To what extent have the colonial legacies and formative years shaped the contemporary Pakistan and its challenges with Islamic Extremism?

The Introduction, Methodology, Definition of Terms and Literature Review of this paper are reproduced here. For the Full Paper including Appendices, Footnotes and Bibliography please download the PDF below.

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Author: Stacey Bridge


Pakistan, a country once described as an “economic basket case and a fountainhead of terror” dominates the headlines of the 21st century and is a complex yet vital area of study. It has evolved into a country that poses a significant threat on a global scale in terms of international security and regional instability. The problems that the country itself suffers frequently permeate into surrounding regions causing greater unrest and large-scale unease. Pakistan currently stands as one of the most dominant areas for Islamic extremism in the world and, as research conducted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies asserts, “is passing through one of the most dangerous periods of instability in its history”. In recent years the region has been propelled into the spotlight for its increase in extremist activity and its government’s inability to provide a secure framework for dealing with this. It is a common misconception among the general population that Islamic extremism arrived with the devastating events of September 2001; what many scholars in this field have ascertained, such as Monte Palmer, is that Islamic extremism has its roots much further back in history. For Pakistan in particular it has been claimed by authors such as J D Johnson that former colonial rule has contributed to the country’s devolution into an area that struggles with Islamic extremism. The main aim of this research is to ascertain to what extent colonial rule has influenced the level of extremism found in contemporary Pakistan.

Islamic extremism itself is not a new concept and has been traced back to events around the Christian Crusades with Hashshashin being one of the first recorded groups guilty of acts of Islamic extremism. It has, of course, evolved over time with renewed grievances and diversified ideologies yet there are key elements of Islamic extremism that remain almost unaltered. The preservation and elevation of Islam remains central to the ideology of organisations that follow a path of religious extremism. They are known to recount examples of Western intervention in Muslim lands which is abhorrent in their eyes and are key catalysts for their activities. Mustafa states that extremists believe “…The Muslim world has been angered by the sufferings of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq, following the U.S. occupation of these countries”. Of course, each organisation varies in their approaches and beliefs yet the core grievances that motivate these organisations appear to be universal. Today headlines are punctuated by names such as Al-Shabaab, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas, highlighting the actions of Islamic extremist groups that blight the security of countries across the globe. Extremism is well documented within Pakistan yet its origins are greatly contested. Farooq Sulehria argues that Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan only really began in the 1980’s with the inauguration of General Zia ul-Haq. However, this research aims to provide evidence that extreme behaviour in the name of Islam was evident long before Zia’s arrival and that it can in fact be traced back and linked to the policies and actions of colonial leadership.

Often described as a relatively new country Pakistan has undergone significant transformations and upheavals in its 65 year history. Beginning as a mere whisper of an idea in the early 1800’s the true foundation of a movement for creation was not consolidated until around 1940. The road to partition was littered with political and economic difficulties and gave rise to areas of unprecedented violence and prolonged tensions. Following independence the newly formed dominion would encounter further problems and struggle to gain a legitimate standing on the world stage. Britain ruled in this region for decades and it would be unrealistic to assume that colonial rule had no long term impact on the development of Pakistan as a country. In attempting to ascertain exactly what degree of damage colonial rule had on Pakistan and its possible role in the present situation within the country it is essential to briefly outline what the current situation is. Since 2001 Pakistan has been under intense scrutiny for its involvement in the terrorist attacks upon America as analysts found that the country had been the home and training ground for some of the members involved. Despite pledging support in the fight against extremism the country’s government has failed to create a secure region and 2011 saw security forces locate Osama Bin Laden, infamous head of terrorist group Al Qaeda, residing within Pakistan’s borders. Levels of security within the country have continued to decline into 2012 with a rise in militant activity and suicide attacks carried out by Islamist groups within the region ensuring the country remains a considerable threat to global security. Pakistan is a critically important region in terms of international security and a vital area to be researched and understood. It is important to note at this early stage that Pakistan is not alone in its spiralling dissent into religious extremism. Countries such as Somalia, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan are all very much on the radar of security forces in terms of Islamist threats. However, whilst this essay will use regions such as this for comparative purposes as well as to assess the context of situations, the research will focus primarily on Pakistan.


This research utilises a variety of sources in order to allow for a full and inclusive study of Pakistan as a country and its composition. Primary sources consulted include legislatures such as The Lahore Resolution, cabinet minutes and memorandums, alongside photographs, census data and a number of newspaper articles from the time period being researched. These various sources add depth to the arguments proposed during this analysis and allow a greater sense of the governmental documentation passed at the time and the impact of these. Images by world renowned photographer Margaret Bourke White have been included to facilitate a visual understanding of the times being discussed.

Research within this area is not without its boundaries and as with all projects issues do arise during the period of investigation. Although not impeding this research to any significant degree the sensitive nature of the topic does provide some barriers to information. As terrorism is an area that is of paramount concern to all security organisations much of the information regarding certain movements and organisations involved in terrorist activity is still classified. In order to overcome this it became imperative to widen the search for the information and utilise that material that has been legitimately released by governmental archives and organisations such as MI5, The International Crisis Group and The National Archives.

The statistical information compiled for this piece incorporates original data collected in order to ascertain whether there is any possible correlation between colonial rule and religious extremism (see Appendix A). Whilst the data does not focus entirely on Pakistan the aim is to show a wider relationship between former colonies and their present situation in regards to instability, military intervention and extremism. The conclusions drawn from this, whilst not only being vital to this research, point to a wider area of future study that could most definitely produce a fascinating insight.

Definition of terms

Religious extremism is a sensitive topic and an area that can lead to overly ambiguous terminology and the threat of offence or stereotyping. As Farooq Sulehria notes, Islam and Islamic fundamentalism are not one and the same and this research is aware of this and the possible problems that could be encountered when researching such an area.

“When analysing Islamic fundamentalism, one must understand that the religion of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism are not one and the same thing. Islamic fundamentalism is a reactionary, non-scientific movement aimed at returning society to a centuries-old social set-up, defying all material and historical factors. It is an attempt to roll back the wheel of history.”

There is also very little agreement among scholars and security organisations on a working definition of extremism. For the purpose of this research Islamic extremism is defined as the following as outlined by British security force MI5;

“The use or threat of action designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public, or a section of the public; made for the purposes of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause”

Literature Review

It is the belief of this research that the connection has not accurately been made between colonial rule and Islamic extremism within Pakistan. The investigation needed to delve deeper into the true implications of colonial rule within India and how this impacted the newly formed Pakistan and its eventual involvement in religious extremism. The literature available relating to this area of study varies greatly from books and journals to newspapers and archive images yet it is felt that there still remains a void to be filled by the conclusions of this research. As there is no dearth of information regarding colonialism and extremism respectively, the following is a brief review of the bibliographic resources utilised during the course this essay.

Many sources when looking at Pakistan focus solely on the elements that are most obvious, namely its tumultuous relations with military rule and the numerous occasions the country has suffered under martial regimes. Ayesha Siddiqa looked specifically at how the Pakistani military has infiltrated almost every section of life from official government relations to social rules and regulations and has been relied on and used as something as a prop in times of need. This reliance has had many diverse effects and has caused much controversy within the international community as well as those living in Pakistan itself. However, Siddiqa’s Military Inc has been met with mixed reviews by critics; Stephen Kotkin from The New York Times remarked that “…while dense and full of jargon [it does] offer a detailed and powerful case study”. The text does however highlight some of the true motivations behind the continued periods of military rule Pakistan has seen since 1947 and provides great analysis of this. The Pakistan army, formed shortly after independence, hold significant levels of power in Pakistan and are continually seen to be meddling in affairs that seemingly should not concern them. Despite Siddiqa’s attempt to provide a deep and critical insight into the Pakistani military she does not venture an analysis of a colonial impact to any significant degree. Whilst the role of the military is an important aspect relating to former colonial rule Siddiqa alone does not make this link.

It was also found that the majority of the research encountered in this field looks at more modern historical components as causes for Islamic extremism within Pakistan and texts repeatedly cite the late 1970’s as the turning point. Hassan Abbas argues that the late 1970’s and early 80’s saw the arrival of General Zia ul-Haq and that this was in fact the pivotal era for Pakistan’s evolution in terms of religion extremism. Despite Zia being a dominant Islamic leader in Pakistan’s history all blame cannot be placed upon him; if anything he can be viewed as merely a catalyst in the country’s tussle with violent extremism. This propensity to place responsibility upon modern causes for extremism is again evident in Palmer and Palmer’s 2008 research “Islamic Extremism; Causes, Diversity and Challenges” and works such as these exclude the possibility that extremism evolved much earlier than these authors dare to assert.

In relation to the particular area of investigation chosen for this study, much literature does agree that colonial rule did have a significant impact upon the evolution of Pakistan. However, many researches appear to assess the involvement of colonialism merely in terms of economics. Investigations such as Lakshmi Iyer’s 2009 project Direct versus Indirect Colonial Rule in India: Long-term Consequence’s show the decline in economic prosperity and outlines the country’s political debilitation. Sarah Marker’s 2003 research also highlights the economic problems faced by Pakistan post colonial rule yet does not venture a link between colonial impact and extremist activity.

The vast majority of the material encountered fails to highlight the possible correlation between colonial rule and Islamic extremism. Many cite the conditions conducive for extremism to flourish such as the aforementioned economic woes and political unrest, yet they never go on to the next step of making that connection to extremism. This research asserts that it was the policies and actions of the British colonial administration at the time that influenced the struggles faced by Pakistan post partition and that the roots of present day Islamic extremism can be linked, in some way, to colonial rule.

There are however, some historians that have correctly identified some of the lasting legacies inflicted upon Pakistan following the end of colonial administration and that these have influence the country’s demise. David Gilmartin and Ian Talbot assert that colonial rule made a huge impact on the newly created Pakistan; agreeing with author Lawrence Ziring in the idea that the country’s fight to affirm its identity is linked with colonial oppression and western ideologies that ruled over them for so long prior to partition. This period could well have been the beginning of extremist’s distaste for the western world; a notion that will be further investigated in the course of the ensuing research.

The literature in this area identifies the negative aspects inherited by the newly formed Pakistan; one being the inheritance of the Durand Line Agreement. This agreement separated Pakistan and Afghanistan territory and was a significant source of contention between the two countries with Pakistan resenting their former rulers for this anguish. This border has now become a permeable boundary for incoming mujahedeen fighters as cited by Peter Lyon. Lyon’s work entitled ‘Conflict between India and Pakistan: an encyclopaedia’ is an informed resource for this area of study. It details the contemporary threat India and Pakistan pose as neighbours in relation to nuclear threats as well as the ever present extremist movement in the Pakistan region. Lyon refers to his work as an encyclopaedia and that it is; a text that comprehensively describes Pakistan’s struggles since 1947 and cleverly chronicles its upheavals to date. However, it is just that, a chronological recital of events that provides little in the way of informed reasoning as to what impact specific events have had on the country. The critic Dnisha Thar remarked on this in his review referring to the text as an “…airy narrative” with “… little depth” to his work.

Again author Farzana Shaikh identifies the struggle for identity in ‘Making sense of Pakistan’ as a clear result of colonial rule and a key element that has influenced extremist behaviour within Pakistan. Her work particular has influenced this research as it proposes further questions as to what additional damage was caused by colonial rule and the impact of this on contemporary Pakistan.

Whilst the abovementioned material does highlight the impact of colonial rule many texts still focus on the economic and political struggles following Pakistan’s creation. This research aims to fill the void regarding the impact of colonial rule, the struggles that followed and the resulting religious extremism.

There is no shortage of literature that investigates Islamic extremism as the area continues to become a subject of immense fascination for scholars, journalists and analysts alike. There is a vast amount of literature published, for obvious reasons, post September 2001 pertaining to Islamic extremism. Much of this unfortunately focuses on the contemporary side of this behaviour rather than providing an analysis of the historic roots of it. However, Beverly Milton Edwards’ insightful text ‘Islamic Fundamentalism since 1945’ is one of the few that provide a fascinating review of the historical components of Islamic extremism and more importantly, the first chapter highlights specifically the impact of colonialism on Islam. Whilst she does not focus exclusively on Pakistan, Milton Edwards provides an account of how colonial rule influenced and impacted the Islamic world and its people through its policies and legislatures during its reign.

In regards to accessing the literature some material remains classified as terrorism and religious extremism continues to be one of the greatest threats to global security. Information released by governmental organisations does however provide accurate outlines of current legislature where possible. The International Crisis Group works as a non-profit, non-partisan source of advice and analysis for governments across the world and their documents provide up to date analyses of current affairs in a factual and unbiased manner. Their 2002 publication entitled Pakistan: Madrasas, Extremism and the Military provides a well informed observation of contemporary Pakistan’s current battle with religious extremism and the role the military play in this. The Centre for strategic and International Studies in Washington ‘provide strategic insights and bipartisan policy solutions’ allowing for the production of unbiased and widely available material in relation to sensitive political research topics as do the International Institute for Strategic Studies founded in the UK in 1958. The National Archives also produces excellent and invaluable primary source material in terms of cabinet minutes, draft proposals from the governmental discussions and ministerial memorandums pertaining to the exact period being studied.

As Pakistan as a country evolves so does the literature published on this complex yet fascinating country. Early publications discuss Pakistan’s difficult battle to survive following partition even offering support for the region at times. As research progressed into the late 20th and early 21st century material available on this country turned its focus to the dangers of Pakistan; its continued economic debilitation, growing religious violence and the whispers of it becoming a failed state. Modern, specifically western, literature now almost exclusively records Pakistan as a growing terrorist nation, fixated upon its role as an extremist training ground and the threat its growing nuclear capabilities pose to the global population. Whilst this literature is very relevant to understanding the present situation it is imperative that researchers, authors and analysts do not overlook the region’s history and how it came to be.

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