Islam and Politics in Pakistan

Islam and Politics in Pakistan

Pakistan is bracing for more turbulence in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s killing. This Backgrounder looks at how state support for Islamist militants has led to growing religious intolerance in society.

April 20, 2011 1:28 pm (EST)

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Since Pakistan’s beginnings as a homeland for Muslims of British India in 1947, Islam has been the one thread creating a national identity in a state otherwise divided along ethnic, provincial, cultural, religious, class, and linguistic lines. Civilian and military leaders have used Islam to gain legitimacy for their rule and as tools of state policy, strengthening the role of religious parties in politics and society. Since the 1980s, following Pakistan’s involvement in arming the mujahideen to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Pakistani army’s continued support for Islamist militants, Islam has taken a radical turn in Pakistan. Today, Pakistan has emerged as a center for global jihad as well as the main haven for Taliban fighters at war with U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan also faces its own instability and violence as militant groups target the state. The assassination of Punjab’s governor and the minorities minister in 2011 heightened concerns over the threat posed by religious extremism. The May 1, 2011, killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in a Pakistani town led to fresh concerns over retaliatory attacks on Pakistan by Islamist terror groups.

Birth of an Islamic State

The All India Muslim League, the political party that led the demand for a separate homeland for Muslims of British India, disregarded all geographic and sociocultural differences among Muslims. Instead, they relied on religion to be a sufficient rationale for creating a new nation.Yet, most Muslim League leaders, including President Mohammad Ali Jinnah, were liberal-minded. On the other hand, Muslim religious leaders opposed the Pakistan movement.

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However, "they were to change their minds after partition" notes Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in Descent Into Chaos. Soon after the creation of Pakistan, these religious groups who had opposed it started calling for the country’s Islamization and adoption of Islamic laws into the future constitution. This launched the struggle between liberals and Islamists. Religious group Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and its founder Maulana Sayyid Abul-Ala Mawdudi played an important role and left their mark on the country’s politics.

Toward Islamization

The first compromise between the secularists and those seeking an Islamic state came with the adoption of the Objectives Resolution in 1949, a set of guiding principles that was to inform the country’s constitution. In Making Sense of Pakistan, scholar Farzana Shaikh writes the Resolution highlighted "the growing political muscle of the religious lobby" with two Islamic provisions. First was the affirmation of divine over popular sovereignty, thus setting limits on the scope of parliament and interpreting its responsibilities as "sacred trust." Second concerned the obligation of the state to "enable" Muslims to "order their lives . . . in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah."

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"[Religious parties] have certainly increased their street power, their fear factor to the point where the state basically recedes every time they do something." -- Moeed Yusuf, USIP

The resolution was "a clear move away from the secular aspirations expressed by" Muslim League’s president and Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, says Salman Raja, a Lahore-based constitutional lawyer. Jinnah, in his August 11, 1947, speech to Pakistan’s constitutional assembly, had laid down his vision for the new state where all citizens would be equal irrespective of "religion or caste or creed." But his early death left the question of Islam’s role in society unresolved.

Under military ruler Zia ul-Haq from 1977-1988, Islamization acquired the full backing of the state, say some scholars. Zia co-opted the religious parties, notably the JI, and undertook a process of Islamization that included introduction of new Islamic laws, setting up a federal sharia court, making Islamic education compulsory in schools, and promoting religious schools or madrassas. He took steps to Islamize the army by including Islamic teachings into the military’s training. His policies also undermined the status of women through laws governing sexual offenses and by reducing the significance of a woman’s testimony to half that of a man in certain trials.

Who Is a Muslim?

State patronage of religious parties has resulted in competition among different religious groups for power, which has increasingly turned violent. With the Pakistani state adopting a clear Sunni bias in its laws and policies, rivalry between Shias and Sunnis--and even among different Sunni groups--became further entrenched.

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Soon after independence, Pakistan’s first instance of sectarian violence targeted the Ahmadiya community (BBC), a small religious group which calls itself Muslim and takes its name from its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. The Ahmadis are considered heretical by orthodox Muslims because they do not believe that Mohammed was the final prophet. A sustained anti-Ahmadi campaign by Sunni religious groups starting in the 1950s led the government to designate Ahmadis as non-Muslims through a constitutional amendment in 1974.

"Now that the ’Islamic State’ in Pakistan had established the right to determine who was and was not a true Muslim, religious identity and religious correctness became larger issues in Pakistan’s political discourse," wrote Husain Haqqani, current Pakistani ambassador to the United States, in 2006. The policies of Zia’s military regime aggravated Pakistan’s slide into sectarian conflict and confrontation, he adds.

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Since the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan in 2001, sectarian violence has been on the rise and killed more than twenty-five hundred people in Pakistan. This, experts say, is because of the links forged between local militants in Pakistan with global jihadists like al-Qaeda (TIME) who arrived from Afghanistan a decade ago. In recent years, militant groups like the Taliban have increasingly attacked Shias and Ahmadis as well as Sufi shrines of the Barelvis, who follow a more moderate interpretation of Islam.

The writing has been on the wall, say experts, from the early days of Pakistan’s creation. Following the anti-Ahmadi violence in 1954, the government appointed a special court of inquiry. The Munir Commission report (PDF) concluded that religious experts should stay out of constitution-making, while government should stay out of the business of defining who is a Muslim or how to enforce Islam as state religion.

The Munir report has been "singled out as the most celebrated ’modernist’ expression of backlash against Islamic activism," writes Vali Nasr, an expert on Islam and politics, in 1994’s Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution. The report was the last attempt to extricate Islam from Pakistan’s politics, writes Nasr, who served as senior advisor to the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009-2011. But without an alternative source of national cohesion, Islam continues to be used by successive governments as a tool to hold the state together.

Militant Islam

Pakistan’s military has used real and perceived threats from India to remain at the center of decision-making in the country, especially on foreign policy. It has seized power many times, undermining democratic institutions. Military-dominated politics in Pakistan "has given religious parties a larger role and share in Pakistani politics," says Ahsan Iqbal, spokesperson for opposition party Pakistan Muslim League (N).

Civilian political parties, whether it be the secular Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) or the center-right PML (N) of Nawaz Sharif, have also used Islamic causes for short-term political gains, as Stephen P. Cohen notes in The Idea of Pakistan. But most analysts put more blame at the military’s door. In Between Mosque and Military, Haqqani discusses the alliance between mullahs and the military and how it has made religious groups, both armed and unarmed, more powerful.

Funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s army and its intelligence service, the ISI, armed religious groups to wage a jihad against Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. "Between 1982 and 1990, the CIA, working with the ISI and Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service, funded the training, arrival, and arming of some thirty-five thousand Islamic militants from forty-three Muslim countries in Pakistani madrassas," writes Rashid in 2008’s Descent Into Chaos. This, he warns, "will sow the seeds of al-Qaeda and turn Pakistan into the world center of jihadism for the next two decades."

Crisis Guide: Pakistan

Pakistan has also used these Islamist militant groups to wage war against India in Kashmir. Since 9/11, Pakistan’s alliance with the United States in the war in Afghanistan has led many of these groups to turn on the Pakistani state. However, experts say, the army continues to support some militant groups as strategic assets in India and Afghanistan.

Pakistani political analyst Hasan Askari-Rizvi notes that several religious parties also support these militant groups, and in some cases, act as a political front for them.

Radicalization in Pakistan is a result of army’s decades-long policy to export militancy abroad, says Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace. Yet, he says, "the army never wanted the Pakistani polity to become extremist." The army, he adds, failed to foresee that these militant groups would make deep inroads into Pakistani society itself.

Ruling the Streets

Although the electoral performance of religious political parties remains poor, they have attempted to shape Pakistani public opinion on many issues including CIA drone attacks, Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts, and the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

"They have certainly increased their street power, their fear factor," says Yusuf, "to the point where the state basically recedes every time they do something."

Their strength was on display in 2011 when the government was afraid to condemn the killer of a prominent politician because religious parties supported his crime. In early 2011, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer and Pakistan Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated for calling for reform of the country’s blasphemy laws, which allow offenders to be punished by death. The laws have been criticized by international human rights groups for persecuting minorities. But Taseer’s killer was hailed as a hero by many, including religious groups and lawyers.

"[R]eligious sentiment has seeped deep into government circles and into the army and police at lower levels."-- Hasan Askari-Rizvi

Many Pakistanis express unease over the societal divisions that emerged. "We need to ponder over whether these laws are creating social and religious harmony (Dawn) or dividing society into religions and sects and putting people into the conflicting categories of ’conservative’ and ’liberal,’" said Yunus Alam, who heads the Multan-based Minority Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Lack of governance, poor socioeconomic conditions, and a problem-ridden state-run education system have also resulted in greater space for religious parties, analysts say. The idea that Pakistan is being sieged by all sides, including by India and by the United States, also leads to greater religiosity "as a defense mechanism in society," says Raja.

The American Factor

Anti-Americanism, especially in the wake of the Afghan war, some analysts say, has fed growing intolerance in Pakistani society. Since 2001, Pakistan has been cooperating with the United States in targeting terrorist sanctuaries in its tribal areas. While analysts say the Pakistani army remains selective in the terrorist groups it targets, the army’s action against groups such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates has led to a blowback within Pakistan. Many local militants, in particular the Pakistani Taliban, now target the Pakistani state, and terrorist violence is on the rise. Almost all religious parties hold the United States responsible for increasing violence and suicide bombings inside Pakistan.

Anis Haroon, chairperson of Pakistan’s state-run National Commission on the Status of Women, says religious parties challenge and create doubts about liberal voices by presenting those who demand a more secular government and society as props of the United States. The growing religious intolerance, she adds, has also negatively affected women and minorities in the country.

"Over time, Pakistani society has drifted toward religious extremism" (NYT), says Pakistani analyst Rizvi. "This religious sentiment has seeped deep into government circles and into the army and police at lower levels." He says lack of a clear counterterrorism policy has allowed militant and sectarian groups to gain greater confidence.

Some analysts say the Pakistani army and intelligence services use religious groups to manipulate their relationship with the United States. The religious groups were at the forefront in opposing the release of U.S. citizen Raymond Davis, who was arrested on murder charges in 2011. Rashid writes that Pakistan’s security agencies unleash these groups on the streets as "part of a wider cat and mouse escalation between the U.S. and the Pakistani military."

Resolving the Tensions

There is almost a consensus among experts that Pakistan’s education system, an important factor in inciting intolerance, must be reformed. Better governance and enhancing economic opportunity, say some experts, will also make it more difficult for radical Islamists to influence the country’s burgeoning youth.

For Pakistan to resolve the tensions between liberals and Islamists, and to emerge as a modern, democratic state, the army will have to give up support for militant groups and rethink its foreign policy on Afghanistan and India, analysts say. "Without a friendly, peaceful, relationship with India," Hassan Abbas, a fellow at Asia Society says in this Crisis Guide, "Pakistan cannot even dream about such a scenario."


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