What’s Happening in Karachi?

By Anjum Altaf

What’s happening in Karachi is obvious for all to see. Why it’s happening is less obvious and, for that reason, the cause of much speculation.

Karachi’s ills are complex in nature and beyond the stage of simple prescriptions. This article looks at only one dimension of the problem: Why and how have conflicts in the city taken an increasingly religious form? For that, it is necessary to look at events that took place many years ago outside the city itself. It is often the case that the present cannot be explained fully without recourse to seemingly unrelated events that occurred in other places in the past.

An article I came across recently highlights an important link between the small town and the big city that is relevant to explaining the nature of the ongoing conflict in Karachi. The article (The Mulla and the State: Dynamics of Muslim Scholars and their Institutions in Contemporary South Asia) is by Jamal Malik, now a professor at Erfurt University in Germany, the chair of the religious studies programme, and a specialist in Muslim religious and cultural history. It was written in 1997, well before September 11, 2001 triggered a torrent of ex-post analysis. It is a sober, thoughtful, piece aimed at a university audience and not intended to respond to the recent demand for instant analysis of religious extremism.

Professor Malik starts with the basic facts that are reasonably well known. Over the last quarter-century, the number of religious schools in Pakistan increased and the number of religious graduates rose dramatically. The labour market implications of this phenomenon received much less attention than they should have. The fact remains that this supply of manpower was not matched by a demand for economically productive jobs requiring the skills acquired by the graduates. The recognition of this mismatched market was an important observation by the author.

The deeper insight of professor Malik, however, was his identification of a phenomenon he termed ‘religious regionalism’ and the extrapolation of its likely consequences. Professor Malik drew attention to the fact that different schools of religious thought had become predominant in different geographical areas of the country. In a prescient observation, he considered this, in the context of the mismatched labour market, a potential source of great future conflict.

This conflict was subdued in the small town itself. While the emphasis on religion had increased, the local areas remained, by and large, under the influence of one dominant school of religious thought. The potential for future conflicts was in different locations stemming from the lack of local job prospects for the increased number of religious graduates. Like other job seekers, such graduates migrated to the big city in search of employment and Karachi has long been a favoured destination for job-seeking migrants in Pakistan.

What could be the implications of this ‘spatial mobility of young religious scholars?’ It has always been natural for migrants to congregate in sub-groups within the big city in order to preserve their identities in an alien environment. In an earlier era, Karachi was segregated along ethnic lines with different ethnic groups living in different parts of the city. Now this is overlaid with divisions along sectarian affiliations with mosques and seminaries serving as easily identifiable points of reference. The many different schools of thought, not particularly tolerant of deviations from the true faith, are now in much closer proximity sharing one physical space. The fault lines of the big city have thus acquired a religious dimension and ethnic conflicts have been displaced by religious conflicts.

This is an explanation for the religious character of recent conflicts in Karachi, not an explanation for the factors that give rise to the conflicts themselves. There are many contributing causes for the latter. The inability of the city to provide enough employment to its growing population is only one of these. This ability has been eroded further by the influx of religious scholars with non-marketable skills.

Professor Malik’s article raises two important points to consider. The first is the glaring contradiction between hope and reality. The ostensible purpose of the Islamisation policy, and the stated justification for promotion of religion by the state, was to create a sense of national identity. Stressing the commonality of religion was expected to bring citizens of Pakistan closer together overcoming the ethnic hostilities that were the source of earlier conflicts. However, the reality has been quite different with the intensification of new divisions based on differences in religious schools of thought.

Professor Malik was right in 1997 to warn that the Islamisation policy could ‘boomerang’ and would ‘ultimately force the politically dominant sector to rethink its own positions’. He predicted that in the near future ‘the centre may be pushed on the political defensive, something it could overcome only by violence’.

The second important point flows from a comparative assessment of the consequences of state involvement in religion. Professor Malik traces the institutionalisation of these different schools in 19th century India, particularly after 1857, as part of the struggle between modernity and tradition. Different schools (including Deobandis, Barelvis, Ahl-e-Hadith, Nadwat-ul-Ulama, etc.) organised themselves to mobilise specific groups in the population. After 1947, these institutions were left alone by the state in India, whereas, in Pakistan, the state became deeply involved in their affairs. The different trajectory of conflicts within Islamic groups in the two countries suggests that the results of state involvement have yielded negative outcomes.

This analysis will do nothing to resolve the problems of Karachi in the short run. However, it does suggest that a rethinking of the relationship between religion and the state might need to be an important part of the solution.

This Op-Ed appeared in the Daily Times, Lahore, on July, 6 2004 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. It is a companion piece to an earlier post, What’s Happening in Small Towns?

A synopsis of Professor Malik’s article can be accessed at http://www.unc.edu/mideast/islamsem/970827.shtml.


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