The Genesis of Religious Radicalism in Pakistan

May 30, 2019

Jinnah – Pakistan’s founding father – declared that the citizens’ caste and religion had nothing to do with the business of the Pakistani state.[1] He advocated for freedom of the press and speech and criticized the laws that curtailed that freedom.[2] As a constitutionalist, Jinnah stood by legal process rather than executive action.[3] While addressing an audience at the Kingsway Hall in London on 13 Dec 1946, he said “Democracy is in the blood of Muslims who look upon complete equality of man. Muslims believe in fraternity, equality, and liberty”.[4]

As the president of Pakistan’s first constituent assembly, one of the first steps Jinnah took was to form a committee on the fundamental rights of the citizens and minority issues.[5] Historical accounts from Jinnah’s political life amply suggest that his idea of Pakistan was an inclusive democracy where all citizens irrespective of which faith they subscribed to were equal members of society.

So in Mar 1949, the post-Jinnah constituent assembly took the first major step to Islamize the country by presenting the ‘Objectives Resolution’ – a set of principles that were to guide future constitution making in the country.

In a tragic turn for Pakistan, however, its founder passed away too soon to practically determine the political future of the new state. And his immediate successors most likely did not agree with the Pakistan Jinnah had envisaged. As Jinnah died, the other founding leaders embarked on their own plan of creating an Islamic state where a Muslim was the primary and natural citizen, while non-Muslim Pakistanis were minorities. And unfortunately minority often equates degraded citizenship with truncated rights in the country. For Jinnah’s successors, Pakistan was to be an exclusive territory where the Muslims were to practice and promote their faith with ultimate freedom, while “other” citizens were merely an afterthought, at best.

jinnah - the print
Mohammad Ali Jinnah- Pakistan’s Founder

So in Mar 1949, the post-Jinnah constituent assembly took the first major step to Islamize the country by presenting the ‘Objectives Resolution’ – a set of principles that were to guide future constitution making in the country. The resolution declared the following:

  • Allah Almighty alone is responsible for sovereignty over the whole universe and that authorities are to be exercised as sacred faith by Pakistani citizens.
  • Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accordance with the teaching and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah;
  • The principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance, and social justice enunciated by Islam shall be fully observed;
  • The rights and interests of the minorities to freely profess and practice their religion will be protected.[6]

Liaqat Ali Khan took power after Jinnah died. While presenting the objectives resolution, Khan said:

The ideals that promised the demand for Pakistan should form the cornerstone of the state. When we use the word ‘Democracy’ in the Islamic sense it pervades all aspects of life. It relates to the system of government and to our society with equal validity because one of the greatest contributions of Islam has been the equality of men”.


liaqat a khan
Liaqat Ali Khan – Pakistan’s First Prime Minister

Liaqat Ali Khan was not a religious man. Like majority of early lawmakers, he belonged to the secular elite class.[7] While Khan pushed for the creation of an Islamic state in Pakistan, he loved to flaunt his love for alcohol in the Western capitals in order to impress his foreign friends. One of his Western admirers was US assistant secretary of state, George McGhee, who was impressed by Liaqat Ali Khan’s ability to consume alcohol without losing his sobriety.[8]

When non-Muslim Pakistani lawmakers pointed out that the Objective Resolution barred them from becoming head of the state, Liaqat Ali Khan was quick to reject their concerns. Khan promised that in no way was the idea of an Islamic state envisaged by the Objectives Resolution a theocracy discriminating against non-Muslims. Nevertheless, the president’s office was reserved for Muslims when Pakistan’s first constitution was enforced in 1956. However, it was argued that president was the symbolic head of state like the Queen of England and that the real power office, i.e. prime minister, was open to all communities, both Muslim and non-Muslim.

Bhupendra Kumar Datta, a Hindu member of the opposition in the constituent assembly said:

“My fear is real, as these concepts will everywhere be interpreted by much less enlightened men. Sir, it would be wiser perhaps for the House, as our Leader suggested the other day, to dispense with a Resolution of this nature at this stage”.

Likewise, another opposition leader Mian Iftikharuddin called the resolution a historic blunder. But there was no turning back from the status of Pakistan as an Islamic state after the objectives resolution. The fate of the new born nation had been sealed.[9] The house went on with passing the resolution without addressing the concerns put forth by non-Muslim lawmakers.[10] While the objectives resolution buried Jinnah’s inclusive Pakistan, it simultaneously laid the foundation of an Islamist Pakistan.

A Sindhi politician Shehla Raza claims the objectives resolution was authored by Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of Jamaat Islami. It is, however, unclear what drove an alcohol-loving secularist like Liaqat Ali Khan to push for an Islamic state in Pakistan. The architects of the objectives resolution clearly failed to foresee that such religiously-skewed principles would facilitate state-led persecution of minorities and lay these principles open for misinterpretation and exploitation.

Institutionalizing Radicalism and Exclusion

Pakistan’s founding politicians could not write the country’s first constitution for about nine years after independence. And when they did put out the first document in 1956, it was a basic constitutional roadmap for Islamist radicalism in the country and exclusion of Pakistan’s non-Muslim communities from mainstream. The constitution prevented a non-Muslim Pakistani from holding the office of the head of state. Besides, all laws were to be aligned with Islamic teachings. No law considered to be contrary to Islam was to be made in the country.

This provision gave immense power and freedom to the religious establishment to decide what did or did not contradict Islamic teachings. The Objective Resolution, adopted in 1949, was made the preamble of the 1956 constitution and the country was declared an Islamic republic. The second constitution more or less retained the exclusionary Islamic provisions in 1962. Both constitutions, however, did promise to protect the rights of non-Muslim Pakistanis. But, unfortunately these safeguards have hardly saved the minorities from the extremist onslaught.

Under the constitution of 1962, the president became the effective head of government and the office was still reserved for Muslims. In 1973, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in an attempt to appease the religious right, declared that the offices of the president and prime minister were reserved for Muslims alone. After having the non-Muslim Pakistanis excluded from the high offices, the clergy demanded of the state to define who was and who was not a Muslim.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto

An intensive debate ensued in the parliament that culminated in the declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslims through a constitutional amendment in 1974. Ironically, the National Awami Party leaders such as Wali Khan who branded themselves as secularists also voted in favor of the amendment.[11] When Pakistan’s first foreign minister Sir Zafarullah Khan, an Ahmadi, objected that the parliament had no authority to make a decision on Ahmadis’ faith, Pakistan’s law minister, Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, replied that parliament was the supreme body whose decisions could not be contested.[12]

The 1973 constitution declared Islam as state religion and defined a Muslim as someone who believes in the unity of Allah and finality of the prophethood of Mohammad (PBUH). It also stipulates that only Muslims can be elected as president and prime minister of Pakistan.[13] By 1974, Pakistan as a state effectively took over the role of a radical cleric and began deciding who was a Muslim and who was an apostate. The citizens were categorized into Muslim and others. The plant of religious extremism was watered and groomed which over decades became a formidable tree with firm roots. The declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslim institutionalized their persecution. It initiated the state’s hostility towards this downcast religious community.

Islamist Extremism in Early Days

Mohammad Ali Jinnah appointed Zarfarullah Khan, a member of Ahmadi community, as foreign minister after the Kashmir issue erupted in 1947. His appointment did not sit well with the Majlis-e-Ahrar, a group of radical Muslims which had been campaigning for the expulsion of Ahmadis from public offices since at least 1935. The Ahrar started calling for Ahmadis to be declared non-Muslim in 1948. Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of Jamaat Islami, severely criticized the Ahmadi faith.

maududi - the news
Abul Ala Maududi – Founder of Jamaat Islami

On 22 Feb 1953, at the convention of Muslim League in Dhaka, anti-Ahmadi Islamists threatened to take direct action if their demand of declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim was not met.[14] In the same year, Jamaat Islami waged an anti-Ahmadi campaign which resulted in a countrywide agitation and violence.[15] The Punjab was most affected. According to an estimate, about 2000 people mostly Ahmadis were killed across the country.

The violence spiraled up to such a point that martial law had to be imposed to contain the violence in Punjab. The governor general dismissed the federal cabinet.[16] Ahrar activists attacked Ahmadi rallies, raided their homes and shops, and burned their places of worship. In hate campaigns, Ahmadis were ridiculed and humiliated. A judicial investigation was carried out into the anti-Ahmadi pogrom. The findings, known as the ‘Munir Report’, unveiled atrocities committed against the community.[17] The martial law authorities sentenced JI founder Maududi to death for instigating anti-Ahmadi violence. [18] His sentence was later turned into life imprisonment. The anti-Ahmadi agitation achieved a milestone in 1974 with the declaration of Ahmadis as non-Muslim.

Religious Extremism as Policy Instrument

After the East Pakistanis started a separatist insurgency in 1971, President Yahya Khan’s dictatorship embarked on a disastrous policy of using religious extremists to counter the Bengali nationalism and insurgency. His regime mustered up pro-federation elements from amongst Bengalis to form religious militias such as Al-Shams and Al-Badar. These militias were tasked to counter pro-independence Mukti Bahini and their supporters and sympathizers. Jahangir Satti in his book ‘The Ruling Enemy: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Taliban’ argues that General Rao Farman Ali, who was good at exploiting religious sentiments, was the architect of these militias.[19] [20]

Al-Badar consisted of Bengali students from colleges, universities, and seminaries who were loyal to Jamaat Islami.[21] On the other hand, Al-Shams was made up of students, teachers, and supporters of Islamist parties other than JI.[22] Scholars from Bangladesh accuse these outfits of exterminating leading left-wing professors, journalists, littérateurs, and even doctors in 1971.[23] Many activists of Al-Shams and Al-Badar were also killed in clashes with Mukti Bahini. These numbers grew significantly when Bengali nationalists settled scores after East Pakistan became Bangladesh.[24] Al-Shams and Al-Badar disintegrated after the fall of Dhaka.

A Dictator with a Holy Mission

The Islamization campaign that began with the Objectives Resolution in 1949 touched its zenith under President Ziaul Haq. He took a holistic approach in bringing religion into everyday life. His mission was to turn the country into a citadel of Islam so that it could lead the Muslim world.[25] Scholars, however, maintain that beneath Zia’s Islamization was the sole purpose of legitimizing his dictatorial regime. Zia made blasphemy punishable by death which would later lead to vigilante lynchings in the country.

Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq

His imposition of zakat and ushr laws triggered a massive protest by Shiites who suspected Zia of attempting to create a Sunni state in Pakistan. In early July 1980, the Shiites marched on the federal capital in protest against the imposition of zakat ordinance. Around 100,000 Shiites laid siege to the secretariat of the chief martial law administrator, paralyzing the bureaucracy and finally forcing the regime to give them exemption from paying zakat to the state.[26]

Zia’s gory penchant for creating a cocktail of power politics and religion had serious repercussions for Pakistan as a society. According to historian Vali Nasr, the Islamabad protest revealed the Shiite community’s reliance on Tehran to organize and assert its demands. While Pakistan’s Shiite leaders felt empowered after their encounter with Zia, the conservative Sunni groups were appalled by Shiites’ assertiveness.[27] As if the division of citizens on the basis of Muslim and non-Muslim was not enough, Zia took up policies that widened the sectarian crack within the Muslim community. Under Zia’s watch, extremist terrorists groups were created that would wreck havoc with the country later.

Pakistan’s political nobility has always sought to create an exclusive Islamist state where Muslims are primarily the natural and legitimate citizens, and where people professing other religions are relegated to political and social oblivion. Bigoted policies since inception have produced a society that routinely tolerate religious extremism and intolerance, and loathe diversity. The non-Muslim citizens are frequently under fire from extremists, and their populations are dwindling. Religious extremism and terrorism have become formidable threats to Pakistan’s political and economic stability and national security. The country is shuffling, at best, under the weight of religious extremism, and it remains to be seen if the ruling elite would ever contemplate over the relationship between their policies and the overall decline of the country.

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[12] Dawn, Karachi, 10 October 1974












[24] Jalalzai, Sectarianism and Politico-Religious Terrorism in Pakistan, p. 258



[27] 78 Vali Nasr, ‚The Rise of Sunni Militancy in Pakistan: The Changing Role of Islamism and the Ulama in Society and Politics,‛ 155.