Social, religious and political change in Pakistan


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TYPICALLY, those with an interest in the politics of Pakistan focus on macro-level trends at the level of high politics. Occasionally, some attention is paid to regional, ethnic and sectarian politics. In what follows, I turn to grassroots trends rooted in sociological changes based on rural to urban migration. I argue that a deeper understanding of the social, religious and political trends growing out of these grassroots changes is particularly helpful for those with an interest in mapping patterns of political change, and conflict, today.

My comments focus on broad structural trends in three domains, each of which moves away from points of emphasis commonly associated with Pakistan’s political landscape during the first four decades after 1947. The first concerns rather dramatic changes in the country’s social and economic landscape; the second involves changes in the country’s religious and sectarian landscape; the third turns to changes in Pakistan’s underlying political landscape.

For several decades after 1947, Pakistan’s political landscape was characterized by pitched battles involving rival landowners focused on the preservation of traditional rural norms. In this paper, I focus on the rise of Pakistan’s ‘petty bourgeoisie’ instead. Second, Pakistan’s early landowning elites struggled to contain the influence of prominent religious leaders – for example, prominent clerics (ulema) and the leadership of Pakistan’s Jama’at-e-Islami – most of whom focused their energy on the preservation of what they considered to be traditional religious norms. I turn away from Pakistan’s most prominent religious leaders to examine the sectarian politics of Pakistan’s ‘petty mullahs’ instead. And, finally, I turn away from an account of Pakistan’s senior statesmen, who concentrated on shaping (and reshaping) the country’s laws to suit their political (and military) interests. In what follows, I examine the rise of what I call ‘petty parliamentarians’ instead. These petty parliamentarians do not focus on drafting new laws; instead they look for new ways to provide their political supporters with official access to impunity.

Across these three areas of economic activity, religious authority and political behaviour, I situate key changes within relatively slow-moving patterns of rural to urban migration and informal wage labour in Pakistan’s small towns and cities. In effect, recalling the focus of Olivier Roy’s well known book, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, I concentrate on the dislocation of the landowning malik and his jirga; the shifting orientation of local mullahs and their madrasas; and the weakness of the state, paying particular attention to the failures of its easily manipulated courts.1


As in Roy’s book, the machinations of rival khans, maliks, sardars, and biraderis still figure prominently in Pakistan. But, over time, the commercialization of agriculture and the spread of migrant labour (particularly amongst landless tenants who have migrated to Karachi and the Gulf) have pushed these rival khans to contend with a quietly expanding middle class – an increasingly mobile but largely informal middle class keen to embrace new economic as well as educational opportunities. This is a story of social mobility (and conflict) repeated again and again across Pakistan. In fact, the rapid expansion of the education sector, including government schools, private schools, and non-state maktabs and madrasas, must be seen as a critical feature of this transformation across Pakistan’s small towns and cities. It is not the ‘religious’ orientation of Pakistan’s rising middle classes that concerns me. What interests me is the degree to which the educational experiences of these classes tend to combine both secular and religious elements, bringing the subtle sectarian orientation of those who manage their local madrasa, for instance (‘We are "Barelwi" or "Deobandi" Sunni’), to bear on their patriotic appreciation for the ideology of Pakistan (‘As Pakistanis, we are united by the terms of Islam’). Growing out of this balance, we see a certain tension: ‘united’ by which ‘Islam’?


New money figures prominently in much of the research concerning shifting patterns of authority in rural Pakistan. In Jhang, for instance, Mariam Abou Zahab has documented the contested power of Shi’i landowners, drawing attention to the mobilization of marginalized Sunni tenants, middle class Sunni traders, and small-holding Sunni migrants from other districts.2 Here we encounter an increasingly mobile Sunni middle class stepping forward to challenge the authority of traditional Shi’i landowners – both in economic terms (as the embodiment of a rising ‘petty bourgeoisie’) and in sectarian terms (via ‘petty ulema’ like the Jhang based founder of the virulently anti-Shi’a Sipah-e-Sahaba, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi).

Similar trends have also surfaced in Chakwal. In fact, some say that Chakwal’s Shi’a landowners, long affiliated with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), have used their control over Chakwal’s district kachehri to illegally seize urban property (e.g. via intimidation and forgery of documents that could be used to legalize their ‘informal’ possession in the context of the district courts). But, of course, this is only one part of the story. Others insist that Chakwal’s powerful Shi’a merely sought to recover what a land mafia controlled by the successor organization of the Sunni Sipah-e-Sahaba, namely, the Ahl-e-Sunnat-wal-Jamaat, had seized on behalf of Chakwal’s long-standing (Sunni) MNA.

The point does not concern the activities of specific Sunni or Shi’a actors. The point lies in drawing attention to the relationship between ‘traditional’ rural and ‘rising’ middle class rivals, channelled through sectarian and electoral battles focused on the capture of land. These are the economic, sectarian, and political elements that have come to prevail in many parts of today’s Pakistan.

In Jhang, Chakwal, and Swat, extensive labour migration to the Gulf has provided certain mullahs (previously serving as the ‘employees’ of powerful khans or landowners), with new sources of (ostensibly religious) support. Some of these mullahs have continued to serve powerful landowners, but a growing number have also responded to widespread patterns of disenchantment with the ‘elite capture’ of Pakistan’s district courts by peddling their religious-cum-legal (‘shari’ah based’) services amongst Pakistan’s lower middle classes. Indeed, many have noted that Pakistan’s petty bourgeoisie – particularly those with ties to the Middle East – are keen to mix their rising economic aspirations with new forms of religious prestige.

Balochistan. The situation in Balochistan is somewhat different. Here, prevailing forms of resistance to established rural elites have not been associated – at least not primarily – with patterns of ‘religious’ resistance. Instead, recalling the separatist model forged by the Awami League in Bengal, prevailing forms of resistance have been associated with secular forms of ‘regional dissent’.4 Indeed, it is extremely difficult to describe the Baloch resistance movement as categorically opposed to Balochistan’s rival sardars. It is, instead, more accurate to say that Balochistan’s insurgents are opposed to those sardars who support the exclusionary policies of the state – a state seen as cutting off fair access to public sector bureaucratic posts in Quetta and private sector engineering jobs in Gwadar (or, at the very least, favouring Punjabis for those jobs) while, at the same time, withholding access to Balochistan’s natural resource royalties. Naturally, many Baloch also stress the rampant human rights violations perpetrated by state actors in their push to pacify the province. Their movement is, by and large, a secular one. It is a movement opposed to the over-centralization of the state.

As the economic centre of gravity shifted away from powerful landowners, many mullahs found themselves with new sources of financial support. These mullahs have shown a tendency to cater, quite assiduously, to widespread demands for some type of religious education. In 2006, the World Bank noted that fewer than 2% of all Pakistani students were enrolled in a madrasa on a full-time residential basis. (In doing so, they sought to draw the world’s attention away from the misplaced hysteria surrounding Pakistan’s madrasas.) What they failed to mention was the fact that in addition to this 2%, a further 80% received their religious education from madrasa trained mullahs on a part-time basis: early in the morning, late in the afternoon, at home, over the Internet, and so on.

My point does not concern part-time enrolment. Rather it concerns the production of new ideas. As mentioned earlier, most students combine the ideas they encounter in their local school with those introduced by teachers tied to local madrasas, insisting on the one hand, with their local school, that Pakistan is ‘an Islamic state’ in which ‘there is only one Islam’ and, on the other, shifting to their local madrasa, that Pakistan’s ‘one Islam’ must be the sectarian Islam associated with their mullah’s maslak. This is the ‘hybridized’ thinking, I argue, that spurs a quiet but compelling sense of grassroots sectarian competition in towns throughout Pakistan.3

The public’s attachment to local mullahs is important. It’s important because during the past few years the ‘informal’ political influence of these mullahs – especially, militant mullahs – has become rather difficult to miss. Throughout the 2013 parliamentary elections, for instance, parties seeking to appease Pakistan’s sectarian militants – for example, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), and the Deobandi Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) – fared well. Those who refused to appease them – for example, the left-of-centre PPP, the secular Pashtun Awami National Party (ANP), and the Karachi based Muttahida Qawmi Movement (MQM) – suffered brutal attacks. What matters is not merely the sectarian politics of Pakistan’s ‘petty ulema’. What matters is the ways in which these political patterns have brought Pakistan’s petty ulema together with Pakistan’s petty bourgeoisie and Pakistan’s petty parliamentarians in a push for scarce urban resources. ‘A noticeable trend’, noted Ayesha Siddiqa last year, ‘is that of Barelwi mosques being forcibly occupied by Deobandis.’ This points to the link between ‘an economic push for urban real estate’ and ‘larger sectarian trends’, she explained, often with the help of ‘land mafias’ protected by mainstream political parties – parties like the PML-N.5

In the past, analysts had a tendency to see aggressive mullahs as a proxy force used by the Pakistan Army to manage its foreign policy goals (while, at the same time, threatening domestic stability). Since 2013, however, these mullahs have increasingly engaged with mainstream political parties pursuing domestic electoral goals. Increasingly, elected officials have sought to combine their ties to rural elites with an attachment to new forms of ‘informal’ power dominated by sectarian militants and urban mafias.


This evolving balance between rural power and urban mafias was challenged throughout the 2013 election season by Imran Khan and his rhetoric of ‘clean government’. The electoral success of the PTI was limited. But, even so, there can be little doubt that Imran Khan’s party energized the young, right-of-centre orientation of Pakistan’s rising middle class voters. Even outside of Peshawar, the PTI emerged as the second largest party in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Multan, Faisalabad, and Rawalpindi.

The political question is simple: Will Pakistan’s rising middle classes turn to parties like the PTI because, as one observer of a PTI rally in Faisalabad pointed out, the party’s ‘tirade against the traditional political elite’ appeals to lower middle class voters, ‘who form a majority of the population [but] … do not own any land… mak[ing] them dependent… on commerce’? Indeed, will they turn to Imran Khan because, in keeping with the social-cum-religious trends I’ve described, SSP flags and Jama’at-ud-Dawa representatives have appeared at PTI rallies? Or will these voters continue to support ‘old school’ parties like Nawaz Sharif’s right-of-centre PML-N?


We often hear that attachments to landowning kinship factions and the patronage systems they maintain are losing ground to ‘policy oriented’ parties focused on ‘clean’ government – not unlike the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in India. But is this correct? Probably not. By and large, clean government is still no match for the privileges of state power, the politics of patronage, and the pursuit of political impunity.

Karachi. The widespread violence that characterizes the political environment in Karachi – where organized crime (enjoying ‘informal’ protection from mainstream political parties) plays a powerful and persistent role – has created a welcome platform for various militant groups. ‘Karachi’s educated middle class residents are increasingly… enticed by sectarian groups and the TTP’, noted Huma Yusuf, ‘not only for ideological reasons, but also because, in a violent and competitive city, affiliations with… [armed] political parties… or sectarian groups provide… much-needed protection.’6

What we see, throughout Pakistan, is a common pattern of informal politics – in effect, a disorderly scramble for scarce property resources – inflected by subtle regional variations. In the North, we see rival middle class parties with a right-of-centre orientation: PML-N vs. PTI in the Punjab; PTI vs. the Jama’at-e-Islami in KP. And, in the South, we see rival middle class parties with a secular focus highlighting specific ‘ethnic’ differences: MQM vs. ANP in Karachi; PPP in Sindh; the Balochistan National Party (BNP) in Balochistan, and so on. What we see is a common pattern of largely informal politics – a common scramble for scarce property resources filtered through countless levels of corruption.

In 2012, the Punjab government initiated a programme requiring junior bureaucrats to record the phone numbers of those who approached them for services. Those numbers were later used to generate robo-calls asking whether citizens were satisfied with their experience. After more than a million calls, the programme had received just 6,000 reports of bribery (i.e. less than 1%).7 Some argued that the robo-programme was still unfamiliar – that citizens failed to believe any punitive action would be taken. But, upon closer inspection, there may be another possibility. It may be that in many cases citizens themselves sought opportunities to pay for questionable ‘services’. They may have believed that punitive action would be taken. They simply sought to avoid that by refusing to log a call.


There is every reason to believe that the frequent collaboration between (a) Pakistan’s rapidly urbanizing middle classes, (b) Pakistan’s freelancing mullahs, and (c) Pakistan’s corrupt but electable politicians will be highly destabilizing. The traditional rural order that once sustained a modicum of highly inegalitarian social control is clearly fading. And, as it fades, new forms of state power have not yet begun to replace it. In my view, the formal power of the state in Pakistan is likely to remain rather weak.

Still, the interaction between the social, religious, and political domains that I have chosen to highlight – together with the violence this interaction clearly promotes – need not be seen as a security explosion waiting to happen. The interaction between these trends is likely to be tempestuous; but, to my mind, this interaction will not culminate in any ‘explosion’. Instead, the trends growing out of Pakistan’s cross-cutting cleavages are likely to remain dynamic and slowly adaptive.

During the next 5-7 years, the social, religious, and political life of Pakistan does not lie in any steady progress (or dramatic lurch) in the direction of liberal democracy or clean government. Leaving aside the very real possibility of renegade actors coordinating attacks abroad, or some other exogenous shock, my sense is that the future lies in further efforts to combine the selective distribution of informal economic and religious ‘services’ with the selective distribution of political ‘impunity’. This is not a democratic model of government. But, in Pakistan, it is this combination of factors that will continue to define the parameters of the political game.


* This is an abridged version of an essay to be published in a National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) and Observer Research Foundation report on Pakistan’s security dynamics (forthcoming 2015).


1. Olivier Roy, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

2. See Mariam Abou Zahab, ‘The Sunni-Shia Conflict in Jhang, Pakistan’, in Imtiaz Ahmed and Helmut Reifeld (eds.), Lived Islam in South Asia. Social Sciences, Delhi, 2004, pp. 135-48; see also Muhammad Q. Zaman, ‘Sectarianism in Pakistan: The Radicalisation of Sunni and Shia Identities’, Modern Asian Studies 32(3), 1998, pp. 689-716; and Aasim S. Akhtar, ‘Islam as Ideology of Tradition and Change: The "New Jihad" in Swat, Northern Pakistan’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 30(3), 2010, pp. 595-609.

3. See Matthew Nelson, ‘Dealing with Difference: Religious Education and the Challenge of Democracy in Pakistan’, Modern Asian Studies 43(3), 2009, pp. 591-618; ‘and ‘Ilm and the Individual: Islamic Education and the Production of Political Ideas in Pakistan’, in Robin Jeffrey and Ronojoy Sen (eds.), Being Muslim in South Asia. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2014, pp. 161-80.

4. See Paul Titus and Nina Swidler, ‘Knights, Not Pawns: Ethno-Nationalism and Regional Dynamics in Post-Colonial Balochistan’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 32(1), 2000, pp. 47-69; Ugo Fabietti, ‘Equality Versus Hierarchy: Conceptualising Change in Southern Balochistan’, in P. Titus (ed.), Marginality and Modernity: Ethnicity and Change in Post-Colonial Balochistan. Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1996, pp. 13-5, 18; and Frederic Grare, ‘Balochistan: The State Versus the Nation’, Carnegie Endowment, New York, 2013.

5. Ayesha Siddiqa, ‘The New Frontiers: Militancy and Radicalism in Punjab.’ Centre for International and Strategic Analysis, Haslum, Norway, 4 February 2013, pp. 14, 17; see also S.V.R. Nasr, ‘The Rise of Sunni Militancy in Pakistan: The Changing Role of Islamism and the Ulema in Society and Politics’, Modern Asian Studies 34(1), 2000, pp. 139-80.

6. Huma Yusuf, ‘Conflict Dynamics in Karachi.’ United States Institute of Peace, Washington, DC, 19 October 2012, p. 20.

7. See ‘Punjab Tries New Way of Tackling Corruption’, Dawn, 4 February 2013.