Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan

By Farooq Sulehria

Pakistan is situated in a region where fundamentalism has been posed, of late, as one of the most threatening questions. The process initiated by the Islamic revolution in Iran has even been internationalised by the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan. At the same time, the rise of Hindu radicalism in India has further complicated the situation in Pakistan.

Recently Islamic fundamentalism has risen as an alternative political phenomenon not only in Pakistan but also in the entire Muslim world. Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan is partly a link of this international phenomenon and partly caused by specific local reasons.

When analysing Islamic fundamentalism, one must understand that the religion of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism are not one and the same thing. Islamic fundamentalism is a reactionary, non-scientific movement aimed at returning society to a centuries-old social set-up, defying all material and historical factors. It is an attempt to roll back the wheel of history.

Fundamentalism finds its roots in the backwardness of society, social deprivation, a low level of consciousness, poverty and ignorance.

Like fascism and national chauvinism, Islamic fundamentalism finds its base in the petty bourgeoisie. But it is not only the petty bourgeoisie that is attracted by fundamentalism; those who have fallen from among the petty bourgeoisie into the ranks of the proletariat and semi-proletariat are also impressed by the movement. Similarly, sections of the proletariat that are newly formed and not yet equipped with class-consciousness and the experience of class struggle are also likely to become supporters of this movement.

They correspond to a section of petty bourgeoisie described by the Communist Manifesto:

The lower middle class, the manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.

It is possible to distinguish four general causes contributing to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

  1. The contradictions of imperialism. Islam has been a political religion since the beginning. When Arabs invaded other countries, the rationale was jihad (holy war) against infidels, although these wars had economic motives. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Muslim countries, one after the other, were colonised by the imperialist countries, the resistance movements used religion as well as nationalism as a launching pad for independence struggles. In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, the national liberation movement was begun in the name of religion.

    Of late, as the multinationals have stepped up their super-exploitation of the Muslim world, one of the natural reactions is hatred of the headquarters (i.e. the West) of these multinationals.

    During the Cold War, imperialism used Islamic fundamentalists against the left. The fundamentalist parties were the closest friends of imperialism in the Muslim world. However, in the post-Cold War era, imperialism does not need them as it did in the past. The CIA has stopped funding Islamic fundamentalists. This changed situation brought Islamic reactionaries into contradiction with imperialism. At the same time, because of the experience of centuries of colonisation and exploitation, a hatred for the West, especially for the USA, is widespread in the Muslim world, as in any Third World country.

    In the changed situation of the post-Cold War era, fundamentalists turned to anti-imperialist sloganeering and came to the fore as the forces challenging imperialism. Osama bin Laden became a symbol of anti-imperialism no matter what his tactics or the class to which he belongs. The terrorist methods of fundamentalism were seen by the ranks of the fundamentalists as jihad against the USA, while in general the movement was seen as a challenge to the USA.

  2. The inability of capitalism to solve the basic problems. Islamic fundamentalism is spreading especially rapidly in those counties where capitalism has failed to fulfill the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution, where it has failed to eliminate poverty and ignorance and where class contradictions are sharpening. Poverty and ignorance are concomitant. A society ridden with ignorance is fertile soil for the growth of fundamentalist ideas.

  3. The failure of the left. It was in Iran that the Islamic fundamentalists had their first major victory. The Tudeh Party (Iranian Communist Party) believed in the bankrupt Stalinist “two-stage theory” of revolution. Despite having a mass base, the Tudeh Party, in line with its theory, forged an alliance with fundamentalists instead of offering an alternative to the masses. Not only that, but the Iranian left also failed to present itself as an alternative during the democratic movement against the shah and failed or did not attempt to link the democratic movement to the class struggle to overthrow capitalism and replace it with socialism. The alliance with the fundamentalists proved fatal. The fundamentalists on coming to power went on to the physical elimination of the communists, and did it successfully. A golden opportunity for a socialist revolution was lost and the working class had to pay a heavy price, which it is still paying.

    Afghanistan was the other country where fundamentalists were able to capture power. In Afghanistan, the fundamentalists came to power as a direct sequel to the socialist government. The Afghan revolutionaries who captured power surrendered to the Stalinist instructions and methods taught by Moscow. Instead of making any genuine effort to consolidate revolution by appealing to internationalism, consolidating workers’ democracy and laying the material basis to prolong the revolution, they resorted to Stalinist, bureaucratic and class-collaborationist methods of running a transitional state. As a result, they failed, paving the way for the fundamentalists.

    Similarly in Algeria, where socialists successfully led the national liberation movement against France and remained in power for over two decades, they failed to stop the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The fundamentalist movement in Algeria is one of the strongest movements in the Muslim world today.

  4. Providing an alternative society. The fundamentalists, through their massive network of social services, have built alternative societies in the Muslim countries where they are strong. They provide hospitals, orphanages, schools and many other facilities, which weak capitalist governments have failed to provide to the masses. This adds to their influence as a social force. Their schools (seminaries) are the most influential tool. These seminaries not only provide religious education but also guarantee food and shelter to the children of poor parents who cannot afford education and food.

Imperialism and fundamentalism

Islamic fundamentalism provides a glaring example of imperialist hypocrisy. Now the USA and the imperialist West pose as the biggest enemy of Islamic fundamentalism and try to fool the working class in the West by presenting fundamentalism as a big challenge to world peace. But it was the same imperialism that used these fundamentalist forces against the left in various Muslim countries.

In the 1950s and 1960s there was a rise of populist, anti-imperialist and class movements. The USA worked out a plan to patronise the fundamentalists in order to weaken these populist movements, which imperialism feared could end up in socialist revolutions. The CIA, under the guidance of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, established a liaison between fundamentalist parties in different countries. According to the plan, a network of Akwanul Muslameen—popularly known as Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt), Hamas (Syria), Sarakat ul Islam (Indonesia), Islamic Salvation Front (Algeria) and Jamaat Islami (Pakistan)—was established. These parties were given full economic and political support during that period.

This process reached its peak during the 1980s, when thousands of militants or so-called Mujahideen were trained and sent to Afghanistan. The Jamaat Islami of Pakistan provided the main force, but the above-mentioned parties also sent their share.

The shameful alliance of imperialism and fundamentalism was exposed in Pakistan in 1977 during a movement against Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The fundamentalists started a movement against Bhutto in 1977 based on his rigging of elections. Some left and bourgeois parties also joined hands with the religious parties. Bhutto was a populist nationalist leader and an irritant for imperialism in the region. During this movement, the dollar was devalued in Pakistan. This was the only such instance in Pakistan, indicating the flood of dollars reaching Pakistan during those days.

Similarly, a US official welcomed and waved to a rally of the Jamaat Islami when it passed before the American Center in Lahore while the demonstrators chanted slogans in favour of the USA.

In the Afghan war, thousands of guerrillas fought against the Afghan revolution at the command of the CIA and the Pentagon. Osama bin Laden was a hero then. But the post-Cold War situation, as mentioned, brought them into contradiction for at least three reasons. There was a political vacuum because the collapse of the USSR had hurt the trade union and the left movement in the Muslim world, as it had elsewhere. The imperialist political and economic support for the fundamentalist parties stopped. Imperialism now needed another potential enemy in place of the “Communists”.

In the new situation, it was in the interest of both fundamentalism and imperialism to become enemies. The fundamentalists started gaining politically by posing as anti-imperialists, while imperialism now had “Islamic terrorists” to fool its working class and justify big defence budgets.

But is this imperialism-fundamentalism enmity real and long-lasting? No. As soon as a working-class movement begins threatening the class structure and imperialism, the old hypocritical alliance of imperialism and fundamentalism will be renewed. However, before that, because of the strong consciousness among the working classes in the West against fundamentalism, imperialism will not openly support any fundamentalist movement. There may be underhanded deals with fundamentalist governments in Afghanistan or Iran, or with Chechen rebels, but not an open alliance. Similarly, after the experience of the Taliban, imperialism would hardly support any fundamentalist movement coming to power. But it cannot be completely ruled out everywhere; because of the internal contradictions of imperialist countries, a section of imperialism may support particular fundamentalist movements while another section of imperialism opposes them.

It is most likely that, unless a revolutionary situation arises, the present contradiction between fundamentalism and imperialism will suit both of them, and fundamentalists from time to time may make trouble for imperialism.

In Pakistan

Pakistan is witnessing a rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Partly this is linked with international phenomena and the four factors cited above. But there are some local factors as well. Five factors are summarised here.

  1. Pakistan is not a nation-state. It is an unnatural and unhistorical country with its borders drawn in the name of religion. Besides Israel, it is the only country founded in the name of religion. Religion was and still is exploited to provide a basis for the country.

    After its creation, the ruling class, in order to keep the country intact and run the state in a multi-national country, has constantly used religion as a tool to deny the rights of small nationalities and to justify unelected regimes. This has combined state and religion. Therefore Pakistan has become a semi-theocratic state, if not a completely theocratic one.

  2. The ruling class has always exploited religion to justify its regimes or to win popularity. The unelected governments used religion to argue that Islam and Western democracy do not match, while so-called elected governments used religion to gain popularity whenever it was threatened. Even a populist leader like Bhutto used the phrase “Islamic socialism” in the late 1960s, and when he was facing a movement in 1977 he decreed Friday a weekly holiday and other such cosmetic Islamic reforms. After decades of exploitation of religion by rulers, there is a developing view that if Islam is the only solution to all problems, then one might as well give the government to those who practice Islam most consistently, i.e. the fundamentalists.

  3. Madaris (religious schools or seminaries) provide a big army of young fundamentalists every year. There are 8000 religious schools, with an estimated 2.5 million to 3.5 million students. These schools are run with money from the Saudi or Kuwaiti governments, various departments of the Pakistani government and local wealthy people, who give big donations from their corruptly obtained money “to please Allah” as well as to “purify” their corrupted money.

    Poor parents are compelled by their circumstances to send their children to these schools. Their only options are to send their children to child labour or to these schools, where they will get religious education, food, shelter and a job at some mosque on completing their education. There is an additional factor: it is believed that by learning the Quran by heart at these schools, a boy will secure heaven for himself and his family.

  4. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan really began in the 1980s. On the one hand, the military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, was using religion to justify his rule and was “Islamising” laws and society. On the other hand, Pakistan had become a base camp for the forces opposing the Afghan revolution. Not only were thousands of Pakistani guerrillas operating from Pakistani soil but also 25,000 guerrillas from other Muslim countries reached Afghanistan through Pakistan.

    After the end of the Afghan war, the Pakistan Army started using these guerrilla forces to fight a proxy war in Kashmir. It is still going on. The Pakistan Army is interested in using them only in Kashmir, but the way these guerrillas are brainwashed, it is not possible to restrict them to Kashmir. They are taught to fight against all infidels; hence they reach from the Moro (Philippines) to Chechnya to help their Muslim brethren. When their foreign engagements end and they return home, they may pose a big challenge to the state. Already they are flexing their muscles. The attack on the US embassy in Islamabad in 1999 and the hijacking of an Indian plane from Nepal demanding the release of Maulana Massod, a militant leader, show their strength.

  5. Pakistan’s strategic position also provides a fertile ground for the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. Two Muslim countries with fundamentalist governments, Iran and Afghanistan, lie on its western border. The governments in both these countries have strong connections with the fundamentalist parties belonging to their respective sects. Pakistan borders India in the east. India is experiencing the rise and rise of Hindu fundamentalists, who have been in power now for about three years. These Hindu reactionaries use sloganeering and war mania against Pakistan to seek popularity. As a reaction to Hindu fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism gains popularity in Pakistan.

Social base

In the 1970 general election, the first election held on an adult franchise in Pakistan, the fundamentalist parties won eighteen seats. In the last election in 1997, they secured only two seats. In the intervening elections, their results were: 1988, seventeen seats; 1990, eighteen seats; 1993, nine seats.

But this does not show their real social strength. In 1970, they had a large parliamentary representation but their social weight was far less. In the last election, they had a far smaller representation in the parliament but they are a far bigger social force. They command a big influence in the army and trade unions and among students. Above all, most of these parties have their own armies of fanatical guerrillas. They can mobilise hundreds of thousands of people.

The last ijtama (party congress) of the Jamaat Islami, the biggest fundamentalist party, was attended by 300,000 people. Similarly, half a million people attended the ijtama in 1999 of Lashkare Tayyaba. The student wings of these various fundamentalist parties, especially Jamaat Islami, control many college and university campuses. At these campuses everything from the appointment of teaching staff to student admissions is done according to their will. No student group opposing them can survive; they are heavily armed and trained in fighting. They simply kill their opponents. Similarly, their influence in public sector trade unions has grown, especially during the 1980s, thanks to the patronage of General Zia ul-Haq.

Divisions among fundamentalist parties

The fundamentalist parties are sharply divided along sectarian lines. Furthermore, these parties can be categorised as serious and non-serious.

Shia and Sunni are the two main sects of Islam. Pakistan is a majority Sunni country with a big Shia minority, almost twenty per cent of the population. Sunni are further divided among various schools of thought. The three main Sunni schools are Brailvi, Deo Bandi and Ahle Hadith. The Brailvi sect is the largest.

Iran is a Shia majority country—almost ninety per cent are Shia. The fundamentalist parties representing Shiites get support from Iran and follow instructions from Tehran. Tehrik e Jaffaria Pakistan and its militant wing Sipah e Muhammad are pro-Iran parties.

Saudi Arabia is Ahle Hadith-dominated, and parties representing Ahle Hadith get support from Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Jamiat Ahle Hadith Pakistan and Lashkare Tayyaba are the parties in this category.

Taliban are Deo Bandi and support parties believing in the same school of thought. Jamiat Ulema Islam and the militant Sipah Sahaba Pakistan are pro-Taliban. Deo Bandi and Ahle Hadith are close to each other and hold similar political views.

Fundamentalist parties can be categorised as serious and non-serious. Almost all the parties mentioned above, organized on a sectarian basis, are mostly engaged in sectarian killings or abroad in “jihad”. They are not seriously working on any political agenda with regard to the Pakistani state. They mainly serve the Pakistan Army’s interests in Kashmir or fulfill the sectarian designs drawn up by the foreign Muslim governments to which they adhere ideologically.

The serious fundamentalist forces include parties like Jamaat Islami and Pakistan Awami Tehreek. Although also dominated by certain sects, these parties do not claim to be sectarian or use sectarian sloganeering. Instead they raise political demands and use only the word of Islam. These are the parties, especially Jamaat Islami, which pose a real threat to the state.

Jamaat Islami is the most important. In trade unions and the army and among students, it has the biggest influence. During the Cold War it was a party of the establishment. It is working on a short-term and a long-term agenda of Islamic revolution. As part of its long-term agenda, it is trying to build mass bases. Of late it has been very vocal against feudalism, privatisation and imperialism. To work on its long-term agenda, it tries to avoid any big contradiction with the state that might invite the state’s wrath and hamper its mass growth. As a short-term agenda, it plans to support any coup by a section of the army.

Immediate perspective

Will the fundamentalists capture power in Pakistan? We can safely say no, at least for the near future, because of the balance of forces in the Pakistani state. However, in case of a coup by a fundamentalist section of the army, their rule cannot be excluded even in the near future.

In the long run they may become a mass force capable of forming a government, but this is linked with the growth of the working-class movement and the left. There exists a big gap. Both left and fundamentalists can fill this gap, but at present the fundamentalists are in a far better position.

The sectarian divide is also a big hurdle in their coming to power. Also the havoc played by fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Iran is a factor changing the consciousness of workers in Pakistan. The Afghan and Iran experiences are making the fundamentalists less popular.


The Labour Party Pakistan rules out any alliance with the fundamentalists, despite the Jamaat Islami being very vocal recently against privatisation and imperialism. The LPP believes that, just as there can be no alliance with fascists, their can be no alliance with fundamentalists. Although LPP differentiates between them, fascism and fundamentalism have common features because of which the LPP rules out any alliance with fundamentalists.

Both fundamentalists and fascists are anti-working class, anti-women, anti-minorities. The fundamentalists are even worse in some cases. They don’t tolerate even art and literature. They believe in physically eliminating all their opponents. They have the same contempt for workers states and capitalist states. For them, Cuba and the USA are both infidel states and hence enemies.

The LPP’s rejection of alliances with fundamentalists is not based on sentimentalism but on historical lessons. When a revolutionary party forges an alliance, it develops certain illusions among the working class about its ally. Developing any illusions in fundamentalists is suicidal for the left.

After such an alliance, the chance to become an alternative is minimised or may be lost. If the fundamentalists succeed as a result of an alliance, they eliminate the left first of all. Iran is the best example of that. If the fundamentalists come to power, the left has to resist, and it will not be easy to resist if the left has formerly been an ally. On the other hand, if the left has never been an ally, it can benefit whether the fundamentalists succeed or fail. In case of the failure of the fundamentalists, the left may grow as an alternative provided it was presenting itself as one. And if the fundamentalists succeed, the left’s resistance, even if it fails, will be a principled position and may lay the basis for a future.