Around a dozen years ago, during a visit to my ancestral village in Pakistan, I joined my brother for Friday prayers at the local mosque. At the time, the country’s military dictator, President Pervez Musharraf, was busy explaining to Pakistanis that they were in the middle of a do-or-die battle against militants—although it seemed that, for ordinary people, this mostly involved dying. People all over the country were wary of prayer leaders preaching about jihad or creating pretexts for others to wage it. 

My brother, who runs a business in a fruit and vegetable market, served on a committee of mosque leaders that had recently hired a new imam. Before offering him the job, the committee had checked him out to make sure he was not a radical. “The new imam is not a troublemaker,” my brother assured me. “Times are bad, and what goes on in the mosque affects people’s minds, so we wanted to be sure.” 

That day, the imam’s sermon was suitably vague: health and wealth for everyone, sweet words about the ummah (the global community of Muslims), and no calls to arms or support for holy wars. The imam did take a jab or two at those who preached “enlightened moderation”—a meaningless label that Musharraf had apparently picked up during his numerous visits to think tanks in the United States and that he had begun using to describe the ideological direction of his dictatorship. Musharraf was at the height of his double game: allowing the United States to use Pakistani military bases to bomb the Afghan Taliban while signing peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban. The new imam might have been a moderate by my brother’s standards, but he had no appetite for Musharraf’s brand of enlightenment. I wondered if this imam could help stem the tide of radicalism or whether he was part of it.

I found my answer around midnight, when a loudspeaker attached to the mosque’s exterior came alive with the sound of the imam performing a long recitation from the Koran and exhorting people to perform their midnight prayer. The speaker was remarkably loud; the house where I was staying was a few hundred meters from the mosque, but the imam seemed to be shouting directly into my ears. It is not traditional for an imam to call people to the midnight prayer. Performing it is completely voluntary; one is not even supposed to go to the mosque for it. In Pakistan, most people seem to not even know that such a prayer exists. The imam, it seemed, was a moderate by day but a zealot at night.

The tension between the urge to be a better Muslim in this world and the wish to take a shortcut to paradise has riven Pakistani society for decades.

“Why make such a big deal of your personal piety?” my brother’s wife, a homemaker, groused in the morning. “What kind of imam have you hired? He doesn’t let us sleep at night.” My brother mumbled that he would bring it up at the next committee meeting. It was clear that he wasn’t quite sure how to stop a man of faith from reminding the faithful of their duty to Allah—even if it was the middle of the night, and even if they had no such duty. 

My brother is one of many Pakistani Muslims who believe that a revolution akin to the one that transformed Iran in 1979 is the only solution to the country’s problems. (Although they hope for a revolution like Iran’s, which was led by Shiite clerics, they also suspect that Shiites are not good enough Muslims—and they don’t really see any contradiction there.) By Western standards, he acts like a radical; by a radical’s standards, he acts like a moderate. In this, he is like many other Pakistanis, who go about making a living and raising families, only to find themselves accused of being not good enough Muslims whenever they pause to pray in the company of more pious people. Most Muslims are encouraged to think of themselves as sinners; when confronted about the quality of their faith, they promise to strive to be better Muslims. This is the original meaning of “jihad”—a struggle to better oneself, to get over the baser urges, to become a better Muslim. Of course, according to extremists, no one is a better Muslim than the one who lays down his life for Allah.

Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan speaks to members of the media after casting his vote during the general election in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 2018
Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan speaks to members of the media after casting his vote during the general election in Islamabad, Pakistan, July 2018
Athit Perawongmetha / REUTERS

This tension between the urge to be a better Muslim in this world and the wish to take a short cut to paradise has riven Pakistani society for decades, and it’s what makes the country a subject of such fascination for scholars and social scientists. Books about Pakistan by Western and Pakistani experts alike tend to focus on religion and radicalism. They are often suffused with a sense of alarm and danger, as many of their titles or subtitles demonstrate: Can Pakistan Survive? Pakistan: A Hard Country. The Scorpion’s Tail. Deep Inside the World’s Most Frightening State. Courting the Abyss. Eye of the Storm

With its title, Madiha Afzal’s Pakistan Under Siege follows in this tradition. But compared with what is found in other recent books on the country, her analysis is mild, even matter of fact. Afzal’s multi-layered approach to explaining Pakistan makes it sound like a normal country—almost. The book details the rise of religious extremism and explains how the state has been both complicit in extremist violence and victimized by it. Afzal, a young Pakistani economist, examines the evolution of legal and educational institutions in the country and relates how they have fostered a hatred for ethnic and religious minorities and a general antipathy toward the West. The book delves into the Pakistani army’s efforts to create a “good Taliban” to counter the “bad Taliban” and emphasizes the ways in which civilian officials have been kept out of the decision-making process behind such policies. “There is doubt that the civilians are up to the task of handling security policy,” she writes. “But it is also clear that the military is not ready to let it go.”

In August, the former cricket star Imran Khan led the political party he founded to victory in national elections and became prime minister. Throughout the campaign, Khan seemed to enjoy the tacit backing of the military establishment. Many analysts believe that with the army and the civilian political leadership finally on the same page, Khan has a historic opportunity to slowly wrest away the military’s control of foreign policy and national security. Those analysts may be expecting too much from Khan—and, moreover, they have things backward. In fact, it is the military that has a historic opportunity: to finally learn to live with the aspirations of its civilian partners and acknowledge that the army cannot be the sole arbiter of the country’s fate. The army, however, seems unlikely to do so. 

Afzal’s book offers a useful survey of the many pressures—cultural, religious, economic—that add to social and political instability in Pakistan. One of the ironies that emerges is that although commentators have long focused on the intersection of extremism and poverty in the country, the combination of extremism and growing prosperity may prove even more dangerous.


Pakistanis’ attitude toward extremism changes frequently and depends to a great degree on context. When Pakistan itself is not under attack, Pakistanis take a fairly benign view of militants. But if the same militants start blowing themselves up near Pakistan’s mosques or shops, many Pakistanis’ first reaction is to think, “These can’t really be my brothers in faith.” 

The question of foreign intervention in the country scrambles things even further. Afzal shares the results of a survey conducted in 2009 by the Program on International Policy Attitudes in Pakistan, in which 90 percent of respondents expressed opposition to the presence of al Qaeda in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. On the other hand, she reports, a different survey conducted around the same time found that 63 percent of Pakistanis opposed the 2011 U.S. raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. Pakistanis don’t want violent jihadists in their backyards, but they also do not want American assassins stealing into their country in the middle of the night. 

Afzal rightly assigns much of the blame for Pakistan’s confusing relationship with extremism to Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator who ruled the country from 1978 until his death in 1988. Zia sought to “Islamize” society by establishing and enforcing his version of sharia, bolstering religious education, and preventing Pakistanis from accessing Western cultural products. To accomplish this goal, he made a mockery of Pakistani democracy. In 1984, he held a referendum in which Pakistani voters were asked whether they supported the imposition of an Islamic system and another five-year term in office for Zia himself. The only acceptable answers were yes and no. Since it would have been almost unthinkable for anyone to vote “against Islam,” it was practically impossible for anyone to vote against Zia. Many voters abstained altogether; some cities looked like ghost towns on polling day. On top of that, Zia’s cronies stuffed ballot boxes, awarding him and his initiative more than 98 percent of the votes. 

Zia’s successors curtailed some aspects of his Islamization program, but much of it remains in place, as Afzal reveals. Authorities frequently invoke discriminatory laws against minorities. Charges of blasphemy have led to the imprisonment of hundreds, and sometimes lynch mobs have killed the accused. Members of the Ahmadiyya sect were declared non-Muslims by Pakistan’s parliament in 1974, and they remain one of the most persecuted minority groups. (To apply for a passport or a national identity card, Pakistani Muslims must sign the following statement: “I consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad”—the founder of the sect—“to be an imposter prophet [and] also consider his followers . . . to be non-Muslims.”)

One can also still see Zia’s legacy in Pakistan’s educational system, which teaches children a number of astounding lies about their country’s history and place in the world. According to Afzal, history textbooks borrow language and concepts about the relationship between Islam and politics from Jamaat-e-Islami, the oldest Islamist political party in Pakistan. In examining Pakistan’s schools, Afzal usefully debunks the common myth that madrasahs are central to jihadist movements. In reality, it is the country’s mainstream educational system that fosters militancy.


Afzal also sheds light on how economic change has fueled religiosity and extremism in Pakistan. In recent decades, Pakistan’s middle class has grown substantially. According to the Pakistani economist S. Akbar Zaidi, Pakistan’s upper- and middle-class population now stands at 84 million—larger than the entire population of Germany. Most political scientists or economists would expect newly prosperous Pakistanis to become more secular in their outlook and behavior. But middle-class Pakistanis often spend their newfound wealth not on material comforts but on things they believe will ensure their safe passage to paradise after they leave this world. They go on luxury pilgrimages to Mecca, donate to Islamic charities, and fund the construction of new mosques. (They really love building mosques: throughout Pakistan, one can find freshly minted houses of worship with marble floors and minarets decorated with elaborate mirror work, even in places that lack sewage systems and paved roads.)

A man offers afternoon prayers at a mosque in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, August 2017
A man offers afternoon prayers at a mosque in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, August 2017
Faisal Mahmood / REUTERS

A few years ago, a man who was a classmate of mine in high school opened a gas station in central Punjab. He proudly showed me a tastefully designed mosque that he’d built on the premises, to offer his customers a place to pray. A few years later, he built another gas station—and another mosque—on the same piece of property. When I visited, I noticed that the first mosque was mostly empty. “Why another mosque in the same spot?” I asked him. “Because if God has given me two businesses instead of one, why shouldn’t I pay him back?” he replied.

Afzal also focuses on Pakistan’s military, which she correctly identifies as the most powerful institution in the country, even when civilians are in control of the government. The military has a strong hold on Pakistanis; it is widely feared but also widely respected. The generals have suffered losses and humiliations but have always managed to get back on their feet quickly. In 2010, the entire world was looking for bin Laden. When he was found living a stone’s throw away from a major Pakistani military academy, the generals more or less shrugged it off.

Whenever I interact with midranking army officials, they don’t want to discuss religion, regional security, or any of the other issues that Afzal analyzes. All they want to talk about is real estate prices. Thanks to the military’s vast holdings and deep participation in the Pakistani economy, military officials enjoy privileges unavailable to their counterparts in most other countries. The armed forces have recently added processing and selling meat to the already large portfolio of businesses in which they dabble, which also includes cereals, cement, banking, sugar, telecommunications, transport, and many other sectors.

In some countries, such profiteering might generate a popular backlash against the military. To prevent such an outcome in Pakistan, military officers have taken a cue from the civilian nouveaux riches, funneling some of their profits to religious charities and mosque-building projects. The idea that money can buy one a ticket to paradise is so well entrenched that most Pakistanis don’t even question the obvious corruption that has enriched the military elite.

By publicly performing their piety and thus allowing judgments about religiosity to shape public debate, middle-class Pakistanis and the military have aided the cause of the extremist militants.

By publicly performing their piety and thus allowing judgments about religiosity to shape public debate, middle-class Pakistanis and the military have aided the cause of the extremist militants who loathe them. Seven years ago, the governor of Punjab Province, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by his own bodyguard. Taseer was a liberal who lived a secular lifestyle and who had raised questions about Pakistan’s harsh law against blasphemy, which calls for the death penalty for offenders. Among many middle-class and educated Pakistanis, discussions of his assassination often began with the observation that murder can never be justified but then quickly shifted to cataloging the many things that a “good Muslim” shouldn’t do in order to avoid Taseer’s fate: never speak up for minorities, for example, and never say anything that might offend a religious scholar.

In May, as Pakistan prepared for national elections, a gunman attempted to kill the country’s interior minister, Ahsan Iqbal; he was shot in the arm but survived. As with the attack on Taseer, it appeared that Iqbal’s assailant was motivated by extremist views relating to the laws prohibiting blasphemy. But unlike Taseer, Iqbal is a highly observant Muslim; he comes from a conservative family known for its affiliation with Islamist movements. He is, by all prevailing standards, a pious man. For the man who tried to kill him, however, Iqbal wasn’t a good enough Muslim. 

Pakistanis try hard to become better Muslims—and the country’s courts, media, and educational system work to ensure that they do. But every so often, someone comes along wielding a gun, telling them that they have been doing it all wrong. And unfortunately, they seem willing to listen.


Recently, I returned to my family’s village and attended Friday prayers. The mosque was full of worshipers; others were lined up outside on the pavement. Since my last visit, the mosque had let go the imam who had called them to the midnight prayer and chosen a more moderate one. My brother found the new imam’s Friday sermons a bit dull and was contemplating inviting someone more lively to deliver an occasional sermon.

I mentioned to him that many more people turned up for prayer these days than when we were children. He agreed. Then he sighed and pointed out that, at the same time, there were now more petty crimes in the village and that people were stealing water and electricity from their neighbors and dragging one another to court over minor land disputes. “What I don’t understand is that when fewer people came to the mosque, there were hardly any crimes in the village,” he said. “People didn’t think they could commit fraud and get away with it in such a small place. But today, everyone’s lying, everyone’s cheating, everyone’s stealing, and they think by coming to the mosque, they have booked themselves a plot in paradise and they don’t need to fulfill their obligations in this world.” 

When people come into a bit of money, their expectations rise. They also start craving respect and demanding that the state provide them with basic services. But the Pakistani state is still stuck in its old ways, relying on colonial-era laws and riddled with corrupt patronage networks. When the state inevitably fails to meet people’s raised expectations, they turn to religious parties and look for messiahs who can fix their broken world, as well as promise a shiny bridge to paradise in the afterlife. 

I called my brother on election day and asked him if he had voted yet. He said that it was quite hot and that he was waiting for the weather to cool down a bit. “And who are you going to vote for?” I asked. He chuckled and said, “I am going to go out and find a good mullah on the ballot.”

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  • MOHAMMED HANIF is a journalist, novelist, and playwright. He is a contribuing opinion writer for The New York Times
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