The South Asia Channel

Pakistan’s Failed War On Ideology

Pakistan may be winning the war against radicals on the battlefield, but it’s losing the war for hearts and minds.

Pakistani devotees leave after offering Eid prayers at the start of the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan at the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore on July 18, 2015. Muslims around the world are celebrating Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of the month of Ramadan, after the sighting of the new crescent moon. AFP PHOTO / Arif ALI        (Photo credit should read Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)
Pakistani devotees leave after offering Eid prayers at the start of the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan at the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore on July 18, 2015. Muslims around the world are celebrating Eid al-Fitr which marks the end of the month of Ramadan, after the sighting of the new crescent moon. AFP PHOTO / Arif ALI (Photo credit should read Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the Dec. 16, 2014, school massacre in Peshawar, Pakistan, the government in Islamabad has taken robust steps to crack down on internal militancy. As Sameer Lalwani recently explained, these steps go well beyond merely targeting anti-state terror outfits such as the Pakistani Taliban. With terrorist violence down significantly in 2015, even Pakistan’s harshest critics must acknowledge the country’s very real counterterrorism successes over the last year.

Unfortunately, there’s another side to the story. Pakistan may be killing terrorists on the battlefield, but it has not defeated the ideology that sustains them. The country continues to provide an enabling environment for extremism. For all the militants killed today, the resilience of radical ideologies within Pakistani society ensures that more will be mobilized tomorrow.

To be sure, Pakistan has made efforts to curb hate speech and other hardline sentiment. But it faces a long road. After police in Lahore recently tore down shopfront posters critical of the Ahmadis, a harshly persecuted religious minority, droves of marchers took to the streets to protest the move.

Meanwhile, schools, clerics, and some media outlets continue to churn out hardline narratives that Islam in Pakistan is under siege and that the United States and India are responsible for the ongoing terrorism challenge. Instead of combating these narratives, the Pakistani state — and particularly the security establishment — often parrots them. There are few state-driven counter-narratives, only conspiracy theories and crackdowns against vociferous critics of state-centered narratives. There is also, predictably, confusion. Consider the much-cited Pew finding that a staggering 62 percent of Pakistanis don’t have an opinion about the Islamic State (IS).

Even worse, some hardline ideologies are institutionalized by the state. Pakistan’s second constitutional amendment refers to Ahmadis as non-Muslims, while its blasphemy laws –meant to prevent public offenses to Islam — are easily exploited by the state and hardline Islamic groups to implicate religious minorities in anti-Islamic acts. Meanwhile, the state has not severed its ties with terror groups such as the Haqqani network, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Lashkar-e-Taiba that target Afghanistan and India, as well as Americans and other foreigners in those countries.

And yet, it’s not just hardline Islamist ideologies that endure. Class divisions are another unwavering trigger for radicalization that won’t go away anytime soon.

Pakistan is a deeply divided nation. Much has been written about its sectarian, provincial, and ethnic cleavages. Less is heard about its stark class divisions and inequalities. A 2015 study by Oxfam and Lahore University of Management Sciences points to persistent and worsening inequality, with “significant variation” between and within provinces. Such inequality is entrenched: 40 percent of children in the lowest income quintile are expected to remain in that same quintile for their whole lives.

Pakistan’s class divides are discernible across society. Poor kids go to private religious and public government schools, while the wealthy attend elite English medium schools. Additionally, 57 percent of Pakistan’s poorest children are not in school; for the rich, the figure is 10 percent, while for the upper middle class it is 16 percent. In addition, Pakistan’s government spends about 2 percent of GDP on education — one of the lowest such rates in the world.

Meanwhile, land ownership is deeply skewed; a small minority holds a sizable portion of all privately owned land. In Punjab and Sindh provinces, only 0.05 percent of households hold more than two hectares of land. Not surprisingly, the landless are often poor (and account for 70 percent of Pakistan’s rural poor).

Pakistan’s class divides are also on sharp display in households, where anyone with means retains servants to carry out the most basic of tasks. This hired help is often treated poorly; it is not unusual for otherwise kind people to be belligerent and belittling toward their servants. Such treatment has consequences. Ominously, a former top Pakistani police official noted recently that servants have begun attacking their bosses more frequently than in the past.

Those on the disadvantaged side of the socioeconomic divides cannot count on the support of politicians, who tend to overlook them. In an article for Herald magazine last month, Umair Javed, who teaches political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, described how Pakistan’s main political parties no longer appeal directly to the poor. Instead, they pitch their messages to Pakistan’s middle class and other non-poor demographics such as the business community.

In recent decades, Javed writes, the grievances of labor unions and other workers’ groups have been taken up not by the state, but by conservative Islamist organizations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami. They blame Pakistan’s inequalities on moral degradation, and call on the working classes to embrace religious solutions.

What does inequality have to do with terrorism? Economist Thomas Piketty recently (and controversially) asserted that inequality helped fuel the rise of IS. Economists have roundly criticized his thesis as flawed. However, in the Pakistani context, his theory has some merit. In Pakistan, fledgling militant outfits have used class divides to spur recruitment and justify their violent tactics.

The most well-known example is the Pakistani Taliban’s offensive in Swat in 2009. There, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which had been formally established only two years earlier, appealed to the poor and landless to take on the region’s wealthy landlords and established peasant armies to help drive them out. After the landlords fled, the TTP divided the spoils among the public.

Six years later, even as a degraded shell of its former self, the TTP positioned itself once again as a defender of the people – albeit, on a much more modest scale. During a deadly heatwave in Karachi, the TTP threatened “actions” against “greedy” K-Electric, the city electricity utility, unless it restored power to the “oppressed” people of Pakistan.

Pakistani sectarian terror groups have couched their appeals in class terms as well. In the mid-1980s, the newly established Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) channeled the discontent of Sunni peasants in Punjab, who felt exploited by Shia landlords, according to Owen Bennett-Jones in his book Pakistan: Eye of the Storm. This brought support to SSP from landless farmers, but also from urban lower middle classes who resented the local aristocracy.

Such tactics are unsurprising. Over the years, numerous Pakistani militant leaders have styled themselves as Robin Hood-like crusaders. Consider Mangal Bagh, leader of Lashkar-e-Islam, based in the Khyber tribal agency. According to a 2008 profile, “He is keen to highlight the plight of the ordinary tribesmen . . . and motivated to solve the problems confronting the common man.” This, in turn, “explains the reason for young men, mostly jobless, to flock to his banner and make up [the] bulk” of his organization. Some Pakistani militant leaders are themselves drawn from the working class. Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban’s first supreme leader, was a gym instructor. Mangal Bagh cleaned buses. Current TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah operated chairlifts. Such bonafides can help cement their status as genuine champions of the working class.

Now, to be clear, Pakistan’s predominantly Islamist militant groups have no intention of launching Marxist revolutions. While they have seized on class divides and inequalities to spark recruitment, at the end of the day their broader appeals fall back on Islam. This makes good strategic sense: by invoking an issue like Islam that transcends socioeconomic differences, they can target a broader recruitment base. Ultimately, in pious Pakistan, both the rich and the poor are more galvanized by narratives centered on religion than those based on class.

Furthermore, in Pakistan, pitches that urge the downtrodden to take on the upper class will often fall flat. In a nation rife with patronage, where commoners depend on favors from influential figures to help them get by, such tactics amount to an extreme case of biting the hand that feeds you.

Still, many will remain vulnerable to class-focused recruitment pitches. A top recruitment target in this regard may be members of the working class. This includes the young, semi-educated, tech-savvy, and urban-based, those that constantly lose out to the upper class for jobs and other opportunities, and those aware of the better opportunities available to their working class counterparts in other countries. These people may not only resent the elite, but also depend less on them for patronage than the poor do, meaning they have less to lose by embracing an anti-elite cause. Several Pakistani terror groups have used class-focused recruitment pitches during their first few years in existence, shifting to a broader religion-focused strategy only after they had developed a core base of members.

Such strategies have troubling implications. In the years ahead, Pakistan’s enduring class divides and inequalities, if ignored, could be exploited once again to form and grow new terror organizations — or rejuvenate existing ones that have fallen on hard times.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Kugelman is Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He can be reached on Twitter @michaelkugelman and at

Dania Ahmed is a Media Analyst on counterterrorism and counternarcotics strategies for Pakistan. A graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University, Dania interned at the White House and gained insight on foreign policy from members of the National Security Council. Dania also worked at Cordoba Initiative on media relations, nascent democratic nations and civic diplomacy. She tweets as @daniahmed_.

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