Pakistan and Its Militants: Who Is Mainstreaming Whom?
Pakistani militants of various stripes collectively won just under 10 percent of the vote in the July 2018 parliamentary elections. Some represented longstanding legal Islamist parties, others newly established groups or fronts for organizations that have been banned as terrorists by Pakistan and/or the United Nations and the United States.
The militants failed to secure a single seat in the national assembly, but have maintained — if not increased — their ability to shape national debate, mainstream politics, and societal attitudes. Their ability to field candidates in almost all constituencies, and, in many cases, their performance as debutantes, enhanced their legitimacy.
The militants’ performance has fueled debate about the Pakistani military’s effort to expand its longstanding support for militants. It also raises the question of who benefits most: mainstream politicians or the militants. Political parties help to mainstream militants, but militants with deep societal roots and significant followings are frequently key to mainstream candidates’ electoral success.
Perceptions that the militants may stand to gain the most are enhanced by the fact that decades of successive military and civilian governments, aided and abetted by Saudi Arabia, have managed to deeply embed ultra-conservative, intolerant, anti-pluralist, and supremacist strands of Sunni Islam into significant segments of Pakistani society.
Former international cricket player Imran Khan’s electoral victory may constitute a break with the country’s corrupt dynastic policies, which had ensured that civilian power alternated between two clans, the Bhuttos and the Sharifs. However, his alignment with ultra-conservatism’s social and religious views, as well as with militant groups, offers little hope that Pakistan will become a more tolerant, pluralistic society and move away from a social environment that breeds extremism and militancy. On the contrary: Policies enacted by Khan and his ministers since taking office suggest that ultra-conservatism and intolerance are the name of the game in modern-day Pakistan.
If anything, Khan’s political history, his 2018 election campaign, and his actions since coming to office reflect the degree to which aspects of militancy, intolerance, anti-pluralism, and supremacist ultra-conservative Sunni Islam have, over decades, been woven into the fabric of segments of society and elements of the state.
The roots of Pakistan’s extremism problem date to the immediate wake of the 1947 partition of British India, when using militants as proxies was a way to compensate for Pakistan’s economic and military weakness. They were entrenched by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s and General Zia ul-Haq’s Islamization of Pakistani society in the 1980s. The rise of Islamist militants in the US-Saudi supported war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan, and opportunistic policies by politicians and rulers since then, have shaped contemporary Pakistan in dangerous ways.
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture. To read a BESA Center report on the subject, please click here.