Democracy has had difficulty taking hold in Pakistan. Emily MacFarquare wrote in U.S. News and World Report, "Pakistani politics is a zero-sum game. If one side's gain is seen as the other's loss, politics is about blocking your rival at every turn and at any price." The legislature is often paralyzed by disputes between the various parties. Debates feature walkouts by opposition members, banging on desks and shouting down speakers. Lawmakers are periodically gunned down in drive by shootings.

Pakistan has had considerable difficulty developing stable, cohesive political organizations because they have suffered long periods of repression. Further, political parties, with few exceptions, have been founded as vehicles for one person or a few individuals, or to achieve specifically defined goals. When these individuals die or abandon their parties, or after party goals have been met, many organizations have lost their raison d'être and have lacked the ability to carry on. In addition, political parties have been handicapped by regional and ethnic factors that have limited their national appeal and have also been torn by personal and class rivalries. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

"While so South Asian leaders say they encourage democracy, they have actually encouraged the cult of personalities," one former diplomat told the Washington Post. "They are given an aura of authority once reserved for hereditary maharajahs and nawabs." The same diplomat said "In the next round of assassinations, when the mothers are killed, probably the sons" will inherit the political legacies. [Source: Washington Post]

The Punjab and Sindh have traditionally been ruled by “feudals” (powerful landowners) that have traditionally dominated political and economic life in rural areas. The remainder of the country has been traditionally governed by tribal customs and reactionary feudal chieftains. On old school politicians that have been accused of mismanagement and corruption, Robert Kaplan wrote in Atlantic Monthly, “With local tribal and ethnic identities so strong, civilian politics became a bureaucratic form of revenge and unsavory tradeoffs. In ancient tribal and feudal cultures of the region leaders bartered water wells and tracts of desert; in the new state they bartered flour mills, electricity grids and transport systems.”

Politics in Pakistan often have not operated according to the constitution. The military and Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) frequently have been the preeminent actors in the country’s power structure, and in 1999 General Pervez Musharraf assumed power in a military coup. Moreover, there has been some concern that Pakistan could become a “failed state” because of the apparent inability of any single entity to control the country, the weakened productivity of a population beset by years of economic difficulties, and continuing problems of communal conflict and terrorism. Ethnic and provincial tensions often are manifested in rivalries between political parties, and several governments have been ended by assassination or military coup rather than by formal, electoral change. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2005]

Political Parties in Pakistan

Political parties have increased in number but declined in political power, particularly in relation to the military. Since the late 1990s, numerous parties have splintered into factions, dividing electoral support and leading to the formation of coalitions that often also dissolve into factions. The three parties with the greatest electoral support since 1988 all have become shadows of their former selves. [Source: Library of Congress, February 2005 **]

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) have splintered into numerous parties, and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) has lost substantial legitimacy as a result of involvement in violence. Officially, 73 parties contested the 2002 National Assembly elections, but only 3 percent of voters were registered as members of a political party. As a result of elections in 2002, a coalition led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) assumed control of provincial assemblies in Punjab and Sindh and the National Assembly. This party has been closely associated with the government of General Musharraf.

Parties often have no constitutions, membership lists, or documentation of funding sources. Furthermore, electoral support is rarely nationwide and most often is drawn from particular religious, ethnic, or regional bases. The military has given financial support to religious parties as a counterweight to secular parties, but electoral support for religious parties has been well below 10 percent nationwide. Many parties have separate wings for women and youth, and many are accused of having militias that collect funds and intimidate opponents.

Entrenched Politics of Pakistan

Richard Leiby wrote in the Washington Post: “Elite political families, powerful landholders and pervasive patronage and corruption undermine the prospects of a truly representational democracy, political analysts say. The dominant Pakistan People’s Party and its rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, have the money, experience and connections that Mashwani does not as a novice contender from an upstart party. [Source: Richard Leiby, Washington Post, April 30, 2013]

“As in the United States, Pakistan has what amounts to an entrenched two-party system, but even less space exists here for reformers and newcomers from lower classes. For decades, critics say, the parties have been run like insular family businesses whose only goal is to perpetuate their power and plunder national resources. The Pakistani military, by contrast, is well respected by the public and not afraid to muscle into politics. It has overthrown weak governments three times with general public support. During periods of civilian rule, the army also wields great influence behind the scenes, adding to evidence that Pakistan has never been more than a Potemkin democracy.

Democracy-promoting efforts in Pakistan has yielded diminishing returns. “Pakistan remains under siege by insurgents and shot through with corruption — and it is still a beggar nation seemingly always on the brink of collapse.” The election in 2013 resulted “in a fractured Parliament dominated by a coalition of old-guard politicians, with Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N and a two-time prime minister, likely to reclaim the job 14 years after he was ousted in a coup. “I see elections not bringing change,” said Shamshad Ahmad, a former Pakistani foreign secretary under Sharif. “Without a change in the system there will be the same feudalized, elitist hierarchy that remains in power. “Let’s hope a new culture is being born that civilians must take responsibility and take the reins in their hands,” said Ahmad, who remains a Sharif backer. “When our rulers show their ability to take good decisions, the army will stay in its space.”

Feudals and Zamidars

Pakistani society is still very much feudal in nature. The feudals (powerful large landowners) have traditionally dominated the National Assembly and blocked change there. Their power has diminished somewhat over the years but is still present.

The traditional power brokers in Pakistan have traditionally been the “zamindars” (large landowners). Zamidars are a Muslim Rajput caste of horsemen and soldiers that developed into a powerful group of landowners and presided over a feudal tax collection system known as zamindari. They acquired land in various ways and but more crucially obtained state recognition to collect taxes and transmit them to more powerful leaders, including the British, and jacked up their authority with fortresses and militias. “Zamindar” comes from the Persian word for “landowner.”

Zamidars had a reputation for wasting their money, exploiting peasant farmers but also being friendly and generous. Up until the mid 20th century villagers had to prostrate themselves whenever the came in the presence of a zamindar. The zamindars described they system as benign and paternalistic. Some say they viewed themselves as parents looking after the welfare of their workers as if they were children, paying for weddings, provided medical care and giving them places to live. Zamidars are generally devout Muslims. They view themselves as Muslims rather than members of a caste.

Land was passed down generally from father to son and could not be sold without the agreement of other family members. The zamindar go through great lengths to prevent their land from falling into the hands of outsiders. Women are generally excluded from owning land and making decisions on land. Marriage is viewed as a way to form bonds between newly-bonded families or strengthen existing bonds. Age and skin complexion are taken into consideration when choosing a marriage partner.

The power of the Zamindars has been greatly reduced by democracy and the subdivision of land among relatives. Land reforms enacted in India in 1951 stripped the Zamindars of some of their holdings but they remain powerful politically and economically. The Zamindars have also seen their power reduced by laws that limited the amount of land that people could own. Zamidar landowners have tried to get around these laws by placing land holdings in the names of other family members.

22 Families

The political and social elite of the country in the 1960s and 70s was referred to as the "22 families". These people were the aristocratic landowners of Pakistan, some of them owning hundreds of thousands of acres of land. They been able to avoid land reform and many of the county's politicians have come from the class including Benazir Bhutto. During the Ayub Khan period of the 1960s the 22 Families were at the peak of their power. In 1968, it was estimated that 20 families controlled 80 percent of Pakistan’s assets, 80 percent of the banking, 70 percent of the insurance, and 66 percent of the industry.

In 1968 Dr Mahbubul Haq alleged that 22 industrial family groups had come to control a majority of industrial, banking and insurance sectors in the country. He argued that the concentration of wealth was a by-product of the government policies and the primitive capitalist system in Pakistan. The slogan 22 families, he said, was taken too literally and they were not the cause, but symptom of the system that created them.

Dilawar Hussain wrote in Dawn: Dr Mahbubul Haq “first sifted the few rich and mighty families from teeming millions in Pakistan. On April 21, 1968, Dr Haq, the then Chief Economist of the Planning Commission, identified Pakistan’s 22 richest families that, according to his calculations, controlled 66 per cent of the industries and owned 87 per cent share in the country’s banking and insurance industry. Dr Haq placed Adamjees on the third slot after the Dawood and Saigols. Among the other rich and mighty, he identified the following financial groups: Colony, Fancy, Valika, Jalil, Bawany, Crescent, Wazir Ali, Gandhara, Ispahani, Habib, Khyber, Nishat, Beco, Gul Ahmed, Arag, Hafiz, Karim, Milwala and Dada — the last holding total assets of Rs 90 million. And the big families went into big businesses in which they could summon the greatest expertise. Habibs laid the foundations of Pakistan’s first and the largest bank — Habib Bank Limited — and Adamjees set up the Muslim Commercial Bank. [Source: Dilawar Hussain, Dawn, December 9, 2007]

“The 22 rich and the mighty had flourished during the Ayubian era, only to be swept away by the wave of nationalizations that followed comrade Z A Bhutto’s coming into power. A veteran industrialist recalls that in the six years of his iron-fisted rule, Z.A. Bhutto pulled into the nationalization fold as many as 31 key industries; 13 banks; 12 insurance companies; 10 shipping companies and two petroleum companies. Out of those, at least two dozen industries and almost all the banks and insurance companies belonged to the 22 families.

“It is easy to check out a few common names in the list of country’s richest in 1968 and now. But the above list is by no means complete. A knowledgeable old man in the industry says: “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.” Invisible to the public view are the assets of feudals; owners of privately held industries in such lucrative sectors as fertilisers, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and others. And the two sectors that have inarguably prospered the most in last six years: The stock broking and real estate. Mr Shaukat Aziz and Mr Khursheed Mahmood Kasuri, who a little while ago had to vacate their seats of the Prime Minister and foreign minister, respectively, may be the two richest parliamentarians according to the data with the Election Commission of Pakistan, but all that the poor souls possess is on average Rs400 million! That alas is petty cash.”

Pakistan's Modern Feudal System

John Lancaster wrote in the Washington Post: ““Rooted in tribal loyalties and tradition, the feudal system in Sindh and other parts of the land now known as Pakistan reached full flower in the 19th century, when British colonial officials conferred judicial and administrative powers on prominent Muslim landlords. Since the birth of Pakistan in 1947, successive military and civilian governments have tried with little success to redress the land imbalance. As a result, in some rural areas, feudal lords — known as waderas, sardars or khans, depending on their place in the tribal and landholding hierarchy — continue to wield more power than civil authorities. A few even run their own jails. [Source: John Lancaster, Washington Post, April 8, 2003]

“With a natural constituent base among tribal followers and tenants, the feudal landlords moved easily into politics after independence, dominating provincial and national assemblies while building alliances with the all-powerful military. Although their grip on political life has loosened in recent years, they remain a potent force in Pakistan's newly reconstituted parliament; last month, Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, who is from a feudal family in Balochistan province, announced that there would be no land reform on his watch.

Diminished Power of Pakistan's Feudals

John Lancaster wrote in the Washington Post: ““By all accounts, the feudal landlords no longer wield the kind of clout they did in the 19th century, or even 40 years ago. The transfer of land from one generation to the next has diluted family holdings. The rise of a new class of industrialists and commercial real estate barons has encroached on feudal economic power. The military, meanwhile, has acquired its own vast landholdings, according to Aasim Sajjad, a Yale-educated economist and land-reform advocate in Islamabad. [Source: John Lancaster, Washington Post, April 8, 2003]

“Perhaps most important are the modernizing forces of education and mass media. Villagers who once voted for the local land baron because they were told to do so now expect things like schools, roads and health clinics in return. "It's just a myth that the because of the landholding you always win," said Jatoi, the son of a former prime minister, who was disqualified from running in the last national elections because of a new rule that candidates must hold four-year college degrees (he never graduated). "It's based on performance." To adapt to a changing world, the feudal class has sought to diversify, investing in businesses such as textile mills and preparing its offspring for professional careers by sending them abroad to study.”

How the Feudals and Party Icons Have Crippled Pakistani Politics

John Ward Anderson wrote in the Washington Post: “Political analysts say the country's feudal political system — organized around ethnic tribes, family dynasties and personality cults — has retarded the development of democracy. Numerous seats in the National Assembly have been kept in families for generations, and the military regularly uses political turmoil as an excuse to seize power, the analysts said. “There's no hope with the current political parties, because none are committed to public service" but instead are based on personalities, dynasties and profit, said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore University of Management Sciences who was targeted for arrest by the government of President Pervez Musharraf last year for his outspokenness. "They don't have democracy within themselves, and they have poor leadership. The ruling class in Pakistan has lost its sense of humanity and balance. They are not givers, they are takers." [Source: John Ward Anderson, Washington Post, January 22, 2008]

“Pakistan's electoral system has produced only two leaders of national stature in 20 years — former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto, the head of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) from the southern province of Sindh who was assassinated while campaigning December 27, and her arch rival Nawaz Sharif, leader of a branch of the Pakistan Muslim League called the PML-N, who hails from central Punjab province.

“Numerous political analysts, politicians and others said that Bhutto and Sharif, who both served twice as prime minister and spent most of Musharraf's rule in exile, deserved a large share of the blame for tarnishing democracy here by using their terms in office and their political parties to enrich themselves and their families and to trounce all rivals. Even when they were in exile, "Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif both had policies of making sure no popular leader came up within their parties who could challenge them," said a Western diplomat who would talk about internal Pakistani politics only on condition of anonymity. “Both saw themselves as leaders for life," he said, "and both saw their parties as family businesses that were intended to be passed on to heirs, and BB made that clear in her will," a reference to Bhutto's stipulation that the PPP chairmanship be turned over to her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, after her death. Zardari subsequently arranged for the couple's 19-year-old son, a student at Oxford University who has lived most of his life abroad, to become co-chairman of the party.

“Under the circumstances, "when you have an undemocratic party where the leader is trying to let no one challenge her," the PPP leadership had little choice but to recognize ethnic and regional realities in selecting its new leaders, said Ali Ahsan, the 31-year-old son of Aitzaz Ahsan, a top PPP official and the leader of a pro-democracy movement of lawyers seeking to reinstate an independent judiciary.

Efforts to Break Out of Pakistan’s Feudal Politics

John Ward Anderson wrote in the Washington Post: “For Ishaq Khan Khakwani, a member of Pakistan's National Assembly, the sooner people like him are out of a job, the better. Khakwani, 58, calls himself and other lawmakers "brokers" between the people and "the oppressive arms" of the state, such as police officers and tax collectors. It is a system held over from British rule, he explained, in which politicians from powerful families act as intermediaries, often using methods such as extortion and false arrests to extract bribes for their services. [Source: John Ward Anderson, Washington Post, January 22, 2008]

“Instead, people should be protected by the rule of law, "so that justice is given without the help of people like me," Khakwani, whose family has been in politics in Punjab province off and on for 45 years, said in a recent interview. "If you provide them justice, people like me will also reform. Even if it destroys our livelihood, this is what reform is all about."

“But many people say Pakistan needs a quicker, cleaner break with the past. Political analyst and former army general Talat Massood called Bhutto's killing "such a great opportunity for the PPP to transform itself into the largest democratic party in the country, and go on issues and ideologies, but they missed that opportunity and went back to the same stupid dynastic politics."

“Even the Pakistani cricket hero Imran Khan has been unable to break the feudal lock on Pakistani politics” as of the late 2000s. “Khan formed his own political party, the Pakistan Justice Movement, in 1996, but it has won only one seat in the National Assembly in 12 years. The main barrier, he complained, has been campaign financing. But Khan said he was as optimistic about the future as he's ever been because of rising demands to restore Pakistan's independent judiciary and press. “It is a revolution that is irreversible," Khan said. "They'll never get the genie back in the bottle."

Grassroots Movements Starts to Take Hold in Pakistan Somehwat

Reporting from Gujjar Garhi in Pakistan rough-and-tumbe Northwest before the 2013 election, Richard Leiby wrote in the Washington Post: “Winning a grass-roots political campaign in Pakistan or anywhere else depends on having committed, hardworking volunteers. Iftikhar Ali Mashwani, an aspiring provincial lawmaker, has come to realize that his supporters are neither. “When I go into the villages and the fields, I should see my flags on the roadsides and rooftops. I should see my posters. And I don’t,” Mashwani, a 35-year-old furniture salesman, chided followers gathered in his small lumberyard in northwestern Pakistan. “This campaign is not up to the mark!” [Source: Richard Leiby, Washington Post, April 30, 2013]

“Mashwani, running on the Movement for Justice ticket headed by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, is learning tough lessons as he scrabbles for votes against well-established foes in this largely rural area. On May 11, Pakistanis will choose the next prime minister in an election hailed as a landmark of democratic progress for a country ruled by the military for nearly half its 65-year history. Yet decades of tradition dictate why democracy has remained more of a concept than a reality.

“The chance of new rulers being minted appears greater in this election. Voters across Pakistan say they have given up hope of improving their lot with retread politicians. So they are turning to untested candidates such as Mashwani. “Democracy in Pakistan only works for the powerful,” said Sher Shah, 37, a farmer active in Mashwani’s campaign. Then he quoted Abraham Lincoln: “Democracy should be of the people, by the people, for the people.”

“Mashwani said such sentiments spurred him into the race, and his politics are decidedly local. Asked about his top issues, Mashwani does not mention Khan’s hard line against U.S. drone attacks or support for negotiations with the Taliban. Instead, he talks about better public schools and about giving local officials more say over what roads to pave or sanitation lines to install.

“Mashwani has an inviting face, a quiet magnetism and a great deal of optimism. Like Khan, he seems to appeal in particular to young people, who proudly sport the party’s Obamaesque “Hope” buttons and cricket-bat pins. Mashwani, who joined the then-fledgling Movement for Justice party five years ago, is the beneficiary of a major change implemented by Khan: The party opened its candidate selection process to novices such as Mashwani through intraparty elections. The dominant parties do not do that, often awarding slots to friends, family and tribe members and former officials.

“Some political experts see Khan and his candidates paving the way for a more democratized Pakistan just by picking up a meaningful bloc of seats from which to challenge the status quo, even if it is unlikely that Khan will become prime minister. “Can he prevail? Difficult to say at this point,” said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. “Has he changed Pakistani politics forever? I think he has. He has a presence in every corner of the country.”

Challenges for Grassroots Movements in Pakistan

Richard Leiby wrote in the Washington Post: “Mashwani is among some 1,400 candidates vying for 99 seats in the provincial assembly — the rough equivalent of a state legislature — in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan’s volatile northwest. But he faces stark realities. He has no base and no record to run on. His volunteers are small traders, farmers and teachers of meager means. And Mashwani said he has no money to pay hired hands to get out the vote, as other politicians do. [Source: Richard Leiby, Washington Post, April 30, 2013]

“Many who back Mashwani, while full of idealism, say knocking on doors, putting up posters and other electioneering requires too much sacrifice — they cannot afford to lose any working hours. But the candidate is impatient. “We have little time left,” Mashwani warned in his speech last week to more than 100 backers and party workers. “We are facing traditional candidates and experts with vast experience in elections. So be alert, be quick.” Some of the volunteers looked just the opposite, somnambulant in the afternoon sun after hearing several speakers extol the candidate and the party. Then a man shouted “Long live Mashwani!” and stirred the crowd to scattered applause.

“The challenge for newcomers such as Mashwani is to overcome voter fealty to dynastic parties, power networks, and tribal and religious leaders. “Khan and his candidates have only “small kids roaming around putting up flags,” said Sher Afghan Khan, the Pakistan People’s Party candidate and incumbent. “I have delivered projects. I do all kinds of work for the people,” said the 52-year-old politician, who just concluded a five-year term. “I go to their weddings and funerals. I am always available on my mobile.”

“I have seen many, many villagers in this constituency deprived of electricity and without roads and schools,” Mashwani said, sitting in a dirt-floor workshop littered with wood shavings. Two unfinished small cabinets were propped behind him. “I am hopeful we will win.”But before Election Day, he still has to round up 1,200 volunteers to man polling stations in 70 villages. And distribute all 60,000 of those posters and 21,000 flags and 3,000 buttons. He had to be harsh on his men, he said. Because, as he lectured them earlier, “if I lose, you will lose.”

Political Violence in Karachi

There is a lot of political violence in Karachi. Some of its is connected with the MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement) party. Previously known as Muhajir Qaumi Movement, it was founded by Altaf Hussain in 1984 to represent the interests of the Muhajir (Urdu-speaking immigrants originally from India) put developed into a criminal syndicate, demanding extortion money for protection, as much as a political party. Its main rivals are tough groups that represent the Pashtuns (Pathans). Islamic militarnt groups are also active,

Michael Georgy of Reuters wrote: Karachi’s ethnic politics are complex. “Animosities between political parties — that go back decades — still trigger bloodshed today. The dominant Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), represents the Muhajirs, descendents of Urdu-speakers who migrated from India after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The ethnic Pashtun-based Awami National Party (ANP), is the MQM’s main rival for political posts and spoils. [Source: Michael Georgy, Reuters, November 29, 2010]

“Karachi’s so-called targeted killings, often blamed on MQM and ANP supporters, have risen to 1,132 this year, the highest level since 1995, says the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee. Rising numbers of drive-by shootings, drug wars, extortion rackets and land grabbing are deepening chaos in Karachi, giving militants even more opportunities to find hideouts, generate cash, gain recruits and plan and stage attacks. Most of these activities occur in badlands on the edge of Pakistan’s biggest city, like Sohrab Goth, a hotbed of the Pakistani Taliban and their sympathizers. ANP flags hang from street lamps, a reminder of political turf wars that have been heating up.”

In June 2016,Amjad Sabri, a famous Pakistani Sufi singer, was gunned down in Karachi by unidentified gunmen It was first thought he was killed by Islamists that felt his music violated Muslim principles but it turned he was killed because he didn’t pay extortion money. Max Bearak wrote in the Washington Post: By firing at least three shots into a beloved musician's car in Pakistan's largest city, two gunmen ushered in one of the darker days in that country's quest for tolerance, art and peace. The man shot dead was Amjad Sabri, 45, part of a duo with his brother, and a son of one of Pakistan's most renowned singers.. [Source: Max Bearak, Washington Post, June 22, 2016]

After finishing a morning TV show in which he sang "When I shudder in my dark tomb, dear Prophet, look after me", two motorcyclists opened fire on Sabri's car in Liaquatabad Town, Karachi, critically injuring Sabri, an associate and his driver. Sabri was shot twice in the head and once on the ear. Sabri died shortly after. A worker for the MQM political party admitted that he was responsible for the murder. He said the reason for the murder was that Sabri was not paying extortion to the party. According to Dawn News, the terrorist group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) also claimed responsibility for the killing. The responsibility was claimed by the group's spokesman, Qari Saifullah Mehsud, who was himself shot dead.in Khost province, Afghanistan in December 2019. [Source: Wikipedia]

Karachi's Political Violence Creates Opportunities for Muslim Militants

Michael Georgy of Reuters wrote: Karachi faces a growing menace from some of the world’s most dangerous militant groups because political and ethnic rivalries destabilizing the city are making it easier for them to operate. Provincial coalition politicians have become so consumed by rivalries they are hindering the war on militancy in Karachi. Tackling militants is made more difficult by Karachi’s complex ethnic politics. Intertwined organizations like al Qaeda and Pakistan’s Taliban are already well established in Karachi, a major transit point for supplies to Afghanistan for the U.S.- and NATO-led anti-insurgency effort. They enjoy safe havens and benefit from funding networks in the sprawling metropolis, where hardline religious seminaries churn out young men eager for holy war. [Source: Michael Georgy, Reuters, November 29, 2010]

“Taliban militants blend in easily among fellow Pashtuns who live in grimy apartment blocks that run for kilometers. “If the police launch an operation against militants here they will hit back hard. They have plenty of weapons,” said MQM official Khawaja Izhar Hassan, driving through enemy territory during a quiet period. While maintaining that politicians must work together to tackle militancy, he accused the ANP and the ruling Pakistan People’s Party of foot-dragging on militancy and crime.

As political parties trade accusations, a far more subtle but equally troubling security threat looms in Karachi. Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies Director Muhammad Amir Rana says security agencies are overlooking creeping Talibanization of some areas. “People may not notice if someone comes in the street during prayer time and says, ‘OK, shut down your shops’. And if someone comes at night and says ‘throw out your television set’ and cuts down the cables,” he said.

“A suicide car bombing on November 11, 2010 claimed by the Pakistan Taliban, brought the fight to the doorstep of elite counterterrorism police in Karachi. The blast demolished the headquarters of an investigation department where militants were interrogated. At least 18 people were killed.

Banned Militant Groups Thrive Online in Pakistan While Bloggers are Threatened

In 2017, Associated Press reported: “It's dusk. The shadows of three men brandishing assault rifles welcome the reader to the Facebook page of Lashkar-e-Islam, one of 65 organizations that are banned in Pakistan, either because of terrorist links or as purveyors of sectarian hate. Still more than 40 of these groups operate and flourish on social media sites, communicating on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Telegram, according to a senior official with Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency, or FIA, who is tasked with shutting down the sites. They use them to recruit, raise money and demand a rigid Islamic system. It is also where they incite the Sunni faithful against the country's minority Shiites and extoll jihad, or holy war, in India-ruled Kashmir and in Afghanistan. “It's like a party of the banned groups online. They are all on social media," the FIA official told The Associated Press. He spoke on condition his name not be used because agency officials are not allowed to be quoted by name. [Source: Associated Press, July 11, 2017]

“Meanwhile, Pakistan is waging a cyber crackdown on activists and journalists who use social media to criticize the government, the military or the intelligence agencies. The Interior Ministry even ordered the FIA, Pakistan's equivalent of the American FBI, to move against "those ridiculing the Pakistan Army on social media." The FIA official said the agency has interrogated more than 70 activists for postings considered critical. All but two have been released and a third is still under investigation, he said.

“Activists, journalists and rights groups who monitor Pakistan's cyberspace say the banned groups active on social media operate unencumbered because several are patronized by the military, its intelligence agencies, radical religious groups and politicians looking for votes. Even the FIA official concedes state support for some of the banned groups but said it is a global phenomenon engaged in by all intelligence agencies. “Everyone is protecting their own terrorists. Your good guy is my bad guy and vice versa," he said, adding that some sites belonging to banned groups are intentionally ignored to gain intelligence.

“On one Facebook page, the Afghan Taliban flag welcomes viewers, its masthead emblazoned with Arabic script identifying the page as belonging to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Still another Facebook site features one of India's most wanted, Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, another banned organization and a U.S. declared terrorist group. Saeed even has a US$10 million U.S.-imposed bounty on his head. Yet his group, which has been resurrected under several names, is billed as a charity and has several Facebook pages. Currently called Falah-e-Insaniat, the group boasts of its community work, but its pages feature anti-India videos, call Syria a bleeding wound, rail against India and chastise the Pakistan government for siding with the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks.

“Facebook and Twitter have said that they ban "terrorist content." In the second half of last year, Twitter said on its site it had suspended 376,890 accounts because they were thought to promote terrorism, although they say less than 2 percent of the removals were the result of requests from governments. Facebook, meanwhile, said in a blog last month it uses artificial intelligence and human reviewers to find and remove "terrorist content." “There is no place on Facebook for terrorism," Facebook spokeswoman Clare Wareing said in an email reply to The Associated Press. "Our Community Standards do not allow groups or people that engage in terrorist activity, or posts that express support for terrorism. We encourage people to use our reporting tools if they find content that they believe violates our standards, so we can investigate and take action."

“Shahzad Ahmed, of the Islamabad-based social media rights group BytesForAll, said Pakistan's powerful military and intelligence agencies are waging a "communication war" against progressive, moderate voices and those who criticize the government and more particularly the military and its agencies. They use radical religious groups to promote their narrative, he said. “Their connectivity on the ground, the mosques, madrassas and supporters translates into social media strength and they are (further) strengthened because they feel 'no one is going to touch us,'" he said.

“Ahmed Waqass Goraya is a blogger who was picked up and tortured by men he believes belonged to the country's powerful intelligence agency, known by its acronym ISI. He said Pakistan's social media space is dominated by armies of trolls unleashed by the military, intelligence agencies and allied radical religious groups to push their narrative. That narrative includes promoting anti-India sentiment — India is Pakistan's longtime enemy against whom it has fought three wars.

“Critics who openly accuse the military of using extremists as proxies are under attack, said Goraya. He fled Pakistan after social media was used to suggest the he and other bloggers were involved in blasphemy, a charge that carries the death penalty. In Pakistan even the suggestion that someone insulted Islam or its prophet can incite mobs to violence. Earlier this month, Taimoor Raza, a minority Shiite, became the first person sentenced to death under Pakistan's blasphemy law for a social media posting.

“Taha Siddiqui, a Pakistan-based journalist with France 24 and an active social media user who often criticizes heavy handed actions of the military or its agencies, has taken the FIA to court to demand to know why he is under investigation after being ordered to come in for questioning. His resistance is taking its toll with family, friends and colleagues, who plead for him to be silent, he said. "They worry someday I will just disappear."

“At FIA headquarters in the capital, Islamabad, the official told the AP that banned groups use proxy servers that reveal IP addresses buried somewhere in other countries, making it impossible to track. That explanation was called "lame" by Haroon Baloch, a social media rights activist who has studied the free-wheeling use of social media by banned groups and purveyors of sectarian hate. He said sites can be blocked, users located and the persons running the pages stopped. Bloggers like Goraya had elaborate safeguards but still were tracked down by authorities, said Baloch. Unlike the banned groups, Baloch said bloggers, social media activists and journalists are found and stopped because Pakistan's civilian and military intelligence agencies are on the offensive against them. “Agencies have established a new wing to monitor 24/7, to counter liberal and progressive debate and particularly anything that criticizes their policies," he said.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (tourism.gov.pk), Official Gateway to the Government of Pakistan (pakistan.gov.pk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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