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‘New’ Radicals and ‘Old’ Islamists: Understanding the Politics of Religious Radicalization in Pakistan and its Implications

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  • June 26, 2009
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: Kalim Bahadur
    Discussants: Ashok Behuria and Anwar Alam

    Pakistan has witnessed a significant shift in the politics of religion. Islam in the initial years after the creation of Pakistan was confined to constructing a national identity by defining the role of the state on religious grounds. However, the politics of religion now permeates society and shapes mass opinion. The religious political parties who portrayed themselves as harbingers of Islam now appear sidelined. The new radicals are trying to define the nature of the state and society. They have coerced the state to implement Sharia in some parts of the tribal areas, something the Islamic parties could not achieve in six decades. In the past few years radical groups have started questioning the legitimacy of Islamic political parties and their methods to usher in an Islamic revolution. It appears that the old Islamists represented mainly by the Jamaat-i-Islami and Jamiat’ul Ulema Islami Pakistan, which were perceived as major political fronts for the Islamists in Pakistan, are gradually showing signs of political decline in terms of their influence and hold on the new generation of Islamists.

    Both these political parties were earlier at the vanguard of the Islamic movement in Pakistan. Whether it is the discourse on the place of religion in Pakistan’s polity or the methods to achieve an Islamic state, these two old Islamic political parties have played a major role. They have also colluded with the Pakistani political and military establishment to implement Pakistan’s policies in Kashmir and Afghanistan. These ‘old’ Islamists consider the State and its Western style democratic institutions as important instruments in achieving their objective to impose Islam. They have acted within the parameters of the state to consolidate the Islamic character of Pakistan. Despite their success in the 2002 elections, their subsequent electoral decline has given way to a new breed of radicals who are trying to occupy the political space. This new breed of Islamists initially functioned with the blessing of the religious political parties and the Pakistani establishment. Currently, the old Islamists have distanced themselves from the new radicals; however links between their cadres exist. Political Islam has become more contested between the new radicals and ‘old’ Islamists.

    Points raised by External Discussants

    • There is no real distinction between Old and New Islamists; means have changed and not ends. The paper has not been able to bring out sharply such a distinction.
    • Jihad is not just a 20th century phenomenon, but served as an instrument against colonialism as well.
    • Technology is influencing Jihadi terror – means have become more lethal.
    • From an Islamic perspective there is nothing wrong with Jihad.
    • Conflict is more within Islam than between non-Muslims and Muslims
    • Connection between poverty and terrorism is incorrect.
    • Deoband and Jamaat-i-Islami are instruments to Islamize society.
    • Barelvis and Deobandis have been involved in bargaining.
    • The paper needs to contextualize the phenomenon of the new radical and the internal processes in Pakistan that have led to the emergence of new radicalism. Islam in India is subsumed within a plural culture.
    • Lashkar and Ahl-e-Hadees are more Salafist than Deobandi.
    • Ahl-e-Hadees also tried to win Saudi Arabia’s support.
    • The ideological base of Islamists is splitting. If Jamaat was once radical why is it moderate now?
    • Bulk of Sunni Muslims in FATA are landless as opposed to the Shias.
    • The rise of sectarian violence also coincided with the anti-Soviet Jihad in the 1980s.
    • The paper needs to better capture the fractionation of the ideological base of Islamists.
    • The paper raises too many issues. It is insufficiently focused and becomes a discourse on the Pakistani state.
    • Paper fails to capture the fact that JuI also opposed democracy.
    • Did the ‘new’ radicalism emerge due to the vacuum left behind at the end of the Cold War? Or is it a development indigenous to Pakistan?
    • How have global debates on Jihadi violence influenced Islamists in Pakistan?
    • The paper needs to explain how class differences generate radicalism.
    • There are different forms of new radicalism. Radicals are not a monolithic entity.
    • There are ideological differences among them.
    • Lack of democracy is also propelling Islamic radicalism. Greater emphasis is needed in capturing how the Pakistani state has used one radical group against another.
    • In the past Islam was used as an instrument to subsume diverse ethnic identities.
    • Shias had a dominant role in Pakistan until the 1970s.
    • The paper needs to capture better the role of groups such as TTP and TSNM.
    • What is the role of minorities in Muslim dominated countries?


    • No timelines given on the emergence of new groups.
    • All funding is agenda driven for Madrasas.
    • Old and new Islamists unify against a common enemy. New Islamists are not prepared to participate in the democratic process.
    • All revivalist movements subscribe to apostasy.
    • Islamic movements are challenging the state.
    • Deobandi groups are more binary than the Barelvis.
    • Religious minorities were protected under the Ottomans.
    • The Taliban are trained by the JuI.
    • New radical groups such as the Deobandis have tried to capture state power.
    • Withdrawal of the US is unlikely to change much within Pakistan.
    • Pakistani state is not going to abandon fundamentalist Islam. Sufi Mohammad does not believe in state authority.

    Chair’s Remarks

    In Punjab Barelvis are seeing a decline in numbers. Deobandis and Madrasas are growing. Deobandis and Barelvis continue to dispute mosque ownership. All Muslims need to be good to be Islamic. The Taliban want to kill everyone. Secularism means atheism for Pakistani Islamists. They are against women’s freedom. Ideologically they are cohesive. Islamists such as Khomeini, Qutb and Maududi used elections to gain power, but refused to hold them again.

    Prepared by Kartik Bommakanti, Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.