Vigilante Islamism in Pakistan: Religious Party Responses to the Lal Masjid Crisis

By White, Joshua T. | Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Vigilante Islamism in Pakistan: Religious Party Responses to the Lal Masjid Crisis


White, Joshua T., Current Trends in Islamist Ideology


The year preceding Pakistan's February 2008 general elections was one of the most tumultuous in the country's history. Along with the political upheavals associated with the judicial crisis, the military government's suspension of the constitution and imposition of emergency rule, and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the year brought with it an upsurge in violence following the Pakistan Army's siege of the radical Lai Masjid (Red Mosque) in the capital city of Islamabad. More than any other event in recent years, the Lai Masjid crisis led to an important new debate amongst the country's various religio-political movements over the legitimacy and efficacy of vigilante Islamism-that is, over the permissibility of a non-state actor to take unilateral action, through violence if necessary, to enforce the sharia apart from the hand of the state. This debate is likely to have continuing implications for Pakistan's internal stability, as well as the future shape of its Islamist discourse.

Pakistan is home to a wide array of Islamist actors and movements, nearly all of which have a stake in this discussion about vigilantism. These actors fall roughly along a spectrum that extends from mainstream, right-ofcenter parties which place a strong emphasis on the role of religion in politics, such as Nawaz Sharif s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N); to expressly Islamist parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI); to localized insurgent movements in the tribal areas; and ultimately to transnational movements such as al-Qaeda. While these disparate groups often seem to profess the same generalized set of grievances in their respective struggles with state authority, they have pursued starkly different agendas, adhering to widely divergent conceptions about Islamization's desired objectives and the proper methods for achieving them.

Among the groups at the "peripheries" of this spectrum, attitudes toward vigilantism are relatively well-defined, and very much at odds: Mainstream parties like the PML-N clearly reject vigilantism in favor of Islamic reform through engagement in electoral politics, whereas groups like al-Qaeda embrace violent jihad, rejecting modern politics and the authority of the state as un-Islamic. But as important as the competition between these peripheries may be to shaping Islamist discourse overall, it is the religious parties and localized insurgent movements that occupy the middle part of the spectrum which are today driving the most important debates regarding Islamic political norms within Pakistan. While parties like the PML-N are clearly invested in electoral politics in their efforts to reform the state, and while al-Qaeda terrorists reject politics and are clearly striving to overturn the state, Pakistan's leading religious parties-most notably, the JI and the Deobandi Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI)- have attempted to walk a fine line between the embrace of politics and the embrace of anti-state violence.

On one hand, parties like the JI and the JUI-F have ideologically and operationally supported vigilante activities in pursuit of a variety of Islamist causes. In some instances, these parties are able to provide real financial and human capital to militant groups, and they have sometimes sought to employ these groups to achieve their own political ends in their struggles to reform the state according to their party objectives. Simultaneously, these parties have for decades embraced politics; until recently, they were party to the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) coalition that governed the restive NorthWest Frontier Province (NWFP). As political actors, these parties have used their power to shape public discourse and perceptions regarding vigilante activities and insurgent groups-sometimes championing their causes. The fact that these parties engage in both vigilante activities and formal politics has contributed significantly to one of the more worrisome dynamics of post-9/11 Pakistan: the blurring of the line that should demarcate the realm of formal politics from anti-state violence. …

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