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Pakistan: The Mullahs and the Military
Pakistan: The Mullahs and the Military
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 49 / Asia

Pakistan: The Mullahs and the Military

The resurgence of the religious parties in the October 2002 elections portends ill for Pakistan's political, cultural and social stability.

Executive Summary

The resurgence of the religious parties in the October 2002 elections portends ill for Pakistan’s political, cultural and social stability. For the first time in the country’s history, an alliance of six major religious parties – the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) – has won power in two provinces, vowing to Islamise state and society through Taliban-like policies. The MMA based its electoral campaign on Islam and anti-U.S. slogans, targeting President Pervez Musharraf’s pro-U.S. policies and pledging the enforcement of Sharia law. It now runs the government in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), bordering on Afghanistan, and shares power in Baluchistan.

The MMA’s zeal might encourage the supporters of its component parties to take up arms against U.S. forces in Afghanistan or their Afghan allies. Pakistani military and paramilitary troops on the border should be able to contain such a threat. More significantly, however, the rise of religious parties threatens to undermine civil liberties, freedom of expression, legal reforms and religious tolerance in Pakistan. In particular, the situation of women and minorities may become more difficult in the two provinces under MMA control.

The MMA program runs counter to President Musharraf’s pledges of reform. Having taken power in October 1999, Musharraf promised to end religious extremism and promote moderate Islam – a program that would have been a revolution of sorts. His decision to join the international coalition against terrorism after 11 September 2001 did bolster his image as a reformist and secular ruler. But the general has opted to follow the path of his military predecessors, forging alliances of convenience with religious organisations to counter secular political adversaries.

The Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, the largest parties in the MMA, have maintained close ties with the military for decades. Musharraf’s aversion to the mainstream political parties led by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and the military’s declared intent to keep those two former prime ministers out of power presented the MMA with an open political field. As a result, religious parties have gained political clout, and religion is again at the heart of debates on legislation and public policy.

The MMA’s political domain is as yet restricted to two out of four provincial governments. It has chosen not to join the ruling pro-military Muslim League – Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q) – at the centre, and has adopted a confrontational stance in the National Assembly. However, the alliance shares power with the PML-Q in Baluchistan. This strategy helps it promote an anti-American agenda while avoiding direct confrontation with the military’s support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Aware that foreign and defence policy is the military’s preserve, the MMA restricts its opposition to the generals to rhetoric. Its goal, in any case, is not to confront the military but to consolidate its political gains.

By assisting the military’s electoral manoeuvres, including formation of suitable governments in the centre and the provinces, the MMA has obtained major concessions, such as the release from jail of party workers and the dropping of several prosecutions. In the NWFP and Baluchistan, Islamisation is now official policy. Initial steps, such as a ban on music in public, attacks on cable television operators, and police action against video shops are signs of what lies ahead as the MMA implements its program.

Though MMA leaders have tried to allay worries that their governments might adopt Taliban-style policies, their actions show preference for strict religious rule. The MMA agenda includes an end to co-education, a first step towards the total segregation of women in public life, and the addition of more Islamic texts to school and college curricula. The MMA plans to screen and register NGOs in the NWFP and Baluchistan. Moral policing by the student wings of its parties in NWFP and Baluchistan educational institutions enjoys official backing. Similar trends are visible elsewhere in public life.

It remains to be seen how much room the MMA will be given to apply its version of Sharia law in the two provinces. The MMA stresses that implementation will remain within constitutional confines. Although the constitution is Islamic, the form and substance of Islamisation is determined by the centre, and federal legislation has primacy. The provinces are dependent on Islamabad’s financial assistance. Moreover, Musharraf’s constitutional amendments empower him to override parliament.

If history is a guide, however, the MMA could succeed with its Islamisation agenda. Many Islamic provisions are already part of the legal system, enacted by previous military governments. Since the military takeover in 1999, the government has demonstrated neither will nor intent to pursue domestic policies opposed by the mullahs, such as madrasa regulation or changes in discriminatory Islamic laws. Although the MMA sits with the opposition in the National Assembly, it has assured the government of Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali that it will not help dislodge Musharraf’s political order. In return, the government might just decide to reward the MMA by tolerating Islamisation in the NWFP and Baluchistan.

The mullahs’ usefulness for the military goes beyond domestic politics. The perpetual threat of war with India over Kashmir, a conflict coloured in religious hues, also brings the MMA and the military together. The more Musharraf searches for domestic legitimacy, the more he plays up the Indian threat. The mullahs are more than willing to support the military’s policies in Kashmir.

The domestic implications of Musharraf’s unwillingness to transfer power are far reaching. The President’s constitutional and political distortions have put a fragile federation under immense stress. In the absence of checks on the military’s political powers, ethnic tensions are rising, particularly in Sindh and Baluchistan where there is strong resentment of the Punjabi-dominated military. There is also anger there at Musharraf’s efforts to empower religious parties at the expense of their moderate, secular counterparts with an ethnic or regional base.

While moderate sections of Pakistani society are being marginalised, religious parties and their causes are flourishing. The military follows pro-U.S. policies but the compulsions of domestic legitimacy have resulted in an alliance of expediency with the religious sector. As a result of the military’s unwillingness to extricate itself from domestic politics, the religious right, jihad and Islamisation are again acceptable currency in political life, threatening regional peace and fundamental political, economic and social rights of Pakistanis.

Islamabad/Brussels, 20 March 2003

Commentary / Asia

Pakistan: Challenges of a Weak Democracy

The new government of Imran Khan is repressing opposition voices and yielding to parties propagating sectarianism. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to help Pakistan abide by its international commitments and keep supporting democratic governance.

On 30 October 2018, after Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Christian woman, Aasia Masih (also known as Aasia Bibi) on blasphemy charges, a hardline Islamist party, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, launched violent demonstrations countrywide demanding the verdict’s reversal. The protests ended after Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government offered immunity to Labaik’s leadership and violent activists and permitted the movement to submit a review petition calling on the court to reinstate Bibi’s death penalty. The government’s actions appeared to relent to a group that propagates sectarian hatred and threatens the lives of religious and other minorities. Meanwhile, the military-sponsored “mainstreaming” of anti-India jihadists (notably the Laskhar-e-Tayyaba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa), which permits such groups to rebrand and enter politics without renouncing militancy, risks further fuelling intolerance and sectarianism. Mainstreaming could also entail international sanction, given that it contravenes Pakistan’s counter-terrorism commitments. Yet another challenge lies in persistent political tensions: having come to power after contested elections in July 2018, Khan’s government thus far has done little to bridge divisions between it and opposition parties. The government has targeted opposition leaders in politicised corruption trials, while security forces’ have cracked down on dissenting voices within civil society and the media.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Leverage Pakistan’s sensitivity to its international standing and aversion to isolation, urge Pakistan to prosecute Labaik leaders and activists, through fair trials and with due process, for threatening judges and public officials, attacking police and citizens, and destroying public and private properties during the November 2018 protests; at the same time, call for parliament to enact legislation to prevent the misuse of the blasphemy laws that threaten the security of marginalised communities;
     
  • Also call on the government to implement existing and enact additional laws that meet international human rights standards to ban jihadists from fundraising, recruiting, and conducting attacks within the country and in the region;
     
  • Continue to support democratic governance and the rule of law in Pakistan, including calling for due process in prosecution of cases against the opposition and press the government to protect individual freedoms. Warn Islamabad that its failure to respect freedoms of expression, association, religion and belief could adversely affect the preferential trading status it receives under the GSP+ scheme.

Rising Religious Intolerance and Violence

On 31 October 2018, the Supreme Court acquitted and ordered the release of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in November 2010. In response, religious groups, spearheaded by Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan, the political front of the Sunni Barelvi Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, launched violent protests countrywide, attacking police officers and citizens and destroying public and private property. By invoking highly-provocative claims of blasphemy, the several thousand Labaik protesters gained the support of many conservative Muslims. Holding “Hang Aasia Bibi” rallies, Labaik leaders accused Supreme Court judges of blasphemy, called for their assassination, and urged soldiers to mutiny against army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, whose religious faith they questioned. On 2 November, Imran Khan’s government struck a deal with Labaik. Arguing that to do otherwise would lead to more violence, the government agreed not to take any action against Labaik leaders and supporters, releasing those responsible for inciting sectarian hatred and resorting to violence during the protests. It also agreed not to oppose a review petition to reinstate Bibi’s death sentence, to bar her from leaving the country until the Supreme Court has reached a decision on that petition, and to release those responsible for violence during the protests. Though the government may have faced a short-term dilemma in looking for a way to defuse the protests and avoid provoking wider unrest, the tensions provoked by intolerant and sectarian groups like Labaik is a problem of Pakistani authorities’ own making over decades, one that is reinforced, not lessened, by a pattern of capitulation to such groups.

Mere accusations of blasphemy can lead to death [in Pakistan], and those defending the innocent [...] have often been silenced.

Emboldened by the government’s backing down, Labaik threatened another protest on 24 November. The government, fearing more violence, quickly placed the group’s leaders and hundreds of activists under preventive detention. Although cases have been filed, including in anti-terrorism courts against Labaik’s top leadership, those men are still awaiting prosecution. The outcome of these cases is uncertain, but in similar instances in the past, the filing of charges has not led to prosecution, once immediate pressures are relieved and public attention wanes. Bibi, though freed by the courts, remains in hiding. Her case has fuelled the fears of religious minorities that the state cannot protect them if those responsible for inciting and using violence against their communities operate with impunity. Mere accusations of blasphemy can lead to death, and those defending the innocent, such as Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, killed by his guard in 2011 for supporting Aasia Bibi, have often been silenced.

Labaik’s emergence and growing influence is closely tied to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services’ longstanding use of Islamists to challenge civilian rivals by supporting their forays into political life. Reportedly backed by the military to destabilise the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government in November 2017, Labaik at that time accused the law minister of blasphemy and besieged Islamabad, attacking police officers and civilians. The siege ended after the military concluded a deal whereby the law minister resigned and the state gave Labaik leaders and activists immunity from criminal prosecution. In another bid to undermine the PML-N by cutting into its support base in the July 2018 election, Labaik created a political front to contest the vote even as it continued to encourage and deploy violence. Exploiting popular sentiment about blasphemy, Labaik won 2.2 million votes and emerged as the third-largest party in parliament after the PTI and PML-N. It now uses its newfound political legitimacy to raise funds, recruit and propagate a hardline sectarian agenda.

Militants Deepen their Political Clout

In addition to using Islamists to weaken other parties, Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have also encouraged anti-India jihadists, including some designated by the UN Security Council as terrorist organisations, to enter politics. Most prominent is the now-rebranded Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JD) – previously Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks – and its charity front, the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation. LeT/JD is included in the UN Security Council’s 1267 sanctions list. In June 2018, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) body that works to combat money laundering and terrorism financing, placed Pakistan on its “grey list” due to lax counter-terrorism financing laws and enforcement. Partly to avert FATF pressure, a presidential ordinance nominally banned LeT/JD and its charity front in February 2018. But the banned group was allowed to take part in the 2018 vote through yet another front, the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, though it failed to gain even a single seat. The presidential ordinance banning LeT/JD and its charity front has since lapsed.

In principle, encouraging militants to enter politics could help moderate them. In these circumstances, however, little suggests that will happen, given that the political participation of groups allied to the military is not conditioned on their abandoning violence or related recruitment and proselytising. Indeed, their rebranding and entry into politics appears to be a deliberate strategy to keep alive groups regarded as useful foreign policy proxies in the face of international pressure. The mainstreaming strategy, particularly as it pertains to groups on the 1267 list, poses risks for Pakistan at home and abroad. The failure to ban those groups and reform financing laws could see Pakistan listed on the FATF’s “blacklist” of “non-cooperative countries” next fall, with serious implications for the country’s reputation and economy. That failure also hinders any rapprochement with India: New Delhi refuses to resume bilateral dialogue with Islamabad, frozen since a 2016 attack attributed to Pakistan-based militants, until Pakistan takes decisive action against jihadists. For the region, the security risks inherent in the failure to demobilise such groups are grave: another major attack on India by Pakistan-based groups could bring the two nuclear-armed neighbours to the brink of war.

Crackdowns Heighten Political Turmoil

The military’s backing of the PTI and its alleged support for Khan’s government as it targets opponents fuel the political acrimony that already marked the July 2018 election. The two main opposition parties, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and former President Asif Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), were denied an equal playing field amid reports, as noted in the EU election observation mission’s October report, “of interference in the electoral process by the military-led establishment and the active role of the judiciary in political affairs”.

Reportedly with military and judicial backing, the government is now pursuing the PML-N and PPP leadership through a legal process that is deeply partisan. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, now opposition leader in the federal legislature, have been indicted and imprisoned on corruption charges without due process; the government is also lodging corruption cases against the PPP leadership. Unless the government changes course, political turmoil could increase at a time when militant threats are still acute – over 200 people died in terror attacks during the election. The government would be better served by working with the parliamentary opposition to ban and prosecute groups that refuse to shun violence and that propagate sectarian hatred.

Engaging with Pakistan

The EU should push Pakistani authorities to take steps to ease political acrimony, protect minorities and stop militants entering politics without first renouncing violence. First, in line with its traditional emphasis on the rule of law, the EU should leverage Pakistan’s concerns about its international standing to urge the government to ensure due process in prosecuting cases against opposition leaders and thus help defuse political tensions. It should warn Islamabad that failure to meet its human rights obligations, particularly in respecting freedoms of expression, association, religion and belief, could adversely affect the preferential trading status it receives under the GSP+ scheme.

Second, the EU should press the Pakistan parliament to amend blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse. Aasia Bibi’s case is one of scores in which false accusations of blasphemy have placed innocent people, particularly from religious and ethnic minorities, on death row. The EU Council has repeatedly voiced concerns about the abuse of these laws, including in their most recent conclusions on Pakistan. Updating the legislation is even more important now as Labaik is exploiting the blasphemy issue to foment sectarian hatred among parts of Pakistani society.

Lastly, though the EU has called on Pakistan to work with the FATF to strengthen its counter-terrorism financial oversight regime, it should also highlight the importance of implementing existing or drafting new laws to prevent jihadists and other militants that refuse to abjure violence from operating under changed names. In its October report, the EU Election Observation Mission rightly expressed concern about the “the emergence of extremist parties with affiliations either to terrorist groups, or individuals linked to organisations that have used, incited or advocated violence”. So long as the state fails to take action against such groups, they will continue to fuel religious sectarianism and intolerance at home and threaten the security of Pakistan’s neighbours.