Pakistan: The Mullahs and the Military
Pakistan: The Mullahs and the Military
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Pakistan’s Mass Deportation of Afghans Poses Risks to Regional Stability
Pakistan’s Mass Deportation of Afghans Poses Risks to Regional Stability
Report / Asia 4 minutes

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

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.