internal or external) that may or may not be societally negative. Thus, Jihad may, under some circumstances, be one possible manifestation of Jihadism.

In this paper we will assume that the label ‘Jihadism’ refers to a composite—though not homogenous—social phenomenon that begins with the vision of an alternate state in contrast to the prevailing structures. It then continues into believing that its model—and thus its own influence—must be exported globally. Towards this enterprise, Jihadism is at ease with the idea of using religion to construct its identity, and of using violence to achieve its objectives. Thus, Jihadism is a disruptive system framed in a particular religious context. It represents an alternate model of society which is supported by a large constituency of those who cannot hope nor desire to make any headway in the established, Westernised model of society. This alternate model of society, however, must not be confused with a traditional Muslim society. Behind the facade, Jihadism is simply a path to contesting the established elites and wresting power. An Islamic society based upon Sharia Law is the most natural and convenient rallying cry available to it. The primary objective, however, remains a power grab, followed by efforts to consolidate that power. To this end, Jihadism creates a highly selective, and therefore distorted, mix of doctrine, tradition, and modernity. Our effort will be to develop an understanding of how Jihadism works as a system, to examine whether some part of the common understanding about the phenomenon may need to be supplemented, and to see how the system’s workings might condition the unfolding of future challenges. It is important to do this because a phenomenon like Jihadism is only the outward manifestation of activities and interactions taking place within the depths of a larger system. We cannot come to grips with the phenomenon without understanding why, and how, it thrives. Moreover, even if one could eradicate Jihadism itself (for example through military action), so long as the system continues to work the way it does, the problem will keep re-emerging–with a different label, perhaps. Jihadism cannot simply be “dealt” with; it must truly be put to rest, in every sense of the word.

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