Fish Out of Water: ISIS in Pakistan?
Pakistan and ISIS – they seem like they would go well together, don’t they? The former has India for a neighbour, a Hindu majority state with a history of tension between its Hindu and Muslim population (but also relative peace), and an ardent Hindu nationalist at the helm – a potentially dangerous combination of clashing elements and peoples. Pakistan, itself known for its history of harbouring terrorists, antagonizing its Hindu neighbour, and a powerful intelligence agency, seems like a perfect place for ISIS to set up shop.
But surprisingly, and to the relief of many, the ideology of the Islamic State has not yet caught on in Pakistan. And when one looks at the differences, it seems unlikely that it ever will. For one, Pakistan lacks the power vacuum in Iraq that precipitated the rise of ISIS, though it has its own domestic terrorism problem. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is a powerful force, based in FATA region of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, and is only one of a multitude of groups in the region. Pakistan has suffered some defections to terrorist groups – reports estimate a few hundred Pakistanis have done so – but this is not particularly alarming, as there are about as many Belgian fighters (http://www.businessinsider.com.au/belgian-fighters-in-iraqsyria-isis-2014-9) fighting alongside ISIS in Syria as there are Pakistanis, demonstrating that they have not suffered as many defections as many other countries have. Pakistan’s tolerance for terrorism has gone down over the years, and the military has been regularly launching anti-Taliban operations.
If Pakistan is to be a part of the Islamic State, the problem arises of a state with incongruent boundaries. ISIS is currently surrounded by enemies – Iran on the east, a Shia country with a vested interest in halting its spread and protecting the Shia populace of Iraq; Turkey, the NATO member and western ally; Israel, and Jordan, another ally of the West, and to whom ISIS hasn’t exactly endeared itself. And to ISIS, the expanse of its physical territory is vital to its power – in some ways, this explains ISIS’s decision to expand their operations to Nigeria.
Aside from the logistical problems that ISIS would encounter in expanding to Pakistan, Pakistan is also historically and culturally quite separate from the Middle East, and more similar to India than it cares to admit. Pakistan is dominated by Punjabis, Pashtuns, Sindhis and others. Their languages are entirely different – Punjabi, Sindhi, and Urdu are widely, as opposed to Arabic, Persian, or Turkish. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is Islam, but even then ISIS’ ideology resembles the fundamentalist Wahhabism movement (propagated by Saudi Arabia), while Pakistan’s Muslims predominantly follow the Brelvi movement, which was influenced by Sufism. If, and when, ISIS ever decides to expand into Pakistan, overcoming these differences in religion, language, ethnicity, and cultural identity would be a huge hurdle.
Lastly, comes the matter of basic human decency. As more and more of the horrific activities of ISIS come to light, support will no doubt dwindle among ordinary people. Being well removed from the battlefield, it becomes much easier to condemn their actions as compared to people in those areas, on the ground – and it does work to limit their appeal.
- Kanak Gokarn