The Islamist Threat Bordering Pakistan’s Political Crisis

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The Islamist Threat Bordering Pakistan’s Political Crisis

The prospect of Islamist organizations toppling the state remains remote. But the real threat is the violence and destruction they might perpetrate in the process.

The Islamist Threat Bordering Pakistan’s Political Crisis

Supporters of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s religious party block a highway, while protesting against the government, near Karachi, Pakistan, Nov. 15, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Fareed Khan

On May 9, a months-long political crisis in Pakistan culminated in a direct challenge to the stability of the state following the arrest of the former Prime Minister Imran Khan. In the immediate aftermath, as supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) took to the streets of several major cities across the country, the military and state apparatus struggled to gain control of the situation. Security forces deployed across the Pakistani heartland resorted to a violent crackdown against protesters, and the resulting breakdown in law and order created the sort of volatile environment in which terrorist networks and economies are generally known to thrive. This gave rise to security concerns regarding Islamist terror outfits active within Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, nearly two dozen Islamist factions are currently operational, all of whom share a common ideological orientation and pursue the long-term goal of introducing a hardline Islamic system of governance. However, they are not allied with each other in a common front against other political actors and follow sharply divergent strategies to achieve their ultimate objectives. A number of them have been banned by the state, while others participate in mainstream electoral politics or attempt to do so. In addition, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or the “Pakistani Taliban”) is engaged in a violent conflict with the state that represents an increased threat following the Afghan Taliban’s takeover of the central government in Kabul in August 2021. In light of this complex situation, it is important to understand the “Islamist security threat” to Pakistan in a differentiated and nuanced way. 

Interactions Between Radical Groups and the State Apparatus  

Islamist parties have been involved in the shaping of Pakistan’s political landscape since the very inception of the state. They’re generally believed to serve as the ideological guardians of Islam, sustaining the original nationalist idea behind the Islamic republic. Individually, their electoral prospects have been limited by insufficient resources and the heterogeneity of Pakistan’s religious population, which is divided between various Islamic denominations and religious schools of thought. Collectively, however, they have played an outsize role in national politics by shaping social institutions and discursive norms, and denying religious legitimacy arbitrarily to those who run counter to their principles and interests. As a result, their presence in electoral politics has traditionally been sustained by mainstream political parties, which incorporate certain aspects of their religious identity to assert Islamic credibility and recruit popular support.

When it comes to militant Islamist groups, however, the Pakistani deep state has often played a role in the proliferation of their presence and activities. The country’s security forces are known to have built relationships with militants in the past that allegedly served a mutually beneficial role against other opposing security and political actors. These so-called partnerships have frequently gotten out of hand and backfired. 

A prominent example of this goes back to Afghanistan in the 1980s when, the-President General Zia ul Haq alongside the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) systemically armed and coordinated support for the Mujahideen in what is sometimes referred to as the anti-Soviet “Jihad” in Afghanistan. Some of these armed Mujahideen factions later emerged as the Taliban that enforces totalitarian control over Kabul today. 

Overview of the Political Crisis

The political theater of Imran Khan’s term in office ended with an important vote of no confidence in the National Assembly of Pakistan. For years, the PTI-led government struggled to contain the economic crisis in the country that deepened with the rise of global inflation rates and the devaluation of the rupee. Its leadership further suffered a falling out with a key player in Pakistani politics, the military, over senior appointments and foreign policy. As relations between the military and the civilian government soured, Khan also began to lose the support of coalition allies that comprised the majority that he needed to defeat the impending motion of no confidence against him. 

Khan responded to this by ordering the dissolution of the lower house of Parliament to unlawfully set the stage for snap elections. The national institutions were able to avert a constitutional crisis by a landmark judgment of the country’s Supreme Court on April 7, 2022, that declared the order devoid of legal effect and restored Parliament. Three days later, Khan ceased to hold the office of prime minister with 174 votes of no confidence against him.

Since then, Khan has emerged as a major divisive figure in Pakistani politics. Whereas his public outbursts criticizing the military’s interference in politics and an alleged U.S. conspiracy to overthrow his government make him a center of critical attention, the PTI retains a large support base across the country that the government and military struggles to contain. It currently occupies the primary agenda of the military and state apparatus, thereby enabling secondary political actors, including Islamist organizations and separatist groups to co-opt the situation.

The Role of Islamist Groups

Since then, there have been a proliferation of political events in which Islamist groups – both official political parties and proscribed groups – are key actors. Amid the current political crisis in Pakistan, Islamist groups have responded to the hostility between the PTI and the government and security forces in varying ways. 

The Jamiat-e-Ulema Fazl (JUI-F), a Deobandi Sunni Islamist party, serves in the coalition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which holds a parliamentary majority following Imran Khan’s ouster. The The PDM was formed after the 2018 general elections, when Khan was elected as premier, and brought together the members of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) with the JUI-F. 

In their opposition tactic against the PTI, the PDM appointed JUI-F leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman as its president, consequently normalizing his ideology that promotes, among other things, domestic violence and Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Rehman, for instance, filed a petition opposing the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, which had been passed in 2018 under the previous PMLN government.

Amid the current political convergence, however, in the aftermath of May 9, when the Supreme Court had released Imran Khan on a two-week bail, Rehman, together with other paramilitary members of the JUI-F, organized a demonstration against the chief justices of the court. 

On the other hand, the PTI announced a coalition agreement with the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) for the Karachi municipal council on May 20, where the latter has a majority of seats in the local government. The friendly alliance saw a PTI member run as deputy mayor on the ticket with JI’s mayor candidate, Karachi Chief Hafiz Naeemur Rehman. They were defeated in the June 15 election, but the JI disputed the results, saying PTI supporters had been blocked from voting.

As for the security forces, they have recently enjoyed substantial support from two banned sectarian groups, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ). Both held rallies and protests, with the ASWJ more vocally aligned with the establishment, in solidarity with the military’s campaign against Imran Khan and PTI supporters who stormed military installations upon his arrest. These demonstrations were undertaken in clear violation of the National Action Plan for countering terrorism in Pakistan, but were not met with any restrictions by the government or security forces. 

On June 1, a video circulating on social media platforms showed pro-Islamic State cleric Moulvi Abdul Aziz and his supporters vandalizing and harassing residents in Sector G-7 of the national capital, Islamabad. Aziz was arrested in 2007 during a bloody siege of the Lal Masjid where he organized Islamist militants to engage in violent demonstrations, arson, kidnapping, and armed clashes to overthrow the Pakistani government. His recent resurfacing has sparked outrage and concern across the country.

Last month, in response to the May 15 protests organized by the JUI-F, the TTP’s shadow governor for Zhob, Balochistan, criticized Fazlur Rehman for his strategy and expressed the need for an armed struggle like in Afghanistan to establish Islamic governance in Pakistan. The JUI-F and the TTP are poles apart in their political efforts, but occasionally share ideological similarities with the Afghan Taliban. It has been reported that the TTP has attempted to recruit disaffected protesters from the JUI-F and intensify its military pressure against the Pakistani Army in the border regions under their strategic influence. 

With a multitude of actors, many with inherent links and convergent ideologies, the dynamics of Islamist groups within Pakistani politics is critical. The groups’ divergent stances must be kept track of, given their susceptibility to sudden changes.