Pakistan: Nuclear Power with Feet of Clay

Pakistan’s focus on military muscle weakens social cohesion and makes the state increasingly ungovernable
BOSTON: Backed by nuclear weapons and the seventh largest standing army in the world, Pakistan has the ability to project its power externally, but lacks the strength of an effective state at home.


The recently released video of the Taliban using a young boy, believed to be 12 years old, to behead a man amid cries of “Allahu Akbar” is only one of several troubling images emanating from Pakistan. Attacks by armed supporters of a pro-government militia on opposition activists in the port city of Karachi and frequent terrorist bombings revive fears about Pakistan’s future.


The country faces increasing demands from religious extremists, and doubts are growing among Pakistan’s Western allies about the military regime’s ability to handle these pressures.

Paradoxically, Pakistan has turned out to be a hot destination for investors from the Gulf, encouraged by business friendly government policies and annual GDP growth rates of 7 percent over the last four years. Pakistan’s privatization program is considered a regional success. Government economists cite increasing mobile phone use and expanding sales of motorcycles and cars as signs of progress.


Pakistan’s elite now drive around in Porsches, more of which have sold in the city of Lahore alone than the car’s manufacturer had envisaged for the entire country. The pace of construction for new country clubs, golf clubs and luxury hotels also reflects growing prosperity of a select few.


That this strife-ridden country with a booming economy seems precariously balanced between chaos and growth should not, however, be a source of comfort. Given widespread anti-Americanism and signs of rising support for Islamist sentiment in the military, Washington cannot count on the military to keep the balance. If Pakistan falls from its shaky perch, the consequences for the region and the US could be dire.

Pakistan is viewed as a critical Western ally in the global war against terrorism. Relations with arch-rival India have improved markedly since four years ago, when the armies of the two nuclear-armed neighbors stood eyeball-to-eyeball. Pakistan reveals multiple realities, and the temptation to let optimism prevail is great. But, in essence,

Pakistan has become a dysfunctional state, a tinderbox that may not light up for years, but could also go up in flames in an instant.


At least 1,471 people were reported killed in terrorist incidents in Pakistan during 2006, up from 648 terrorism-related fatalities during the preceding year. Of these, 608 were civilians, 325 security personnel and 538 accused terrorists. The rising fatalities of security forces indicate the growing strength of armed non-state actors, especially extremists.


An army, largely recruited from one of the country’s four ethnically diverse provinces, has traditionally maintained order in Pakistan. The military’s ability to keep a lid on dissent has diminished with the emergence of well-armed militias, both Islamist and secular, in various parts of Pakistan.


Vast parts of Balochistan, the sparsely populated southwestern province bordering Afghanistan and Iran, are virtually ungoverned. A secular, tribal insurgency in Balochistan has been overshadowed by the resurgence of the Taliban in the province’s north.


The brutal beheading involving the 12-year old took place in Balochistan and involved the ethnic Pashtun Taliban punishing an ethnic Baloch for allegedly spying on behalf of the Americans and their allies. The Taliban also control the generally uncontrolled tribal areas in the Northwest Frontier province (NWFP) and gradually expand their influence into the adjoining non-tribal settled districts.

Balochistan accounts for 42 percent of Pakistan’s territory, and the Pashtun tribal areas represent 3 percent of the land area. Even if one ignores the rising violence and lawlessness in urban Pakistan, almost half the country now constitutes an anarchistic or inadequately governed space.


In addition to problems in Balochistan and NWFP, at least 200 people have died in sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni militant groups across the country during the last year.


General Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a coup d’état in October 1999 and remains a clear favorite of the Bush administration, has made no effort to encourage democratic institutions. Musharraf’s decision to marginalize Pakistan’s secular political parties to avoid sharing power has strengthened radical Islamist groups.


Lately, Pakistani civil society has stirred in reaction to the domination of the country’s life by the military and assorted Islamist militants. For the past two months, lawyers in suits join activists from opposition political parties in demonstrations protesting the removal from office of the country’s chief justice.


Amid widespread disorder and the emboldening of insurgents and terrorist groups, Pakistan successfully tested the latest version of its long-range nuclear-capable missile, in February. The Hatf VI (Shaheen II) ballistic missile, launched from an undisclosed location, is said to have a range of 2,000 kilometers and has the capability to hit major cities in India, according to Pakistan’s military.


In the process of building extensive military capabilities, Pakistan’s successive rulers have stood by as essential internal attributes of statehood degrade. A major attribute of a state is its ability to maintain monopoly, or at least the preponderance, of public coercion.


The proliferation of insurgents, militias and Mafiosi reflect the state’s weakness in this key area. There are too many non-state actors in Pakistan –ranging from religious vigilantes to criminals – who possess coercive power in varying degrees. In some instances the threat of non-state coercion in the form of suicide bombings weakens the state machinery’s ability to confront challenges to its authority.


Since its emergence from the partition of British India in 1947, Pakistan has defined itself as an Islamic ideological state. The country’s praetorian military has held the reins of power for most of the country’s existence and seen itself as the final arbiter of Pakistan’s national direction.

The emphasis on ideology has empowered Pakistan’s Islamist minority. The overwhelming influence of the army has accentuated militarism at the expense of civilian institutions. Many Pakistanis view the US as the army’s principal benefactor and by extension partly responsible for weakening civil institutions. The three periods of significant flow of US aid to Pakistan have all coincided with military rule in Pakistan.


The disproportionate focus of the Pakistani state on ideology, military capability and external alliances since Pakistan’s independence in 1947 has weakened the nation internally. Pakistan spends a greater proportion of its GDP on defense and still cannot match the conventional forces of India, which outspends Pakistan 3 to 1 while allocating a smaller percentage of its burgeoning GDP to military spending. The country’s institutions – ranging from schools and universities to political parties and the judiciary – are in a state of general decline.


Much of the analysis on Pakistan in the West since 9/11 has focused on Musharraf’s ability to remain in power and keep up the juggling act between alliance with the US and controlling various domestic constituencies, including the Pakistani military and Islamist militants. Pakistan’s problems, however, run deeper. It is time the world set aside its immediate preoccupation with Musharraf’s future to examine the fundamental conditions of the Pakistani state.

Originally appeared in Yale Global , May 22, 2007

Weeding out the heretics: Sectarianism in Pakistan

The ongoing war in Iraq has drawn the world’s attention to sectarian violence between Islam’s Sunni and Shi’a sects. Terrorists operating under orders from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the now-dead leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq who proclaimed himself the “Slaughterer of Infidels,” have bombed Shi’a mosques and killed hundreds of Shi’a in attacks on civilian targets.

The American military presence in Iraq has made the Sunni-Shi’a sectarian rivalry relevant to the Western world and resulted in stories of intra-Muslim sectarian violence finding play in the Western media. But Shi’a-Sunni violence did not start in Iraq, nor was Zarqawi its initiator. Pakistan has been a sectarian battleground for almost twenty years. The International Crisis Group pointed out in a report released in 2005 that “Religious sectarianism is, in fact, the principal source of terrorist activity in Pakistan.” [1]

The Sunni-Shi’a rivalry goes back to Islam’s earliest times. The sects were born as political factions, soon after the death of Islam’s founder, Prophet Mohammed. The Sunnis believed in choosing Mohammed’s successor through the consensus of the majority of believers. The Shi’a considered Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, to be the Prophet’s rightful heir.

The Sunnis founded the Khilafa (or Caliphate), which changed hands many times and ended only in 1924 with the fall of the Turkish Ottoman empire. The Shi’a adhere to the notion of the Imamate, which passed on to Ali’s sons and direct descendants. Main stream Shi’a are known as “twelvers” because they believe that the twelfth and final imam, Mahdi, is still living but in hiding; he will appear before the Day of Judgment to establish justice on earth. Other Shi’a sub-sects, such as the Ismailis led by the Paris-based Aga Khan, have a different line of imams from among Ali’s descendants and believe in a contemporary living Imam.

Throughout history Shi’a and Sunnis have clashed as often as they have cooperated. But until now the sectarian conflict in Islam had been far less brutal than, say, the sectarian wars in Christian history. One reason for that might be that Sunnis overwhelmed the Shi’a in numbers during the period of Islam’s expansion. Even today, less than 15 percent of the world’s estimated 1.4 billion Muslims are Shi’a. They are a majority in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain and a plurality in Lebanon and Azerbaijan.

In contemporary times the Sunni majority in the Muslim world largely ignored the Shi’a until the 1979 Islamic revolution brought Shi’a clerics to power in Iran. Authoritarian governments in several Muslim countries started worrying about the prospect of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution spreading through their lands. Countries with mixed Sunni and Shi’a populations started looking upon their Shi’a compatriots as potential revolutionaries and troublemakers. The Iranians’ rhetoric of exporting the Islamic revolution did not help, nor did the war between Sunni-led Iraq and Shi’a Iran. The conservative Arab Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, funded fellow Sunni Saddam Hussein in an effort to contain the Iranian revolution, notwithstanding Hussein’s previously proclaimed aversion to religion.

Pakistan, then under the Islamizing military regime of General Ziaul Haq, was also affected by the sectarianism brewing in the Middle East. Fifteen percent of Pakistan’s population is Shi’a. The country borders Iran and has a rich Persian heritage. But Pakistan’s ruling elite is close to Saudi Arabia. Under Ziaul Haq, Pakistan even provided troops for the protection of the Saudi royal family in return for generous Saudi economic assistance.

Soon after the Iranian revolution Pakistan became the staging ground for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s intelligence service channeled around two billion dollars in covert American aid to anti-Communist guerilla fighters in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states also provided billions of dollars for the Afghan war, which was fought under the banner of Islamist ideology. Radical Islamists from all over the world poured into Pakistan to join the Afghan jihad. Some of these radicals morphed into al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups currently confronting the West.

Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a secular Shi’a lawyer who demanded a separate homeland for India’s Muslims that he said would not be a theocracy. And Pakistan started out on a non-sectarian track. Its first law minister was a Hindu; its foreign minister belonged to the Ahmadiyya sect, which opposes violent jihad. Over the years, however, Pakistan has become a major center of Islamist extremism. A 1974 amendment to Pakistan’s constitution declared the Ahmadis (followers of the Ahmadiyya sect) non-Muslims. Subsequent legislation forbade them from describing themselves as Muslim or from publicly using Muslim terminology or religious symbols even when their religion required them to do so. Religious minorities, such as Hindus and Christians, complain of discrimination and have periodically been subjected to violent attacks by extremists. The disproportionate influence wielded by fundamentalist groups in Pakistan is the result of the state sponsorship of such groups.

Jinnah embraced religious symbolism just before Pakistan’s independence in an effort to rally India’s Muslims to his cause. His successors relied even more on Islam as a national unifier, and the process of casting Pakistan as an Islamic ideological state intensified further under the military rule that began in 1958. Through its complex post-independence history, Pakistanis have debated vehemently whether Pakistan was created to be an Islamic state or a secular state with a Muslim majority. General Ziaul Haq hoped to end this debate once and for all. He proceeded to Islamize Pakistan’s laws, involved clerics in legislation and appointed Quranic scholars as judges.

Ziaul Haq’s Islamization empowered the Sunni clergy and antagonized the country’s Shi’a minority. When the Shi’a demanded protection of their religious rights, Ziaul Haq and his intelligence services saw their protests as a sign of potential Iranian subversion.

The Iranians were, most likely, assisting Pakistan’s Shi’a with money, and Ziaul Haq invited the Saudis to help Sunni sectarian groups. The Afghan jihad had already resulted in the free flow of arms and military training for Sunni Islamists. Soon, some of these Sunni militants were attacking the Shi’a in an effort to purify Pakistan of their “heterodoxy.” Shi’a militias emerged to fight the Sunni extremists with similar tactics. During the last twenty five years, nearly two thousand people have been killed, and thousands more maimed, in attacks by zealots of the rival sects in Pakistan. Official Figures are not available for the period 1980-1989 but deaths by sectarian violence during that phase are estimated at several hundred . Between 1989 and 2004, 688 people were killed in 1,837 reported incidents of sectarian conflict. In 2005 sixty-two incidents resulted in 160 deaths, and in the first three months of 2006, six incidents occurred in which 136 people reportedly died. [2]

Sectarian Identities

In Pakistan’s formative years the sectarian affiliation of the country’s leaders did not seem to matter. The Pakistani nation accepted in stride the nominal Shiism of Jinnah and several of his leading colleagues. In many cases no one was sure whether a particular official was Shi’a or Sunni as there was no official need to state one’s sectarian affiliation. But in 2004, in a sign that times had changed, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz found himself compelled to declare publicly “I am a Sunni Muslim” to counter rumors that he was an Ahmadi. [3]

According to Syed Vali Nasr, sectarianism in Pakistan is “organized and militant religious-political activism whose specific aim is to safeguard and promote the sociopolitical interests of the particular Muslim sectarian community, Shiite or Sunni, with which it is associated.” Pakistani sectarianism has its own “discourse of power,” which “promises empowerment” of a particular sect “in tandem with greater adherence to Islamic norms in public life.” Sectarian Islamist organizations hope to achieve greater power and greater piety “through mobilization of the sectarian identity in question and the marginalization of the rival sectarian community, largely through prolific use of violence.” [4]

Ninety-six percent of Pakistan’s 150 million people are Muslims. Sunnis are estimated to account for 75 to 85 percent of the country’s Muslim population, and Shiites are believed to number between 15 and 25 percent. [5] One must remember, however, that like the term ‘Muslim’, the terms ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shi’a,’ ‘Shi’i’ or ‘Shiite’ encompass groups with widely differing views. There are many Shi’a sects, such as the Ismailis, the Bohras and the Ithna Asharis (twelvers). Sunnis in South Asia include such groups as the Sufi-inspired Barelvis, the puritanical Deobandis, and the Wahhabi-like Ahl-e Hadith.

The Barelvis are traditionalist Sunni Muslims who describe themselves as Ahl-e Sunnat wa-al Jamaat (‘followers of the Prophet’s way and that of the majority of the believing community’). They trace their origin to Ahmed Raza Khan of Bareilly (1855-1921) who opposed Wahhabi ideas as they gained ground in the India-Pakistan subcontinent. For the Barelvis, custom-laden religious practices and the intercession of Sufi saints are an integral part of Islam, not the innovation the Wahhabis denounce in describing the syncretism of South and Central Asian Islam. [6]

Included in the Sunni groups is Jamaat-e-Islami, a revivalist organization similar to the Arab world’s Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1941 by Maulana Abu Ala Maududi, Jamaat-e-Islami considers itself the vanguard of the Islamic Revolution and is focused primarily on the creation of an Islamic state. The Jamaat-e-Islami initially shied away from being identified as Sunni because, for them, the central issue was the political struggle between “Islam and un-Islam.” Maududi reinterpreted Shi’a doctrines in an attempt to bring the Shi’a within the broader discourse of Islamist politics, and Jamaat-e-Islami welcomed Iran’s Islamic revolution despite its Shi’a foundations. In 1995 Jamaat-e-Islami played a leading role in unifying Pakistan’s Islamist political parties under the umbrella of the Milli Yikjahati Council (Council of National Unity)—the MYC—in an effort to end Shi’a-Sunni sectarian violence. It is interesting to note that all the groups in the MYC are unified in their antagonism toward Ahmadis.

The Deobandis grew out of a reform movement that originated at the Dar ul Uloom, a traditional madrasa set up in Deoband, India, in 1867. The Deoband madrasa emphasized the purification of Islam from cultural accretions, and a return to the teachings of the Quran and the practices of the Prophet. The Deobandis opposed westernization and were suspicious of all modernity. They were also inclined to issue fatwas against other Muslim sects as part of their quest for religious purity.

The Deobandis’ hard-line religious and political discourse inspired the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the movement’s extreme vision can be understood by examining the practices of the Taliban. Pakistan’s Deobandis have been most ardent in igniting sectarian warfare, including campaigns against Ahmadis and Shi’a. As early as the 1940s, the Dar ul Uloom in Deoband had issued a fatwa that declared the Shi’a were infidels, and Pakistani Deobandis have published anti-Ahmadi pronouncements since the 1950s and anti-Shi’a tracts throughout the 1970s.

The Jamaat Ahl-e Hadith (party of the Tradition of the Prophet) was founded by Sayyid Nazir Husain Muhaddith Dehlavi. The Ahl-e Hadith differ from the Deobandis in holding that the Quran and the Hadith (recorded traditions of Prophet Mohammed) are the sole sources of law, while the Deobandis accept the vast corpus of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and follow the Hanafi school of fiqh. Often called Wahhabis in South Asia, the Ahl-e Hadith have maintained close ties with the Wahhabi religious establishment of Saudi Arabia since the 1960s. They are vehemently opposed to Barelvi custom-based Sunni Islam; they are both anti-Sufi and anti-Shi’a.

Another South Asian Sunni group is the Ahmadis or Ahmadiyya, who regard their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, as a messiah and prophet of God and thereby sanction the possibility of revising Prophet Mohammed’s message. Most Muslims consider Mohammed to have been the last of the prophets, and consider his the final word from God to humanity. Although Ahmadi religious rituals and almost all their practices are derived from Sunni Islam, their aversion to violence and jihad and their refusal to recognize the absolute finality of Mohammed’s prophethood account for the conflict between them and other Muslim groups.

Targeting the Ahmadis: The First Sectarian Agitation

Religious political parties have been a part of Pakistan’s political scene since its inception. As the Pakistani state increasingly adopted an Islamic identity, sectarian differences and theological arguments led to the formation of sectarian political movements. The slogan “Islam in Danger” was widely used during the campaign for Pakistan’s creation, and it remained a powerful rallying cry for religion-based politics. Even secular civilian and military leaders found it expedient to argue, from time to time, that the nation must mobilize to fend off threats to Islam or to Pakistan’s Islamic ideology.

As Pakistan’s character as an Islamic state became more established, sectarian groups resorted to a variation on the “Islam in danger” theme. New groups emerged, focusing on supposed threats to their interests or to Islam as interpreted by them. Just as Benedict Anderson described nationalism as an “imagined” constructed identity, [7] Muhammad Qasim Zaman has justifiably argued that sectarian identities in Pakistan were also “constructed and redefined” through a process of political imagining.” [8] Although differences between Shi’a and Sunnis have existed for centuries, the form of sectarian identity that has emerged in Pakistan over the last several decades is relatively modern and new.

The first violent outbreak of sectarianism in Pakistani history targeted the Ahmadis. The Objectives Resolution adopted by Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly in 1949 declared that Pakistanis would “order their lives in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam.” This wording created more problems than it solved because the resolution defining the basic principles of Pakistan’s future constitution did not specify if sharia would be the law nor—if it were—who would define sharia for the purpose of state law and how. The question of the status of minorities was also left unresolved.

Soon after the adoption of the Objectives Resolution, the first challenge to a consolidated Muslim identity in Pakistan surfaced with the rise of the “Ahmadiyya question.” Most leaders of Sunni radical movements were initiated into the world of militant sectarianism through the Ahmadiyya controversy. During the early 1950s, the Anjuman-e Ahrar-e Islam (Society of Free Muslims) demanded that the Ahmadiyya be defined as a non-Islamic sect and converts to it be treated as heretics and apostates. The Ahrar argued that the Ahmadis’ wealth and prominence were responsible for the misery of the poor [9] and that, in addition to being declared non-Muslims, they should be removed from positions of power in the Pakistan government. The fact that Pakistan’s foreign minister at the time, Sir Chaudhry Zafrullah Khan, was an Ahmadi led the anti-Ahmadi protests to become part of a campaign against the fragile government of conservative Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin. The prime minister’s rivals covertly helped the violent agitators, and martial law was imposed in parts of Pakistan in 1953.

Vali Nasr attributes the rise of the Ahmadi issue so soon after Pakistan’s independence to the internal dynamics of the two major Islamist groups, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Deobandis. Neither Maududi’s Jamaat-e-Islami nor most Deobandi leaders had supported the creation of Pakistan, though they eventually accepted the new country and even migrated to Pakistan. Secular elements within the Muslim League, the dominant Pakistani political party of the era, stigmatized the Islamists as anti-Pakistan for opposing the campaign for a state separate from India. The Deobandis, in particular, needed to deal with the stigma of their pre-independence position, and a sectarian campaign against the Ahmadis helped them carve out a positive political role—that of the protectors of true Islam—in the new State of Pakistan.

The Ahmadiyya issue continued to plague Pakistani politics through the 1960s and was resolved to some extent only in 1974 when the secular social-democratic government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, capitulating to the Islamist parties’ long-standing demand, declared the Ahmadis a non-Muslim minority. After coming to power in a 1977 coup, General Ziaul Haq expanded the restrictions on Ahmadis by decrees that forbade them from identifying themselves as Muslims. Criminal penalties were introduced for violating this law, leading to the imprisonment of many Ahmadis and giving the Islamists a powerful weapon against critics and opponents. Any mullah or Islamist activist could now punish anyone he disliked by accusing him of being an Ahmadi masquerading as a Muslim.

In the case of the Ahmadis, the state used a constitutional amendment to define a sect as an un-Islamic minority. This paved the way for Sunni sectarian groups to insist that the Shi’a be similarly defined, even though the Shi’a had supported the Deobandi and other Sunnis in their demands regarding the Ahmadis. Now that the “Islamic State” in Pakistan had established the right to determine who was and was not a true Muslim, religious identity and religious correctness became larger issues in Pakistan’s political discourse. The policies of Ziaul Haq’s military regime, aimed at Islamizing the country further, aggravated Pakistan’s slide into sectarian conflict and confrontation.

The Shi’a Awakening

General Ziaul Haq, who ruled Pakistan with an iron hand from 5 July 1977 to 17 August 1988, believed that “a state that is construed as a legitimate Islamic actor can both ride the tiger of Islamism and harness its energies in the service of the state.” [10] Islamization under General Ziaul Haq affected four areas—judicial reform, the penal code, economic activity and educational policy. Two decisions that had a particularly significant, long-term impact on the rise of sectarianism were the imposition of zakah or zakat (a 2.5 percent annual contribution Muslims must make toward charity based on their net asset value) and the expansion and radicalization of traditional religious schools called madrasa.

The state funded the madrasas through zakat. In 1984, 9.4 percent of zakat funds went to madrasas, and in 1996, long after Ziaul Haq was gone, the government was giving various madrasas 3.5 million dollars a year. [11] In 1982 the government had announced that madrasa diplomas would be considered equivalent to formal school certificates as long as the madrasas reformed their curricula according to state demands. As the state and the Islamists collaborated during the Ziaul Haq years, many madrasas changed their focus from traditional religious education to training an Islamic bureaucracy that could assume positions in the lower and middle echelons of the government, thus creating a social base for a future Islamic state.

Islamist groups set up numerous madrasas with government zakat funding. The Jamaat-e-Islami, which had set up its first madrasa—the Ulema Academy at Lahore—in 1976, ran seventy-.five madrasas by 1990. The Barelvis set up a new network of madrasas called Ziaul-Quran (the Light of the Quran) in response to the government initiative, which was primarily benefiting politicized groups such as the Deobandi, Ahl-e Hadith and Jamaat-e-Islami.

The Shi’a were not too keen on Ziaul Haq’s Islamization from the top, particularly when it strengthened Sunni Islamist groups. The Shi’a and Sunnis differ in their understanding of zakat. Unlike the Hanafi school of Sunnis, which accepts the government’s right to collect and distribute zakat, the Shi’a consider zakat to be an individual obligation. They may voluntarily entrust the collection and spending of zakat to the Shi’a clergy, but Shi’a jurisprudence gives the state no role in the matter. This communitarian and voluntary approach to zakat among the Shi’a is probably a reaction to centuries of domination by Sunni rulers over most of the Muslim world. When Ziaul Haq decreed that 2.5 percent of all bank savings would be forcibly deducted every year and deposited in the government’s zakat account, therefore, the Shi’a protested.

An important Shi’a cleric, Mufti Jaafar Husain (1916-1983), had argued for a long time that if Pakistan was to have Islamic law, the Shi’a should be allowed to follow their own jurisprudence—known as Jaafari fiqh after the sixth Shi’a imam, Jaafar al-Sadiq. Husain formed the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-Fiqh-e-Jaafariya (TNFJ), the Movement for the Enforcement of Jaafariya Law, which was later shortened to Tehrik-e-Jaafariya. Soon after Ziaul Haq’s decree authorizing the forcible deduction of zakat, the TNFJ started agitating against the decision. From Ziaul Haq’s point of view, and that of other Sunni Islamists, the Shi’a demand was unjustified. Iran had just had an Islamic revolution the year before (in 1979) and had implemented the Shi’a interpretation of Islamic law. If the majority’s jurisprudence prevailed in Iran, Pakistan’s Sunni Islamists believed the majority should prevail in Pakistan as well, and they saw no reason to make special provisions for the Shi’a minority. The state had become not only more Islamized, but it was also now adopting a sectarian preference within the Islamic context.

Ziaul Haq’s preference for an across-the-board enforcement of Sunni law in relation to zakat was challenged by large Shi’a demonstrations. On 5 July1980 the TNFK brought tens of thousands of Shi’a from all over the country and laid siege to the government headquarters in Islamabad. The government backed down and exempted the Shi’a from the compulsory deduction of zakat. Although this measure appeased the Shi’a, it did not please the Sunni Islamists. They saw it as a dilution of Ziaul Haq’s commitment to Islamizing the Pakistani state with their support. For his part, in an effort to limit any damage to his reputation among the Sunni Islamists, Ziaul Haq made a point of venerating Prophet Mohammed’s earliest successors, the first three caliphs whom the Shi’a consider usurpers of political power from their first imam, Ali.

In articulating its ideology and position, the TNFJ avoided expressly sectarian arguments. It insisted that, like every other Muslim group in Pakistan, it considered the Quran and the Sunnah to be the fundamental sources of law. It sought only for the right of “all recognized schools of Islamic thought” to be governed by their own interpretation of the Quran and the Sunnah. The TNFJ also talked about the creation of a popular Islamic army. Both these ideas—the concept of a popular army, as opposed to the professional one that dominated Pakistan, and the support for multiple interpretations of Islamic law—were viewed as dangerous by the army-run Pakistani state and its Sunni Islamist allies.

Outside Influences

Two international and regional events also had a profound effect on the rise and growth of sectarian conflict in Pakistan—the Iranian revolution and the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad. The Iranian revolution had a multifold impact. The first seizure of power by an avowedly Islamist group in an Islamic revolution brought Iran’s Shi’a clergy to power and energized Shi’a all over the Middle East, particularly those in the Gulf states. Saudi Arabia’s monarchy was wedded to Wahhabism, and the Sunni rulers of all the Gulf states had suppressed their Shi’a minorities since the emergence of the modern Middle East.

The Iranian government threatened the Saudis and their allies with its rhetoric of exporting the Iranian revolution. Polemical tracts attacking the Gulf monarchies as un-Islamic were distributed throughout the region and beyond. The Iranians also provided overt and covert assistance to Shi’a organizations and movements. The Gulf states retaliated by emphasizing the heresy of Shiism in an effort to mobilize their Sunni and Wahhabi base. When Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies supported him as a defender of Sunni Arab interests in the face of Shi’a Persian threats. Sunni Islamist groups in the Gulf forgave Hussein’s past attacks on Islamic observances and his repression of such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Shi’a clergy of Iran and Pakistan were linked historically, but these links became politicized only after the Iranian revolution. The changing role of the Shi’a Imamia Students Organization (ISO) provides an example of the new reality. Before 1979 the ISO took care of the material needs of Shi’a students in Pakistani educational institutions and facilitated Shi’a prayers and other religious observances. After 1979 the group began offering scholarships to Shi’a students to study in Iran. The increased contact between Pakistani Shi’a students and clergy and their Iranian counterparts created a cadre of politicized Shi’a leaders. TNFJ founder, Jaafar Husain, was succeeded as the leader of the Pakistani Shi’a by Allama Arif Husain al-Husaini (1946-88), who had studied at Shi’a academies in Najaf, Iraq and Qom, Iran. Husaini had come into close contact with Ayatollah Khomeini in both places. When Sunni sectarian terrorism began during the 1980s, Iranian diplomats in Pakistan were among its targets. In the minds of Sunni sectarian militants, Pakistan’s Shi’a groups and Iran were closely linked.

Ziaul Haq’s military regime, meanwhile, was closely tied to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. Pakistan was also organizing and training Sunni mujahidin to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan—a project that was backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States. Islamists from all over the world converged on Pakistan to receive state-of-the-art training in guerilla warfare, and the Afghan jihad became a training ground for an entire generation of Islamist militants and terrorists. Pakistan’s Islamists not only served as facilitators for the Afghan and international mujahidin, but also built a jihadi infrastructure and acquired a modern weapons arsenal in the process.

Although Pakistan officially maintained correct relations with Iran even after the 1979 revolution, Ziaul Haq saw its regime as a threat. And for their part, the Iranian mullahs did not like Ziaul Haq for his close ties to the Saudis and the United States. Given this state of affairs, the rise in Shi’a political activism in Pakistan was seen as a challenge by the Pakistani military and intelligence services, though large numbers of Shi’a served in both. Ziaul Haq’s initial reaction to such activism was to use diplomatic means to dissuade Iran from supporting local Shi’a political groups. Pakistani Foreign Minister Agha Shahi, himself a Shiite, traveled to Tehran in 1980-81 to convince Khomeini’s regime not to try to export its revolutionary fervor to Pakistan. He argued that Pakistan’s Shi’a were a protected and respected minority and that Iran would harm its relations with Pakistan, as well as the Pakistani Shi’a, by dabbling in Pakistan’s internal politics.

The Iranians did not heed Shahi’s advice, however, and Pakistan’s permanent state structure and its Intelligence services soon turned to other means in an effort to contain rising Shi’a fervor and political activism. From 1981 onward Sunni sectarian groups began to emerge, and they often found a willing sponsor in the Pakistani state.

The Emergence of Sunni Militancy

Ziaul Haq’s policies of Islamization had strengthened Sunni Islamist institutions, especially the madrasas, and given influence to Islamist political parties disproportionate to their electoral strength. Even before their Iranian-inspired political awakening, Pakistan’s Shi’a had been wary of the Islamist political formations and had tended to support secular political parties, notably the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Ziaul Haq had deposed Bhutto and executed him. The PPP and the pro-democracy movement it led were seen by Ziaul Haq as major challenges to his authority. It suited Ziaul Haq, therefore, to advertise himself as the defender of Sunni Islam and to identify the pro-democracy movement with Shiism for the purpose of mobilizing Sunni Islamists on his behalf. And it was not difficult to spread fear among Sunni Islamists about the Shi’a minority’s possible rise to power. The Shi’a were an influential minority, prominent in the arts and literature. Several leading Pakistani politicians were Shi’a, and Shi’a support for the pro-democracy movement meant that Sunni Islamists would never have as much influence under a democratic government as they wielded under Ziaul Haq’s Islamizing regime. More significantly, the number of Shi’a in Pakistan was rising.

In addition to making gains through effective proselytizing and natural growth, Shi’a ranks were swelling through conversions of convenience. Well-to-do secular Sunnis did not think much of declaring themselves Shi’a to enable their daughters to benefit from a larger share of their inheritance. While Islam’s laws of inheritance are defined in the Quran, the Shi’a interpret them more favorably for women. The compulsory deduction of zakat from bank accounts, so essential to generating funds for Sunni Islamist madrasas, also became a reason for defections from Sunni ranks. Many non-practicing Muslims decided to become Shi’a, not necessarily to observe the sect’s faith or practices, but to avoid having zakat deducted from their savings each year.

These circumstances, which appeared to threaten Sunni dominance and identity, provided an environment conducive to Islamist political activism and militancy. A Deobandi cleric, Maulana Saleemullah Khan, founded Sawad-e Azam Ahl-e Sunnat (Greater Unity of the Sunnis) in 1980, demanding that Pakistan be declared a Sunni state and that the Shi’a be declared non-Muslims. [12] Soon after, sectarian riots erupted in the port city of Karachi, and Sawad-e Azam followers attacked Shi’a neighborhoods and religious gatherings. The Sawad-e-Azam was later instrumental in creating the strongest Sunni sectarian militia—the Anjuman-e Sipah-e Sahaba (ASS), or Society of the Army of the Prophet’s Companions. Both organizations were run by Deobandi clerics who had little or no knowledge of English, and once the militant leaders learned the connotation of their English language abbreviation, they changed the name of their organization to Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the Pakistan Army of the Prophet’s Companions.

The Sipah-e Sahaba was formally established by Haq Nawaz Jhangvi (1952-90) in 1985 in Pakistan’s central Punjab province. According to the organization’s literature, it is part of the global struggle between Western materialism and the true faith:

The greatest evil of our age is atheism, irreligion and the revolt against the true faith. Although those (in the west) who revolted against religion at the beginning of the twentieth century are now returning to religion themselves, the poison of their ideologies has seeped into our society’s thinking. We need to generate the antidote… Just as the Muslim Ummah got rid of the yoke of British and French colonialism, we need a major effort to protect ourselves from the demon of irreligion and secularity and immerse ourselves into the beauty of Islam and Quranic injunctions. [13]

Sipah-e Sahaba opposed the notion of freedom of religious observance if it meant that the Shi’a would be free to criticize the early caliphs and companions of the Prophet. “True faith is only that following the way of the Prophet’s companions; anything else is heresy,” declared Ziaur Rehman Faruqui, who took over as SSP chief after Jhangvi’s assassination in 1990. The emphasis on following the Prophet’s early companions is simply a subtle way of condemning the Shi’a as heretics.

The SSP’s goals are to combat the Shi’a at every level of society, to have them declared a non-Muslim minority like the Ahmadis, and to proscribe their processions of self-flagellation during the month of Muharram. Sipah-e Sahaba also wants to impose its own version of Sunni Islam on the state and society. Its ideal polity is the Khilafat-i-Rashida, the rightly guided Caliphate that succeeded Prophet Mohammed and lasted for only thirty-one years. SSP justifies its virulent anti-Shiism as crucial to protecting Islam from Persian influence and saving the Muslim world from Khomeini’s pernicious, heretical ideology.

The SSP gained influence in the rural parts of Pakistan’s central Punjab province, partly by criticizing the influence of Shi’a landowners. They accused the Shi’a of having maintained their large land holdings through close ties with the British, which made them representative of secular culture. It did not occur to SSP’s militant Sunni followers that focusing on the large Shi’a estates might inadvertently endorse Shi’a inheritance laws, which prevented the kind of fragmentation of property that inevitably resulted from Sunni laws of inheritance.

SSP also attacked traditional, custom-based, mystical Sufi Islam that often allowed Sunnis and Shi’a in rural Pakistan to merge in their common reverence for particular saints and shrines. Seeking to impose a standardized, ritual-free, text-based Islam, SSP took pride in articulating the anti-Shi’a puritanism that other Islamist organizations shared but were unable to voice for the sake of political correctness. SSP maintained close ties with the leading Deobandi organization, Jamiat-e Ulema-e Islam (JUI), and all its leaders were graduates of Deobandi madrasas.

Almost all Sunni Islamist organizations quietly supported SSP’s anti-Shi’a rhetoric and campaigns. The Ziaul Haq regime saw the SSP as a check on the rise of Shi’a influence and gave it a free hand. Soon covert links had been established between SSP and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which managed official Pakistani support of jihadi operations in Afghanistan and Indian-controlled Kashmir. SSP cadres attended Afghan mujahidin training camps and returned to kill Shi’a leaders within Pakistan. The rise of the Taliban in the 1990s further deepened the ties among Pakistan’s various jihadi groups (see Current Trends, vol. 1), Deobandi madrasas and Sunni sectarian organizations like Sipah-e Sahaba.

SSP’s lethal attacks on Shi’a ulema and professionals generated a violent Shi’a backlash, however. The Shi’a Sipah-e Mohammed Pakistan (SMP)—Army of Mohammed in Pakistan—surfaced in 1991, almost a year after the assassination of SSP founder Haq Nawaz Jhangvi. Sipah-e Mohammed claimed to have more global aims than just protecting Pakistan’s Shi’a. Its founder, Ghulam Raza Naqvi, declared that he wanted to set up a Quds-force of both Sunnis and Shi’a to liberate Palestine. [14] But in practice SMP did little more than retaliate for SSP’s assaults on Shi’a by killing SSP leaders and cadres, and occasionally by mounting attacks on Deobandi mosques in reprisal for attacks on Shi’a mosques.

The violence between Shi’a and Sunni extremist groups escalated further once Ziaul Haq’s military regime came to an end and civilian rule was restored in Pakistan. Worried about the sectarian violence, the civilian political leaders attempted to co-opt the SSP into the political system. The group’s candidates won some seats in the Punjab Assembly, and they were offered positions in the government in exchange for renouncing violence. One segment of the SSP found this bargain unacceptable, however, and responded by creating the secretive and uncompromisingly violent Lashkar-e Jhangvi (JI)—Jhangvi’s Army. This group, founded by Riaz Basra in 1994, consisted mainly of Afghan jihad veterans and worked closely with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It is important to note that since the collapse of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s Baluchistan province has become a major center of anti-Shi’a militants. Their main targets have been the anti-Taliban Shi’a Hazara community. [15]

Sectarian conflict in Pakistan has not remained confined to the sphere of Sunni-Shi’a rivalry. Violence has erupted among competing Sunni organizations as well. Once the floodgates of discussion over who is or is not a Muslim are opened, any number of claims for excluding heretics from the mainstream can emerge. Although sectarian violence in Pakistan began with demands to declare Ahmadis and Shi’a non-Muslims, the rising tide of Sunni extremism has led the various Sunni organizations to vie with one another for the right to decide who can legitimately be considered a true Sunni Muslim.

As Deobandi and Wahhabi groups expanded through state patronage and organized militias, the traditionalist Barelvis found themselves marginalized. By the middle of the 1990s, a militant organization called the Sunni Tehreek (Sunni Movement) was founded in Karachi by Saleem Qadri. This movement sought to roll back the rising tide of Wahhabi and Deobandi influences and to restore the South Asian tradition of devotional and festive observance of Islam. This effort did not sit well with the Deobandi and Wahhabi groups, of course, who saw the revival of traditionalism as a setback to their successful imposition of fundamentalism in the preceding two and a half decades. On 11 April 2006 a massive bomb blast in Karachi on the occasion of Eid Milad-un Nabi (celebration of Prophet Muhammad’s birthday), which the Deobandis and Wahhabis view as sinful, killed about fifty people and injured many more. Most of the casualties belonged to the Barelvi sub-sect of Sunni Islam, and many were affiliated with the Sunni Tehreek.

The Role of the State

The complexities of Pakistan’s centralized militarist state have encouraged the rise of both Islamism and its sectarian manifestations. According to Vali Nasr, two distinct factors account for this development. The first involves the state’s attempt to increase its own power by manipulating the rifts in society. The post-colonial state, though large and interventionist, has only limited capabilities. By manipulating social and cultural divisions and using a divide-and-rule strategy, however, the government is able to create a sphere in which it becomes the arbiter in any conflict. The state and its wings thus acts as an agent of identity mobilization and intensifies sectarian conflict. [16]

The second factor involves the Pakistani state’s use of Islam or religious nationalism to bind the country together—which, in turn, gives impetus to fundamentalism and sectarianism. Since the days of Pakistan’s first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, the country’s military-technocratic elite or “establishment” has believed that Pakistan is difficult to govern. They consider the masses not to be ready or .t for democracy, and they are in constant fear that ethnic and regional centrifugal tendencies will pull the country apart. The Pakistani state has, therefore, consistently felt the need for an ideology to bind Pakistan—and Pakistanis—together. Islam is seen as fulfilling that role.

The ties connecting the state, the military and the Islamists have strengthened over the years to combat the growing power of secular and ethnic-based political parties that often do not share the Pakistani establishment’s hostility toward India. Throughout the 1980s the Pakistani military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) supported militant Sunni Islamist groups in the northwest frontier bordering Afghanistan, as well as in Punjab and Baluchistan. And the government has funded Sunni madrasas, which in addition to preparing cadres for jihad in Afghanistan and India, have also become bastions of sectarianism.

The Iranian revolution and the reaction it caused in the Gulf states, especially in Saudi Arabia, also contributed to sectarian violence in Pakistan. The Gulf states with Shi’a minorities were worried about domestic rebellion and civil war. Iran challenged Saudi Arabia’s pre-eminent position and status in the Muslim world—a replay of the Ottoman-Safavid power struggle of long ago. This led to large-scale pan-Islamization attempts by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, as well as by Libya and Iraq, to export Sunni-Wahhabi Islamism to other parts of the Muslim world. Pakistan was one of the key battlegrounds in this Iran-Saudi battle.

In 1984 the Deobandi scholar Muhammad Manzur Numani wrote a tract asserting that the excesses of the Iranian revolution proved that Shiism was un-Islamic. The preface to this work was written by Sayyid Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi, rector of the Nadwatul Ulema and recipient of Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal Prize for Service to Islam. The fact that Nadvi was associated with the Saudi Rabita al-Alam al-Islami (Muslim World League) raised the suspicion that Gulf politics had a lot to do with the timing and virulence of the tract. Another pro-Saudi religious leader in Pakistan, Asrar Ahmed, went so far as to argue that Shiism, which originated soon after the demise of Prophet Mohammed, was part of an early Jewish conspiracy against Islam.

The assumption that Islamist forces and sectarian militias could be used and controlled has backfired against Pakistan’s government and—especially—its military, which now face the serious challenge of rolling back extremist beliefs. So far the state is not doing well. The government is finding it difficult to shut down or control the numerous radical and militant madrasas that were set up during the Afghan jihad. As the Islamists have increased their ability to raise funds globally, their madrasas have become less dependent on zakat assistance and hence less amenable to state influence. In the case of militant groups, the state’s periodic resort to force seems merely to substitute one combatant for another. The jihadis eliminated through the use of force are quickly replaced by more virulent cadres, who are constantly being produced.

The Islamists know their strengths and the government’s weaknesses. They also know that until Pakistan’s government decides, once and for all, not to rely on Islam for nation-building and state consolidation, it will continue to court Islamist partners. For the foreseeable future, then, sectarian Islamist militancy will remain a serious threat to Pakistan’s stability. In 1954 the Pakistan government appointed a court of inquiry into the anti-Ahmadi violence. The Munir Commission, named after the Supreme Court chief justice who headed it, published a report that contained a very prescient assessment of future Islamist politics in Pakistan. It concluded that the government should keep out of the business of defining who is, or is not, a Muslim and of how Islam is to be enforced as the state religion:

Keeping in view the several definitions given by the ulema (of who is a Muslim) need we make any comment except that no two learned divines are agreed on this fundamental? If we attempt our own definition as each learned divine has done and that definition differs from that given by all others, we unanimously go out of the fold of Islam. And if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulema, we remain Muslims according to the view of that alim but kafirs according to the definition of everyone else…. What is happening now seems almost the writing on the wall, and God help us if we do not stop these…people from cutting each other’s throat.” [17]

Keywords: Iraq, Iran, Sunni, Shia, Jamaat-e-Islami, Deobandi, Pakistan, Kafirs, Wahabi


1. International Crisis Group, State of Sectarianism in Pakistan (Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2005).

2. “Sectarian Violence in Pakistan,” South Asian Terrorism Portal at

3. “I am a Sunni Muslim, says Shaukat,” Dawn, 1 July 2004.

4. Syed Vali Nasr, “International Politics, Domestic Imperatives and Identity Mobilization: Sectarianism in Pakistan, 1979-1998,” Comparative Politics, vol. 32,2 (January 2000): 171.

5. Muhammad Qasim Zaman, “Sectarianism in Pakistan: The Radicalization of Shi’i and Sunni Identities,” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 32,3 (July 1988): 689.

6. Usha Sanyal, Devotional Islam and Politics in British India: Ahmad Riza Khan Barelwi and His Movement, 1870-1920 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 11-13, 89-90.

7. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism(New York: Verso Books, 1991).

8. Zaman: 690.

9. Syed Vali Nasr, Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 131-37.

10. Syed Vali Reza Nasr, Islamic Leviathan—The Making of State Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 136.

11. The Economist, 28 January 1996: 37.

12. Mehtab Ali Shah, “Sectarianism—A Threat to Human Security: A Case Study of Pakistan,” The Round Table, vol. 94,382 (October 2005): 617.

13. Ziaur Rehman Faruqui, Sipah-e-Sahaba Mein Har Musalman ki Shamooliat Kyun Zaroori Hai? (Why Must Every Muslim Join Sipah-e-Sahaba), Sipah-e-Sahaba pamphlet in Urdu with no publication details, circa 2000.

14. Mariam Abou Zahab, “The Regional dimension of sectarian conflicts in Pakistan,” October 2000, p. 5, at

15. International Crisis Group, “The State of Sectarianism in Pakistan,”’ Asia Report, no. 95 (18 April 2005): 21.

16. Vali Nasr, “International Politics, Domestic Imperatives and Identity Mobilization”: 174.

17. Report of the Court of Inquiry into the Punjab Disturbances: Munir Commission Report (Karachi: Government of Pakistan, 1954), p. 35.

This article first appeared in Volume 4 of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology published November 1, 2006.

History repeats itself in Pakistan

By Husain Haqqani

Journal of Democracy Vol. 17(4) (2006) pp110-124

General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 military coup, has made it clear that he intends to continue running Pakistan, combining the offices of army chief and president in his own person. Musharraf’s political system revolves around his personality and is dependent upon the army’s position as the final arbiter of Pakistan’s politics. If Musharraf is to leave a legacy different from those of previous military rulers, he must tackle the contempt for civilians and the prejudice against politicians found in the higher military ranks. Not until the army’s institutional thinking changes or its hold becomes weaker can Pakistan be expected to make a transition to democratic rule.

Click here to read the journal article.

Let Pakistanis elect their leader

Gulf News, June 7, 2006

Official Pakistan has responded to the buzz generated by the opposition’s Charter for Democracy in characteristic manner. Supporters of military rule are currently busy mocking the alliance between former rivals Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.

Allegations of misrule under Bhutto and Sharif are being repeated and, in some cases, rehashed. General Pervez Musharraf is sticking to his previous line that the two former prime ministers will never be allowed to return to power.

All this begs the question: Why not let the people of Pakistan decide? After all, in a functioning democracy, elections are held periodically to determine whom the people want to wield executive office and legislative power. The people vote against politicians who failed to deliver and occasionally forgive their transgressions because of some other redeeming quality.

Furthermore, politics is about making a choice from available options. People can elect a leader in one election, vote them out in the next, only to elect them back under different circumstances. If someone is convicted of a crime by a court of law, the law takes its course.

Only last week, Peru’s voters elected Alan Garcia as president even though his tenure as president 16 years ago had been marked by a failing economy and a violent rebellion. An Associated Press report on Peru’s election explained the voters’ choice in terms of rejection for a candidate supported by Venezuela’s radically anti-American president Hugo Chavez.

“I want our party this time to demonstrate to the Peruvian people, who have called it to the highest responsibilities, that it will not convert the state into booty,” Garcia was reported as saying a reference to the corruption that had marked his first term from 1985-90.

Garcia may or may not deliver on his promises. But at least Peru’s military, or a shadowy establishment representing security and intelligence services, did not usurp the right of deciding whether a man whose term in office was ruinous in the eyes of some could run again or not.

The Pakistani people deserve the same right to decide upon the qualifications of their politicians as the people of Peru. The people could choose to trust General Musharraf and his allies or revert to Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. By signing the Charter for Democracy, the two leaders have agreed to follow certain rules of the political game in the future.

Their commitment to a new pattern of behaviour might appeal to the people or they could find that their popular support has eroded. Either way, the people must be trusted to deliver the final judgment, not General Musharraf and a coterie of unelected generals, international bankers and businessmen who benefit from military rule.

But Pakistan is still in the grip of a vice-regal system under which the purpose of elections is merely to identify intermediaries between the people and a permanent State establishment.
The State establishment monopolises executive power and retains a veto over legislation. On the few occasions when elected governments have been allowed to take office, the State establishment has tried its best to circumscribe the power of elected officials.

Between 1972 and 1977, an elected government managed to wield full authority because the permanent State structure simply could not stay in power after the bifurcation of the country under military rule.

Students of Pakistan’s political history know that soon after the 1958 coup d’etat, Pakistan’s military leadership started searching for “forms of democracy” that would allow the generals to retain control of policy while allowing civilians an illusion of political power and some control over patronage.

The military establishment and its apologists argue that the military’s direct political intervention in 1999 was necessitated by the widely-discussed incompetence and corruption of the politicians that held power during the 1990s. But Pakistan’s history did not begin in 1988 and with the political competition between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, both of whom have been systematically maligned by Pakistan’s establishment.

Pakistan’s army chiefs, beginning with Ayub Khan (who took power in 1958), have disqualified a generation of politicians at ten-year intervals, claiming that through local government and “grassroots democracy”, duly controlled by the ISI, they will produce a stable, democratic system over time.

Pakistan’s problem, quite clearly, does not lie with specific politicians and their flaws. It is the product of an attitude that puts generals on a pedestal, refuses to recognise politics as a legitimate occupation and refuses to allow the will of the people to manifest itself in free and fair elections. General Musharraf’s claims of building “real democracy” ring hollow in the absence of real elections.

India’s Islamist Groups

CONTEMPORARY INDIA IS A HINDU-MAJORITY COUNTRY, governed under a secular democratic constitution since 1947, when it achieved independence from British rule. At first glance India’s pluralism appears to protect it from falling under the spell of extremist ideologies, including Islamism. Muslim influence—cultural, political, economic, religious and linguistic—has been an integral part of the Indian ethos since the seventh century, and for the most part this influence has been benign. But India has been home to some significant thinkers of political Islam, and militant Islamist groups continue to operate in, and even target, India today.

Islam was first introduced to India’s coastal regions by Arab Muslim traders soon after its advent. In 711, a young general commanding an Arab army captured the kingdom of Sindh and established Muslim political power on the Indian subcontinent. Parts of India, now in Pakistan, were ruled by governors or tributaries of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties that ruled from Damascus and Baghdad respectively.

Muslim traders, mystics, preachers and invaders have shaped and influenced India for thirteen centuries. Muslim sultanates ruling from Delhi, beginning in the eleventh century, and the great Mughal Empire (1526-1857) that followed created a substantive Islamic legacy before India fell under British colonial rule. Decolonization resulted in the partition of India along religious lines, but the birth of Pakistan in 1947 did not sever India’s linkages with Islam. At least one-third of pre-partition India’s Muslims stayed in India. Today almost 12 percent of modern India’s population is Muslim, and with an estimated Muslim population of 170 million, India has one of the largest concentrations of Islamic believers.

Islam in India has historically been represented by both its esoteric form of Sufism as well as its various exoteric, traditional forms. Even after ruling large parts of India for eight centuries, Muslims overall remained a minority on the subcontinent. The ruling Muslim minority was generally tolerant toward the majority. This coexistence resulted in an Indo-Muslim syncretism exemplified in art, architecture, and culture throughout the subcontinent.  However, the decline in Muslim political power in India from the late eighteenth century onward changed Muslim attitudes significantly. After the demise of the Mughal Empire, Islamic fundamentalism increased. Muslim elites, seeing a decline in their power, prestige and influence, focused on ways to revive their ascendancy. This generated in India’s Muslim elites a preoccupation with the “revival of Islam’s lost glory,” which has been an important factor in the rise and spread of Islamist ideology the world over.

One of political Islam’s most significant thinkers, Syed Abul Ala Maududi, explains the concept of Islamic revivalism in the context of an eternal struggle between “Islam and un-Islam.” According to him,

Islamic Revival is neither striking compromises with un-Islam, nor preparing new blends of Islam and un-Islam, but it is cleansing Islam of all the un-Godly elements and presenting it and making it flourish more or less in its original pure form.  Considered from this viewpoint, a mujaddid [Islamic revivalist] is a most uncompromising person with regard to un-Islam and one least tolerant as to the presence of even a tinge of un-Islam in the Islamic system.

From the point of view of Islamists, the syncretism emerging under Muslim rule in India amounted to blending Islam with un-Islam. The foremost task for Islamic revival, as they saw it, was to purify Islam by purging it of outside influences. In Maududi’s words, any program for Islamic revival must also include a scheme “to wrest authority from the hands of un-Islam and practically reestablish government on the pattern described as ‘Caliphate after the pattern of Prophethood’ by the Holy Prophet.” Furthermore, Muslim revivalists must not “rest content with establishing the Islamic system in one or more countries already inhabited by the Muslims.” They must “initiate such a strong universal movement as may spread the reformative and revolutionary message of Islam among mankind at large.” The final aim of Islamic revivalism is to “enable Islam to become a predominant cultural force in the world and capture the moral, intellectual and political leadership of mankind.”

Most South Asian Muslims recognize Shaykh Ahmad of Sirhind (1563-1624) as the subcontinent’s first Islamic revivalist. Shaykh Ahmad questioned the Mughal emperor Akbar’s efforts to create a formal Indian religion (Deene-Ilahi, or “religion of God”) and insisted instead on strict adherence to sharia (Islamic law). Although Shaykh Ahmad’s intellectual efforts did not result in sharia-based government throughout the subcontinent, they did ensure that Islam retained its separate identity. Shaykh Ahmad did not demand an end to Sufi traditions, and he managed only to circumscribe the influence of other faiths over Muslims rather than ending that influence completely. For that reason, the scholarly Shaykh Ahmad does not serve as a model for modern day Islamist militants. That mantle is conferred on Shah Waliullah of Delhi (1703-1753), who combined religious scholarship with an active role in political matters.

Shah Waliullah’s birth coincided with the slow decline of Mughal influence and the corresponding rise of Hindu political power under the Marathas, a fighting force from India’s southwestern Maharashtra region. Shah Waliullah wrote to the Afghan chieftain Ahmed Shah Abdali (1722-1772) asking him to attack the Maratha chieftains and save the Mughal empire from losing territory. In his writings Shah Waliullah emphasized the importance of Muslim political power and ascribed Muslim decline to the rise of secular monarchy at the expense of the religiously guided caliphate. Shah Waliullah’s critique of Muslim history and his linking political decline with spiritual decline have significantly influenced subsequent Islamist movements throughout the subcontinent.

Muslims Under British Colonial Rule

Shah Waliullah’s efforts had a profound impact on India’s Muslims, but were in themselves not sufficient to revitalize the declining Mughal Empire. The Mughals, as well as other autonomous indigenous rulers that emerged during the period of Mughal decline, gradually lost power, and by 1857 all of South Asia—including contemporary India, Pakistan and Bangladesh—had fallen under British colonial rule. The British brought new ideas and technology, as well as other far-reaching changes, into the lives of South Asia’s peoples.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries in India witnessed, on the one hand, the rise of the Indian national movement and, on the other, the growth of religious revivalist organizations among both Hindus and Muslims. In 1875 the Arya Samaj (Aryan Society) was established to promote Hindu reformation and to reconvert Hindus who had been “lost” to Islam. Calls for shuddhi (purification) and sangathan (organization) among the Hindus prompted Muslim organizations to call for tanzim (organization) and tabligh (evangelism).  Muslims were also influenced by the Mujahidin Movement initiated by Sayyid Ahmed Bareili in northwest India (discussed in “The Ideologies of South Asian Jihadi Groups,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Volume 1) and the Faraizi Movement in Bengal.

The Mujahidin Movement’s founder Sayyid Ahmed Bareili had been influenced by the teachings of Shaykh Muhammad bin Abdel Wahhab during a pilgrimage to Mecca and had returned to India with the belief that there was a need to purify Islam as it was practiced in India and to reestablish Muslim power. Sayyid Ahmed Bareili designated regions of India under British or Sikh (i.e., non-Muslim) rule as a Land of War (Dar al-Harb) and declared that it was the duty of every Muslim to leave these regions and migrate to the Land of Islam, or Dar al-Islam. He described the northwestern region of India, along the Afghan border, as Dar al-Islam because Muslim Afghan tribes held sway there. Sayyid Ahmed set up cells throughout India that supplied men and money to his base in the northwestern region and continued his jihad until his death in 1831.

Around the same period Haji Shariatullah (1781-1840) initiated a movement to bring the Muslims of Bengal back to the true path of Islam. Like Sayyid Ahmed he, too, had been influenced by Wahhabi teachings during his pilgrimage to Mecca. Shariatullah emphasized a return to the five pillars of Islam and called any deviation from them a bida (sinful innovation). As such, his followers were called the “Faraizis” which derives from the word farz, meaning obligation.

The influence of the Mujahidin and Faraizi movements receded as the British gradually dispersed the fruits of modernity and introduced representative institutions among Indians, while simultaneously repressing their militant opponents. The beginning of the twentieth century witnessed the flowering of Indian nationalism, however. When Muslim leaders Muhammad Ali Jauhar and Shaukat Ali launched the Committee for the Defense of the Caliphate to show support for the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948) joined hands with them in an effort to undermine British authority in India. Hindu-Muslim cooperation against the British kept radical Islam at bay for some time and also contained the influence of Hindu religious extremism. But individuals and groups espousing the view that Hindus and Muslims could not be part of one nation persisted, challenging the supporters of secular Indian nationalism.

Fears of being swamped by the Hindu majority in an independent India and the inability of the Indian National Congress led by Gandhi to reassure the Muslim elite about its future gave impetus to the demand for a separate Muslim homeland as a precondition of independence. Indian scholars have also cited the long-term impact of Britain’s “divide-and-rule” policy as a key factor leading to the partition of the subcontinent and the birth of Pakistan in 1947. Although Pakistan itself was later divided by the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the partition of 1947 was final in terms of taking two-thirds of British India’s Muslims out of postcolonial independent India.

Indian Secularism and Radical Islam

Modern India’s twin founders, Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) espoused a secular ideology that called on the state not to favor any religion, to extend equal rights to all religious communities, and to grant minorities special protections and privileges. Serving as India’s prime minister from independence in 1947 until his death in 1964, Nehru attempted to translate these secular ideals into the state’s political philosophy. But Indian secularism was frowned upon by both radical Muslims and Hindu nationalists. For radical Muslims, the ideal remained an Islamic state and universal Islamic revolution. Hindu nationalists, on the other hand, embraced the ideology of Hindutva, which insists that India’s identity be defined in terms of its Hindu origins and that religions of foreign origin, such as Islam and Christianity, be reduced to a subordinate position in India’s national life.

The preamble to the Indian Constitution declares India to be a secular state and guarantees religious freedom to all minorities, which includes the right to set up and manage cultural and educational institutions. India’s Muslims have lived in a functioning democracy for almost sixty years, while Muslim-majority states have been mostly governed by authoritarian regimes. Three of India’s eleven presidents, including its current president, have been Muslim, and Muslims have regularly enjoyed representation in parliament and ministerial cabinets. The inclusion of Muslims within the democratic process has, by and large, kept radicalism among Muslims in check. But communal riots, involving Hindus and Muslims, have erupted on several occasions sparked by issues such as the slaughter of cows near a Hindu temple or the playing of music in front of mosques.

The post-partition era has also seen the steady presence of Hindu fundamentalist groups in India’s polity, highlighted since the 1990s by the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, or Indian People’s Party). The BJP was formed in 1980 but traces its origins to the Hindu Maha Sabha (Hindu Grand Assembly), which was founded in 1915 to defend Hindus against Muslim influence. The BJP rose to prominence in the early 1990s when it started a campaign to rebuild Hindu temples on sites where India’s Muslim rulers had allegedly constructed mosques after demolishing temples. This campaign provoked a violent dispute at Ayodhya in northern India on December 6, 1992, when thousands of Hindutva volunteers tore down the sixteenth-century Babri Masjid (Babar’s mosque, named after the first Mughal emperor).

Militant Islamist groups gained some ground as Muslims rioted across India to protest the destruction of the Babri Masjid. The riots were followed by bomb blasts in the Bombay Stock Exchange, an attack Indian officials attributed to collusion among organized crime groups that involved Muslims and Islamist organizations. Ten years later in 2002, large-scale communal riots in the western state of Gujarat also resulted in the death of thousands of Muslims and Hindus.

Contemporary India’s encounter with radical Islam has been complicated by India’s relationship with its predominantly Muslim neighbor, Pakistan. The two countries have fought three wars since partition, and their dispute over the Himalayan territories of Jammu and Kashmir has been particularly bitter. Since 1989, Islamist groups supported by Pakistan have fought Indian control over Kashmir with a guerilla insurgency and terrorism. Most of the militant Islamist groups currently believed to be operating in India are linked to the conflict in Kashmir. But radical ideological groups beholden to the global Islamist agenda also exist.

Each of India’s radical Islamist groups, whether in Kashmir or elsewhere, traces its ideological origins to one or more of three principal sources. The first source is the Darul Uloom Deoband, a conservative madrasa established in 1867 to train Muslim reformers and to combat Western influences. The second is the Jamaat-e-Islami (Islamic Society), which was founded by Abul Ala Maulana in 1941 to serve as the vanguard of global Islamic revolution. And the third is the Wahhabi movement originating in Saudi Arabia.

Darul Uloom Deoband and Its Offshoots

Founded in 1867 by Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi, the Darul Uloom (Center of Learning) at Deoband spearheaded a traditionalist reform movement among South Asia’s Muslims. The Deobandis, as the seminary’s graduates and followers of the movement it inspired are known, attribute the decline of Islamic societies in all spheres of endeavor to Muslims being seduced by an amoral and materialist Western culture, and from assorted Hindu practices believed to have crept into and corrupted the Islamic religion. The basic goal of the Deoband School is purifying Islam of such un-Islamic beliefs and practices. In the training of ulama, or religious scholars, the Deobandis emphasize the teachings of the Quran and the practices of Prophet Muhammad as reported in the Hadith. Within a couple of years of its establishment, the Darul Uloom spawned several branches in different parts of India, the most prominent of which was a sister school called Mazahirul Uloom at Saharanpur. After modernist Muslims set up Aligarh University in 1875 to pursue Western learning, the madrasa at Deoband and its offshoots were increasingly defined as traditionalist centers of learning to rival Western education.

To occupy some of the ground between these antagonists, the Nadwatul Ulama (Congress of Ulama) was set up in 1893 at Kanpur. This institution, which moved to Lucknow in 1898 and still exists today, sought to create a corps of ulama who would be conversant with conditions and events occurring around the world. It offered both a challenge to the Aligarh movement and an updated version of Deoband. The curriculum at Nadwatul Ulama was an amalgamation of traditional Islamic curricula, as taught at Deoband, along with modern sciences, vocational training and some paramilitary training.

Deobandi religious scholars have historically been opposed to the West, and this tradition endures today. A statement titled “What Is Terrorism?” on the website of Darul Uloom Deoband argues that the label of “terrorist” has been unfairly applied to Islam and Muslims because the latter are weak and the Zionists and the West are strong:

The powerful commits the destruction and brutal massacre of innocent persons, yet claims to be a defender of freedom, mankind and torchbearer of justice and civilization. The struggle or resistance of the weak for securing their legitimate rights against suppression or aggression is branded as terrorism. The barbarous bombing of several countries by USA, Israeli aggression against Palestinians, Russian atrocities in Chechnya and Chinese brutalities against Muslims in Sinkiang (Xinjiang) are glaring examples of double standards being applied for defining terrorism. According to the de.nition of terrorism by intellectuals, and thinkers of the West, the conduct of the governments of USA, Israel, Russia, the Philippines and Burma may be regarded as brazen acts of state terrorism. Unfortunately, the organs of (the) United Nations and the media have been utterly unsuccessful in restraining the tyrants and aggressors… The struggle waged by Muslims of Palestine, Chechnya and Sinkiang cannot be called ‘terrorism’. That is a legitimate resistance against aggressors and oppressors for securing their just rights.

In an interview in May 2003, the deputy rector of the Deoband seminary, Maulana Abdul Khaliq Madrasi, blamed Zionist and Christian forces for waging a “crusade to realize their dream of greater Israel.” He quoted extensively from the speeches and writings of organizations like the Southern Baptist Convention, the Touch Ministries and Franklin Graham to state that the war in Iraq is a war “between forces that believe in one God and forces upholding Trinity.” In what can be seen as a definitive enunciation of the Deobandi worldview, Madrasi explained:

It is the sacred duty of every Muslim to defend the territory for the defence of the Faith. They must continue their efforts till all threats to Islam are dismissed. In view of the presence of the forces of US and allies in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, it is obligatory for the Islamic World and every Muslim, individually and collectively, to ensure that the resistance against the enemy is continued till each and every member of anti-Islam Christian forces is expelled from Muslim countries….There are various verses at several places in the Holy Quran which state that if a Muslim country is attacked, or if Muslims are subjected to atrocities, if they are deprived of their rights, or if their religious beliefs are attacked or if Muslims are deprived of their power and suppressed; in every case it is obligatory for Muslims to fight the enemy. All that is being done by US forces in Iraq; for that reason it is mandatory for Muslims of the world, particularly of Muslims of adjoining countries that they should rise in an organized manner against the USA for defense of the nation and the country….[The] Islamic world should form a united defense instead of taking recourse to verbal rhetoric. They should mobilize all their material and martial resources with unflinching faith to defeat Zionist forces. If that is done, the time is not far off when Muslims will emerge from the life of humiliation and degradation to lead life of success and dignity.

The rhetoric of jihad notwithstanding, the Darul Uloom has not been charged so far with direct involvement in violence or militant training. The only significant Deobandi groups known to be involved in acts of terrorism have operated primarily in Kashmir. These Kashmiri groups—including Harakatul Mujahidin (Movement of Holy Warriors), Harakatul Ansar (Movement of Enablers) and Harakatul Jihad al-Islami (Movement for Islamic Holy War)—are the main Deobandi militant groups. They emerged during the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad and turned their attention to Kashmir after 1989 under the influence of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Jamaat-e-Islami and Its Jihadi Offshoots

The Jamaat-e-Islami, founded in 1941 by Abu Ala Maududi, divided itself into three distinct organizations after partition, one each for India, Pakistan and Kashmir. Maududi moved to Pakistan in 1947, leaving Jamaat-e-Islami India in the hands of his followers. Like the Arab Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hasan al-Banna, which originated in Egypt but spread to other Arab countries, the Jamaat-e-Islami considered itself the “vanguard of the Islamic Revolution” in South Asia. While the organization in Pakistan, and subsequently Bangladesh, embraced electoral politics in addition to organization and training of cadres, the Jamaat-e-Islami in India stayed away from the electoral fray. Rather, the Indian Jamaat emulated more closely the Eyptian Muslim Brotherhood in seeking to expand its influence through social and charitable work.

Maududi can be described as the first complete theoretician of the modern Islamic state. He argued that Western civilization was leading the world to doom and only Islam could rescue humanity. For him Islam was not just a religion but an ideology, a way of life. He put forth the concept of “theo-democracy,” which meant a theologically circumscribed democracy or, as Frederic Grare puts it, “limited people’s sovereignty under the suzerainty of God.”

Maududi’s main ideas focused on the notion of a single law (i.e., sharia), divine sovereignty and the belief that the struggle between Islam and un-Islam would lead to an Islamic revolution that would bring about the creation of an Islamic state. But Maududi realized that the Islamic state he envisaged would not be able to uphold the rigid demands of Islamic law in democratic conditions unless the population willingly abided by such demands. For that reason, he insisted, it was necessary to Islamize society before creating the Islamic state.

Although the Jamaat-e-Islami agreed to reorder its priorities in Pakistan by demanding an Islamic state before society had been Islamized, no similar revision occurred in India. Pakistan had an overwhelming Muslim majority, and the Pakistani establishment embraced Islam as a national ideology; this encouraged Maududi to believe that he and the Jamaat-e-Islami could secure political power and carry forward the task of the Islamization of society in stages. In India, however, where Muslims remained a minority, the situation was quite different, and the Indian wing of the movement continued to adhere to a purer version of its original ideological agenda.

The Jamaat-e-Islami of India, named “Jamaat-e-Islami Hind,” was organized in 1948, soon after partition, at Allahabad with Abul Lais Nadvi as its head. In 1960 its headquarters were moved to Delhi. The Indian organization’s literature and constitution assert that Jamaat-e-Islami in India has been involved in promoting communal harmony, and emphasizes dawa (call to faith) and social work among Muslims. But the Indian section of the movement continues to espouse Maududi’s fundamental worldview. Jamaat-e-Islami still expects to show Muslims where they went wrong and to make them good Muslims, as well as to convert non-Muslims whenever possible. While the movement does not eschew politics, it is waiting for “the basic tenets of the Jamaat’s ideology that the Divine Guidance should form the basis of our entire activity, expressed in political language as the Sovereignty of God, the Viceregency of Man and the Supremacy of His Law” to be appreciated by the majority of Indians. Jamaat-e-Islami Hind does not, in other words, consider the conditions in India to be ripe for it to assume an overt political role.

A radical offshoot of this movement is the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was banned by the Indian government in 2001 for having links with terrorism. Founded at Aligarh in 1977 by students tied to Jamaate-Islami Hind, SIMI is a radical Islamist organization dedicated to converting India to an Islamic land. Indian officials believe that the rationale for setting up SIMI as a separate militant organization was to insulate Jamaat-e-Islami Hind from a direct political role and to avoid a confrontation between the parent organization and India’s secular state. But SIMI’s open admiration of jihadi and radical views has led—at least on the surface—to serious differences with Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, which has now established a separate student front called the Student’s Islamic Organisation (SIO). Before 1987 all of SIMI’s presidents were senior members of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, but the organization publicly disowned SIMI in 1986 after it called for the “liberation” of India through Islam. This slogan greatly embarrassed the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind leadership, which had consistently tried not to do or say anything openly that would cause the Indian government to brand Jamaat a terrorist or jihadi organization. Covert links between SIMI and Jamaat are alleged to have continued, however, even after their public discord.

SIMI’s expressed goal is to convert India into Dar al-Islam by converting everyone there to Islam, and the group has declared jihad against the secular Indian state. SIMI seeks inspiration from the views of Maududi and Jamaate-Islami: According to SIMI, Islam is not just a religion but an ideology, the Quran is the only basis for governing human life, and it is the duty of every Muslim to propagate Islam and wage jihad to establish an Islamic state. SIMI is against not only the Western culture and modernization that Maududi critiqued at length, but also the prevalent Hindu Brahmanical culture and idol worship. In other words, the mere existence of other faiths and beliefs is unacceptable, and religious tolerance amounts to diluting Islam’s purity. Jihad, the Umma, and the Caliphate are core concepts in the ideology of SIMI, which stridently asserts pan-Islamic ideals.

According to Safdar Nagori, a prominent SIMI leader, Osama bin Laden is “not a terrorist” but rather, an “outstanding example of a true Mujahid” who has undertaken jihad on behalf of the entire community of believers, the Umma. For Nagori other inspiring personalities include Shaykh Ahmed Yassin of Hamas and Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Muhammad, the hardline Pakistani jihadi group most known for beheading the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. SIMI held a conference in 1999 under the slogan “Allah’s Party Shall Indeed Prevail” (Allah Ki Jamaat He Ghalib Rahne Wali Hai). The conference logo depicted the Quran with the superimposed image of a hand holding a gun against a globe. The conference heard an address in Arabic by Shaykh Yasin, which was primarily an exhortation to jihad. Conference participants were issued certificates declaring the “Quran is our constitution; Jihad is our path; and Martyrdom is our desire.”

SIMI targets Muslim youth between the ages of fifteen and thirty for membership, and demands that members retire after the age of thirty. Several former members of SIMI have moved to different parts of India and set up such local radical Islamist groups as the National Democratic Front and the Islamic Youth Center (IYC), based in the southern state of Kerala; Darsgah Jihado-Shahadat (School for Jihad and Martyrdom), based in Andhra Pradesh; and the Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (Muslim National Movement—TMMK) in Tamil Nadu. SIMI and its associated groups publish several magazines in various Indian languages, including Vivekam in Malayalam, Sedhi Madal in Tamil, Rupantar in Bengali, Iqraa in Gujarati, Tahreek in Hindi, Al Harkah in Urdu and the Shaheen Times in English and Urdu. In its 2000 annual report, the year before it was banned, SIMI explained its ideological agenda:

It is the responsibility of this (Muslim) ‘last community’, the ‘best community’, the ‘middle community’, to rise up and face the challenges that surround it, to revive Deen, to lead and guide not only the Islamic world, but all of humanity along the ‘Straight Path’ and rescue it from the clutches of Satanic power. It is the demand of the time that Muslim youth should struggle for the superiority and establishment of Deen and revival of Islam in the light of Holy Quraan [sic] and Sunnah…The end of the Khilafah (Caliphate) led to our (Muslim) disintegration into different countries on the basis of nationalism, language and other sectarian prejudices. Naturally therefore, our main responsibility is to strive in those areas, which are directly related to the reinstating of Khilafah…It is essential to emphasize that no political party or organization can bring about a solid and constructive change through secularism in the light of their erratic ideologies. The only way to bring about real change [is] through …establishing an Islamic system of life.”

The Wahhabi Movement and Its Indian Offshoots

Although the nineteenth-century Bareili and Faraizi movements, originally inspired by the Wahhabis of the Arabian peninsula, fizzled out against the might of the British Empire, some Indian Muslims adopted their puritanical doctrine. The Wahhabis of India describe themselves as “Ahle Hadith” or “Followers of Hadith.” Their numbers have generally remained small, however, due to their limited cultural appeal.

South Asian Islam has been very different from the Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia’s Nejd desert. Sufi influence has been widespread in India, affecting not only Muslims but also the lives of Hindus and Sikhs, who often participate in Sufi rituals and visit Sufi shrines. Wahhabism’s strong dislike of local practices and condemnation of Sufism has prevented its influence in India from being very strong. For years Indian Muslims used “Wahhabi” as a term of denigration for someone who does not respect saints and traditions.  It is for this reason that the Deobandis and members of the Jamaat-e-Islami have always avoided the appellation of Wahhabi even when their political cause has been inspired by such ideas.

The global spread of Wahhabi Islam, backed by modern Saudi Arabia’s petro-dollars, has not spared India, however. India’s small Ahle Hadith and Wahhabi communities have expanded with the construction of new madrasas and mosques funded by Gulf Arab governments and individuals. The Afghan jihad of the 1980s and the Kashmir jihad of the 1990s served as opportunities for militant training for radical Muslims, and India’s Wahhabis have won converts from existing Muslim sects, as well as among non-Muslims.

The most prominent Ahle Hadith or Wahhabi-jihadi group operating in India is the Lashkar-e–Taiba (“Army of the Pure.”) It is the armed wing of the Pakistan-based religious organization Markaz Dawa-wal-Irshad (Center for the Call to Righteousness,) which was set up in 1989 by Hazrat Muhammad Sayeed (and subsequently renamed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (Party for the Call to Righteousness). The group has been illegal in India and Indian-controlled parts of Kashmir since its inception, and was renamed Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Pakistan to circumvent a U.S.-inspired ban on the group as a terrorist organization. Lashkar-e-Taiba is closely linked to the Saudi religious establishment, as well as to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, and its ambitions lie beyond Kashmir (discussed in “The Ideologies of South Asian Jihadi Groups,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Volume 1).

A smaller and not yet well-known organization with Wahhabi roots is the Lashkar-e-Jabbar (LJ—Army of the Compelling God). LJ activists reportedly threw acid on two women in Srinagar on August 7, 2000, on the grounds that their dress did not conform to the Islamic code. Furthermore, several other jihadi organizations with obscure ideological orientations have surfaced in other parts of India. The Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) was reportedly founded in 1996 and, along with the Muslim United Liberation Front of Assam (MULFA), is part of the All Muslim United Liberation Forum of Assam (AMULFA). These groups have engaged in random acts of violence in the northeast region of India, claiming that their ultimate aim is to set up a “greater independent Islamistan” for the Muslims of Assam.


India’s secular democratic constitution empowers the country’s Muslims more than their co-religionists in Muslim majority states. Indian Muslims are able to elect and replace their rulers, in addition to influencing public policy. As a minority, however, Indian Muslims cannot benefit from democracy without coalition building. This need to establish broad-based democratic coalitions has acted as a check on radical and extremist ideologies, and as such, most orthodox and conservative Muslim groups use their political power to operate within the democratic context.

But has democratic India “solved” the problem of radical Islam? Despite India’s clear successes in this regard, Islamist radicals continue to organize and operate outside the political mainstream. While an overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims have stayed away from radical Islamist groups, extremist Islamists remain a threat to India’s stability much in the same way that they threaten democratic societies in the West.

Keywords: Islam, India, Wahabi, Mujahidin, Faraizi, BJP, Deobandi


This article appeared in Volume 3 of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, published February 16, 2006.

The Ideologies of South Asian Jihadi Groups

By Husain Haqqani

Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, April 2005

In the first volume of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, published by the Hudson Institue, Carnegie Visiting Scholar Husain Haqqani writes about Jihadis groups in South Asia. He covers the anti-Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan, and the emergence of jihadi groups in Pakistan and Kashmir, used by Pakistan to bolster is national identity against India.

Click on link in right column for Haqqani’s essay.

Click here to read the entire volume.

The Role of Islam in Pakistan’s Future

By Husain Haqqani

The Washington Quarterly, Winter 2004-05

Although listed among the U.S. allies in the war on terrorism, Pakistan cannot easily be characterized as either friend or foe. Indeed, Pakistan has become a major center of radical Islamist ideas and groups, largely because of its past policies toward India and Afghanistan. Pakistan supported Islamist militants fighting Indian rule in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir and backed the Taliban in its pursuit of a client regime in Afghanistan. Since the September 11 attacks, however, the selective cooperation of Pakistan’s president and military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in sharing intelligence with the United States and apprehending Al Qaeda members has led to the assumption that Pakistan might be ready to give up its long-standing ties with radical Islam.

For the full article click here

Asia’s Nuclear Arc

By Joseph Cirincione and Husain Haqqani

Publisher: Carnegie

Proliferation Brief, Volume 6, Number 16

A nuclear crisis is forming in the most volatile region on Earth.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has demanded that Iran give a full and final accounting of its nuclear activities by Oct. 31, or risk action by the U.N. Security Council. Iran’s eastern neighbor, Pakistan, and Pakistan’s traditional rival, India, have already tested nuclear weapons. India’s neighbor and rival, China, has been a nuclear power for many years. Next door to China, the insular, unpredictable and even maniacal regime in North Korea is reportedly assembling components for nuclear bombs. If Tehran pursues nuclear arms, then, for the first time since the advent of nuclear weapons, several volatile, contiguous states would possess them. Unless Iran and North Korea are stopped, and Pakistan and India engage in nuclear arms-control negotiations, Asia will become a nuclear tinderbox.

Iran’s Program
The most immediate challenge comes from Iran. Last month, the country’s chief delegate to the IAEA stormed out of a meeting with agency officials and denounced the agency as part of Washington’s drive for “confrontation and war.” The IAEA’s recently circulated report on Iran showed that Tehran had a large, sophisticated program capable of developing nuclear weapons within the decade. In February, Tehran publicly declared its intention to become a “self-sufficient” nuclear state but claimed that its program was for peaceful purposes. Pakistan had also made similar promises before testing a nuclear device in 1998, soon after India publicly joined the nuclear club.

Iran is even more likely to break its nonproliferation promises. Just as Pakistan’s pursuit of the atomic bomb was driven by its insecurity vis-a-vis India, Iran’s leaders feel that their country must achieve nuclear parity with Israel, Pakistan and India.

According to the IAEA report, Iran began enriching uranium in mid-August at 10 of the 160 centrifuges it has built at a pilot facility in Natanz. It is also constructing two huge underground facilities to house 50,000 centrifuges. Iranian officials say they are simply enriching uranium for reactor fuel, but the same machines and technologies can produce weapons-grade uranium. When completed later this year, the pilot plant could produce enough fissionable material to make one bomb a year. Planned larger-scale facilities, when completed in 2005, could create enough fuel to construct 15 to 20 nuclear weapons a year.

The most difficult part of building nuclear weapons is producing the enriched uranium or plutonium that goes in them. If Iran can solve this financially and technically demanding part of the equation, the design and construction of nuclear devices should not pose a significant problem.

The IAEA report documents the conflicting stories that Iranian officials repeatedly gave agency inspectors. They claimed, for instance, that they had built the centrifuges without any outside help, and that the officials had not tested the devices with uranium before scores of them had been built. This way, Iran would not violate its treaty obligation to declare the existence of such facilities before introducing nuclear materials into them. But agency swipes detected the presence of uranium, and IAEA experts concluded that the technology was far too sophisticated to have been developed solely from open-source information and computer simulations, as the Iranians claimed. Iran changed its story. Tehran then said it had bought the centrifuges and that the original suppliers must have contaminated the equipment.

Trick or Treat
That explanation raises a troubling question: Who sold Iran the centrifuges? Several reports have pointed the finger at Pakistan. Islamabad denies any link to Iran’s nuclear program. It claims that freelance scientists from the former Soviet Union assisted the Iranians. But U.S. intelligence sources and even official Pakistani statements have suggested that Pakistan has not always adhered to its commitment to not share its nuclear know-how.

Despite its denials, Islamabad reportedly swapped nuclear technology with North Korea, which helped Pakistan develop its ballistic missile program. Because Pakistan is a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism, Washington has tended to overlook Islamabad’s possible nuclear misconduct. It’s worth remembering that Pakistan was able to develop a nuclear program because Washington wanted to use the country as a staging ground for the moujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But we can’t continue to ignore nuclear proliferation out of fear that allies will be offended or upset. Each nation in the new nuclear arc represents serious policy problems for the United States. Iran’s clerical regime has consistently sought preeminence in the world of Islam, especially in the Middle East and Central Asia. Pakistan remains an unstable state and spawning ground for terrorists. Its confrontation with India has led to three wars and several military stand-offs. India seeks recognition as an international power, possibly with a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council, and has often bullied its weaker neighbors.

The experience of India and Pakistan further teaches us that once a country acquires nuclear weapons, crisis management becomes more difficult. Nuclear weapons have not created the “stability” of deterrence in South Asia. Rather, they have increased the chances for low-level conflicts that could escalate into nuclear confrontation.

The addition of Iran to the region’s nuclear club would heighten instability and the risk of conflict in a region abutting the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and China.

The U.S. administration rightly retreated from its original demand that the Security Council sanction Iran, which paved the way for a unanimous IAEA resolution that Tehran comply with all its treaty obligations. But there’s no sign that the Bush administration knows what to do next. Nor does it have a clear policy for the other countries in the nuclear arc.

Action Agenda
Here’s what the Bush administration needs to do:

  • Free up its diplomatic resources to focus on the coming nuclear crisis. It cannot let disputes over Iraq split the U.S. from its allies and monopolize high-level attention.
  • Convince Iran that its future would be far better without nuclear weapons. This should include efforts to forge a new, more positive relationship with Tehran. Sanctions without continued engagement failed to deter Pakistan and India from becoming nuclear powers and may prove to be of equally limited value against Iran. In interviews with U.S. journalists last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi offered to work with Washington on a range of issues, including Iran’s nuclear activities. The administration should aggressively pursue his offer.
  • Consider Pakistan not just as an ally in the war on terrorism but also as a serious problem in the struggle to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Anti-terror concerns should not trump antinuclear ones. The U.S. should help Pakistan overcome its security anxieties about India. But it should not allow Pakistan’s military leaders to feel they are free to resist democracy and develop their nuclear arsenal as long as they chase down members of Al Qaeda.

There is nothing inevitable about nuclear proliferation. Weapons programs have been successfully blocked in several nations. Stopping the spread of these deadly arsenals, however, requires the United States to put its diplomatic muscle behind its policy pronouncements.

Time is running out.

This opinion piece by Joseph Cirincione and Husain Haqqani first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on September 28, 2003. Joseph Cirincione is a senior associate and director of the Non-Proliferation Project and Husain Haqqani is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The American Mongols

Publisher: Carnegie

Foreign Policy , May/June 2003

Originally appeared in Foreign Policy , May/June 2003

An invading army is marching toward Baghdad—again. The last time infidels conquered the City of Peace was in 1258, when the Mongol horde, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulegu, defeated the Arab Abbasid caliphate that had ruled for more than five centuries. And if the ripple effects of that episode through Islam’s history are any guide, the latest invasion of Iraq will unleash a new cycle of hatred—unless the United States can find ways to bolster the credibility of moderate Islamic thinkers.

Saddam Hussein, who has led Iraq’s Baathist socialist regime for nearly 25 years, is no caliph. The U.S. military has come as self-declared liberators, not as conquerors. Yet the U.S. invasion of Iraq resonates strongly with fundamentalist Muslims because they see Saddam’s downfall—and the broader humiliation of the Arab world at the hands of the latter-day Mongols—as righteous punishment. Since the 13th century, Islamic theologians have argued that military defeat at the hands of unbelievers results when Muslims embrace pluralism and worldly knowledge. The story is drilled into Muslim children from Morocco to Indonesia: nearly 2 million people put to the sword; the caliph trampled to death; and the destruction of the great library, the House of Wisdom. The Ottoman Empire fell in 1918 for the same reason Muslims lost Baghdad in 1258: The rulers and their people had gone soft, approaching religion with tolerance and accommodation rather than viewing civilization as divided between Islam and infidels.

The U.S.-led invasion of secular Iraq is the ultimate vindication of this worldview, the capstone of a series of modern Muslim defeats that began with the first Gulf War and continued through the next decade with the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing campaigns against Muslims in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the repression of Islamist groups in Algeria and Egypt, Russia’s brutal military campaign against Chechen separatists, and the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Islamists see these cataclysmic events as opportunities to purify Muslim souls and to prepare for an ideological battle with the West.

Fundamentalists believe they have every reason to anticipate victory in this battle, because the story of the Mongol conquest of Baghdad didn’t end in 1258. The Egyptian Mamluks were able to halt the tide of Mongol victories in the Battle of Ayn Jalut in Palestine two years later. In less than a century, the Mongol conquerors themselves converted to Islam, and Islamic power resurged in Turkey and India after being dislodged from the Arabian heartland. The lesson, according to Islamists, is that even the defeat of Muslims has a place in God’s scheme for Islam’s eventual supremacy in the world.

In addition to the historical narrative, Muslim fundamentalists also have prophecies about the apocalypse attributed to the Prophet Mohammed to buttress their cause. These signs are described in hadith, the sayings of Mohammed passed down through oral tradition before being recorded at least 100 years after his death. One hadith that has currently captured the attention of fundamentalists is “The hour [of the world’s end] shall not occur until the Euphrates will disclose a mountain of gold over which people will fight.” The “mountain of gold” could be a metaphor for a valuable natural resource such as oil, and “the Euphrates” may refer to Iraq, where the river flows. Just as some Christian fundamentalists saw the creation of the state of Israel as fulfillment of biblical prophecy heralding the Day of Judgment, so too will some Muslim fundamentalists interpret the U.S. occupation of Iraq as setting the stage for the final battle between good, led by Mahdi (the rightly guided), and evil, represented by Dajjal (the deceiver).

Armed with prophecy and history, Islamist movements see the humiliation of fellow believers as an opportunity for mobilizing and recruiting dedicated followers. Muslims have often resorted to asymmetric warfare in the aftermath of military defeat. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and his Fatah movement captured the imagination of young Palestinians only after Arabs lost the Six-Day War and East Jerusalem in 1967. Islamic militancy in Kashmir can be traced to India’s military victory over Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh war. Revenge, rather than willingness to compromise or submit to the victors, is the traditional response of theologically inclined Muslims to the defeat of Muslim armies. And for the Islamists, this battle has no front line and is not limited to a few years, or even decades. They think in terms of conflict spread over generations. A call for jihad against British rule in India, for example, resulted in an underground movement that lasted from 1830 to the 1870s, with remnants periodically surfacing well into the 20th century.

This fundamentalist interpretation of Islam has failed to penetrate the thinking of most Muslims, especially in recent times. But religious hard-liners can drive the political agenda in Muslim countries, just as Christian and Jewish fundamentalists have become a force to reckon with in secular nations such as the United States. And with over 1 billion Muslims around the globe, the swelling of the fundamentalist ranks poses serious problems for the West. If only 1 percent of the world’s Muslims accept uncompromising theology, and 10 percent of that 1 percent decide to commit themselves to a radical agenda, the recruitment pool for al Qaeda comes to 1 million.

Suspicions about Western intentions date back to the British, who came as friends during World War I and ended up colonizing and dividing Arab lands. Thus, the Americans face the difficult task of overcoming Muslim mistrust. The United States must avoid any impulse to act as an imperial power, dictating its superior ways to “less civilized” peoples. It should be prepared to accept Islamic pride and Arab nationalism as factors in the region’s politics, instead of backing narrowly based elites to do its bidding. Patient engagement, rather than the flaunting of military and financial power, should characterize this new phase of U.S. intervention in the heart of the Islamic world.

If U.S. President George W. Bush’s promises of democracy in Iraq and a Palestinian state are not kept and if the United States fails to demand reforms in countries ruled by authoritarian allies, the umma (community of believers) would have new reasons to distrust and hate. The dream of helping Muslims overcome their fear of modernity will then remain unfulfilled. And the world will continue to confront new jihads.

Islam’s Medieval Outposts

Publisher: Carnegie

Foreign Policy , November/December, 2002

Originally appeared in Foreign Policy , November/December, 2002

As a 9-year-old boy, I knelt on the bare floor of the neighborhood madrasa (religious school) in Karachi, Pakistan, repeating the Koranic verse, “Of all the communities raised among men you are the best, enjoining the good, forbidding the wrong, and believing in God.”
Hafiz Gul-Mohamed, the Koran teacher, made each of the 13 boys in our class memorize the verse in its original Arabic. Some of us also memorized the translation in our own language, Urdu. “This is the word of God that defines the Muslim umma [community of believers],” he told us repeatedly. “It tells Muslims their mission in life.” He himself bore the title hafiz (the memorizer) because he could recite all 114 chapters and 6,346 verses of the Koran.

Most students in Gul-Mohamed’s class joined the madrasa to learn basic Islamic teachings and to be able to read the Koran. Only a handful of people in Pakistan spoke Arabic, but everyone wanted to learn to read the holy book. I completed my first reading of the Koran by age seven. I was enrolled part time at the madrasa to learn to read the Koran better and to understand the basic teachings of Islam.

Gul-Mohamed carried a cane, as all madrasa teachers do, but I don’t recall him ever using it. He liked my curiosity about religion and had been angry with me only once: I had come to his class straight from my English-language school, dressed in the school’s uniform—white shirt, red tie, and beige trousers. “Today you have dressed like a farangi [European]. Tomorrow you will start thinking and behaving like one,” he said. “And that will be the beginning of your journey to hell.”

Hafiz Gul-Mohamed read no newspapers and did not listen to the radio. He owned few books. “You don’t need too many books to learn Islam,” he once explained to me when I brought him his evening meal. “There is the straight path, which is described in the Koran and one or two commentaries, and there are numerous paths to confusion. I have the books I need to keep me on the straight path.” He had never seen a movie and advised me never to see one either. The only time he had allowed himself to be photographed was to obtain a passport for the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj. Television was about to be introduced in Pakistan, and Gul-Mohamed found that prospect quite disturbing. One hadith (or saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammed) describes “song and dance by women lacking in virtue” coming to every home as one of the signs of apocalypse. Television, Gul-Mohamed believed, would fulfill that prophecy, as it would bring moving images of singing and dancing women into every home.

The madrasa I attended, and its headmaster, opposed the West but in an apolitical way. He knew the communists were evil because they denied the existence of God. The West, however, was also immoral. Westerners drank alcohol and engaged in sex outside of marriage. Western women did not cover themselves. Western culture encouraged a mad race for making money. Song and dance, rather than prayer and meditation, characterized life in the West. Gul-Mohamed’s solution was isolation. “The umma should keep away from the West and its ways.”
But these were the 1960s. Although religion was important in the lives of Pakistanis, pursuit of material success rather than the search for religious knowledge determined students’ career choices. Everyone in my madrasa class dropped out after learning the essential rituals. I remained a part-time student for almost six years but eventually needed to devote more time to regular studies that would take me through to college. Gul-Mohamed was disappointed that I did not seek a sanad (diploma) in theology, but he grudgingly understood why I might not want a degree in theology from a parallel education system: “You don’t want to be a mullah like me, with little pay and no respect in the eyes of the rich and powerful.”

And so it was for much of the four decades before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a period when policymakers were more interested in the thoughts of Western-educated Muslims responsible for energy policy in Arab countries than those of half-literate mullahs trained at obscure seminaries. But Taliban leaders, who had ruled Afghanistan since the mid-1990s, were the products of Madrasas in Pakistan, and their role as protectors of al Qaeda terrorists has generated keen interest in their alma maters. A few weeks after September 11, I visited Darul Uloom Haqqania (Center of Righteous Knowledge), situated on the main highway between Islamabad and Peshawar, in the small town of Akora Khattak. Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been a student at Haqqania, and the madrasa, with 2,500 students aged 5 to 21 from all over the world, has been called “the University of Jihad.” The texture of life in the madrasa still has elements that represent a continuum not over decades but over centuries. But at Haqqania, I saw that the world of the madrasa had changed since I last bowed my head in front of Hafiz Gul-Mohamed.

In a basement room with plasterless walls adorned by a clock inscribed with “God is Great” in Arabic, 9-year-old Mohammed Tahir rocked back and forth and recited the same verse of the Koran that had been instilled into my memory at the same age: “Of all the communities raised among men you are the best, enjoining the good, forbidding the wrong, and believing in God.” But when I asked him to explain how he understands the passage, Tahir’s interpretation was quite different from the quietist version taught to me. “The Muslim community of believers is the best in the eyes of God, and we must make it the same in the eyes of men by force,” he said. “We must fight the unbelievers and that includes those who carry Muslim names but have adopted the ways of unbelievers. When I grow up I intend to carry out jihad in every possible way.” Tahir does not believe that al Qaeda is responsible for September 11 because his teachers have told him that the attacks were a conspiracy by Jews against the Taliban. He also considers Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden great Muslims, “for challenging the might of the unbelievers.”

The remarkable transformation and global spread of Madrasas during the 1980s and 1990s owes much to geopolitics, sectarian struggles, and technology, but the schools’ influence and staying power derive from deep-rooted socioeconomic conditions that have so far proved resistant to change. Now, with the prospect of Madrasas churning out tens of thousands of would-be militant graduates each year, calls for reform are growing. But anyone who hopes for change in the schools’ curriculum, approach, or mind-set is likely to be disappointed. In some ways, Madrasas are at the center of a civil war of ideas in the Islamic world. Westernized and usually affluent Muslims lack an interest in religious matters, but religious scholars, marginalized by modernization, seek to assert their own relevance by insisting on orthodoxy. A regular education costs money and is often inaccessible to the poor, but Madrasas are generally free. Poor students attending Madrasas find it easy to believe that the West, loyal to uncaring and aloof leaders, is responsible for their misery and that Islam as practiced in its earliest form can deliver them.
The Madrasa Boom
Madrasas have been around since the 11th century, when the Seljuk Vizier Nizam ul-Mulk Hassan bin Ali Tusi founded a seminary in Baghdad to train experts in Islamic law. Islam had become the religion of a large community, stretching from North Africa to Central Asia. But apart from the Koran, which Muslims believe to be the word of God revealed through Prophet Mohammed, no definitive theological texts existed. The dominant Muslim sect, the Sunnis, did not have a clerical class, leaving groups of believers to follow whomever inspired them in religious matters. But Sunni Muslim rulers legitimated their rule through religion, depending primarily on an injunction in the Koran binding believers to obey the righteous ruler. Over time, it became important to seek religious conformity and to define dogma to ensure obedience of subjects and to protect rulers from rebellion. Nizam ul-Mulk’s madrasa was intended to create a class of ulema, muftis, and qazis (judges) who would administer the Muslim empire, legitimize its rulers as righteous, and define an unalterable version of Islam.

Abul Hassan al-Ashari, a ninth-century theologian, defined the dogma adopted for this new madrasa (and the tens of thousands that would follow) in several polemical texts, including The Detailed Explanation in Refutation of the People of Perdition and The Sparks: Refutation of Heretics and Innovators. This canon rejected any significant role for reason in religious matters and dictated that religion be the focus of a Muslim’s existence. The Madrasas adopted a core curriculum that divided knowledge between “revealed sciences” and “rational sciences.” The revealed sciences included study of the Koran, hadith, Koranic commentary, and Islamic jurisprudence. The rational sciences included Arabic language and grammar to help understand the Koran, logic, rhetoric, and philosophy.

Largely unchanged and unchallenged, this approach to education dominated the Islamic world for centuries, until the advent of colonial rule, when Western education penetrated countries previously ruled by Muslims. Throughout the Middle East, as well as in British India and Dutch-ruled Indonesia, modernization marginalized Madrasas. Their graduates were no longer employable as judges or administrators as the Islamic legal system gave way to Western jurisprudence. Muslim societies became polarized between madrasa-educated mullahs and the economically prosperous, Western-educated individuals attending modern schools and colleges.

But the poor remained faithful. The failings of the post-colonial elite in most Muslim countries paved the way for Islamic political movements such as al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood) in the Arab world, Jamaat-e-Islami (the Islamic Party) in South Asia, and the Nahdatul Ulema (the Movement for Religious Scholars) in Indonesia. These movements questioned the legitimacy of the Westernized elite, created reminders of Islam’s past glory, and played on hopes for an Islamic utopia. In most cases, the founders of Islamic political movements were religiously inclined politicians with a modern education. Madrasas provided the rank and file.

The Iranian Revolution and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, both in 1979, inspired a profound shift in the Muslim world—and in the Madrasas. Iran’s mullahs had managed to overthrow the shah and take power, undermining the idea that religious education was useless in worldly matters. Although Iranians belong to the minority Shiite sect of Islam, and their Madrasas have always had a more political character than Sunni seminaries, the image of men in turbans and robes running a country provided a powerful demonstration effect and politicized Madrasas everywhere.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary regime promised to export its revolutionary Shiite ideas to other Muslim states. Khomeini invited teachers and students from Madrasas in other countries to Tehran for conferences and parades, and he offered money and military training to radical Islamic movements. Iranians argued that the corrupt Arab monarchies must be overthrown just as Iranians had overthrown the shah. Iran’s Arab rivals decided to fight revolutionary Shiite fundamentalism with their own version of Sunni fundamentalism. Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries began to pour money into Sunni Madrasas that rejected the Shiite theology of Iran, fund ulema who declared the Shiite Iranian model unacceptable to Sunnis, and call for a fight against Western decadence rather than Muslim rulers.

In the midst of this conflict, and the madrasa boom it spawned, the United States helped create an Islamic resistance to communism in Afghanistan, encouraging Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich states to fund the Afghan resistance and its supporters throughout the Muslim world. Pakistan’s military ruler at the time, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, decided to establish Madrasas instead of modern schools in Afghan refugee camps, where 5 million displaced Afghans provided a natural supply of recruits for the resistance. The refugees needed schools; the resistance needed mujahideen. Madrasas would provide an education of sorts, but they would also serve as a center of indoctrination and motivation.

General Zia’s model spread throughout the Muslim world. Maulana Samiul Haq, headmaster of the Haqqania madrasa, is a firebrand orator who led anti-U.S. demonstrations soon after the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. When I asked if he thought it appropriate to involve his 5- and 6-year-old charges in political demonstrations, Haq remarked, “No one is too young to do the right thing.” Later, he added, “Young minds are not for thinking. We catch them for the Madrasas when they are young, and by the time they are old enough to think, they know what to think.” Students and teachers carried militant Islamic ideology from one madrasa to another. On one of the walls of the madrasa of my youth, someone had written the hadith “Seek knowledge even if it takes you as far as China.” Across the road from the madrasa at Haqqania, some of Tahir’s classmates have written a different hadith: “Paradise lies under the shade of swords.”

The success of General Zia’s experiment led to the creation of similar free schools in places as diverse as Morocco, Algeria, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Muslim immigrants in Europe and North America established Madrasas alongside their mosques, ostensibly to teach religion to their children. Islam requires Muslims to set aside 2.5 percent of their annual savings as zakat (charity), and religious education is one area on which zakat can be spent. Madrasas do not need huge funds to run, though. Teachers’ salaries are low, the schools need no funding for research, and books are handed down from one generation to the next.

Madrasas have proliferated with zakat and financial assistance from the gulf states. (Some classrooms at Haqqania have a small inscription informing visitors that Saudi Arabia donated the building materials for the classroom.) Modern technology has also played a role, whether by creating international financing networks or new methods of spreading the message, such as through online Madrasas. Pakistan had 244 Madrasas in 1956. By the end of last year, the number had risen to 10,000. As many as 1 million students study in Madrasas in Pakistan, compared with primary-school enrollment of 1.9 million. Most Muslim countries allocate insignificant portions of their budgets for education, leaving large segments of their growing populations without schooling. Madrasas fill that gap, especially for the poor. The poorest countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Yemen, and Indonesia, boast the largest madrasa enrollment.

Classes at Haqqania are free, as are meals, which are quite basic. Tahir, the seventh of nine children, likes being at the madrasa because it provides him an education without costing his parents anything. He lives in a crowded dormitory of 40 to 50 students, sleeping on rugs and mattresses on the floor. He spends most of the day memorizing texts, squatting in front of a teacher who memorized them in a similar fashion as a child. “God has blessed me as I am learning His word and the teaching of His Prophet,” Tahir told me. “I could have been like others in the refugee camp, with no clothes and no food.”

Tahir’s teacher carries a cane and can often be brutal. One madrasa in Pakistan has resorted to the practice of chaining students to pillars until they memorize the day’s lesson. But compared with life in a squalid refugee camp, the harshness of the madrasa probably is a blessing. Tahir’s day begins with the predawn prayer and a breakfast comprising bread and tea; it ends with the night prayer and a dinner of rice and mutton. And if Tahir does well at the madrasa and earns a diploma, he can expect to find a job as a preacher in a mosque.

No Turning Back
An estimated 6 million Muslims study in Madrasas around the world, and twice that number attend maktabs or kuttabs (small Koranic schools attached to village mosques). An overwhelming majority of these Madrasas follow the quietist tradition, teaching rejection for Western ways without calling upon believers to fight unbelievers. The few that teach violence, however, drill in those beliefs firmly. The militant madrasa is a relatively new phenomenon, the product of mistakes committed in fighting communism in Afghanistan. But even the quietist madrasa teaches a rejection of modernity while emphasizing conformity and a medieval mind-set. The Muslim world is divided between the rich and powerful, who are aligned with the West, and the impoverished masses, who turn to religion in the absence of adequate means of livelihood. This social reality makes it difficult for the Madrasas to remain unaffected by radical ideas, even after the militancy introduced during the last two decades disappears. Cutting off outside funding might help, but because of their modest expenses, Madrasas can survive without assistance from oil-producing states.

Legitimizing secular power structures through democracy might reduce the political influence of Madrasas. But that influence is unlikely to wane dramatically as long as Madrasas are home to a theological class popular with poor Muslims. And the fruits of modernity will need to spread widely before dual education systems in the Muslim world will come to an end.

Muslim states are now calling upon Western governments to support madrasa reform through financial aid. The proposed recipe for reform is to add contemporary subjects alongside the traditional religious sciences in madrasa curriculum. But Madrasas will probably survive these reform efforts, just as they survived the introduction of Western education during colonial rule. Can learning science and math, for example, change the worldview shaped by a theology of conformity? I asked Tahir if he is interested in learning math. He said, “In hadith there are many references to how many times Allah has multiplied the reward of jihad. If I knew how to multiply, I would be able to calculate the reward I will earn in the hereafter.”