In 2008, a US diplomatic cable (subsequently made public by WikiLeaks) alleged that Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as other Arab Gulf states, were funding madrassahs in Punjab to the tune of $100 million a year. It was claimed that the bulk of this money was channeled through missionary organizations and charities, and that it was being used to propagate an extremely parochial and virulent version of Islam. The ideological indoctrination of the students at these dubious centers of learning was geared towards developing an insular worldview premised upon a burning hatred for rival creeds and ideas, with this being used as a springboard for recruitment into Islamist militant organizations that were fighting in different parts of the world.

In Pakistan, much is made of the fact that the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other militant organizations in the region emerged as a direct result of US involvement in Afghanistan during the 1980s. At the time, Islam was seen as a powerful ideological weapon in the fight against the Soviets, and the US played a central role in providing the money and material required to setup the jihadi infrastructure that still exists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed, traces of this can even be seen in the curriculum that is used in public sector schools and colleges across Pakistan, which was re-tooled in the 1980s, with the assistance of the US, to include a greater emphasis on jihad and the need for holy war. When considering the contemporary landscape of terror and militancy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is important to remember how it has arguably emerged as an unintended consequence of repeated American interventions aimed at pursuing that country’s imperial interests.

That being said, focusing on the ignominious role played by the US is often used as a means through which to avoid reflecting on the numerous ways in which Pakistan has itself worked tirelessly to nurture and facilitate the activities of Islamist militant organizations. Moreover, it has also been taken as a pretext to completely ignore the services rendered in this regard by Muslim states with which Pakistan continues to enjoy ‘fraternal’ ties. Indeed, amidst all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that often accompanies right-wing denunciations of the Great Satan, nary a word is said about our ‘benefactors’ in the Middle East; they provide Pakistan with cheap oil and funding for extremist ideologies and in return, get to hunt endangered species, acquire vast tracts of prime agricultural land, and make use of an unending supply of jihadi recruits.

In this context, the government’s announcement that it will seek to staunch the flow of funds from the Middle East to militant organizations in Pakistan is one that must be welcomed. While it would be fair to raise questions about why nothing was done about this in the past, and while it would also be reasonable to suspect that the government’s willingness to deliver on this pledge might be limited, identifying and naming the problem is the first step towards solving it. At a time when right-wing forces across the country, ranging from the religious parties to the PTI, continue to blame the country’s travails on Zionist-American-Indian agents motivated by a burning desire to destroy Pakistan with their ‘liberal-secular’ agendas, it is even more important to highlight the role played by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states in fomenting instability in the country.

Here, it is also necessary to scrutinize the noises being made by the JUI-F and the JI this past week. The 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which has authorized the use of military courts to try civilians implicated in cases related to terrorism, represents a disturbing development for a number of reasons; it contributes to Pakistan’s civil-military imbalance, rides roughshod over the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers, undermines civil liberties, and does nothing to strengthen civilian institutions like the police and the courts. However, the JUI-F and the JI have a different set of objections that led them to abstain from voting on the amendment when it was tabled in Parliament last week. For these parties, the 21st Amendment is an unprecedented assault on Islam and madrassahs, the culmination of a long-running and insidious liberal-secular conspiracy to target the faithful in Pakistan. The JUI-F has pledged to mobilize religious parties across the country to oppose the 21st Amendment, and continues to lobby for widening the definition of terrorism in the law to include acts of violence that are not just inspired by religion.

Other than the fact that agreeing with this logic would entail providing the military with the means to intervene in political and ethno-national conflicts (both areas in which the military has a less than stellar record), the JUI-F’s arguments simply muddy the waters, deflecting attention away from the fact that while there are undoubtedly madrassahs and religious organizations that have no interest in, or links to, violent extremism, there are many that continue to exist as breeding grounds for this kind of activity and must, therefore, be regulated. Moreover, to suggest that extremist Islamic narratives have a negligible role to play in contemporary militancy and terrorism is to simply ignore reality; there is an urgent and pressing need to challenge the often state-sanctioned religious narrative that has fueled intolerance and violence in Pakistan, and exposing madrassahs and religious organizations to scrutiny is an important mechanism through which to accomplish the objective.

Postscript: It is important to unequivocally condemn the killings that took place in Paris earlier this week. The attack, allegedly perpetrated by Al Qaeda in Yemen, left a dozen people dead in the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as well as in a Jewish-run kosher grocery store that became the scene of a siege in which four hostages were killed. While Charlie Hebdo has a record of publishing material that could reasonably be called both racist and Islamophobic, it is possible to endorse and support the right to free speech and expression without condoning such distasteful content. As such, while it would be a mistake to respond to the attack by voluntarily conceding space to extremism by engaging in self-censorship or calling for greater policing of what can or cannot be said, it would also be unwise to take this as an opportunity to give further credence to the thoroughly illiberal ideas that animate the rising tide of xenophobia and Far Right reaction currently sweeping across Europe, as exemplified by movements and parties like the National Front and PEGIDA. To the extent that the attack on Charlie Hebdo represents an attack on liberal values, succumbing to intolerance and bigotry would be the wrong response. Closer to home, in a context where a Saudi blogger has been sentenced to 1000 lashes and ten years in prison for ‘insulting Islam’, where riots over online blasphemy led to multiple deaths in Bangladesh in 2013, and where people are routinely killed for uttering ‘blasphemous’ statements in Pakistan, it is once again imperative to reflect on, and challenge, the enduring sources of violent bigotry in society.

The writer is an assistant professor  of political science at LUMS. He can be contacted at