Report / Asia 4 minutes

Islamic Parties in Pakistan

Religious intolerance, sectarian violence and radical Islamic parties threaten to undermine the democratic reforms on which Pakistan’s stability depends.

Executive Summary

The ability of Pakistan’s radical Islamic parties to mount limited but potentially violent opposition to the government has made democratic reform, and by extension the reduction of religious extremism and development of a more peace­ful and stable society, more challenging. This is a reflection of those parties’ well-organised activist base, which is committed to a narrow partisan agenda and willing to defend it through violence. While their electoral support remains limited, earlier Islamisation programs have given them a strong legal and political apparatus that enables them to influence policy far beyond their numerical strength. An analysis of party agendas and organisation, as well as other sources of influence in judicial, political and civil society institutions, is therefore vital to assessing how Pakistan’s main religious parties apply pressure on government, as well as the ability and willingness of the mainstream parties that are moderate on religious issues to resist that pressure.

These parties’ ability to demonstrate support for their various agendas is an expression of coherent internal structures, policymaking processes and relations between the leadership and the rank-and-file. These aspects of party functioning are, therefore, as critical to understanding their role in the polity and prospects of influencing policy in the future as in understanding their relationship to the state.

The Islamic parties that are the subject of this report might operate within the current political order, but their ultimate aim is to replace it with one that is based on narrow, discriminatory interpretations of Islam. They have also taken equivocal positions on militant jihad: on the one hand, they insist on their distinction from militant outfits by virtue of working peacefully and within the democratic system; on the other, they admit to sharing the ideological goal of enforcing Sharia (Islamic law), while maintaining sizeable mad­rasa and mosque networks that are breeding grounds for many extremist groups.

Moreover, belying their claims of working peacefully, the major Islamic parties maintain militant wings, violent student organisations and ties to extremist groups, and have proved more than willing to achieve political objectives through force. After parlaying military support during the 1980s into significant political and legislative gains, and even absent military support and the electoral assistance that entailed, the parties have still been able to defend earlier gains through intimidation and violent agitation on the streets. In response, faced with their opposition, the mainstream moderate parties have often abandoned promised reforms while in government, or even made further concessions, such as the National Assembly’s constitutional amend­ment in 1974 declaring the Ahmadi sect non-Muslim.

Such compromises have not offset the pressure of the ulama (religious scholars), as intended, but only emboldened religious hardliners.

The success of the six-party Islamic coalition, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), in the 2002 elections in Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan was initially perceived to be testament to the Islamic parties’ power if they were unified in a single bloc. This result, however, was in fact due to massively rigged polls by the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf, which sought to sideline its main opposition, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Furthermore, the alliance, as reflected in its subsequent breakup, arguably revealed more about internal differences between the parties – particularly between the two largest and most influential, the revivalist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the orthodox Deobandi Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI) – than about their unity. Deprived of the military’s support in the 2008 polls, the MMA was routed by the PPP, PML-N and Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP).

Although the Islamic parties support the enforcement of Sharia, they represent different schools of thought, and their resulting acrimonious relations have resulted in intra-religious violence and created splinter factions that have weakened the original party or, in some cases, made it defunct. This has also diminished the likelihood of a restored alliance in the next general election. Nevertheless, the Fazlur Rehman-led faction of the JUI (JUI-F), the JI and smaller Islamic parties remain relevant due to their relative internal coherence; a committed hardcore base, including youth recruited through madrasas and, particularly in the JI’s case, university campuses; and the ability to leverage state institutions.

Their prospects for access to meaningful political power, however, still depend on military patronage. Should an ambitious high command decide to disrupt the current democratic dispensation, as in the past, it would likely rely on the Islamic parties to counter the mainstream moderate opposition. In a sustained democratic transition, however, the ability of these parties to influence the polity will depend on the effectiveness of the mainstream moderate parties to consolidate civilian rule and mobilise support for political and legal reform.

Discriminatory religious provisions and judicial and political structures such as the Federal Shariat Court and the Council of Islamic Ideology remain on the books and in frequent use. In the current climate, if the government is to fulfil earlier pledges to repeal discriminatory legislation, the mainstream parties, particularly the PPP and PML-N, will have to exploit their far greater and moderate popular base and create consensus on restoring and defending fundamental rights and equality for all citizens. Their success in rallying nationwide mass support against the Musharraf regime in 2007, ultimately effecting its ouster, demonstrates their capacity to do so. Building on the gains they have made with the return to civilian rule, both major parties should, adopt a policy of zero tolerance toward all forms of religious intolerance and extremism as a fundamental element of their efforts to stabilise a still fragile transition the success of which is vital to the country’s stability. But it will require far more active engagement with party activists and grassroots organisations to implement that policy.

Islamabad/Brussels, 12 December 2011

 

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