The Wahhabisation of Pakistan
The migration of thousands of Pakistani men to Gulf states since the 1970s has had a huge impact on the character of the country
Manan Ahmed, guardian.co.uk, Friday June 27, 2008
Pakistan is in a leaderless drift four months after elections", concluded Carlotta Gall in the New York Times on June 24. Just two days later, comes news that "Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban" has killed 22 members of an intermediary peace committee between the State of Pakistan and Mehsud. I guess there are some leaders in Pakistan, after all. Pakistan's "Talibanisation" in the northwestern rural regions and the stalled lawyer's movement in the major cities appear, at first glance, to reflect a deep chasm within Pakistani society. This division, if one should call it anything, is routinely understood as a manifestation of moderate v extreme Islam. But that raises the question of why it manifests itself along rural/urban, and class lines.
Extremist ideology, as we have learned in the last 8 years, is just as prone to attract highly-educated members of the professional class as unemployed, frustrated youth. We have to delve deeper into Pakistan's recent past if we are to understand the crisis it faces at the present. Sub-continental history is dotted with intermittent mass movement of people – usually triggered by famine, war or worse – replete with attendant tales of distress and misery. In my reckoning, the early 1970s saw the another key migration that has so far received little analysis. It involved vast numbers of men from the rural and semi-urban parts of Pakistan moving to the emerging oil-based oligarchies in the Gulf.
This economic migration created a backflow of liquid capital to these same villages and towns in Punjab, Sindh and the Northwest Frontier Province. But it also provided a unique vehicle for the transferring of the various strains of Muslim experience into the rather stilted one, currently on everyone's lips – Wahhabism. Between 1975 and 1985, the number of Pakistanis in the Gulf states rose from 205,000 to 446,000, with over $2.5bn flowing back annually. At its height in the mid-1980s, nearly 10% of Pakistan's adult male workforce was employed in the Gulf states.
These migrant workers – over 80% were unskilled or semi-skilled – usually lasted about 4-6 years in the Gulf states and were replaced by other family, clan, tribe or village members. What they sent home – goods and cash – were the dominant factor in bolstering the Pakistani economy throughout the 1970s and 1980s and one of the key factors in Pakistan's turn towards western Asia under Bhutto and Zia ul-Haq. The migration cooled down during the 1990s but since 2000 there has been an increase the flow of workers. Currently, Pakistani workers are heavily employed in Dubai, Kuwait and Iraq. This large-scale migration to the Middle East had significant effects on local economies and production cycles but perhaps more importantly, it has had a sociocultural impact on Pakistan.
Just as significant was the religiosity that came back with the workers. Historically speaking, the Wahhabi reading of Islam had found little purchase on the subcontinent. Mainly because Wahhabi ideology is at odds with practices in Pakistani culture, which cherished its sufi saints. However, this migration allowed a vast population to unlearn their "decadent" and "deviant" practices from the "pure practitioners" in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the Emirates.
In the southern valleys and northern mountains dupattas were replaced with burkas and sufi shrines with madrasas. This cultural turn dovetailed with Zia ul-Haq's policies of Sunnification and the selling of jihad as a necessary commodity to the Pakistani people.
Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir became the de-facto topics at every Friday sermon from Doha and Riyadh to Dera Ghazi Khan and Rawalpindi. However, this Wahhabisation, which included a stricter, more literal interpretation of Qur'an, the demonisation of non-believers, antisemitic rhetoric, racism, the desire to "fund" jihads and so on, was never a straightforward process of important. Its progress was gradual and organic in a way that slowly de-legitimised established practices while distorting others: the spiritual guide was transformed into one who cast, or fought, black magic.
It is hard to find a household, a conversation, in current day Pakistan that is free of such concerns. The practitioners combine the zeal of the Wahhabi imam with the bank-teller's command of charges due: $10 for the destruction of a marriage, $20 for an incantation for a ruined libido. All wrapped in literal reading of Qur'anic text.
One cannot go further in examining this process of Wahhabisation without taking into account the impact of this migration of fathers on their families back home. What are the attitudes of this particular generation X towards the state? Can we really begin to look at the success or failure of the lawyer's movement without examining the Gulf Migration? Can we really talk about democracy without taking into account the roles of millions of Pakistanis as second or third rate citizens, with no rights in law as a person, in Gulf states? While many of us attempt to understand modern Pakistan in terms of political theory, or the appeal of fundamentalism in terms of theology neither of these approaches have proven fruitful. It is time that we broadened our scope of inquiry – to examine carefully labour and migration, civil and social structures, law and order, human rights and the effect they have on the many peoples of Pakistan.