Quilliam held a roundtable on 28th October 2009 on the Global Affairs’ Unit’s work in Pakistan, captured in the report Pakistan: Identity, Ideology and Beyond.

Chair: Ghaffar Hussain (Head of Quilliam Outreach and Training Unit), Quilliam

Guest Speaker: Maajid Nawaz (Director), Quilliam

– Quilliam has been undertaking work in Pakistan for over a year. We have held training workshops at 21 university campuses, spoken to over 5,000 students in key cities, made a number of high profile media appearances, and forged a network of over 1,000 student volunteers. In addition, we are working with members of civil society to empower Pakistanis to reject the extremist narrative and promote a culture of pluralism and democratic values.

– Quilliam’s latest report entitled ‘Pakistan: Identity, Ideology and Beyond’ was launched at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C., in September 2009. The report has already been widely circulated in government circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Briefings about the key findings have been presented to Whitehouse staff, members of the US Senate, and Richard Holbrooke’s Af-Pak team.

The report focuses on two themes:

1. There is a need to recast the struggle against Islamism as an ideological rather than a religious debate.

– The ideas debate within civil society must be addressed with intellectual arguments which resolve the moral dilemma present in Pakistan. Among some, there is a belief that rejecting Islamism amounts to a rejection of the faith of Islam. However, Islamism is a modern day political ideology, existing in rebellion rather than in continuity with Muslim tradition. Therefore, counter-extremism efforts must highlight the fact that individuals can stand for secularism whilst still practising Islam.

– Secularism is not an alien value within Pakistan given that the founder Jinnah envisaged secular state for Muslims which would also cater for those of any faith persuasion.

– By viewing the current problem of extremism and terrorism within Pakistan as a religious problem, policy makers are mistakenly focusing their counter-extremism efforts solely on Pakistan’s madrasahs rather than its university campuses. Whereas madrasahs may produce those individuals exploited as disposable foot soldiers, research shows it is the university campuses which are producing the Islamist ideologues.

2. There is a need to view Pakistan’s current security problems as a symptom of its troubled identity. 

– Pakistan has struggled to forge a coherent national identity capable of accommodating its rich religious and ethnic diversity. In turn, this has encouraged pan-Islamism and separatism to fill the vacuum and has enabled Islamist narratives to gain strongholds, both in terms of recruitment and territorial capture.

– There is a need to reinforce secular Pakistani nationalism. Quilliam advocates a change in international foreign policy towards Pakistan which hitherto has been too monolithic. There is an urgent need for the ‘Af-Pak’ strategy to be revised; Afghanistan and Pakistan must be de-coupled given that both have distinct historical narratives and people of variant racial, ethnic, religious, and sectarian backgrounds.

– Similarly, Quilliam recommends a change in the Pakistani Government’s approach towards separatists within the country.  Grievances long held by Pakistan’s provinces should be addressed, and autonomy, rather than independence, should be promoted. 

Q&A Session: Answered by Maajid Nawaz

How would you categorise Deobandis and Tablighi Jemaat?

– It is important to recognise that nothing is a monolith. Let us draw upon the example of Deobandis under the British Raj. They issued a famous fatwa which stated that as long as the British Raj would let Muslims pray, fast, and live their religious lives within the Indian Sub-Continent, then there was absolutely no requirement for a religious jihad against the British. This doesn’t mean that political resistance against colonialism was discouraged, but rather that there was no reason why religion should play a role in that resistance or discussion.

– Historically, the Deobandis were always very sensible, but they were very conservative. They explained that Islam can cater for any system of governance. If any system prohibits Muslims from practising their religion then religion itself should not form part of that protest, we have international law to draw upon for this discussion.

– The Taliban originated from a faction of Deobandis who broke off and disassociated themselves from the Deobandis, and today the Deobandis are constantly challenging their stance.

– Let us turn to Tablighi Jemaat. They are not a security risk, they are not politicised. They are a preaching movement, and whilst they may proselytise their message and may pose social challenges when promoting social cohesion, they do not pose a security risk.

Is Quilliam aware of the increasing link between Waziristan and the Punjab?

– There are many different groups in the Punjab and Waziristan which have been discovered to have linkages. Obviously, the pooling of resources and manpower has resulted in an increase in suicide attacks, which is highly concerning. 


Is it really accurate to assert that university campuses rather than madrasahs pose the greatest risk?

– We are not denying that suicide bombers or Taliban members originate from the madrasahs. However, we propose this is not the main problem — although it is the most visible.

– The main problem is the spread of non-violent Islamist ideology in Pakistan which is highly dangerous for Pakistani society. It is spreading throughout the military, the state apparatus, and has been adopted by the popular Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). JI should not be banned, but they pose a huge problem for Pakistan. They are trying to erect a state which justifies its existence and rules through Islamic means. This is problematic given that the imposition of a single interpretation of Islam would violate individuals’ basic human rights; this is against both Muslim and Pakistani culture. Islam is not Islamism. Islam does not demand the imposition of a faith over everyone. There is no contradiction in demanding a secular state and the religious practice of Islam.  

– Universities are a key recruiting ground for Islamists.  JI has had a stronghold in Punjab University for several years, Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) are presently recruiting highly educated individuals, whilst Islamist ideology is gaining ground amongst the educated and socially mobile classes within Pakistan.
How can you really expect to engage with Pakistan’s Islamists when you have so firmly aligned yourself with ideology and policies which oppose and threaten their cause?

– We are not here to work with Islamists or modify their behaviour; we are working with students across university campuses in Pakistan. Our training sessions aim to equip students with the intellectual tools to directly confront and challenge the reasoning used by Islamists.

Why do you claim that Pakistan is secular? Jinnah was clearly a secular man, but the state he created was almost certainly Islamic.

– In a speech Jinnah gave just prior to the creation of Pakistan he stated that everyone in Pakistan should be free to go to their mosque, their temple etc, for religion has nothing to do with the affairs of the state. Pakistan was a country created for Muslims but it was not Islamic in nature.

– What we are speaking about is a group of people, Islamists, who are trying to impose their own ideology and worldview upon everyone living in Pakistan. They want to enforce their beliefs upon everyone, and these are beliefs which sit in contrast to Pakistan’s history and Islam itself.

– If someone wants to be very religious and keep themselves to themselves and their families, this is not problematic; we should utilise this. There is a clear difference between those who politicise their religion and wish to promote their version among the whole of society and those who merely practice a conservative version of Islam.

You speak about the need to impose a secular nationalist identity, yet who controls the national narrative today?

– The Pakistani media has a powerful influence within society; it is a vibrant institution and could play a role in providing a greater awareness of alternative readings of Pakistani history and religion. In addition, educational reform is essential if Pakistan is to move forward. Research indicates that school curriculums are propagandist and tend to promote a narrow and intolerant worldview.. Finally, there is an important need for civil society to re-open this debate and propose the views of the majority in order to counter the dominant minority views.

Why do we not separate Swat and Waziristan in discussions?

– Certainly, there is a need to separate these two regions and ensure that our answers to issues are developed accordingly. More broadly, there is a need to develop a more nuanced approach and understanding of Pakistan as a whole. Pakistan boasts a rich array of historical narratives, ethnicities, race, religions, and languages and international policy should acknowledge these. The problems of the ‘Af-Pak’ strategy demonstrate this well.

How do you assess the level of support given to extremist groups by the security establishment in Pakistan?

– One of the difficulties in assessing the extent to which this support exists  relates to the problem of transparency within the country. The lack of transparency has meant that conspiracy theories dominate popular discussions. Particularly within the ISI, affiliations and organisational hierarchies are so murky. It is difficult to know who has switched sides. However, it is certainly clear that this support has existed and such affiliations must be monitored more closely.

Would the imposition of shari’ah be acceptable if the people democratically elected a party who proposed to implement it within society?

– No, democracy extends beyond elections. Elections are one element of democracy. Democracy is impossible without freedom of speech, respect for pluralism, respect for minorities and human rights. Whether or not the people have selected a party who wish to impose shari’ah, their rule cannot be deemed democratic given that their method of governance would violate the rights of others. 

What is the influence of Wahhabi funding on Pakistan?

– A central component of Saudi foreign policy is to internationally spread Wahhabism with the assistance of petrodollars, particularly amongst those who would otherwise be critical of Wahhabism. Wahhabism has been spread throughout Pakistan through the funding of mosques and madrasahs, which promote a non-ideological, socially conservative, austere and literalist interpretation of Islam. Wahhabis are not Islamists, but when the Wahhabi literalist mindset combines with Islamism, it can lead to certain readings of Scripture which may result in militant Islamism. This version of Islam sits in contrast to the Islamic tradition in Pakistan, which is predominantly Sufi.

How do you build a state mechanism fit for purpose?

– It is certainly true that Pakistan needs a viable working state system, political leadership oscillates between civilian and military rule. Within the latest Pakistan report, we discuss in detail wider structural issues such as land reform and aid distribution.

– At the moment, Pakistani society is debating the virtues of the Kerry Lugar Bill. It is disappointing to see that the debate has turned into a debate about sovereignty. In fact, the army has been receiving money from the US for years. Undoubtedly, the wording could have been slightly more diplomatic, but it is the first time that military and humanitarian aid have been clearly separated. Perhaps the biggest controversy relating to the Kerry Lugar Bill has arisen because the army has taken offence that, for the first time, the civilian leadership has been positioned above the army.

Do you think the current situation in Pakistan has a direct impact upon British Pakistani Muslims — is there a blowback?

– We noticed vast differences across Pakistani provinces through the course of our work in the country. Interestingly, while we received much support from the people of Sindh and Balochistan, audiences in Mirpur were much more hostile to our message. We were told to go back home. This is relevant given that many Mirpuris living in the UK have strong ancestral links to the area,  and such hostility possibly stems from the influence  of views coming from Britain; it is likely that some in Mirpur are receiving hostile feedback from British Muslims with connections to the region. They seemed to believe that our work was linked to the Prevent agenda. Undoubtedly, there is a two dimensional movement between Pakistan and Britain. British Muslims are directly exporting Islamist ideologies to Pakistan and vice versa. Maajid’s experience exporting HT’s brand of Islamism to Pakistan is a case in point.