Although the militant Islamic State (ISIS) group is fast losing the territory under its control, its ideological attraction is not subsiding at the same pace because the idea of a global ‘Islamic caliphate’ still glows in the minds of many in Muslim societies.
Some leading Muslim scholars have made strenuous intellectual efforts to challenge militant ideologies — or militants’ interpretations of Islamic precepts to justify their actions including violent ones — but these efforts have largely failed to develop an alternative ideological narrative. That keeps the Muslim populace, mainly the youth, prone to being influenced by militants’ narratives; the threat is far more complex in Pakistan where there exists a plethora of competing radical and violent ideologies, including in the form of rival sectarian streams.
The Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) is projecting a new political face, the Milli Muslim League (MML), as an alternative model to challenge the ISIS and Al Qaeda ideologies. The group believes that its ideological ambitions resonate with those of Pakistan and an Islamic ideological transformation of the Pakistani state and society will not only reduce the appeal of Islamist militant organisations but will also help engage the youth in ‘constructive’ activities. Besides its multiple sociopolitical implications, which should be debated from different perspectives, the ideological encroachment of the JuD entails two critical aspects.
First, a Salafi radical group has taken refuge in the idea, or identity, of Pakistan and feels an obligation to restructure the basic concept of nationalism in the country. It is ironic that a militant group has become the custodian of the national ideology, which was nurtured by the state institutions during the last 70 years. Secondly, there has been a collective intellectual failure in the development and provision of a vision of a modern Muslim state.
The Pakistani state, instead of reforming and controlling its ideological narratives, has allowed, advertently or inadvertently, some unhealthy and negative ideological processes and influences to grow. The environment for intellectual nourishment provided by the state and to some extent by the sociopolitical elites was conducive for inventing an expression of orthodoxy and it triggered sectarianism. It has given birth to a variety of ideological trends but within narrow intellectual or sectarian domains.
Renowned scholar Khaled Ahmed once explained the increasing sectarian divide using Christian theological terms, showing the Barelvi school of thought as ‘low church’ and the Deobandi-Ahle Hadith schools of thought combined as ‘high church’. He depicted sectarian violence and attacks on shrines as the confrontation between the ‘low’ and ‘high churches’.
The recent rise of Barelvi activism can also be seen in the same context, which is not an intellectual or reformation attempt but a response to the growing influence of the Deobandi school of thought. The establishment of the MML can also be seen as an effort by the Ahle Hadith school to dominate, which indicates further sectarian proliferation. The ‘low church’ is building upon Sunni asabiyyah and the ‘high church’ is widening its political and ideological appeal.
Though a few moderate voices can be identified between these streams, a rational discourse is largely missing within them. A parallel but weak rational movement of moderation exists in Pakistan, mainly inspired by Iqbal’s vision of reconstruction of Islamic thought. In pursuit of an alternative modernity, the rationalists are developing compatibility with Islamic text and democratisation. However, traditional Muslim scholars do not consider them part of the mainstream, and resist. Those rationalists, like Javed Ghamidi, who succeeded in creating their following, are hesitant to be tagged as rationalists.
Another religio-political tendency among those not satisfied with the traditional ulema nor with the rationalists is to attempt a middle course. Though this is not an organised movement, a considerable segment of the rural-urban middle class with a moderate worldview believes in such ideas. They want compatibility within religion, the material world and most importantly, compatibility with social changes. Barrister Zafarullah Khan’s book, Islam in the Contemporary World: A New Narrative, represents this tendency.
The book deconstructs Islamic history and argues that the Muslim tradition subsumes reason within revelation and considers reason as part of a larger reality. The irrational behaviours are increasing the intellectual deficit, as the state of science in the Muslim world today is dismal. The author suggests that Muslims need to focus on science and technology if they want to gain a respected status in the world.
He also talks about the compatibility between changing social values and Islam. Pakistan’s liberals are largely not part of the religious intellectual discourse of the country. They see religion in sociopolitical perspectives but avoid becoming part of the debates on religious reform. Their absence has left the debate confined to conventional domains. It may be too risky for them to invest in religious thoughts, and inspired by the Quaid, they mainly rely on the vision that declares religion or faith a personal issue. However, such a liberal vision has only limited influence on sociopolitical elites.
Few overlapped Sufi or spiritual tendencies also add to the ideological spectrum of Pakistan, but only those survive that succeed in creating a circle of followers among the masses. Some ideologies may not survive in an open and free intellectual environment and need a multilayered organisational structure. That is why almost all religious and ideological movements have organisational structures including political, charity, educational and professional wings.
A movement that has more functional organisations will have more chances to survive and grow. If a radical, militant and sectarian group has better organisational resources, it can challenge the state and declare itself the custodian of the ideology of the country. It does not deem it necessary to follow democratic norms or the country’s system.
Weak organisations remain in the process of gathering the resources to become powerful and to challenge the more powerful. The race for resources will not only further shrink the intellectual space and increase sectarian divisions, but the competition among them can turn ugly at any time.