Change in the Wind – Journal
TWENTY-ONE years ago, the September 11 attacks in the United States triggered a series of social and political changes in Muslim societies. The Middle East was the flashpoint as Al-Qaeda’s ideology was believed to be deeply rooted in the political conflict and religious thought prevalent in that part of the globe. Over the following years, the “Arab Spring” largely failed to lead to democratic change in the region. Today, the Gulf monarchies are trying to bring about the changes that many expected from a democratic process.
The monetary and political cost of the “change” envisaged and implemented by the Middle Eastern monarchies is low, but its impact seems enormous: it is changing Muslim societies around the world. Many predict that the ongoing religious moderation or reform in Saudi Arabia and the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates will thwart and weaken radical groups in Muslim societies that have long thrived on financial and political support from the Gulf States. . Although the claim so far lacks empirical evidence, the pace and results of the “change process” will make it easier to validate.
Events and developments in the Middle East influence ideological and political trends in Pakistan. But the latter is also worried about the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, political changes in Iran and the rise of communal hatred in India. All of these and other externalities and the state’s response to them are slowly changing the country’s socio-political and ideological outlook. The change, which will take time to become visible, will not only reshape religious thought, but also determine future trends of extremism in society. So far, non-state actors, religious groups and ruling elites are trying to understand the changes in the region and will shape their strategies accordingly.
Pakistan’s growing financial dependence on the Gulf region will influence not only its geopolitical and strategic choices, but also the attitude of the state towards religious groups that play on their close sectarian affinity with the countries of the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia.
Events and developments in the Middle East influence ideological and political trends in Pakistan.
Religious reform in Saudi Arabia has posed a big challenge to conservative Salafist and Deobandi religious groups in Pakistan, who are struggling to change their outlook overnight. More than 20 Salafist groups and parties thrived on the support of the Gulf states, except for the violent Deobandi sectarian groups that were aligned with them. Some groups are trying to adapt to the changes to keep their financial support from the Gulf countries intact. However, some resist and try to find other sources of foreign funding or expand their local support bases.
During a period, the Pakistani state also changed its approach towards certain militant and radical religious groups that once enjoyed the patronage of state institutions. The state changed its approach after outside pressure, including the FATF, led it to review its policies.
The outlawed Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), a major Salafist group in Pakistan with an armed wing, the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), is undergoing a transformation. This transformation can help understand how changes in the Middle East and the policies of state institutions are impacting radical forces in Pakistan. Currently, three disparate views persist within the organization. The first vision privileges the abandonment of the militant way to concentrate only on the activities of education and preaching. Proponents of this view also support the policies of Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and the Abraham Accords. There is also a strong opinion within the group to take the path of electoral politics. The JuD had participated in the last legislative elections and invested enormous resources, but its performance was dismal. However, young leaders see politics as a reasonable and safe way to deflect pressure from their cadres demanding the restoration of organizational activities. This view is not popular among top leaders, but JuD workers and supporters crave it, as they compare their strengths with the Barelvi Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan which they say has filled the vacuum left behind. by JuD. Besides these two views, there is also a faction within the group that still insists on jihad, does not want to leave the path of militancy and is ready to continue its activities without the support of state institutions.
The JuD executive is confused; they not only dedicated their lives to the group, but also brought their families into the organization. Most of them were surviving on the financial support provided by the JuD, but now they are struggling and need immediate commitment. The state has not provided any rehabilitation for these abandoned workers. Today, they are an easy target for groups like the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K). Other banned groups also face the same challenge. Salafists, stigmatized by various violent and non-violent expressions of fundamentalism, have little choice. They have Mohammed bin Salman on one side and IS-K on the other. They can choose between the two, with almost no option for middle ground.
The Deobandi are also fragmented, as always, but their vast majority, including violent sectarian groups, still feel in line with the Saudis. The Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan has also given them a sense of victory. The Saudis will have an interest in continuing to support them in order to counter Iranian influence in the country both at the societal and state level. State institutions would also have in mind the usefulness of these outfits for future political scenarios. However, they would not allow the Deobandi madressahs to nurture another generation of militants who would end up harming the interests of state institutions.
The Gulf States cannot develop relations with wider civil society in Pakistan because of the latter’s democratic credentials, and they will continue to depend on their former allies among religious parties. It is not certain that the Gulf States will try to impose any changes on religious groups until they have achieved their goal. Iran also has no interest in abandoning its Shia allies in Pakistan. Religious groups will not change overnight, but changes in the Middle East will affect them slowly and steadily.
The author is a security analyst.
Posted in Dawn, September 11, 2022