In many ways Pakistan is one of the most Islamic countries on the planet; perhaps more so than Iran and even Afghanistan. The reason for this, at least in part, is that Pakistan was founded/created (in 1947) specifically as a “state for Muslims”. This is strange when you consider the noise - from International Socialists, National Socialists and Islamists - about the “Jewish state” (i.e., Israel). Pakistan is much more an Islamic state (though it depends on which period) than Israel is a Jewish state. Israel is more a state for Jews than a Jewish state. This is primarily because it is a secular democracy which, nonetheless, does have minority religious elements. That is, there are strong religious players - rather than religious institutions - within the democratic framework. However, many Jews aren't that religious. In addition to that, there's a sizable minority of Jewish Leftists and liberals who aren't religious at all.
Pakistan, on the other hand, is both Islamic at the local level and at the level of the state.
Historically, Pakistan was created to accommodate the Muslims who were a minority in India as a whole.
Thus it is Islam itself which unifies every Pakistani; not ethnic identity or language.
Pakistan is actually made up of a ragbag of ethnic groups and cultures; including Pashtuns, Sindhis, Punjabis, Baluchis and Muhajir refugees from India (who came later). This is even more the case if we throw in the distant Bengalis (who seceded in 1971).
Islam is what unites (even when it doesn't unite!) these different ethnic groups and languages. And that’s partly why the ulemas are also so important in Pakistan.
The Madrassas, Ulemas & the Deobandi Movement
Islamic ulemas are more important in Pakistan than in almost any other Muslim or Islamic country. But before the ulemas, you must also have the traditional madrassas, which feed the ulemas with their pupils.
Each madrassa, even the small ones, includes a ‘fatwa center’ where the ulemas study Islamic texts about every subject under the sun. Thus these ulemas can spew out fatwas literally all day. That is why they are there.
But we can’t have madrassas, and the ulemas within them (or connected to them), without Islamic political movements which coordinate and makes sense of what these institutions are doing.
The most significant Islamist group in Pakistan is the Deobandi movement. It was founded in 1867 in the town of Deoband, north of Delhi (in India). Initially, the Deobandi movement trained the ulemas so that they could effectively issue fatwas on any issue that was presented to them. (I mean any issue!)
The Deobandi movement, as you'd expect, is deeply conservative or fundamentalist in nature. In order to see where this group was coming from, and still is coming from, it is accurate to say that it is very similar to that of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and beyond. (The Wahhabis are a better known and controversial group in the West than the Deobandis.) More relevantly to non-Muslims in the UK, Deobandis believe that Muslims, when a minority in a non-Muslim country, can still live as Muslims without loosing their Islamic nature.
The Deobandis have proved this in practice. They have managed to live ‘Islamically’ - or at least some commentators have argued this - no matter what their political or social environment has been. Despite that note of possible integration (integration is not their aim; it's about not loosing one’s Islamic identity), we are primarily talking here about Deobandis rubbing along in India and then Pakistan: not in England or anywhere else outside these countries.
Despite that note of accommodation from the Deobandis, it has still been the case that this movement has relentlessly pressured the Pakistani state to adopt and spread its view of Islam and thus incorporate Islam, or sharia law, into national legislation.
The Deobandi movement also had, and has, its paramilitary units. Take the example of its youth paramilitary unit, which was formed in 1985. It was called Soldiers of the Companions of the Prophet in Pakistan. (Sahaba – youth; there been a lot of rot spoken about Arab Sahaba during the recent Arab ‘revolutions’ – usually by the BBC or The Guardian.) And what was the primary goal of this group? To have all Shiites pronounced infidels (kafir) and, if possible, killed as well.
(Remember the massive amount of Muslim-on-Muslim violence there has been in Pakistan and India for over a thousand years; especially by the Sunni against the Shia and more recently by both of these against the Ahmadiyya. All this should be kept in mind when listening to people like the Pakistani-descended Salma Yaqoob when she pontificates about "Western violence" against Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq.)
There have been other Deobandi paramilitary units outside the ‘youth wing’. In the mid-1990s we had the Army of Jhangvi; which also specialised in killing Shiites. We also had the Partisan Movement who went off to wage jihad in Indian Kashmir. Although they probably killed a few Muslim Shiites on the way, they specialised in beheading Hindus once they got there.
However, it hasn't all been one way. The Shiites themselves formed the Soldiers of the Prophet Mohammed in Pakistan. (Not to be mixed up with the completely dissimilar Sunni killers: the Soldiers of the Companions of the Prophet in Pakistan, mentioned just a moment ago.) Yes, they managed to kill a fair few Sunnis themselves. (Muslim brotherly love, eh?)
Despite the Deobandis' hatred for Iran and the Shia religion, they too had, and still have, a vice police which was said to be an “organisation for the commanding of good and the hunting down of evil”. (That's exactly how the Iranian vice police describes itself.)
Pakistani Deobandis in the UK
Let’s look at the Deobandi movement in the UK. Indeed it obviously follows that if lots of Pakistanis are part of the Deobandi movement, and over a million Pakistani Muslims have moved to the UK in the last 50 or so years, then the Deobandi movement would also move to the UK, which it did.
Take the Rushdie Affair. The Satanic Verses was published in September 1988. The first Bradford book-burning occurred on January 14th, 1989. At first the Deobandi movement in the UK (as well as in Pakistan) wasn’t involved in all this. The burnings were arranged from India and Pakistan by the followers of the Islamist Pakistani, Mawdudi. They too had followers and representatives in the UK. More specifically, we are talking about the UK Islamic Mission. This group began by activating various Saudi-run groups to harass the British Government of the day into banning The Satanic Verses.
Then in came our Deobandi movement. They too organised street protests in both Britain and Pakistan.
Since we are talking about The Satanic Verses, and Pakistani Islamism in the UK, let’s move again from the Deobandi movement.
On October the 3rd, 1988, the Leicester Islamic Foundation (adherents of the Pakistani, Mawdudi, again) circulated extracts from The Satanic Verses around UK Muslim associations and UK mosques. Then the Leicester Islamic Foundation asked British Muslims (mainly Pakistani) to join their campaign of petition-signing to have Rushdie’s book banned and withdrawn from sale. The audacity against a secular democracy didn’t stop there: they also demanded a public apology from Salman Rushdie himself!
After that, we had the ad hoc Muslim Action Committee. (Islamists, just like Trots, form groups at the drop of a hat.) These UK Islamists broadened the above campaign by calling for British blasphemy laws be extended to a minority religion – Islam! These fanatical and audacious Islamists, of course, didn’t get what they wanted… well, not until the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 which partly installed what is, or at least could be in the future, sharia blasphemy law.
The Pakistani Taliban
In a sense, the Taliban is more a Pakistani phenomenon than an Afghan one. There are more supporters of the Taliban in Pakistan than in Afghanistan or anywhere else.
Most Taliban came and still come from Pakistani madrassas, which themselves are affiliated to the Deoband School. The Deoband School is just as much a jihadist movement as the Taliban itself. Indeed they are hardly a separate phenomenon. These are the Muslim fanatics in Pakistan whom we’ve seen many, many times burning American flags and, more importantly, brandishing portraits of Osama bin Laden. The Deobandi movement also has paramilitary groups, which, amongst other things, kills Pakistani Shiites and wages a guerrilla war against the Indian army in eastern Kashmir.
So all along there were vital and unbreakable links between Pakistan and the Taliban. Not long after the defeat of Soviet Russia, from 1994 onwards, Pakistani politicians quickly realised that the Taliban alone could unify Afghanistan and strengthen links with Islamabad.
To repeat the Deobandi link with Pakistan. The Taliban’s Deobandi theories (you don’t hear as much about the Pakistani Deobandis as you do about the Afghan Taliban) made them see Shiite Iran as being as ‘ungodly’ as other Sunnis did. Indeed Iran was seen as being just as ungodly, or more so, as the former Soviet Union and Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist India.
None of this was ever a surprise. Most Taliban belong to the Pashtun ethnic group, as do many Pakistanis on the northwest frontier (with Afghanistan) around Peshawar.
British Pakistani Muslims will be keen to tell you, or remind you, that the US supported the rise of the Taliban. So did Pakistan. Primarily, and simplistically, both the Pakistani government (not necessarily all its people) and the US supported this fanatical group to keep things in order in Afghanistan both before and after the Russians were defeated. Additionally, if Afghanistan turned out Taliban, that would have guaranteed the Pakistani state that it had a friendly neighbour. (After all, the Taliban primarily came from Pakistan’s madrassas.)
Alongside the Deobandi movement we have had the Tablighi Jamaat (often shortened to Tabligh), or the Society for the Propagation of the Muslim Faith. (They call such "propagation" da’wah: proselytising to you and me. They no doubt sometimes do this at interfaith meetings in the UK.)
This is a strange, obsessive and fanatical group. Actually, these words apply to more to what it believes than what it does. Quite simply, these Muslims believe that all ‘true Muslims’ should literally "imitate the Prophet, Mohammed". That is, imitate everything that Mohammad did and what he believed. Only through this self-inflicted automation could Muslims erase all impious behaviour and thoughts.
I'm not joking or exaggerating. For example, if a British Tabligh Muslim were to visit Blackpool (if that’s allowed), he would have to pray just as much as Mohammed did when he visited somewhere. Once in bed in a Blackpool B & B, the ‘true Muslim’ must also sleep as Mohammed slept. That is, by lying on the right side on the ground, facing Mecca with his hand cupped beneath his cheek. There’s more. Whenever this Muslim in Blackpool can, he should dress in a white jellaba… yes, just like Mohammad.
As you can guess, the Tabligh was opposed to all its Islamic rivals. So in the case of Tabligh, that traditionally meant the brotherhoods and the mystics. But, despite this essay’s title, they were also against the “politicising of Islam” by the Islamist theoreticians Mawdudi, Qutb, Khomeini and all those whom came after them. To them, da’wah, or proselytising, was more important that politicking (is da’wah really non-political)?
To explain. For the founders of the Tabligh, Muslims should not expect the state to Islamise society; they should do it themselves through imitating Mohammed and converting other people - including infidels - through da’wah. They believe in ‘non-political’ da’wah so much that this movement can be found all around the world. The question is: Does that really sound like a non-political Islamic movement?
Thus the distinction between Islamist and non-Islamist Muslims may not matter too much to the UK's non-Muslims. The Tabligh, if not strictly speaking Islamists, are just as much of a political problem (both here in the UK and everywhere the its does its da'wah business). Indeed the Tabligh is political enough to have one of the 7/7 London bombers as one of its followers.
The ‘Liberal’ Bhuttos
Much has been said of the ‘reformist’ or ‘liberal’ leaders of Pakistan who've ruled over the years. However, even the Bhutto family was not immune to Islamising moves and Islamic rhetoric.
Take Ali Bhutto: president from 1970 to 1977. Despite his ostensible nationalist and even socialist economic reforms and policies, he at one time took measures to ban alcohol, horse-racing (!) and nightclubs (perhaps partly under pressure from Islamists). He soon went further than that. He then promised that full sharia law would be applied “within six months”. And it was! But not by Ali Bhutto. Instead full sharia law was brought about by General Zia, Bhutto’s army chief of staff, who overthrew Bhutto in 1977 and had him hanged in 1979.
General Zia was big on Islamisation and sharia (if they are different things at all). He took the whole business very seriously. In 1979 he examined all Pakistani laws to see if they squared up with sharia law. This meant introducing a new penal code – an Islamic or sharia penal code. More specifically, Zia introduced corporal punishment or hudud big time. What types of corporal punishment? Well, the cutting off of arms, hands, legs and feet; the stoning of adulterous women (but not adulterous men!); the public whipping of drinkers of alcohol, etc.
Let’s get deeper into this thing we call ‘sharia’. Zia also Islamised education and even every aspect of the economy!
This was a massive task for Zia and for everyone else. In each area of shariaisation, from cutting hands off to building roads, the Zia state took over. However, this was not completely for reasons of total Islamisation. Zia was a military man and a dictator. Thus, despite the fact that he embraced the diversity that is sharia law, that didn’t stop him from making sure that Islamic judicial decisions didn’t escape the control of his military hierarchies and even that they didn’t transgress long-established social hierarchies.
Nonetheless, the adoption of sharia law by Zia, although circumscribed by military power and even social custom, was still no halfway measure on his part. From the early 1980s onwards, there were numerous requests to see whether or not new laws and new policies conformed with to sharia law. In order to establish the Islamically bone fide nature of just about everything; just about everything was submitted to a federal sharia court.