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Islamic fundamentalism and youth in Pakistan

May 31, 2012

Islamic fundamentalism in the modern political context can be described as an attempt to attain an ‘Islamic State’ through political mobilisation, revolutionary action or government legislation.

Even though, ever since the 1980s, Islamic fundamentalism in this context has rapidly evolved into meaning and incorporating a number of varied interpretations of political Islam, the basic concept has remained the same: To ‘Islamise’ the society from below so an Islamic State can effectively be constructed from above.

Islamic fundamentalism has had an active presence in the milieu of youth and student movements and politics in Pakistan. One of its leading components in this respect has been the student-wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the Islami Jamiat-i-Tuleba (IJT).

Others, like the Anjuman-i-Tuleba Islam (ATI), Jamiat-i-i Tuleba Islam (JTI) - the student wing of Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) - and the Imamia Students Organization (ISO) have also been driven by the political ideals of Islamic fundamentalism.

Soon after the creation of a separate Muslim country in the shape of Pakistan (in 1947), colleges and universities in most Muslim-majority regions of India were dominated by the student wing of the Muslim League (ML) - the Muslim Students Federation (MSF).

MSF, like its mother party, was largely anti-fundamentalist in orientation (if not secular) and its ideology was heavily rooted in the modernist Muslim political philosophies championed by Indian Muslim thinkers like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Muhammad Iqbal and Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

Even when, after 1950, the Muslim League and (consequently) MSF began to disintegrate into various opposing factions, politics in Pakistani campuses did not fall in the hands of the more right-wing forces. Instead, the vacuum was at once filled by left-wing and progressive student outfits.

The Democratic Students Federation (DSF), which was close to the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) and the National Students Federation (NSF), which was ideologically linked to the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP)-dominated student and youth politics in the 1950s and 1960s respectively.

A 1966 poster of the left-wing National Students Federation (NSF). – Photo courtesy Apna Kal Blog
A 1966 poster of the left-wing National Students Federation (NSF). – Photo courtesy Apna Kal Blog

However, the IJT began taking a more direct part in campus politics after the emergence of Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s military coup in 1958.

In what was then a predominantly secular and pro-West social and political setting, IJT initiated a two-pronged mission on campuses, in which it not only opposed the Ayub dictatorship’s secularising policies and legislation, but also looked to check the continuing growth of leftist and progressive political groups in colleges and universities.

Basing its ideology on the political writings of the highly influential Islamic scholar, political Islamist and the chief of the Jamaat-i-Islami, Abul Ala Maududi, the IJT did manage to carve out important areas of ideological influence and electoral strength in various universities and colleges of Karachi and Lahore.

But across the 1960s, bulk of the students’ electoral and ideological support remained largely with the progressive student groups, especially the NSF.

NSF ideologue Rasheed Hassan surrounded by NSF workers and supporters at Dow Medical College, Karachi (1969). – Photo courtesy Apna Kal Blog
NSF ideologue Rasheed Hassan surrounded by NSF workers and supporters at Dow Medical College, Karachi (1969). – Photo courtesy Apna Kal Blog

One of the first prominent exhibitions of Islamic fundamentalism articulated as a political expression in student politics of Pakistan emerged when (between 1968 and 1970) IJT and its mother party began a concentrated movement against the Pakistan Peoples Party (formed in 1967) in former West Pakistan and the Bengali nationalist party, the Awami League (AL), in former East Pakistan.

IJT distributed a number of anti-socialist (and ‘pro-Islam’) pamphlets and got embroiled in clashes with activists of the PPP, AL and NSF.

Its opponents accused IJT of being ‘funded by the military regime of General Yahya Khan’ and by the American CIA, whom the leftists accused of using JI and IJT in its Cold War against the political influence of the Soviet Union.

By the mid-1970s, in the event of the splits and factional disintegration witnessed by leftist and progressive student groups, the IJT managed to turn itself into a well-oiled electoral machine. Its politics remained largely democratic and not radical.

What’s more, the same period also saw the emergence of other democratic (and non-radical) fundamentalist student groups, such as the ATI.

Unlike the IJT that was dominated by the urbane but puritanical pro-Saudi Sunni Muslims, ATI represented students belonging to the Barelvi Sunni Muslim sub-sect that was not only more moderate in its fundamentalist outlook but was also in the majority.

Flag of the the Islami Jamiat-i-Tuleba (IJT).
Flag of the the Islami Jamiat-i-Tuleba (IJT).

The early 1970s also produced the Shia-dominated ISO.

In spite of the growth of fundamentalist student outfits (especially in the Punjab and Karachi), no serious fundamentalist movement involving the students took shape during much of the 1970s.

The tussle between Islamic fundamentalism and liberal and leftist student tendencies on campuses was contested through student-union elections and occasional clashes.

But if a point is to be picked to explain the growth in the radicalisation of Islamic fundamentalists among student groups, then that point may as well be the day the right-wing coalition, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), kick-started its movement against the elected Zulfikar Ali Bhutto/PPP regime in 1977.

Led by the organisational prowess of the JI, the PNA was a nine-party electoral alliance against the ruling PPP. After accusing the PPP regime of rigging the 1977 general elections, PNA initiated a widespread movement calling for the dismissal of what it described to be as Bhutto’s ‘un-Islamic government’ and ‘democratic dictatorship.’ The alliance also called for the imposition of ‘Nizam-e-Mustafa’ (Prophet’s system of government).

The student-wings of Jamaat-i-Islami (IJT), Jamiat Ulema Islam (JTI) and Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (ATI) played a significant role in organising protests on the streets and campuses.

Religious-political student groups had only played a token role in the students’ movement against the Ayub Khan dictatorship (in 1968-69), which was mainly led by leftist student outfits like NSF, Baloch Students Organization, National Students Organization (NSO), and assorted progressive Sindhi, Pushtun and Bengali youth organisations.

However, religious student groups like IJT bloomed into becoming effective agitation units during the 1977 anti-Bhutto movement.

By 1977, some policies of the Bhutto regime, such as his purge against the radical/Marxist group within the PPP and his decision to send in the army against Baloch insurgents had alienated the party from a majority of left-wing youth outfits that had initially supported the PPP’s rise to power.

Baloch leader, Nawab Bugti and Z. A. Bhutto share a smoke (1974). Both were later killed by the military Bhutto in 1979 and Bugti in 2005.
Baloch leader, Nawab Bugti and Z. A. Bhutto share a smoke (1974). Both were later killed by the military. Bhutto in 1979 and Bugti in 2006.

The emergence of the reactionary military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq (July, 1977) boosted the presence and influence of fundamentalist student groups on the country’s campuses.

Ziaul Haq announcing the dissolution of elected assemblies and the imposition of Martial Law (July 1977).
Ziaul Haq announcing the dissolution of elected assemblies and the imposition of Martial Law (July 1977).

IJT, in particular, was openly backed and aided by the dictatorship as it went about attempting to wipe-out anti-Zia and progressive student organisations. It also came into contact with certain Afghan jihadists who had begun to arrive in Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Interestingly, during the last countrywide student union elections that took place in early 1983, it seemed the leverage that fundamentalist student outfits had gained after the 1977 anti-Bhutto movement was fading when progressive student alliances delivered serious electoral blows to the IJT in colleges and universities across Pakistan.

Alarmed by the results of these elections, the Zia regime banned student unions in 1984.

Though the ban helped IJT to bounce back from the heavy defeats it had faced in the student union elections of 1983, its influence on campuses continued to be challenged by progressive student groups like Peoples Students Federation (PSF), BSO, Pakhtun Students Federation (PkSF), and (in Karachi) the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organization (APMSO).

Also, with Zia’s ban on student unions and the consequential lack of the annual tradition of holding student-union elections curbed, student politics in Pakistan rapidly disintegrated and violence between opposing student outfits became a disconcerting norm.

Zia’s draconian ‘Islamisation’ project and his dictatorship’s direct involvement in the US and Saudi backed anti-Soviet ‘Afghan jihad’ in Afghanistan triggered the birth of a number of radical sectarian and jihadist organisations, mostly made up of militant Deobandi, Salafi and Wahabi sections of the population.

Though such state-backed organisations were not present in colleges and universities, the more evangelical expressions of these new and more puritanical forms of Islamic fundamentalism began making their way into the privately-owned higher educational institutions that had begun to spring up in the mid-1980s.

The supposedly apolitical but puritanical Tableeghi Jamat (TJ) began gathering young adherents in the privately-owned educational institutions. Their entry was largely encouraged by these institutions’ administration.

However, believing that their universities and colleges had kept the ‘violent’ political student organisations away, the administrations’ policy of allowing Islamic evangelical groups to openly recruit students subsequently created an opening for radical Islamist organisations like the Hizbul Tahrir (HuT) to slip in.

After the tragic 9/11 episode in the United States in 2001, and the way the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf decided to become an active part of the United States’ ‘War on Terror,’ a fresh wave if radicalisation swept across various sections of Pakistan.

As secular and progressive student groups continued to struggle to revive their influence that had begun to erode after the 1984 ban on student unions, activities of TJ and HuT on privately owned colleges along with the unrestrained appearance of right-wing conspiracy theorists on private TV channels and campuses (as invited speakers), gave birth to perhaps the most intransigent and conservative generation of young Pakistanis.

This tendency was on display during the ‘Lawyers’ Movement’ against the Musharraf dictatorship (2006-7).

For example, though the movement was originally led by progressive lawyers and its central aim was the replacement of the Musharraf dictatorship with a democratic government, more and more right-wing elements became a part of the movement as it gained momentum.

This was also perhaps the first major political movement in Pakistan in which progressive mainstream student groups did not play a significant role, even though some minor factions of the NSF were present.

The progressive (rather non-Islamist) aspect of the movement in the context of student participation mainly came from brand new student outfits that were formed in private universities and the Punjab University (PU).

United Students Federation (USF) and University Students Federation (USF) were formed as platforms for a mixture of independent, progressive and ‘moderate Islamist’ students opposed to the Musharraf dictatorship, whereas another newly formed student organisation, the Insaf Students Federation (ISF), the student-wing of the right-wing Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), played noteworthy roles in the movement.

By the time the movement had reached a peak (in late 2007), IJT and Pakistan Muslim League-N’s student-wing, MSF, also joined in. However, the most interesting thing was when IJT and later HuT turned some rallies of the movement into pro-jihad affairs, in which portraits of renegade terrorist Osama Bin Laden, were openly displayed.

The fundamentalist tendency on campuses that touched a peak in the mid-2000s now seems be receding. But with the mainstream processes of student unionism still in the dock, one is not sure whether this tendency would give way to the return of mainstream democratic politics on campuses or will it only mutate into becoming something a lot more militant.

Nevertheless, with the democratic system that returned to Pakistan in 2008, the subsequent strengthening of the judiciary and the elected parliament; and also with the military-establishment and radical Islamist groups now coming under greater scrutiny may as well mean that the fundamentalist aspects of student politics in Pakistan may now evolve into becoming something a lot more temperate.

APTI/ ISF rally. Satirist political pop acts like Ali Aftab Saeed believe that PTI is ‘just a good looking version of Jamaat-i-Islami.’
A PTI/ ISF rally. Satirist and political pop acts like Ali Aftab Saeed believe that PTI is ‘just a good looking version of Jamaat-i-Islami.’

However, there is also the view that the hold on campuses and influence of old fundamentalist outfits may be loosening. Unchecked HuT activities on various private educational institutions have added a radical and reactionary tendency to new urban youth groups, especially in many sections of ISF.

Bibliography: Nasr, Vali Reza: The Vanguard of Islamic Revolution (I B. Tauris, 1994); Haqqani, Husain: Pakistan: Between Mosque & Military (Carnegie Endowment, 2005); Malik, Anas: Political Survival in Pakistan-Beyond Ideology (Taylor & Francis, 2010); Nelson, MJ: Religion, Politics & the Modern University in Pakistan & Bangladesh (National Bureau of Asian Research, 2009).


Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.