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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Radical Islam in Pakistan

By Owen Bennett-Jones
BBC South Asia analyst

The debate about the role of Islam in Pakistan is as old as the country itself.

When the country was created in 1947 many Islamic radicals thought the very idea of Pakistan was an aberration.

They rejected the notion of national boundaries and argued that the world's Muslims should live in one transnational community.

Islam and democratic values

Today the radicals have a different agenda.

They now accept the existence of Pakistan and say it should be a truly Islamic state with laws based on the Koran.

Most Pakistanis do not agree.

The majority believe Pakistan should be a modern Islamic state in which Islamic and democratic values live side by side.

The struggle between the modernists and the radicals in Pakistan remains unresolved

It is wrong to see this moderate majority as being opposed to religion.

The vast bulk of Pakistanis remain devout Muslims who want Islam to inform public policies.

They believe Islamic principles can make a positive contribution to modern democratic theory.

And they have no sympathy with the regressive extremists who ran and supported the Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Jinnah's legacy

The struggle between the modernists and the radicals in Pakistan remains unresolved.

Both groups claim the memory of Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

Guide: Militant Islamic groups
Profiles of the main Islamic militant groups around the world.

The radicals maintain that Jinnah wanted to build an Islamic state.

But even if Jinnah did make a few remarks about the all encompassing nature of the Koran, any fair minded assessment would have to conclude that he was a tolerant progressive thinker who viewed the radicals as ignorant, power hungry and often corrupt.

Growth of madrasas

The only Pakistani leader to back the radicals' Islamic agenda was the military ruler General Zia ul Haq.

During his 11 years of rule he tried to introduce Islamic principles in every aspect of the Pakistani state.

The Americans' need to recruit Mujahideen fighters to resist the Soviets in Afghanistan enabled Zia to finance the growth of the religious schools or madrasas.

The Soviets have long gone but the madrasas continue to turn out devout young men who aspire to fight a Jihad or holy war.

The current military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, is intent on dismantling Zia's legacy.

Musharraf knows that the vast majority of Pakistanis reject narrow-minded dogmatism
From the outset he has made it clear that he is a modernist with a moderate interpretation of Islam.

Musharraf's decision to back the United States after September 11th provoked a direct confrontation with the radicals but it was a contest the army was always going to win.

Rejection of the radical agenda

General Musharraf knows that the vast majority of Pakistanis reject narrow-minded dogmatism and prefer his tolerant version of Islam.

Traditionally, the religious parties in Pakistan have won under 5% of the national vote.

But in 2002, against the backdrop of the American-led offensive in Afghanistan, the radicals achieved 11% and formed the local governments in North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan.

While Musharraf has respected the election results he has also sent the religious parties a clear message.

If they move beyond symbolic gestures and try to impose their religious views then they will be stopped.

The army will be able to rely on the Supreme Court to rule that any radical measures, such as the introduction of religious police, are unconstitutional.

Determined opposition

General Musharraf's opposition to the radicals is more determined than that provided by any elected leader in Pakistan's history.

Islamic extremists have tended to vent their frustration by carrying out sectarian killings
Even though he had no sympathy for the radicals, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto banned alcohol and gambling in a brazen, cynical attempt to win their support.

His daughter Benazir, adopted much the same approach.

Despite being perceived in the West as a liberal democrat, she was always reluctant to confront the religious parties.

Her great political rival, Nawaz Sharif, went one stage further.

In an attempt to win total control of the parliament and the judiciary he tried to pass a Sharia law bill that would have made his political position unassailable.

A global phenomenon

The growing strength of political Islam is a global phenomenon.

In Pakistan the Islamic extremists have tended to vent their frustration and anger by carrying out sectarian killings and by joining the fight against the Indians in Kashmir.

Indeed, one of the major problems that could face Pakistan in the future is that a settlement of the Kashmir dispute would leave the young jihadis looking for another cause.

Many fear that, in those circumstances, their violent tactics would be directed at a Pakistani state that many of the madrasa students consider heathen and corrupt.

If you'd like to ask a question or make a comment about this article, write to us using the form at the bottom of the page. Owen Bennett-Jones will answer a selection of your questions.


Your comments

An interesting article, but to say that Most Pakistani's do not want to be governed by Islamic laws is false. Most Pakistani's in fact want Islamic laws. They know that corruption, rape, murder, sectarian violence would virtually be removed under such laws. The only people who oppose Islamic laws are those who are rich and powerful. But anyone who challenges the status quo in this day and age is considered to be a terrorist, a radical or a fundamentalist. And if we talk about democracy and democratic principles, 90% of Pakistanis did not want Pakistan to support America's war on terror, Where is the democracy in that?
Imran Khan, UK

Pakistan's military elite need a distraction for the teeming masses and the mullahs fill the void
Jerry Zedler, USA
Clearly Pakistan's military-political elite use the bogeyman of radical Islam to blackmail the West and to keep the rest of the Pakistanis in check. With a rapidly rising population, lack of water and total breakdown of law and order in many areas - Pakistan's military elite need a distraction for the teeming masses and the mullahs fill the void. Unless the West cuts ties with the military and allow democracy to flourish, Pakistan will inexorably head towards a many way split. I'm afraid things don't look sanguine at all.
Jerry Zedler, USA

I don't agree with the notion that most of the Pakistanis don't want an Islamic government. How can you say that? I have lived all my life in Pakistan and I know what my people want. We got Pakistan in the name of Islam and Islam is our future, no matter what you or the West say.
Amer, Pakistan

We are trying to solve the wrong problem
Kamran Meer, USA
Radical Islam is only one issue facing Pakistan and it is a fallout from the Pakistan army's clandestine involvement in the US-backed 10-year Afghan war against the Soviets, mainly through the 'manufacture' of 'holy' warriors. The bigger current issue for Pakistan, as I see it, is the military and weapons program, maintained by Pakistan mostly via loans from the international community. After paying the costs of these projects, only 10-15% of the country's annual GDP is left for development. This is the big issue yet radical Islam gets more space and debate both in Pakistani and western media. We are trying to solve the wrong problem. Unfortunately, the current US government's strong financial and moral support for the Musharraf regime is only strengthening the Pakistani army's predatory behaviour vis-a-vis civilians. There are many both in Pakistan and the West who believe that Musharraf's moderate vision will bring economic progress to Pakistan. They are mistaken because radical Islam is not the cause of the economic problems.
Kamran Meer, USA

I believe that Pakistan is facing a serious Islamic militancy problem because governments, one after another, have failed to provide the moral guidance to the people of Pakistan and as a result the madrasa became the teaching institutions and grew all over the country other instiuatins like schools , colleges and universities lost their importance, these madrasas have spoiled children's minds and made them militant. The Talibans are came from these madarsas.
Wasi Siddiqui, Canada

'Mullahism' has taken over Islam because Islam had no central control over production or management of its leadership
Ahmed Mahmud, USA
The biggest problem in the world today is that countries like Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia and all others, have 'Mullahism' and not Islam. 'Mullahism' has taken over Islam because Islam had no central control over production or management of its leadership. There is no universal authority similar to that of the Pope's administration in Christianity. This is the basic problem with this religion today and it can never be resolved.
Ahmed Mahmud, USA

Thank you for your concise and perspicacious article. Unfortunately, such wide-ranging views suggest by virtue of their clarity a whole range of detailed issues and questions. For instance, is there not a racialist side to Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan? Is there more than friction in the political process or is there antagonism and a sense of opposition? Are the two inevitably headed towards violent confrontation? What is the basis of your claim that the bulk of Pakistanis rejects a 'pure' Islamic State and feel uncomfortable with an overtly political radical Islamic government? Thank you for a very thought-provoking article.
Gerard del' Ange, Europe

Pakistan over the successive years has experienced many changes of government. Each promising deliver for the benefit of its citizens. All these have brought their own style of politics and government, providing their own brand of secular politics, sham democracy, and corrupt thinking. However what Pakistan lacks is sincere leadership, leadership based on the foundations of why it was created, and this is of-course Islamic political leadership.
S Butt, Walthamstow, London

What has Pakistan gained by being an Islamic state?
Abhijit Roy, India
What has Pakistan gained by being an Islamic state? It's one of the poorest in the world. Next door neighbour, despite all the problems of democracy is the world's IT superpower. It produces its own steel, automobiles, and consumer durables and has a robust financial market where international investors are ready to pump in dollars. Pakistan on the other hand has to rely only on US dole-outs.
Abhijit Roy, India

I think Islam is the only religion that explicitly teaches its followers not to be harsh even towards the traditional mores of other people ,respect rights, rituals and beliefs of others. What we see today is not the expression of religion but an act frustration on the part of Muslims as a whole.
A-- wahab, Pakistan

I would say that Muslims are there in Pakistan rather than Islam in Pakistan. There is a big difference between the two. Islam is a code of conduct, a complete set of guidelines for a human to spend life and build a society. People of such an Islamic society subjugate in front of one God, have humanity as its prime concern and follow eternal principles of patience, care and compassion. Please don't defame Islam by mapping it to today's Muslims.
Shakeel, NJ, US

I am happy to see a well balanced article about Pakistan, which tends to correctly reflect the ground realities. I am a moderate Muslim and proud of my religion.
Najmul Hasnain, Pakistan

The military establishment survives upon the fear and hatred of India. It is also an ideal "theatre of jihad" for the fundamentalists. The connection is clear. The forces dragging Pakistan towards radicalism are far too great for Musharraf to stop.
Aditya, USA

By no means do I fall under the "radical Islamist" umbrella. But commenting on the young "jihadi's" in Kashmir. I being a Pakistani think that it is the mass of frustrations which drives younger people to take such extreme actions. Islam teaches brotherhood amongst the followers, keeping that into account the younger generation takes what they believe is the best course of action for the time. There are many people who are ready to blame the madrasas for the lack of stability in society, but a very few who actually care to analyze the root cause.
Jawad., Pakistan/Canada

You seem to be suggesting that Islamic and democratic values are opposite or two separate things.
Ashraf Tiwana, Pakistan
I have serious reservations about your suggestion that most Pakistanis do not agree that Pakistan should be a truly Islamic state with laws based on the Koran. By saying that, "The majority believe Pakistan should be a modern Islamic state in which Islamic and democratic values live side by side" you seem to be suggesting that Islamic and democratic values are opposite or two separate things. I believe it is this ignorance of Islam, its teaching and its values, which is creating the "Islamphobia" which was the topic of discussion recently at the BBC.

The foremost thing which one has to understand about Islam is that it is not a religion but in fact a code of Life. Islam cannot be separated from any aspect of the Life of its believers and it is this reason why it can be separated from politics either. Muslims and specially Pakistanis know this about Islam and therefore want to be governed by what God has ordered.
Ashraf Tiwana, Pakistan

Hi Owen-Bennet Jones, For the first time I feel that someone has been a bit neutral in projecting Pakistan and Islam. I liked the way you talked about extremist and moderate people in Pakistan . I just hope that you will come up with a program showing both sides of Pakistan. I would like the world to see the educated and modern class of Pakistan who dont take Hijab, who send their daughters abroad to study and interviews from females who are doing business. Finally some actions should be taken against the extremist who are corrupting the young minds in Madrassa.
Mariya Suhail, Pakistan

I believe that Pakistan is suffering from the results of what it sowed a couple of decades back. The recent rise in Shia-Sunni riots also indicate that there are too many young minds which have been whitewashed by horrible material in the madrassas. We should note that all madrassas are not bad. In fact most Muslims in the Indian subcontinent, including me, have gone to madrassas for learning the Qur'an and Islamic ways. However these were just schools and taught us just what normal schools teach. They were not outlets for political propaganda. The present madrassas in Pakistani Kashmir and NWFP are more political than religious and churn out students who see no future for themselves in the modern world and hence want to finish themselves off as martyrs in wars. I hope and pray that President Musharraf, who seems to be a much better bet than any of the democratic presidents Pakistan has ever produced, can dismantle these madrassas and ensure security in the region.
Taha Mohammed, Bombay, India

The forces dragging Pakistan towards radicalism are far too great for Musharraf to stop
Aditya, USA
The military establishment survives upon the fear and hatred of India. It is also an ideal "theater of jihad" for the fundamentalists. The connection is clear. The forces dragging Pakistan towards radicalism are far too great for Musharraf to stop.
Aditya, USA

I understand that Pakistan's economy is much less robust and capable of sustainable growth rates than is India's. Indeed, the development indices of most Muslim countries is lower than those of non-Mulim states. Lack of economic development often causes resentment. In Algeria, Turkey and perhaps Pakistan, Islamic charitable organisations have provided education, health and welfare services that governments have failed or have not been able to afford to provide. The "price" for these services is more zealous adherance to Islam, sometimes a radical interpretation. What do you consider lies at the heart of the relative lack of development of Pakistan?
Richard Bullen, Kuwait


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