An edited version of this op-ed originally appeared in Dawn, on June 22 2010.
On a recent research visit to Friday prayers at a madrassa known for advocating the use of violence against ‘unbelievers’, I was advised, in no uncertain terms, and on the highest authority, to harm those who would “offend the shan of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)” – topping the list were Jews and Christians, with Ahmedis following close behind. (Interestingly, the man leading the prayers reserved his harshest words not for any of these people themselves, but for those who “sympathise and provide comfort” to members of the Ahmedi community.)
All this, of course, was happening behind a police security picket and, indeed, happens week in and week out.
Earlier in the week, I visited the Karachi headquarters of a banned sectarian group (now operating under the name Ahle Sunnat wal Jammat), where I was told that the organisation’s main purpose is the disenfranchisement of members of the Shia community. As the group’s representative told me of all the “dangers” that the Shias pose and how and why it is perfectly correct to oppress them, given that they “offend” the sensibilities of other Muslims, a Rangers jawan sat opposite us.
It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. Mainly because the elephant is violently intolerant at best, and homicidal at worst.
This is not, however, a piece about the government not cracking down on religious groups with intolerant views of society that espouse violence against other Pakistanis. It is about why the government is not in a position to do so, not because of some double- or triple-game being played with ‘strategic depth’, but because of what regular Pakistanis believe, and more importantly, tolerate.
Take the Lahore High Court’s ban on Facebook for hosting material that was declared to be “offensive” to Muslims. The LHC’s decision may have been particularly narrow and conservative, but the actual issue, as raised by a legal analyst, is this: if indeed the ban was challenged on appeal in the Supreme Court, the court would very likely have upheld it, not because of any legal merits of the case, but because the Supreme Court cannot be ‘seen to be supporting blasphemy’.
The issue, then, is not necessarily the organs of the state and the decisions that they make, but the society in which those decisions are made. Specifically, when it comes to religion, it is about how violent actors are able to gain public support.
Understanding this support is, in many ways, key to understanding how and why members of the PML-N campaign with heads of banned sectarian organisations, or the courts set free heads of organisations that have been banned because of their links to violent ‘jihad’.
And what’s more, it appears that everything we thought we knew about the nature of this support is wrong.
A recent report published in the International Security journal suggests that there are four ‘conventional wisdoms’ that appear to govern counterterrorism policy in Pakistan. First, that poorer or less-educated people are more likely to support militancy. Second, that personal religiosity and support for Shariah predicts support for militant groups. Third, support for religious political parties (such as the Jamaat-e-Islami) predicts support for militancy. Finally, that belief in democracy and support for militancy are mutually exclusive.
Fair enough. Those sound perfectly reasonable.
As it turns out, though, not really. Having carried out extensive fieldwork to gather data from thousands of individuals from various backgrounds, the authors found that, in general, there is no correlation between support for militancy and the factors outlined. A separate study, carried out on six Muslim countries in 2009 for the Journal of Conflict Resolution, found that not only was there no correlation in any of those countries, higher income and higher literacy groups in Pakistan were actually more supportive of militancy than lower income and literacy groups.
Clearly something is wrong with the way the question is being framed. And indeed there is. Inherent in each of the conventional wisdoms is a simultaneous assumption that there is such a thing as a ‘taste’ for militancy that can be ‘educated’ out of a person, and the divorce of the model from politics.
What the authors of the International Security report found was that the Pakistani public’s support for militancy is, essentially, a political decision. People will support violent action against US forces in Afghanistan, for example, if they believe the US presence in Afghanistan to be an occupation; they will support action against Pakistani government targets if they believe the Pakistani government to be acting against Pakistan’s interests. Further, there is heavy discrimination between different types of militant groups: therefore while support for groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan may be generally low, there is more solid support for sectarian groups, or groups that mainly operate in Kashmir. Within support for groups in Kashmir there is further nuance: in general the data showed that people who believe that the Indian government harshly cracks down on Muslims did not necessarily support Kashmiri groups, because there was an inherent realisation that any violence on their part would result in a violent backlash against other Muslims.
While the data did not show that understanding the political views of people will always predict support for militancy, it did show that there is a significant correlation. The point here is, of course, that support for violence in this country runs deeper, and is more complex, than policy appears to have so far assumed.
So, to return to that madrassa, or to the Lahore High Court – why do Pakistanis feel, by and large, comfortable with the fact that there are groups advocating violence against other Pakistanis, or courts advocating blanket bans on freedom of speech? That’s a question that this society needs to answer, and it appears that the truth is rather messier than advocates of liberal democracy would like: Pakistan is not a largely closed, repressive (in the matter of religion) country because its rulers are that way. It is because its people are.