The South Asia Channel

The rhetoric of revolution

In the run-up to Pakistan’s general elections, which were held on May 11, the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) once again reiterated its call for Pakistanis to reject the system of democracy in favor for the rule of Islamic law (shari‘a). The militant movement, like other Sunni jihadis, seeks to implement a state governed by its ...


In the run-up to Pakistan’s general elections, which were held on May 11, the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) once again reiterated its call for Pakistanis to reject the system of democracy in favor for the rule of Islamic law (shari‘a). The militant movement, like other Sunni jihadis, seeks to implement a state governed by its interpretation of shari‘a and sees other governing systems, including the democratic nation-state, as running counter to what it believes has been divinely commanded by God.  In addition to its religio-political argument, the TTP has increasingly employed appeals to populism in an attempt to tap into widespread public discontent in Pakistan over the state of the economy, unemployment, regional discontent in the province of Baluchistan, and rampant corruption.

The TTP released a statement in late March on jihadi Internet forums via its Umar Media office urging Pakistanis to dedicate themselves to changing the governing system in the country. In it, the group lambasts the outgoing and past Pakistani governments, saying that instead of instituting reforms and leading the country to prosperity, these governments have brought upon the country oppression, injustice, and corruption.  Indeed, argued the TTP, the country’s entire history has shown the farcical nature of democracy in Pakistan. 

Similar arguments have been made by TTP leaders in the past.  In his speech marking the annual Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha in 2011, TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud addressed the Pakistani people at length about the "future of the country."  He noted that the majority of Pakistanis, despite living in a country that has been blessed with many natural resources, continue to languish in poverty while a few elites enjoy massive wealth. 

Mehsud specifically pointed to water shortages, "provincial" and "ethnic" inequality, and the misdistribution of profits from natural resources as proof that political and social elites are willing to do anything to satisfy their insatiable greed.  These elites, he said, have shown themselves time and time again to not only be unwilling to reform the country for the better, but in fact complicit in the country’s continuing stagnation, suffering, and poverty.  Meanwhile, their "unbelieving" allies, such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Western governments, have compounded the suffering of the country’s majority poor by imposing taxes and other economic charges in return for their economic aid. 

Accordingly, the TTP’s March statement urged Pakistanis to redirect their energy and hopes for change away from the farce of simply changing politicians while leaving the existing governing system in place.  It is this system, the movement has continued to argue, which is to blame for Pakistan’s malaise.  Thus, it would be more productive for the people to reject democracy, which the TTP and many other Sunni jihadis allege is "un-Islamic," and work toward the implementation of shari‘a.  The TTP is working to overthrow the vestiges of British colonialism in the country, which has continued to suffer from a kind of "intellectual, mental, educational, and civilizational slavery." What is needed in Pakistan is an uprising like that of the "Arab Spring."

In a video released by the TTP, also in late March, TTP spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan attempted to broaden the war of words against the Pakistani state by invoking the ongoing conflict in Baluchistan, and vowing to avenge the government’s killing of the region during the presidency of General Pervez Musharraf.  Ihsan also called upon Baluch separatist rebels to join hands with his movement to target the state and implement shari‘a

In addition to a call to arms, Ihsan’s statement forbade the Pakistani people from participating in the upcoming elections and said the TTP was temporarily postponing its offer of negotiations with the government.  People were warned to stay away from political party gatherings and events.  A day before the elections, a written statement issued in the name of Ihsan stated that Pakistan’s political parties were being targeted because of their adherence to a secular national system, which is contrary, he claimed, to Islam, and because of their support for the military operations in Pashtun regions such as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

A significant segment of the TTP’s argument against the democratic system in Pakistan rests on the very real failures of policy that have occurred under the country’s outgoing government.  As Mehsud did in his 2011 Eid al-Adha message, Ihsan’s March 2013 statement points to the suffering of the country’s majority while the governing elites continue to enrich themselves.  Electricity shortages, increasing fuel and food prices, and the decline of national industry have all worsened under the Pakistan People’s Party-led government, the statement said.  The government has also been duplicitous in its cooperation with the U.S. military and drone campaigns in neighboring Afghanistan and over Pakistan, the TTP notes.  The government is blamed for political and inter-communal violence in Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar, as well as for continuing a "war" against the country’s tribal peoples.  The military is no better, the TTP argues, because its generals have shown themselves to be greedy for continuing U.S. economic aid.

Despite fears that TTP-perpetrated violence, including a number of shootings and bombings prior to the elections, would hinder participation on May 11, voter turnout reportedly reached record levels.  Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party won the largest number of seats in the new parliament, has said that in addition to the new incoming government’s focus on reviving the Pakistani economy, he will take seriously the TTP’s offer for negotiations.  After "postponing" its offer of peace negotiations, the TTP said talks would be suspended and retaliation taken following the killing of TTP deputy leader Waliur Rehman Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike on May 29.  In the meantime, the TTP and its allies remain engaged in a brutal war with the Pakistani state, attacking military and Frontier Corps outposts, police stations, and other targets throughout the country.  

The TTP, perhaps recognizing the limits of its religious arguments, is attempting to broaden its attack on the
Pakistani state by utilizing populism to bring in issues of concern, such as the flagging economy and widespread corruption and cronyism, to all Pakistanis.  It has also attempted, rhetorically at least, to woo some Baluch regionalists to their side, though with little success so far.  TTP leaders seem to have realized that lofty ideological statements and goals, such as the implementation of a reactionary form of shari‘a and exhortations to self-sacrifice and militancy, alone are less likely to attract new support for the TTP leadership than by also portraying themselves as champions of populism and "reform."  The TTP’s "reform" will be made possible, they say, through the implementation of "God’s laws," under which society will rebound and prosper.  It remains to be seen if this rebranding effort will succeed in convincing and winning over new supporters in broader Pakistani society.

Given the commitment with which the TTP has pursued its campaign against the Pakistani state, it remains unclear which individuals or segments of the TTP the incoming Pakistani government will actually be able to negotiate with, if any. And if peace talks do happen, there seems to be little chance they will succeed. The incoming government should begin its assault on the TTP by addressing the populist issues the group has subsumed into its rhetoric: poverty, education, government corruption, and the sense of inequality felt by many of Pakistan’s minority communities, particularly the Pashtuns and Baloch. This strategy would likely hinder the attractiveness of armed rebellion and activism against the central government, though only if pursued in a genuine, rather than just a rhetorical, manner.

Christopher Anzalone is a Ph.D. student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, contemporary jihadi movements, Shi’ite Islam, and Islamist visual cultures.  He blogs at Views from the Occident and Al-Wasat.  He is also an adjunct research fellow at the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University and the managing editor for the center’s forthcoming web portal

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