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Why does militancy arise?

Ina recent discussion on the dynamics behind extremism in the country, particularly in the Pashtun belt, a number of factors were enumerated by the discussants. Broadly, the assumption seemed to be that poverty and illiteracy are the main causes behind extremism.

Although there is considerable evidence that concurs that extreme poverty and sense of deprivation and alienation can play a catalytic role in the escalation of militancy and insurgency, this is aided by several diverse dynamics. For example in the case of District Swat, analysis shows that various ideological, political, constitutional, judicial, and administrative factors paved the way for the intensification of religious extremism and militancy in the valley culminating in the 2009 humanitarian crisis.

As mentioned earlier, research has shown that underdevelopment or widespread poverty is one of the most potent causes of extremism or violence, but it is not the only factor. In the case of the Swat region (and this is largely the case in the rest of the country as well), there are various administrative and judicial anomalies. Coupled with these factors, extreme poverty and a sense of deprivation can lead to a rise in militancy. For example, focusing specifically on Swat, one study has explored the socio-economic backgrounds of 135 male children exposed to militancy, who were treated in a rehabilitation centre. It observed that 52 percent of them belonged to a very low socio-economic stratum. The findings illustrate that “poverty, poor quality of life, large family size, illiteracy, and lack of supervision can serve as potential demographic risk factors in making children vulnerable to militancy”.

However, under-development or poverty is not wholly and solely the cause of extremism or militancy. In their unorthodox research on the relationship between poverty and extremism in Pakistan, Blair et al have challenged the conventional assumption that poor people are more susceptible to the appeal of militant groups. According to these authors, as far as the nexus between poverty and extremism is concerned, “there is little evidence to support this contention…particularly in the case of Islamist militant organisations in Pakistan”.

The spread of militancy in Swat has its origins in the overall increase in militant movements across Pakistan. It is difficult to separate the rise of militancy in Swat from what was already happening in other parts of the country, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the [former] Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). If Swat was alien to religious extremism before its amalgamation with Pakistan in 1969, so was the case with the rest of the country. According to eminent historian and South Asia specialist, Ayesha Jalal, “for all the lip service paid to Islam, Pakistan remained a relatively liberal and moderate Muslim state until the 1970s”.

Like in the case of Swat, the radicalization of the Pakistani nation and society is not a very old phenomenon. Two events played a significant role in the spread of militant ideologies and have had detrimental impacts on the state and society of Pakistan. To quote Ayesha Jalal again, “the critical change in the role of religion in Pakistan came in the wake of the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan”. Thus, these two events, coupled with General Zia’s Islamisation drive have had enormous impacts on the way religion occupied a more central role in the affairs of the state.

The coming of the cold war to the backyard of Pakistan in the form of the first Afghan war (1979-1988) was a watershed episode. Domestically, General Zia’s Islamisation programme was also a significant factor that helped in the rise of a strict Sunni form of Islam. The result was the appearance of an unprecedented number of religious seminaries or madressahs, not only to impart the teachings of Islam free of cost but also to create “the mujahideen to fight back the 140,000 Soviet ‘infidel’ troops who by then had occupied Afghanistan”.

The ultimate outcome was the spread of intolerance in religious and sectarian issues and extremist interpretation of the teachings of religion. Coupled with General Zia’s (1977-88) strict Islamisation drive to prolong his own dictatorial regime, the number of madressahs increased with unprecedented pace during this period with ample funding from various Arab monarchs. For example, it is estimated that “in 1971 there were only 900 madressahs, but by the end of the Zia era in 1988 there were 8,000 madressahs and 25,000 unregistered ones, educating over half a million students”. Thus, it has been aptly stated that, prior to this particular period, Pakistan was not “receptive to extremism and violence perpetuated in the name of Islam”.

Although all the above factors contributed to the rise of militancy in Swat in one way or the other, there was another major source of religious extremism and insurgency peculiar to Swat: its incomplete merger with Pakistan. It is argued that “the main cause of the problem of Swat lies in its incomplete merger and integration into Pakistan after the state was merged in 1969”. It is asserted that although the state was officially merged with Pakistan, “there was no plan how it was to be transformed from a princely state where all the power was vested in a ruler to a district working under normal laws”. Hence, after the promulgation of the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (Pata) regulations, neither the people of Swat nor their representatives in the provincial assembly had a role to formulate and implement policies.

Consequently, incomplete merger and discriminatory regulations over a long period of time resulted in “poor governance, weak dispensation of justice and lack of reform to mainstream Swat into KP helped militancy”. Thus, if the local population in Swat initially welcomed the Taliban, it was because of the less expensive, speedy, and uncomplicated procedure of justice provided by the Taliban. The judicial system established by Maulvi Fazlullah resolved numerous cases that had been pending in the local courts for many years.

It is interesting to note that most of the cases pertained to land disputes. One study has pointed out that the Taliban in Swat “decided cases and disputes quickly without bearing any costs by the parties; solved some age-old disputes and issues; tried to effect conciliation among enemies; and stressed upon women’s right to inheritance”. Hence, due to ineffective and weak governance resulting in poor delivery of services, the Taliban filled the vacuum left by local administration.

There is no doubt that, like the rest of Pakistan, Swat was alien to extremism before its merger with Pakistan in 1969. The merger of Swat with Pakistan created a number of constitutional and administrative problems that gradually developed frustration among the local population. This resulted in issues such as lack of good governance, failure in delivery of services in health and education, and lack of further developmental works. Specifically the justice system was too cumbersome and costly where “civil and criminal cases alike were delayed for years, caused frustration among the people”.

Comparing the judicial system from when Swat was a princely state with the post-state era, it is argued that “before the merger of Swat State, whether just or unjust, decision were quick and cheaper…decisions were properly executed and implemented. With the merger, the position took a U-turn”. Similarly, another study asserts that “underdeveloped judicial system and ineffective local government certainly created social cleavages and played a major role in the rise of [the] Tehreek-e-Taliban”. It adds that the sluggish pace of judicial proceedings and “long delays in resolving even straight forward civil claims made people nostalgic for the system of jurisprudence that had existed prior to the dissolution of the princely state”.

In sum, there is no single factor responsible for the rise of militancy in Swat or overall in Pakistan. To a large extent, the wave of extremism can be controlled and reversed if all state institutions perform their due roles effectively in addressing the myriad socioeconomic and governance challenges with which the nation is faced.

Dr Murad Ali, "Why does militancy arise?," The news. 2018-11-06.
Keywords: Political science , Constitutional factors , Administrative factors , Economic backgrounds , Religious extremism , Militant movement , Afghan war , Foreign affairs , Soviet union , Local population , Judicial system