Last week, an Islamic State (IS) flag was seen hoisted above one of Islamabad’s main highways. The flag, which sprung the capital’s law enforcement agencies into action, bore the message “The caliphate is coming.” While the capital police have not been able been able to find the people behind the incident, the hoisting of the flag in Pakistan’s capital offers a chilling reminder that support for militant groups such as IS is growing in Pakistan.
The government in Pakistan has said that the hoisting of the militant group’s flag doesn’t mean that the IS threat is serious in Pakistan. While the group’s presence in the country may not have emerged in the form of an active resistance, the militant group’s “passive support” base has grown exponentially over the last few years.
Pakistan launched a major counterterrorism campaign more than two years ago to contain militancy in the country. One of the core aspects of Pakistan’s recent counterterrorism campaign was to revise the country’s public education curriculum, which has been filled with religiously inspired nationalistic rhetoric, and to regulate religious seminaries all across Pakistan, which continue to radicalize young minds. Unfortunately, beyond making tactical gains related to killing militants that are targeting the state, the country’s counterterrorism campaign has not achieved anything.
There were only 137 religious seminaries in Pakistan at the time of the partition. Now, the government claims that there are more than 13.000 registered religious seminaries in Pakistan. The number of unregistered religious seminaries, which are not accounted for, remains significant. A large number of unregulated religious seminaries continue to flourish in Pakistan, particularly in places and regions that are away from the government’s scrutiny such as the slums of major cities and remote regions in the country’s tribal belt.
The country’s federal capital, Islamabad, houses more religious seminaries than schools. According to a recent research report, the number of religious schools in the capital now stands at 374 and a majority of these seminaries are not registered with the government or capital authorities. Moreover, more religious schools are being built on the outskirts of Islamabad while the federal government has not been able to open any new schools in the last four years.
The Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), a controversial religious seminary in Islamabad, continues to operate even after openly supporting the Islamic State and their version of Islam, which the mosque’s leadership wants to implement in Pakistan. A recently released documentary, Among the Believers, offers an eye-opening insight into how young Pakistani minds are radicalized and brainwashed behind the walls of Lal Masjid. Lal Masjid and hundreds of other religious seminaries in Pakistan are actually operating to create a popular support base for militant groups such as the Islamic State among the masses.
Just over a week ago, representatives of two proscribed militant organizations were not only able to participate in a major by-election in Punjab, but they managed to secure more than 11 percent of the constituency’s vote. One of the candidate’s campaign posters had the pictures of Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated the Governor of Punjab province Salman Taseer. The other candidate who was supported by the Jamaat-ul-Dawa(JuD), a proscribed organization that remains banned in Pakistan, openly campaigned on the agenda of transforming Pakistan into an conservative Islamic state with jihadism as a central theme of the candidate’s imaginative ideas of democracy.
For 70 years, the ruling elite of Pakistan have accommodated religious fundamentalist demands in the country to either to safeguard their political interests or to keep the existing political power structure intact to sustain their rule. Now, in Pakistan, the credibility and legitimacy of politicians and bureaucrats is measured on the basis of their religious bona fides rather than the kinds of policies they hope to implement.
The rates of terrorist violence may have decreased in Pakistan in the last couple of years, but the country still continues to provide an environment that enables militancy. In such an environment, it’s only a matter of time before the Islamic State develops a popular support base in the country. Last week’s flag unfurling may ultimately be a warning worth taking seriously.