The South Asia Channel

The battle for Pakistan’s soul

In southern Punjab, a fierce battle rages for the future of Islam. For the first time in this region’s history, its 700-year-old blue tiled Sufi shrines are being challenged and overshadowed by hundreds of new mosques and madrassas espousing jihadi ideologies. Multan and its sister cities have traditionally been centers of spirituality, housing some of ...


In southern Punjab, a fierce battle rages for the future of Islam. For the first time in this region’s history, its 700-year-old blue tiled Sufi shrines are being challenged and overshadowed by hundreds of new mosques and madrassas espousing jihadi ideologies. Multan and its sister cities have traditionally been centers of spirituality, housing some of Pakistan’s strongest religious networks. As a result, this region has always played a defining role in Pakistan’s socio-political and religious identity. However, since 9/11 the "Punjabi Taliban" are undermining traditional power structures to establish their own legal, social, and cultural writ.

We travelled to Multan and across southern Punjab, in addition to other regions of Pakistan, to understand the dynamics of jihadi recruitment and how a range of mainstream groups — including traditionally conservative Sunni and Shi’a organizations — are waging their own counter-insurgencies. This is part of a broader project led by the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE) to explore how Pakistan’s civil society is tackling extremism.


We saw during the course of our travels that poverty has provided a major pool for jihadist recruitment in Pakistan. Similar to how the Lebanese group Hezbollah gains popular support amongst low income families by providing free food, medical facilities and education, in Pakistan organizations like Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), the charitable front for the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT),  feed off of local economic and political frustrations. When a destitute family had their electricity shut off in the scorching 110 degree heat of Multan because they could no longer pay their bills, an extremist imam came to their rescue. He promised to indefinitely cover their electricity bills — as long as the family switched mosques.

Groups like JuD have also gained considerable leverage from the floods which ravaged the region last year. We travelled to the villages surrounding the district of Muzaffargarh, one of the hardest hit areas, where over 700,000 people were displaced by the rising waters. Today hundreds of homes still lie in ruins, and much of the area’s rich mango groves are fallow. The bulk of radical recruiting efforts are targeted here in poor, remote villages.

Although emergency relief efforts by extremist groups have concluded, their networks continue to increase their physical presence by erecting new mosques and madrassas. A number of families in flood affected regions explained that they had been approached by madrassa recruiters offering their children free education, housing, and food. Many of those children were never heard from again, and are believed by community members to have been sold to militant outfits at $3,000 per head.

Inside radical madrassas, students are first taught that those who do not conform to their particular brand of  Islam are wajib al-qatl (worthy of being killed).  According to a former official of Pakistan’s Counter Terrorism Authority, militant outfits like LeT and Lashkar e-Jhangvi (LeJ) send recruiters to these Southern Punjab feeder schools two months before summer break begins to sign children up for summer jihadi camps in the tribal frontier.

In addition to creating new facilities, extremist factions have waged a fierce battle over the ownership of existing religious institutions which have historically rejected terrorism and championed social harmony.  We interviewed a number of mosque caretakers and madrassah administrators from Peshawar to Karachi, who told us that mosques are being seized through armed conflict at an unprecedented rate. Community activists we spoke with claim that in Karachi alone, hundreds of mosques have been overtaken by radicals. Others are being taken through "legal" means, by manipulating the registration process and changing mosque ownership, creating legal associations untainted by the names of banned groups. In some areas extremists mask themselves as mainstream moderates. Once they have won the trust of the congregation they begin the process of disseminating their teachings.

These groups also use fear and intimidation tactics, or to out-and-out attacks, to raise funds and silence dissent. To protect themselves, mainstream shrines and mosques have become so heavily fortified that attendance is at an all time low. Numerous anti-Taliban institutions have been bombed, and almost every religious scholar and activist we met has been targeted. In Bahawalpur a moderate imam explained how he had to pay a $1,000 ransom to recover his kidnapped relative. In his neighborhood alone, six other children had similarly been taken and ransomed by militant groups who have been targeting families associated with anti-Taliban movements. In a country where the GDP per capita is about $2500, it is becoming increasingly difficult to take a prominent stand against militants. 

However, in this tense environment, religious institutions, political parties, and community organizations across southern Punjab are pushing back through five distinct channels.

First, traditional anti-Taliban religious institutions are leading a concerted effort to establish schools in militant hot spots. Arshad Kazmi, a revered religious scholar with a background in philosophy, has established hundreds of schools throughout Southern Punjab and Sindh using existing social networks with direct fundraising involvement from the community.  Due to his anti-extremism "road shows" from Karachi to Lahore and televised lecture series, he has gained millions of followers. Kazmi hails from one of Pakistan’s most prominent spiritual families. His brother, Tahir Syed Kazmi, set up the Society for Education and Peace and administers a number of schools, including a madrassa for over 400 women in Multan. According to Arshad Kazmi, "I realized that if we didn’t build these schools, our children would grow up with religious intolerance and a narrow, destructive worldview."

Second, community members are turning to such teachers and their institutions to provide religious re-education for at-risk and radicalized youth. Recently, the imam of the Hazrat Jamal Multani shrine staged an intervention for four boys who wanted to become militants.  "It wasn’t a simple process," he explained. "We argued back and forth for days, but eventually the boys learned that their concept of jihad was all wrong." The session was informally taped and shared with other at-risk youth.

In addition to this ad-hoc approach, many schools are beginning to institutionalize their counter-radicalization curriculum. In the city of Okara, now infamous for producing several of the 2008 Mumbai attackers, the Dar ul Uloom Ashraf al-Madaris Okara organized a two-week seminar on Quranic principles of peace and conflict resolution. The school has about a dozen sister schools within Okara and hundreds of schools within its network across Pakistan, through which they intend to disseminate CDs of the program.

In Muzaffargarh, many secular universities and moderate madrassas have also used their social networks to coordinate food and emergency health kit distribution. Imam Gilani, from the village of Khangarh, tapped into his madrassa and familial networks to provide assistance to villages off the grid, beyond the scope of most NGOs. Elsewhere, anti-Taliban factions are working through social welfare and relief organizations like Muslim Hands and the Al Mustafa Welfare Trust Society to ensure that those suffering from disasters are not reliant on militant groups for support.

Third, public lectures (dars) and community debates (muzakara) have proved critical in creating a counter narrative to extremist groups. Last month, a charismatic young imam, who preferred not to share his name because he has been targeted by banned organizations, delivered a Friday sermon on how to engage non-Muslims with tolerance. His recent book features a chapter entitled "Islam does not ask us to hate non-Muslims." Just blocks away from militant mosques, we also attended a dars in Bahawalpur for over 400 men and women, which focused on character building and controlling one’s temper. In these venues, extremist groups are identified by name and their arguments are countered point by point by well regarded religious scholars. These lectures are held on a weekly basis, and some featuring prominent speakers are televised.

Fourth, there has also been an increase in public rallies against extremism. Conventions often feature printed banners with slogans such as "Qalam, Kitaab Zindabad! Kalashnakov Murdabad!" ("Long live the pen and the book and down with the Kalashnikov!") Mawlana Fazal Karim, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly from Faisalabad, has organized a number of rallies despite receiving regular death threats from the Taliban. He is organizing a "Train March" in which thousands of activists will be traveling by train from Karachi to Rawalpindi to raise national awareness of extremism. The organizers will host events in each stop, distributing pamphlets and delivering public speeches.

Fifth, some groups directly under attack have resorted to more forceful resistance. When 30-40 armed gunmen occupied two mosques and a madrassa in Bahawalpur, the community retaliated by first contacting the media, public officials, and law enforcement and staging a public rally. Later, 150 community members decided to confront the militants in a standoff-armed mostly with sticks. Other communities are taking more drastic measures. In the tribal areas, for example, many villages have created their own "minuteman"-style lashkars to fend off militants. In major urban centers, mainstream groups are now turning to organizations like the Sunni Tehreek for armed protection. Founded over 20 years ago to prevent mosque takeovers by radical militants, the Sunni Tehreek has over 6,000 branches across Pakistan today. While some terror analysts contend that increasing support for such groups could further destabilize the region, some locals believe instead that the Tehreek provides a bulwark against pro-Taliban groups. 

At the end of the day, these anti-Taliban campaigns in Southern Punjab and elsewhere have been effective at the local level, but still lack coordination across cities. Activists lament their lack of funds and official support, unlike militant factions that are thriving through illicit funding and foreign financing. Despite the challenges they face, though, community leaders have pledged to carry on this struggle for the identity and ultimately the future of Pakistan, a subject that will be discussed in part two of this series.

Waleed Ziad and Mehreen Farooq are leading a project to analyze the role of Pakistan’s civil society in countering extremism for the Washington DC-based World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE).

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