Socio-Economic Inequalities and Religious Extremism

By Danish Khan

We’ve had too many attacks of late: after a terrible March 22nd terrorist attack in Brussels which took away more than thirty lives, a bombing five days later in Lahore brought more misery and pain. This time the second largest city of Pakistan was struck by a devastating terrorist attack in which more than seventy people lost their lives, specifically targeted at Christian Pakistanis who were celebrating Easter in a public park, though the victims were both Christians and Muslims.

The brutality of the two attacks is similar, but both public outcry and modes of analysis have been wildly divergent. In the countries of the global North, and especially in the US, we did not see an outcry and outrage at the similar scale as we observed after a devastating attack in Brussels. We must sincerely ask, why? Is it simply because we in the US can better relate with Europeans (but not everyone has a European ancestry in the US)? Or is it because we don’t expect a rich European country like Belgium to be under attack? Or because terrorist attacks not something new for a third world Muslim majority country like Pakistan? Or is it just a coincidence and there is not a systemic rationale/prejudice behind it? We don’t know. But we want readers to think about it.

Similarly, in the mainstream media a lot has been said about the prevailing socio-economic and cultural aspects of Belgian society. But when it comes to country like Pakistan not much is said in terms of socio-economic and cultural aspects. This article is a modest attempt in this regard.


The current manner in which the state of Pakistan is handling religious extremism is dubious at best. Despite the recurring losses of thousands of precious lives in heinous terrorist attacks, the state is yet unwilling to reorient its priorities to tackle this Frankenstein of bigotry and hatred. So far the emphasis from the state is limited to either ‘negotiations’ with extremists or a ‘strong’ military action against them. Both of these approaches are meant to only cure symptoms of the underlying problem without every uprooting the problem.

Religious extremism is a complex phenomenon which requires a holistic socio-cultural and economic analyses. The terrorist attack is an ultimate manifestation of an ideology of religious extremism. In other words, ideology of religious extremism and religious terrorism mutually constitute each other.

US and Pakistan strategic alliance dates back to 1947. Historically the US has supported military coups in Pakistan. Both countries played a key role in forming and funding the Taliban in Afghanistan against secular Afghan government. And more recently both countries are partners in so called global ‘war on terror. But what’s ironic and yet consistent with the US foreign is the following: According to media reports in Pakistan, the US funded a religious organization called Sunni Itehaad Council (SIC) back in 2009 to stage an anti-Taliban rally. Why this is important? It is important because SIC staged a sit-in in Islamabad on the same day Lahore was hit by a terrorist attack. SIC’s demands from the government of Pakistan were to declare a man named Mumtaz Qadri a national hero. Qadri is a same man who killed a former governor of Punjab Salman Taseer in a broad day light. In his defense, Qadri said he murdered Taseer to fulfill his religious duty because according to Qadri, Taseer was a ‘blasphemer’. It is not that SIC has suddenly changed its stance, SIC like many other religious organizations in Pakistan represent a culture of religious intolerance and extremism. On the surface it seems like the US foreign policy makers hasn’t learned any lessons from 1980s Afghan war in which they funded Taliban. And this is a matter of huge concern. Because one thing that should be clear by now is that one form of religious fanaticism can’t be countered by another form of religious extremism.

A development economist Frances Stewart argue that most violent conflicts in the developing countries are results of the following two factors. First, ‘horizontal inequalities’ in society— that is, inequalities between culturally defined groups across social, political and economic dimensions. Second, ‘breach of the social contract’ between the state and the citizens. That is, state is unable to fulfill its promise of provisioning basic public goods and a secure environment to its citizens.

If we analyze the contemporary situation of Pakistan in the context of Stewart’s framework, we can better conceptualize the dynamics of religious extremism. Here the claim is not socio-economic inequalities are the causes of religious extremism. Instead, the claim is much more modest: these inequities provide fertile ground for religious extremism to flourish.

If we look at the data in terms of horizontal inequalities in Pakistan, it is obvious that overwhelming majority of the poor people are excluded from the benefits of economic growth in a last decade or so. Income inequality in Pakistan has increased since 2001. The main beneficiaries of the boom era of early 2000s were the upper middle classes in the urban spaces. Moreover, since neoliberal reforms the flow of capital has been moving in the direction of large urban centers. The processes of uneven geographical development are exacerbated in Pakistan. As a consequence, regional inequality at inter-provincial and intra-provincial levels has worsened since neoliberal economic reforms.

At the same time, the state is failing to fulfill the basic needs of the rural and urban poor. One of the most primary responsibilities of a state is to provide access to elementary education to every citizen irrespective of their income, gender, faith or location. According to the most recent census available to us, the literacy ratio in federally administered tribal areas (FATA) is only 17 per cent. The average literacy ratio for Pakistan is 44 per cent. FATA is one of the most troubled regions in Pakistan.

Similarly, provisioning of basic health care facilities is a core of responsibility of a state. On this account we also see a sharpening levels of inequality across spatial and social dimensions in Pakistan. For example, average population per doctor in Pakistan is 1226 but in FATA it is as high as 7670. Although, we are not suggesting a causal link between lack of education/health care facilities and a higher proportion of violence in FATA. But this correlation cannot be overlooked as a coincidence at the same time.

Similarly, within Punjab, it is reported that religious extremists are disproportionately located in southern districts. Interestingly, the incidence of poverty is also much higher in southern districts vis-a-vis rest of the Punjab. For example, the percentage of population below poverty line in southern districts of Punjab ranges from 40 per cent to 56 per cent. Whereas, in the northern and central districts of Punjab, percentage of population below poverty line ranges from 11 per cent to 26 per cent.

One can argue that these sorts of spatial inequalities are prevalent in many countries of the global south but they don’t have a problem of religious extremism like Pakistan. We acknowledge that there is not a one way causal mechanism here, instead, we are arguing that these spatial and social inequalities further reinforce and strengthen the ideology of religious extremism.

As aforementioned data shows that the state has failed to abide by its own ‘social contract’. As a consequence, religious organizations have penetrated these spatially and socially discriminated segments of Pakistani society. They provide free religious education to children of poor households in Madrassahs. The minds of young children are filled with bigotry, hatred and extremism from the very beginning. Moreover, these religious organizations develop a system of patronage with their students and later on these students become rank and file of these extremist organizations. Historically the state has kept a blind eye to it, in fact, state used them for its own geo-strategic purposes. Similarly, the middle and upper classes of Pakistan did/do not bother to pressurize state to improve the provisioning education and health care as they have enough resources and means to privately provision these public goods.

The contemporary neoliberal model of economic growth in Pakistan is not creating enough jobs with decent wages for unskilled workers. Moreover, the agrarian economy is marked up highly skewed distribution of land in favor of large landowners. More than 50 per cent of all rural households have no access to land. In such dire socio-economic conditions, this should not come as a big surprise if marginalized group of people are attracted towards a ‘luring’ fictional ideology wrapped in religious overtones.

What needs to be done now? There is no simple answer. The battle against religious extremism needs to be fought on ideological fronts, in addition to battle ground of socio-economic inequality. The narrative of pluralistic and rational Islam needs to be incorporated into curriculum from the early stages of education. But there is another problem—a huge number of children are not even enrolled in schools. Thus it is clear that without reforming the existing public education system, it is highly improbable to achieve desired results. Therefore, public school system needs to be rejuvenated. Higher shares of federal and provincial budgets need to be allocated towards education. Similarly, reforms are required in health care services. The current expenditure on health care is not sufficient to provide decent health care to everyone in the system. But these reforms require that the elites and the urban middle classes of Pakistan need to pay their fair share of taxes.

Similarly, large scale employment opportunities should be created to incorporate these marginalized segments of society in a more productive manner. Private sector is not apt to generate new employment opportunities at such massive scale. Therefore, government spending needs to increase to generate employment in the economy.

A highly fractured, polarized and ideologically rotten society like Pakistan cannot expect to achieve peace and prosperity without major overhauling of the socio-economic structure. The current challenge can only be met through a collective action of state and society. Those who are serious about rebuilding the crumbling social fabric of Pakistani state and society must unite and demand a new social contract that does not discriminate people based on their faith, ethnicity, locality, gender or income.