Pakistan’s modernity: Between military and militancy – by Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa

Editor’s note: We are cross-posting a thought provoking article by Dr. Siddiqa which was recently published in The Friday Times. This is an important theoretical piece, which may be used as guidance document for further analysis. It provides the theoretical structure to understand Pakistan; supports the hypothesis of two shades of Pakistani nationalism, how they diverge but still are same! Dr. Siddiqa writes: “Pakistan’s modernity is structured along two axes: neo-liberal nationalism and right-wing radical nationalism. The meeting of the two trajectories has turned Pakistan into a hybrid-theocratic state which encapsulates a mix of economic neo-liberalism, pockets of social liberalism, formal theocracy and larger spaces experiencing informal theocracy.” She elaborates it concretely and gives a very good analysis of middle class! That’s the correct use of progressive class analysis, many experienced people like Hassan Nisar have made mistakes on this point, Dr. Siddiqa has studied things right. This article will be of particular interest and guidance to young writers who wish to read and understand, it provides them with tools to analyze properly. (SA).


Pakistan’s modernity: Between military and militancy

There is a new kind of literature on Pakistan in the market which claims to present an alternative view of the country, a view that is more positive and talks of the huge potential of the Pakistani state to become a success story on par with the emerging economies of the world. Instead of focusing on religious radicalism, the war on terror, the problematic politics or the excessively powerful military, the new works highlight the progressive, liberal and democratic tendencies of the state and society. One of the key arguments presented in the new literature is that given some structural changes in politics, especially by replacing the traditional elite with the growing middle class, the country can be turned into a success story. The emphasis, thus, is on empowerment of the middle class, greater urbanisation, political order and economic development. This is the formula for socio- political and socio-economic modernity.

This essay examines the above notion and argues instead that this peculiar formula for modernity is deeply flawed. The empowerment of the middle class or economic progress does not automatically translate into liberal progressive modernity mainly due to the nature of the state.

The bulk of the ruling elite no longer comprises traditional feudal-landowners but is instead of middle class and even lower middle class background
Pakistan’s modernity, I argue, is structured along two axes: neo-liberal nationalism and right-wing radical nationalism. While the neo-liberal nationalism axis depicts an authoritarian and top-down model of economic and political development marked with the expansion of a national security-obsessed middle class and ruling elite, the right-wing radical nationalism axis denotes the growth of religious radicalism and militancy as symbols of geopolitical modernity and anti-imperialism. The terms – military and militancy – are both used here in symbolic terms. While military denotes all forms of authoritarian behaviour, militancy refers to all the shades ranging from latent radicalism to extremism and religious fascism which will also be referred to here as jihadism. I also argue that liberalism is one of the many consequences of modernity, but not the only one. The meeting point of both trajectories has resulted in turning Pakistan into a hybrid-theocratic state which encapsulates a mix of economic neo-liberalism, pockets of social liberalism, formal theocracy and larger spaces experiencing informal theocracy.

The neoliberal-nationalism axis:

The new or alternative view literature is represented by three works: (a) Maleeha Lodhi’s Pakistan: Beyond ‘The Crisis State’ (2011), (b) Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country (2011), and (c) Javed Jabbar’s Pakistan – Unique Origins; Unique Destiny? (2011).

What is common in these books is a propensity to consider modernity as a “rational or social operation that is culture-neutral” (Taylor 1995: 25) which means looking at modernity purely in material terms and as a goal that can be fulfilled through good neo-liberal policies.

There are two angles of such scholarship: (a) take the emphasis away for any weakness or failure of the state from the civil and military bureaucracy to the political elite that is also considered the traditional elite, and (b) present an alternative formula for the country’s progress through improving governance and transferring power to the middle class. This indicates a fair amount of heating up of the inner conflict between the traditional elite and those that aspire to and are taking place of the old elite.

The ethnic differences are not viewed as positive diversity but as part of the traditional-elitist political framework which must be replaced with another that proposes top-down nationalism to attain progress
Significance of armed forces: According to this type of literature, an alternative but successful Pakistan can be created by fulfilling certain sociopolitical conditions and honouring the right agents of change such as the urban middle class largely represented by the state bureaucracy, especially the military. All the three works highlight the significance of the armed forces as an organisation with an unquestioned reputation, especially in comparison with other players such as the politicians. This is not simple propagandist literature, but the type which is arguing for a structural sociopolitical shift – movement of power from the traditional elite to the emerging middle class.

Although modernity has several dimensions, the concept of modernity envisioned by this set of authors has a strong neo-liberal flavour that espouses economic progress as a key indicator of modernity, which, in turn, requires political order and building up of a strong and centralised national-identity that seems to be missing at the moment. These authors envision a modern Pakistan as economically progressive, ideologically secular-liberal, increasingly urbanised with a fairly strong industrial and technical base. The greatness of the state is not evaluated through political and social progress or lack of it but from mundane material aspects such as the size of the country being the sixth largest country in the world.

The latest prescription for progress also calls for strengthening of the nation state and deepening a sense of nationalism. Therefore, it is necessary to downplay all such elements such as ethnicity and sectarianism that might weaken the nation state project. It is not as if the formula is not being adhered to by the state machinery which likes to minimize the emphasis on ethnic politics and downplay sectarian differences. The state bureaucracy, especially the military, even uses brutal force to curb ethnic differences as is obvious from the case of Baluchistan.

The ethnic differences are not viewed as positive diversity but as part of the traditional-elitist political framework which must be replaced with another that proposes top-down nationalism to attain progress.

The fact that Pakistan is the sixth largest country in the world has begun to figure in the statist literature. But a centralised national identity is even more important, hence, the emphasis on defining and streamlining what the former information minister Javed Jabbar calls Pakistaniat which is a set of positive attributes of a committed Pakistani citizen. But most important, Pakistaniat is about a sense of homogeneous nationalism. These characteristics such as resilience in the face of adversity, feeling concern in the face of national humiliation, sense of pride in being a Pakistani are some of the 57 characteristics that in the eyes of the former information minister, Javed Jabbar, constitute positive characteristics of “Pakistaniat” and will guarantee the country’s development. Intriguingly, the author also includes respect for religious and ethnic minorities as one of the prominent characteristics of Pakistani nationalism which is a misrepresentation of facts or figment of his imagination. Given the attacks on religious, sectarian and ethnic minorities that have increased in the past couple of decades, Jabbar’s assertion is more of propaganda and pretense rather than a fact.

While the state tends to use coercion, it has also tried other means such as generating a new national narrative and build institutional mechanisms to rope in dissidents towards this narrative.

However, these factors have to be matched with two essential drivers for change: the nationalist-urbanised middle class and the military.

Progressive nationalist middle class: The alternative view literature completely discards the traditional elite as the engine of progress. Progress, it is believed, can only be brought about by the burgeoning middle class.

Deobandi and Wahabi Islam, as opposed to Sufi and Barelvi Islam, have textual basis and offer a form of modernity
The bulk of the rural middle class represents medium-sized (less than 100 acres) farmers and the burgeoning trader-merchant class that live in towns small cities that have cropped up from villages and depend on the agrarian economy. The urban middle class, on the other hand, comprises trader-merchants, small business and professional class belonging to various vocational groups in intermediate cities and large cities. The middle class also includes the bulk of the state bureaucracy such as civil servants and military.

The urban upper-middle class, on the other hand, represents the intermediate class that will eventually become the upper class and it comprises the echelons of the burgeoning media, the elite of the civil and military bureaucracies, the top leadership of the judiciary and the legal community, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector and professional expatriate Pakistanis that are keen to build their influence in their home country by remaining central to its politics.

The underlying assumption is that the empowerment of this socio-economic class is bound to bring liberalism and progress to the country.

There are four issues with such formulation. First, it suffers from serious lack of clarity in defining the socio-economic origins of the ruling elite. We get an impression as if the ruling elite comprises mainly of landowners or entrepreneurs. The reality is that the bulk of the ruling elite no longer comprises traditional feudal-landowners but is instead of middle class and even lower middle class background.

Second, these authors tend to borrow a Marxian political formulation without understanding its historical linkages. The entire debate of middle class and progress is essentially borrowed from western history that is not necessarily applicable to most developing countries where the bulk of the middle class is not liberal or politically progressive.

Third, there is a problematic suggestion that middle class is liberal, secular and progressive that can guarantee Pakistan’s internal political and economic integrity. Such notion does not take into account the fact that in a pre-capitalist culture like Pakistan’s, the middle class is intellectually an extension of the ruling elite.

Fourth, it artificially links political development with economic progress. In fact, democratic norms and politics can be ignored for ensuring a top-down economic progress that is best attained through military bureaucratic dictatorial regimes.

Finally, political development is not directly linked with economic development and the focus of the middle class is the latter not the former. Moreover, this class has always supported and benefited from authoritarianism.

The middle class needs attention due to its ideological leanings which are conservative, pro-authoritarian and increasingly latent-radical. The bulk of the emerging rural or even urban middle class is not socially or politically liberal. The same can be said of the middle class in major cities. The urban middle and upper middle class both have an inclination towards authoritarianism and even latent religious radicalism. Most recently, new political movements denoted by urban- based political parties, such as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (the justice party) run by the former cricketer Imran Khan, espouse wrangling political control through the army’s help. The other two pillars of the middle class, that is, the media and the legal community (including the judiciary), both have authoritarian, centre-right nationalist and even latent radical perspectives.

In any case, the media and the legal community have exhibited authoritarian tendencies with an interest in acquiring unquestioned power, a behaviour that the traditional elite is accused of.

The military: The country’s six-lakh strong military and its extended families, which include retired personnel and their kith and kin, are critical to the presentation of a progressive-modern Pakistan narrative. There are several reasons for this. First, the military is considered as an institutional representation of middle class ethos. The assertion is that the military is neither authoritarian nor a detriment to political development. It only intervenes to protect the state from internal and external threat. Moreover, unlike the traditional elite, which establishes a patron- age system of politics and is essentially authoritarian, the military, being a representative of middle class values, encourages the establishment of sustainable democracy.

Since the military has brute force, which is so critical to Pakistan’s praetorian politics, the middle class views the armed forces as critical for change.

Third, due to the character of the military being middle class it is seen as a source of political and economic modernity in the country. According to the new narrative, not only is the current army chief Kayani progressive, he is also liberal with great concern for strengthening democracy.

The military prefers a strong president, especially when the army chief himself is the president or when the office- bearer is a favourite of the armed forces. However, it is the second time in the country’s history that the president is not of the army’s choosing and the service was unable to remove President Asif Ali Zardari due to his ability to compromise and negotiate space for himself. Some analysts believe that this balancing act will result in prolongation of the civilian government, which, in turn, will result in strengthening of the democratic system.

According to an expert of Pakistan’s civil-military relations, Saeed Shafqat, the accommodating behaviour of the army top brass has encouraged the civilian leadership to respond positively and give an extension to the army chief, which Shafqat presents, as an example of elite accommodation (“Praetorians and the People”, in Maleeha Lodhi (ed.), Pakistan beyond the Crisis State, 2011).

There are three problems with Shafqat’s formula. First, he wrongly assumes that such accommodation is unprecedented. In fact, a glance at Marxian literature in Pakistan, especially the works of authors like Hamza Alavi indicate a partnership between the ruling elite and the civil-military bureaucracy in the country that dates back to the early days of the state. The army has historically used crisis to replace unfriendly political leaders with others considered loyal. Thus, the elite accommodation existed even under the seemingly liberal dispensation of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto during the 1960s and the 1970s.

Second, he does not ask the basic question if a major shift in civil-military balance could happen without a major transformation of the rules of the games regarding civil-military balance. What may actually appear as accommodation is based on some tactical adjustment of the military taking charge of some areas while leaving the less important issues for the civilian government.

Third, what Shafqat calls elite negotiation is essentially an adjustment between the two power poles in the country – military and civil – to protect overall elite interests. Such an adjustment does not in any way indicate a fundamental shift in the political system and structure or a movement away from authoritarian rule.

Supporting the middle class narrative helps the military in remaining relevant to the country’s politics and establishing its own image as being above board. It uses the corruption of the politicians and its own image as a representative of the middle class to influence national psychology. This is part of the exercise of establishing intellectual control of the people.

The right-wing radical-nationalism axis:

There is an increasing non-liberal trend in the country which follows two inter-related trajectories: (a) latent militant radicalism that is found mainly amongst the poor and the lower middle classes (but does not preclude the middle class), and (b) latent radicalism found amongst the middle class, the upper middle class and (to a certain extent) the upper class as well.

Latent militant radicalism can be defined as a tendency towards adopting violence as means to suppress people of opposing religious ideology. Latent radicalism is defined as the inability to imagine the “other” that is defined on the basis of religious dogmatic differences. Although representing a class divide, the two trends feed on each other and on the modernity debate as well.

First, the state presents these trends not as a regressive behaviour, but as an indicator of growing anti-imperialism and anti-neo-colonialism in the society. Such an argument is even made by elements who once represented the liberal left. Today, some believe that the Taliban must be tolerated as they are the only bulwark against American hegemony. The political right, which is a bulk of the parties today including the mainstream political parties, has an element that is sympathetic to the militant and latent militant radical elements in the society and view the war on terror as a foreign conspiracy. Such belief has created a certain amount of psychological confusion and infested the society with conspiracy theories in which Pakistan emerges as a victim of American expansionist designs.

There are quite a few urban and educated people who stand up to defend Afia Siddiqui, an Al Qaida member, or support Mumtaz Qadri, a religious bigot and the killer of the Punjab governor Salman Taseer. This is not a result of any confusion but an extension of the victimhood discourse that then allows people to target the native “other” who is viewed as an agent of the imperialist force.

Second, there is an increasing societal ownership of the radical discourse, especially at the level of the middle and upper-middle classes. For instance, one of the emerging icons is a rabid televangelist Zaid Hamid, who preaches hatred of the US and India, rejects democracy and propagates the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. Another popular character is the former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan who approves of the tribal system for adjudication and is known for his links with the religious right parties.

Such support indicates an increasing acceptance of right-wing politics as an alternative to the existing political parties that are viewed as lackeys of imperial power, the US. It is a fact that Pakistan’s nationalism today has a deeper shade of ideological right, which is now being legitimised, through a new scholarly discourse that presents radical and religious forces as part of the native culture. In doing so, the new narrative even provides justification for jihadi outfits and jihadism.

New face of Pakistani modernity? The growing number of Pakistani postmodernist scholars such as Humaira Iqtidar, Kamran Asdar Ali, Saba Mehmood, Amina Jillani and many others in western and elite Pakistani universities are now proposing the religious right-wing forces as the new face of Muslim and Pakistani modernity. Iqtidar, a UK-based Pakistani anthropologist has argued in her book Secularising Islamists that forces such as Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-ud-Dawa have a secularising influence over the society. Others such as Mehmood and Jillani present Islamists as the new face of feminism in Pakistan and the Muslim world in general. They are similar and different from the modernists of the early days who advocated inclusion of religion in politics from the perspective of keeping the state away from turning into a theocracy. The traditional modernists (1960s and 1970s) believed that religion should remain fundamental to the state but should be kept in a most liberal form. The post- modernists, on the other hand, are of the view that radical elements should be allowed to pursue their agenda that would eventually result in the religious right toning down its rhetoric and become more inclusive. There is a definite effort to legitimise both the political and religious right which makes the mix of Lieven-Lodhi-Jabbar and postmodernist scholars’ narrative a dangerous brew. While the former present nationalist right-wing military authoritarianism as representing the face of progressive-nation-statist-modernity, the latter highlights the same for the religious radical forces.

Third, the growing radicalism is part of the evolving politics and psychology of the middle class. A general perception created about militants and radical forces in Pakistan is that they belong to the poor and the disgruntled strata of society. If poverty indeed were the key driver, the volume of violence would have been much greater especially in areas that were identified as highly food insecure. In fact, the recruitment for jihad is from areas which are relatively food secure such as south and central Punjab. Poverty becomes a driver only when combined with other factors such as weakening of the traditional power structure, weakness or absence of the state in occupying the space, and the relative strengthening of the militant structure. In Pakistan’s case, the rise in militancy is directly linked with state support, be it from the military or provincial governments.

The various militant outfits recruit their foot soldiers from amongst the poorest segments of the population, but these are not the only ones recruited for jihad. Over the years, jihadi outfits have exhibited a propensity to recruit capable youth who are literate or semi-literate. It is also mainly the middle class that is eager to give donations to the militant outfits and madrassas.

The expansion of jihadism in Pakistan, in certain respects, rep- resents the breakdown of the feudal system which many would consider as a socially modernising development. The absence of an alternative force and discourse has favoured radical forces more than anything else.

Impact of Urbanisation: Another influence pertains to the growing urbanisation in the country. The fact that Pakistan is moving very rapidly towards urbanisation as a result of which almost 50% of population is projected to be urban by 2030. It not only influences the mode of production, but also alters cultural norms. For instance, the social and economic structures have an impact on psychological, intellectual and even spiritual needs. Pakistan’s foremost social scientist Hamza Alavi believed that Barelvi and Sufi Islam, which denotes “peasant’s religion”, would become less relevant with growing urbanisation, particularly sophistication in modes of production. Deobandi and Wahabi Islam, as opposed to Sufi and Barelvi Islam, have textual basis and offer a form of modernity. Allama Mohammad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher of Pakistan, also recognised this factor. While Sufi shrines will continue to attract people, they will fail to fulfill the spiritual and intellectuals needs of those marching towards some form of material progress.

The militants benefit from the rise in Deobandism-Wahabism since it enhances the ideological pool from which they can recruit fighters at will.

But the most noticeable development pertains to the impact of Deobandism-Wahabism on Barelvi religious norms that face the pressure of competing for political and ideological space. The Barelvi clerics and organisations seem under pressure to generate a popular discourse that matches the Deobandi ideology. This behaviour is most obvious from the Barelvi reaction to the blasphemy issue.

The fact of the matter is that the Sufi-Barelvi ideology has gradually lost ground, as it could not play the role in creating an ideology needed by the state to fight its foreign battles.

Those that represent the Sufi culture have failed to develop an alternative narrative which is needed to counter extremism.


Are these ideological forces relatively benign and will eventually get tamed by forces of capitalism, as suggested by Syed Vali Nasr? In his latest book on forces of fundamentalism in some of the Muslim countries Nasr has proposed that ultimately the fundamentalist forces will be tamed mainly because people do not want violence. However, such an analysis is based on a certain amount of naivety and simplicity in understanding various societies particularly Pakistan, which has already turned into a hybrid theocracy. This means that the country comprises small pockets of liberalism, small spaces where sharia law is formally enforced and larger spaces where it is informally implemented. This is not simply an issue of implementation of the sharia, but the use of force in various forms to restructure the power base and the ideological structure of the state. At a micro level, the use of force translates into cases like the torture of the Christian woman Aasiya Bibi who is jailed for blasphemy. Notwithstanding the veracity of the claim against her, the fact is that the state is unable to provide her some form of protection while she is incarcerated.16 Similarly, the state is increasingly less capable of providing protection to its citizens as the more violent forces dictate their ideology such as the case of the school in Rawalpindi where masked men entered and threatened the young girls who had not worn the hijab. The militants are, in fact, the neo-feudals who are gradually gaining the same kind of power that the traditional feudal-landowners used to have. This is not to suggest that all militants are above the law, but the fact is that the state has established a principle according to which some favoured militants are propelled to being above the law. Since the militant forces have both the power and authority of religion, it has become difficult to contest their power. Geopolitically, the militant forces and their ideological network have gathered influence due to their efficacy for the military-strategic objectives of the state. The militants have established a partnership with the security apparatus of the state, which also considers the partnership beneficiary in pursuance of its military-strategic goals. The Pakistani state has often been viewed by its military establishment as a fortress of Islam. Religion is also seen as a source for propelling the state’s influence in adjoining regions such as central Asia for which a partnership with militant forces is necessary.

The military’s new partnership is different from its older linkage with the traditional elite. The powerful establishment of the Pakistani state is in a process of reinventing itself because of which it seeks newer partnership and narrative. The emphasis on the power of the middle class that is audible in some of the recently written books that are sponsored by the establishment is meant to produce a new set of political stakeholders that can challenge the traditional and the old elite. Although the establishment, which is dominated by the military, has been central in creating the traditional elite as well, it is now eager to produce a new crop which has a more exciting narrative. The middle class is presented as an epitome of liberal-progressive Pakistan. However, it is an erroneous assumption to consider the middle class as liberal since the bulk of it seems to be ridden with latent radical tendencies are on the verge of it. Such an attitude will affect Pakistan internally before it has an impact on its external relations. In Pakistan the growth of the middle class accompanied with increasing urbanisation is an evolving socio- economic and sociopolitical phenomenon. While the liberal political forces have been receding in terms of providing a forceful narrative, the radical forces have been gaining momentum. Religion, which was made the logic for the creation of the state, has become an even more powerful tool that could be used to determine internal and external relations. The newer political stakeholders view the Taliban and other militants as forces that challenge neo-imperialism by the US and other western forces. Even some of the new scholarly discourse tends to legitimise the jihadis. The liberal-western elite, which dominated the state at the time of partition and even later, has gradually lost its legitimacy. Such developments are taking place in an environment where there is very little space for a liberal discourse. The liberal elements in the country that can liberalise the religious-political discourse and rescue it from the clutches of latent radicalism are few and far between. More important, it will take decades before a movement towards counter-radicalisation picks up speed. Meanwhile, any change that will happen will be through connivance with the security apparatus of the state which will remain relevant for any change in the political system for many years to come.

This is an abridged version of the paper which was published by Economic and Political Weekly, India earlier this year



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