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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8 Responses to “What’s Happening in Karachi?”

  1. Vinod Says:

    Why should unemployment combined with religious regionalism be a potential source of conflict?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: Malik’s argument is as follows: Different sectarian movements arose in distinct regions centered around small towns and cities. This is termed ‘religious regionalism’. With a local monopoly there is no conflict in the region of origin. If employment were available locally, the adherents would stay put and thus there would be no conflict. Because of local unemployment, these adherents migrate to the big city where different sectarian movements, each intolerant of the other, find themselves in close proximity. If employment were available in the big city, one might still expect the adherents to remain occupied. But with scarce employment and competition for resources, it is easy for turf battles to occur and because of the background and intolerance of the adherents, these take, or can be made to take, a sectarian turn. Earlier the same phenomenon was predominantly ethnic. Now it is layered.

      What I found interesting in Malik’s analysis was the insight that we should not confine our search for the causes of a mega-city’s problems to the city itself. There are complex connections over time and place that need to be traced.

    • Vinod Says:

      Creating employment opportunities locally to keep the different sectarian movements from interacting is only a containing measure. The real solution lies in actually preventing sectarianism from growing. Pakistan had already got that wrong by trying to make itself more ‘Islamic’. We come back again to keeping the state away from religion.

      I see Malik’s point as well. It is indeed an interesting insight.

      • Anjum Altaf Says:

        Vinod: That goes without saying. The irony is that the state actually encouraged these movements in Pakistan. This was one of the key observations by Malik:

        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.

        And it was the clarity of his thinking that enabled him to see where this encouragement would lead:

        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’.

  2. Ijaz Says:

    Maliks insight aside, the argument that one the aspect of Karachis conflict are increasingly being religions in nature seems faulty.

    It would be useful to understand how this is reached.

    Karachi’s problems have been and still remain ethnic and political in nature starting from the riots in the early 80s which were triggered between the Mohajirs and Pathans when a couple of Mohajir girls were overrun by Pathans bus driver. This was the time when not only Karachi was hard pressed by the socio economic problems of over population and un employment but also the Zia Regime playing a part to prop up one group against another.

    What is interesting to note is that despite some major bombings and assassination of the Shia leaders and Sunni Tehrik, in the national sectarian conflict which also raises its head in Karachi, there has never been any inter sectarian rioting comparable in scale to what has happened otherwise.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Ijaz: Karachi’s social problems indeed started with a predominant ethnic dimension. These did not start in the early 1980s but were very obvious by the 1960s when horrible clashes occurred between Pathans and Muhajirs. This orchestration was most blatant around the 1965 elections between Ayub Khan and Fatima Jinnah when the Muhajirs were punished for alleged lack of support for the strongman. If you get a chance, read a short story in Urdu called ‘Nuqsaan’ by Anwar (it was published in a special issue of Naqoosh in October 1966). It conveys more about the harrowing reality of ethnic conflict than any report can. This is how it begins:

      MaiN Lalukhet meN rahta HuuN. Voh Lalukhet jis ne apna ghatiia Hinduana naam badal kar Liaquatabad banneN kii koshish kii lekin Lalukhet kaa Lalukhet hii raha. Voh Lalukhet jis ne 1965 kii tariikh meN 4 Janvarii ke siah safhe par apnii siah muhr saabit kar ke yey saabit kar diiya ke us meN abhi Liaquatabad banneN kii liaqat nahiin.

      However, the real reason for the conflicts that had commenced even earlier resided in the manipulation of ethnic prejudices by the state to break up the trade unions during Ayub Khan’s vaunted industrialization. There are parallels here to the use of the Shiv Sena in Bombay to break up the textile unions. After Zia, this ethnic conflict became overlaid by another along religious lines. This was not necessarily sectarian; it had more to do with the different schools of thought. At present, both types of conflict are layered in the city. Malik’s contribution was to explain where the religious conflict originated and what its consequences would be for the state.

  3. Bettina Robotka Says:

    Iam just now reading the article about ‘What’s happening in Karachi’ beause I live in Karachi and try to understand what is going on. I think by far the most violence in Karachi is ethnic or political clad in an ethnic gown. There were Shia killings of doctors in a massive way a couple of years ago and there are Shia killings reported less frequently but from time to time. There are Ahmadi killings but not in a massive way at least not to my knowledge. But I have never found any proof or indication that those sectarian killings might be initiated by jobless students of madrassahs who had migrated to Karachi and were frustrated because they didn’t find any job here either. It seems to me problematic to apply Prof. Malik’s general argument to a particular case without any inquiry into the concrete killings and the actual local situation. Am I missing a point?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Bettina: This article was written over eight years ago so I am also not able to recall the details. There was a time in Karachi when sectarian conflict was quite pronounced with rival madrassahs being both the origins and target of such conflicts. These included the assassinations of clerics of rival sects. The foot soldiers of such conflicts were a lot of young people who were associated with these madrassahs but had joined them from other places in the country. That could have been the driving motivation of the article. Of course, the exact nature of conflicts and rivalries changes over time and the explanations need to be updated.

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