We asked why Pakistanis support Lashkar-e-Taiba. Results will surprise you

THE PAKISTANI DEEP STATE PREFERS THE LASHKAR-E-TAIBA OVER OTHERS. AT HOME, THE BRUTAL TERRORIST GROUP IS QUITE THE OPPOSITE.

24 January 2022 09:23 am IST

Lashkar-e-Taiba, along with Jaish-e-Mohammed, remains Pakistan’s most virulent export. It remains the most effective and brutal terrorist group operating in India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and possibly elsewhere. Understanding who supports this nefarious organization remains an important scholarly and policy analytic question. To cast light on which Pakistanis support this group, my colleague, Karl Kaltenthaler and I, fielded a novel, nationally-representative survey of 7,656 Pakistanis in the country’s four provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Our results may surprise you.

Ideology matters

More than anything, Pakistan’s deep state values the Lashkar-e-Taiba precisely because it preaches non-violence within the country. As I discuss elsewhere, the organization does not even publicly advocate death for Ahmadis, which puts it in stark contrast with Pakistan’s Deobandis and even Barelvis, who view Ahmadis as the worst perpetrators of shirk(apostasy). Moreover, Lashkar believes that it provides the only ideological competitor to the Islamic State in Pakistan.

Despite the organization’s claims to be Ahl-e-Hadees, most of Pakistan’s Ahl-e-Hadees ulema and institutions reject Lashkar’s primary claims that waging military jihad is an inescapable obligation of all Muslims and that it can be waged only by non-state actors. Instead, most Ahl-e-Hadees ulema believe that only an Islami Riyasit (Islamic State) can wage jihad. While the LeT preaches nonviolence towards anyone who recognizes the supremacy of Allah, it has real ideological differences with virtually all other Muslim sects in Pakistan. It accuses Barelvis (likely the largest market share in Pakistan) of committing idolatry for their cult-like adoration for the Prophet, who in Islam is merely a human being. Barelvis not only ascribe attributes to the Prophet that are reserved for Allah alone, but they also engage in practices — wearing amulets, worship of pirs, erection of elaborate graves, etc. — that the Lashkar believes to be apostasy.

Lashkar, like Deobandi militant groups, also take issue with Shias because they reject the succession of the Prophet. Unlike Deobandis, who believe that Shia are wajib-ul-qatil, worthy of being killed, Lashkar believes that they should be educated and converted.

Despite significant ideological differences with mainstream Ahl-e-Hadees institutions in Pakistan, according to our study, Lashkar-e-Taiba still draws support from Ahle-e-Hadees adherents. Notably, we find that Barelvi, Shia, and Deobandi oppose the organization, which is consistent with the LeT’s proselytization efforts (dawa and tabligh) to convert such persons to the Lashkar’s understanding of the Ahl-e-Hadees interpretative tradition.

But ethnicity matters more

This raises an interesting question: Do Pakistanis support the organization because of its religious or ethnic bona fides? It turns out that while ideology matters, ethnicity is the strongest predictor of support. It is far more important than ideology. At the same time, the Baloch are significantly more likely than others to oppose the Lashkar-e-Taiba whereas Sindhis are weak in their response. This also tracks with reality: Pakistan’s deep state has used the Lashkar in Balochistan for various reasons.

First, it is expected that Lashkar can persuade Baloch to abandon their ethnonationalist aspirations and embrace the State-sponsored notions of Islam propounded by Lashkar. To advance this agenda, when natural disasters hit Balochistan, as they often do, Pakistan only lets “humanitarian” organizations in to do relief, which are tied to Lashkar. Equally important, the Lashkar is explicitly pro-China and endorses the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Given that Pakistan will fight to the last Baloch to make the resource-rich province safe for Chinese exploitation, the Baloch rightly view the Lashkar to be another guise of Punjabi domination working in concert with the Punjabi-dominated army, which many Baloch believe has immiserated Baloch in their own province.

Support of the Army-led status quo in Pakistan

Moreover, the Lashkar argues against any kind of protest of the State — irrespective of its leadership — and is a staunch supporter of the current domestic, political and economic system in Pakistan, including Pakistan’s unaffordable friendship with China. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the third-strongest predictor of support for the Lashkar was satisfaction with the status quo. Our results should put to rest any thinking that Lashkar is a revolutionary organization.

Mothers of brutes

The LeT empowers women to promote the organization’s creed, which empowers them and frees them to move about without hindrance. To ensure that mothers are not disenchanted with the organization, the Lashkar-e-Taiba requires the mother’s explicit blessings for every mission in which her son may meet so-called martyrdom. The organization dispatches senior personnel to notify the parents of their sons’ death and it oversees the important ghaib-e-janaza, or funerary prayers in absence of a body.

None of this is good news

The only options to deter the LeT — absent capabilities to impose India’s will over Pakistan decisively through overt military operations — are covert and kinetic. As I have shown elsewhere, the pyramidal and open leadership structure in Pakistan make it vulnerable to leadership decapitation. While this option is challenging and difficult to execute, other options seem elusive.

C. Christine Fair is a professor within Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program within the Edmund A. Walsh school of foreign service. She is the author of In their own Words: Understanding the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War. She tweets at @cchristinefair. Views are personal.

A version of this piece first appeared in The Print, on January 24, 2022.

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Christine Fair

Christine Fair

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I study South Asian pol-mil affairs. I'm a foodie, pit bull advocate, scotch lover. Views are my own. RT ≠ endorsements. Ad hominem haters are blocked ASAP!