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Pakistan’s Jihadist Heartland: Southern Punjab
Pakistan’s Jihadist Heartland: Southern Punjab
Bridging Pakistan’s Gender Divide
Bridging Pakistan’s Gender Divide
Supporters of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa Islamic organization take part in an anti-India demonstration to condemn the hanging of Mohammad Afzal Guru, Rawalpindi, 10 February 2013. REUTERS/Mian Khursheed
Report 279 / Asia

Pakistan’s Jihadist Heartland: Southern Punjab

Once-tolerant southern Punjab has become a base for jihadist groups. Socio-economic grievances, political alienation and poor education provide a near endless source of recruits. To reverse the tide, the government must end a climate of impunity, block hate speech, improve rule of law, and refocus counter-terrorist action to target all jihadist groups.

Executive Summary

Southern Punjab must be central to any sustainable effort to counter jihadist violence within and beyond Pakistan’s borders, given the presence of militant groups with local, regional and transnational links and an endless source of recruits, including through large madrasa and mosque networks. The region hosts two of Pakistan’s most radical Deobandi groups, Jaish-e-Mohammed, held responsible by India for the 2 January 2016 attack on its Pathankot airbase; and the sectarian Laskhar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which was at least complicit in, if not solely responsible for, the 27 March Easter Sunday attack that killed more than 70 in Lahore. To reverse the jihadist tide, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)’s federal and Punjab province governments will have to both end the climate of impunity that allows these groups to operate freely and address political alienation resulting from other governance failures these groups tap into. 

Southern Punjab was once known for a tolerant society, but over the past few decades, state support for jihadist proxies, financial support from foreign, particularly Saudi and other Gulf countries, combined with an explosive mix of political, socio-economic, and geostrategic factors, has enabled jihadist expansion there. Bordering on insurgency-hit and lawless regions of the country and also sharing a border with India, it has long provided a convenient base where these outfits can recruit, train and plan and conduct terror attacks. Although jihadist groups still harbour a fringe minority in a region where the vast majority follows a more tolerant, syncretic form of Islam, their ability to operate freely is largely the result of the state’s policy choices, particularly long reliance on jihadist proxies to promote perceived national security interests. The absence of rule-of-law, combined with political dysfunction and inept governance, also allows these organisations to exercise influence disproportionate to their size and social roots.

With state sponsorship and a pervasive climate of impunity enhancing jihadist groups’ recruitment potential, the risks of joining are far lower than potential gains that include employment and other financial rewards, social status and sense of purpose. These are all the more compelling in Punjab’s largely rural and relatively poorly developed southern regions, where perceptions of exploitation by the industrialised central and north Punjab, referred to by southern Punjabis as Takht Lahore (throne of Lahore), are high, the result of political marginalisation, weak governance, economic neglect and glaring income inequity.

After the December 2014 attack on the Peshawar Army Public School by a Pakistani Taliban faction that killed over 150, mostly children, the civilian and military leadership vowed to eliminate all extremist groups. Yet, the core goal of the counter-terrorism National Action Plan (NAP) it developed – to end distinctions between “good” jihadists, those perceived to promote strategic objectives in India and Afghanistan, and “ bad” jihadists, those that target the security forces and other Pakistanis – appears to have fallen by the wayside.

A highly selective approach still characterises the ongoing crackdown on militant outfits in southern Punjab and undermines broader counter-terrorism objectives. While the anti-India Jaish continues to operate freely, paramilitary units use indiscriminate force against local criminal groups, and the Punjab government resorts to extrajudicial killings to eliminate the LeJ leadership and foot soldiers. Overreliance on a militarised counter-terrorism approach based on blunt force might yield short-term benefits but, by undermining rule-of-law and fuelling alienation, will prove counterproductive in the long term. 

The lack of progress on other major NAP goals, particularly reform and regulation of the madrasa sector, has especially adverse implications for southern Punjab, with its many Deobandi madrasas. The children of the poor are exposed to sectarian and other radical ideological discourse. The state’s unwillingness to clamp down on it in sectarian madrasas and mosques so as to counter hate speech and prevent dissemination of hate literature increases the potential for radicalisation in the region.

In the poorest region of the country’s richest and most populous province, where economic hardships are compounded by periodic natural disasters, including droughts and floods that destroy homes and livelihoods, jihadist groups, often with state support, their access being facilitated by the bureaucracy, are given opportunities to win hearts and minds through their charity wings. At the same time, civil society organisations capable of filling the gaps in the state’s delivery of services are often subjected to restrictions and intimidation.

Despite jihadist inroads, the vast majority in southern Punjab still adhere to more moderate syncretic forms of Islam: Sufism, and Barelvism, with practices and rituals that Deobandis and Wahhabi/Salafis portray as heretic. Yet, a general climate of impunity is encouraging extreme religious, sectarian and gender discrimination and exclusion. If left unchecked, these groups’ influence will likely spread within and beyond the region.

Lahore and Islamabad should enforce the law against all jihadist organisations, without exception. If they do not, many in southern Punjab may continue to see the rewards of joining such organisations as far outweighing the costs.

Recommendations

To end the climate of impunity 

To the federal and Punjab governments:

  1. Replace selective counter-terrorism with an approach that targets all jihadist groups that use violence within or from Pakistani territory, including by thoroughly investigating the alleged role of Pakistan-based jihadists in the Pathankot attack, extending beyond individual operatives to the organisations that sustain them.
     
  2. Focus counter-terrorism efforts on reforming and strengthening the criminal justice system, with a properly resourced, authorised and accountable provincial police force at its heart, so as to moderate reliance on lethal force.
     
  3. Investigate and monitor under the Anti-Terrorism Act or UN Security Council Resolution 1267 and its blacklist all madrasas, mosques and charities with known or suspected links to banned groups, as well as those that maintain armed militias, or whose administrators and/or members incite violence and other criminal acts within or from the country; and act first against those madrasas in southern Punjab already identified as actively training militants and having direct or indirect links with jihadist outfits. 
     
  4. Prevent circulation of hate literature and enforce laws against hate speech in madrasas, mosques and other forums, including by following through on all current cases against hard-line preachers and others accused of violating them.

To redress policy that favours a jihadist fringe over a moderate and diverse civil society

  1. Remove arbitrary official and unofficial restrictions on NGOs and other civil society organisations in southern Punjab and assume responsibility for protecting against jihadist threats.
     
  2. Repeal all legislation that discriminates on the basis of religion, sect and gender and refrain from backtracking on provincial pro-women legislation or yielding to Islamist party pressure to dilute its provisions. 
     
  3. Protect southern Punjab’s religious minorities, in particular Christians and Hindus, and take action against perpetrators of violence against women by acting through the legal system on reports of intimidation and abuse.

To redress the political, social and economic alienation in southern Punjab that contributes to recruitment opportunities for jihadist groups 

To the federal and Punjab governments:

  1. Reform and expand the public school network, including by removing intolerant religious discourse and distorted narratives glorifying jihadist violence from the classroom; and accompany education reform with assistance along the lines of the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) to help poor families afford to send their children to school.
     
  2. Increase southern Punjab’s development budget, accompanied by meaningful consultations with communities on development programs; and establish and implement requirements to hire a significant proportion of local labour for such programs and provide it related training.

To the ruling and opposition parties:

  1. Respond to the political alienation in southern Punjab by including local leaders within party decision-making processes and structures, and giving them a voice at the local, provincial and national levels. 
     
  2. Redress local grievances by addressing them in the provincial and federal parliaments, including through appropriate legislation.

Islamabad/Brussels, 30 May 2016

Crisis Group's South Asia Project Director Samina Ahmed during field research in Swat, Pakistan. Samina Ahmed/CRISIS GROUP
Commentary / Asia

Bridging Pakistan’s Gender Divide

Embarking on field research into Pakistan’s chronic crises sixteen years ago, our South Asia Project Director Samina Ahmed was a woman in a man’s world. But her experiences persuade her that understanding conflict requires rigorously incorporating the perspectives of women and girls whose opportunities are frequently inhibited by violence.

“Our people won’t let a girl study beyond the third grade (eight or nine years old). But this girl here cries and says: ‘I want to learn’. And I love her so much that I have no choice but to send her away from our village, because no education is available here beyond primary school level. She will go to the big city and she will learn and be the first one in the family”.

I hear these words from a Pakistani father about his daughter back in the early 2000s, on my second research assignment for the International Crisis Group. I am travelling in Balochistan, an area affected by a decade-old insurgency. I am seeking to unpack the causes of militancy and conflict through meetings with former militants, political workers, rights activists and religious leaders.

The eagerness of a little girl to defy the odds against her studying still resonates for me, as does her father’s sympathetic support, despite all the obstacles of tradition. They epitomise countless testimonies I hear throughout my travels. Not only do they influence how I work, but they guide my understanding of Pakistan and of how people – especially but not only women and children – experience its violence and multiple conflicts.

Addressing Security Concerns to Advance Gender Equality in Pakistan

Crisis Group's South Asia Project Director Samina Ahmed talks about the importance of security for the advancement of gender equality in Pakistan. CRISIS GROUP

Unheard Voices, Invisible Forces

On this pivotal day for me in Balochistan, a region tucked up against Iran and Afghanistan, I am planning to meet liberal, secular political activists, opponents of the Islamist Taliban. The meeting at this house, sitting cross-legged on the floor are only men, with one exception: a little girl. Responding to my questions, her father explains her determination to go to school and praises her character and tenacity to fulfil her dream.

He then proposes that I speak to other women from their community to hear their perspectives and experiences of the situation in the province. Such an opportunity in a part of the country where men and women live segregated lives is rare for any outsider. I jump at the chance and am escorted to the part of the house where women of the family live, off-limits to all men barring close relatives.

A large group of women greet me, well-dressed for the occasion. They gather round, excited at the chance to meet an outsider. They start by asking questions. How can a woman do the job I do? How can I work alone? How do I travel long distances freely? Except for family visits once a year, they say, they never venture beyond the walls of their home. They begin sharing their experiences and life stories. Some tell me that they would like to be educated and to have a job. There is anger and frustration in their voices. They know what they want, but believe it beyond their reach.

This meeting has a profound effect on me. I am a longstanding women’s rights activist, and was a member of the Women’s Action Forum in the 1980s during military rule. Having studied in universities in Pakistan and abroad, and worked in several countries, I am comfortable standing up for myself in a man’s world. But experiencing real, well-articulated frustration on both male and female sides of a traditional Pashtun household makes me start to think anew about the gender divide.

I come to realise that being a female researcher is a definite plus, as it gives me access to women as well as men.

I begin to understand the importance of integrating gender power dynamics into my conflict analysis by listening to women and girls in conflict-affected areas, even if they are publicly invisible. I come to realise that being a female researcher is a definite plus, as it gives me access to women as well as men. That day I make a conscious choice: I will redouble efforts to interview women as well as men, understand how they experience violence and their perspective on ending it and harness their potential to help build a more peaceful society.

The Remotest Reaches of Pakistan

In my years at Crisis Group I travel throughout Pakistan, from the slums of its largest city, Karachi, on the Indian Ocean to the hamlets of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa along the border with Afghanistan. I talk to people of all walks of life, especially the unheard and invisible parts of society. These include not just the voices of girls and women, but also those of political party workers, fishermen and farmers struggling for survival in often harsh and inhospitable terrain.

As a female researcher, I face no resistance while at work. The challenges are those faced by every woman travelling in Pakistan. The absence of public toilets for women, for example, poses not just a health but also a security hazard. Overall, though, during my trips, including times when I am the only woman staying in hole-in-the-wall hotels, I find that people are especially anxious to ensure that I am comfortable and safe.

Being a professional, at times people forget that I am a woman. They rarely treat me as an outsider, or a woman not conforming to local norms. The exception is in urban centres where I visit more conservative madrasas or mosques, though even there, people do not stop or openly rebuke me. Only very occasionally does someone ask me to cover my hair, as normally expected of a Muslim woman in Pakistan. Through their demeanour, however, people can convey that they are at least uncomfortable if not hostile to independent women like myself.

Of course I am conscious that not all Pakistani women think like me. This strikes me most forcefully one day on a visit to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I attend a session of the local parliament, where the ruling Islamist Party has a large number of female parliamentarians. Yet it is the men who talk, while the women simply sit there in silence.

“Aren’t you going to take part in the debate?”, I ask one of the women from the Islamist Party.

“No, my male leaders will talk on my behalf”, she retorts.

Providing a public platform to women is sometimes not enough to ensure that they themselves express their views and needs. In some cases, women in public life may also serve as proxies for other interests.

And yet I also see women and girls, like that little girl in the remote household in Balochistan, who want to speak out, who want to learn, who want an education, and whose menfolk are sometimes willing to listen to them.

The Madrasa Paradox

Women are not the whole story, since men are also changing, sometimes almost without being aware of it. I become conscious of this during my research on madrasas, or religious schools, a truly male preserve that I initially do not even connect to women.

I cannot enter madrasas, so a male Crisis Group colleague must talk to male students there. But I can meet the leaders of the religious parties that run much of the madrasa sector. I approach one Islamist party leader, who runs what is possibly the largest and most extreme group of madrasas, where almost nothing except the strictest interpretation of the Quran is taught. Surprisingly, he invites me to his home. Clearly, he doesn’t consider me as a threat as a woman. His young son is even present.

“Well sister”, the party leader says, “please tell my son he should study hard”.

Maulana, what does the young boy study?” I ask.

“English, mathematics and computer sciences”.

“But Maulana”, I shoot back. “Why isn’t he in your madrasa?”.

And he replies: “Sister, times have changed”.

Giving Women a Chance

In 2005, I travel to Swat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to get a sense of what is happening in the countryside. A guide, who is an ex-fighter wounded on battlefronts in both Afghanistan and in Kashmir, invites me home to meet his family. His house lies in a small, beautiful mountain village where he lives with his young daughters. His biggest problem: the obstacles he faces in giving these girls a formal education.

“You know”, he says, “for me the most precious thing now is their lives. And their futures. But what do I have to offer them? There is no school here. Without that, they can’t be ever like you, educated. And that’s what I want”.

Then the girls cluster round and I speak with them about what they believe the village most urgently needs. Their answer is simple: water, because they have to travel long distances just to get enough water for the house. And education. Through the years, I often hear this refrain.

Schooling comes up again when I try to explain Crisis Group’s conflict prevention work to one fifteen-year-old girl in Balochistan’s Gwadar city, a major naval base and now the hub of the Pakistan-China Economic Corridor. She responds with frustration and anger.

“You know, we are sick of the UN and you NGOs. You come here, you talk, you preach, you write, over and over again, but you don’t do anything for us”.

“What you think needs to be done?”, I ask.

“Look, I don’t want to be a teacher. I want to be a scientist. But in my school, there is not even a science teacher!”, she says. “I will never be a scientist unless we have what you had, the privilege of a good education”.

I learn my lesson right there. I want to do something about the lack of opportunities offered to her. Pakistani society may seem conservative about women’s education, but under the surface, currents for change are building momentum.

Pakistani society may seem conservative about women’s education, but under the surface, currents for change are building momentum.

My research across Pakistan illustrates the impact that insecurity has on girls’ ability to seek an education. Every person interviewed ­– not just young girls, but also their fathers and brothers – said that if their daughters or sisters could travel without risk to a nearby school, they would send them there. In much of the countryside, however, people often live far from schools; in rough urban districts, the daily trip to school may pose a physical threat. “We can’t risk them going long distances. It’s too unsafe”, is a complaint I hear often. It challenges my previous notion that cultural and social restrictions alone prevent girls from accessing education in Pakistan’s conflict zones.

These insights lead me to write two reports on girls’ education in Pakistan. The first one, Pakistan: Reforming the Education Sector, published in October 2004, warns that Pakistan’s deteriorating education system and a curriculum that promotes religious intolerance fails to equip young people with the skills necessary for a modern economy, and, in some cases, creates foot soldiers for jihadist groups.

I return to the subject ten years later, publishing Education Reform in Pakistan to show that millions are still out of school, the curriculum remains unreformed, and the education system remains alarmingly impoverished. That report also raises the problem of safe access to schools for girls, as well as the need to change the curriculum to protect against religious extremism and sectarianism.

A Mutual Interdependence

I am humbled again and again by human rights activists, humanitarian aid workers, and women’s rights leaders across Pakistan who risk their lives to promote positive changes in the country.

I am humbled again and again by human rights activists, humanitarian aid workers, and women’s rights leaders across Pakistan who risk their lives to promote positive changes in the country. By interviewing them and writing about their views, I take their voices to senior decision-makers in Pakistan. A leading champion of women’s rights, Pakistan’s first woman Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, lauding the recommendations of our reports, told her party leaders that they should be essential reading. Unlike me, though, many of the people I interview are physically threatened and attacked. Yet every time I meet them, they thank me. I always feel it should be the other way around.

What women fear most is violence as they travel from their homes to earn a living and support their families.

The interdependence of my work and theirs is driven home to me one day in Punjab. I meet a lawyer who says he distributes photocopied versions of our reports among the members of his bar council to build consciousness of the legal changes Pakistan needs, especially to open new opportunities for women. I voice my surprise when he adds that he buys the reports ready-bound in a bookshop, even though they are available for free on our website. He sums up the relationship between Crisis Group, with our research and policy advocacy, and dedicated activists. His group is ready to distribute our work this way because, he says: “We have learned as much from these reports as you have learned from us”.

In 2016, writing about different layers of criminal, jihadist and ethno-religious violence in Karachi, I take my insights on what is holding schoolgirls back and test how they may apply to society more broadly. I look into gender-based violence where women are regularly subjected to sexual harassment on the streets as they go to work. Like girls trying to gain a formal education, I find that women from poor and marginalised communities in this mega-city, Pakistan’s economic hub, have few options to travel safely to their place of work. What women fear most is violence as they travel from their homes to earn a living and support their families.

By incorporating the perspectives of women and girls into my research, amplifying their voices and analysing how they experience the violence endemic to parts of Pakistan, Crisis Group’s work aims to provide a richer understanding of violence and conflict in my home country and encourage the government to take meaningful steps to address the simple problem of safety. Every woman who can leave her house each day to school or work represents a step forward.

This commentary is part of Crisis Group’s series Our Journeys, giving behind the scenes access to our analysts’ field research.