Why Shariah doesn’t spread in Pakistan

Taliban in Herat.

When ordinary people speak of their reverence for the Shariah, and their respect for the Taleban when they introduce the Shariah, this should not necessarily be taken as active support for the Taleban’s complete programme. Rather it is a mixture of a reverence for the Shariah as part of the word of God, dictated to the last Prophet, with a vague yearning for a justice system that might be cruder than that of the state, but would also be quicker, less biased in favor of the elites, and conducted before the eyes of the people, in their own language. Mixed in with this is a great deal of somewhat veiled anti-elitist feeling, which in the eyes of parts of the Pathan tribal populations helps fuel mass acceptance of Taleban attacks on the local maliks and khans, or tribal bosses and local landowners.

But then, the Pathans have always been the most culturally egalitarian people of Pakistan. Among the masses elsewhere, the progress of the Islamists has so far generally been very limited when it comes to gaining active mass support. One key reason for their failure to date is the deeply conservative nature of much of Pakistani society; for – quite contrary to most Western perceptions – Islamist mobilization often thrives not on backwardness, but on partially achieved modernity. Thus, to judge by all the economic evidence about poverty and landownership, radical Islamist groups preaching land reform ought to be flourishing in the Pakistani countryside.

In fact, the only areas where they have had any significant success (outside the Pathan territories) are where a sectarian (Sunni versus Shia) or tribal element comes into play. This is partly because of clan solidarity, but also for the simple reason that the only people who could lead such a radical Islamist movement in the countryside are the local mullahs, and they are in effect chosen by the local ‘feudal’ landowners – who do not exactly favour radicalism of any kind, least of all involving land reform.

In the cities, things are freer, but even there most attempts at political mobilization from below are stifled by the grip of the political bosses and the kinship groups they lead, as well as by the politically apathetic condition of society, and by divisions along religious lines. In other words, while there is certainly a great deal of economic, social discontent in the Pakistani population, being discontented is not at all the same thing as being able to do something about it. As of 2009, the perennial discontent of the urban masses in most of Pakistan continues to express itself not in terms of political mobilization behind new mass movements, but sporadic and pointless riots and destruction of property – including most notably the buses in which the rioters themselves have to travel every day.

Excerpt From: Lieven, Anatol. “Pakistan: A Hard Country”

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