Even though Islamists have enjoyed only limited electoral support, they have shaped the state’s destiny. The country’s liberal democratic politicians must confront them or prepare to see them take power.
Early in 1939, on the eve of the great war that would lead on to the death of the British empire and the birth of his homeland, the politician and religious ideologue, Abdul Ala Maududi, delivered a lecture that has become a foundational text for South Asia Islamism.
Faith, Maududi insisted, was more than a “hotchpotch of beliefs, prayers and rituals.” Islam was, in fact, “a revolutionary ideology which seeks to alter the social order of the entire world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals.” Even the word ‘Muslims’, he argued, denoted not a community of believers, but an “international revolutionary party organised by Islam to carry out its revolutionary programme.”
Ever since December, the world has watched, with ever-growing concern, the growing momentum of the Difa-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) — a new Islamist coalition that represents the full flowering of Maududi’s vision.
The party Maududi founded, the Jama’at-e-Islami, is part of the alliance, along with 39 other major and minor political actors. The Maulana Sami-ul-Haq faction of the Jama’at Ullema Islam, representing the Deoband theological tradition, and closely linked to the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, is also a key actor. The movement’s backbone, though, is the Jama’at-ud-Dawa, with tens of thousands of volunteers — many of them in the party’s sword-arm, the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Later this year, many experts believe, the besieged Pakistan People’s Party government is likely to call early elections. The party has been hard hit by corruption allegations, a flailing economy, and the unremitting hostility of the military.
Has the Pakistani Islamist movement’s tryst with destiny finally come?
“Every city in Pakistan,” Jama’at-e-Islami leader Liaqat Baloch thundered before a giant audience at a Difa-e-Pakistan rally in Karachi this weekend gone by, “will soon become a Tahrir square.” Difa-e-Pakistan leaders have announced they will lay siege to the Parliament building in Lahore later this month. These gestures aren’t, as some have suggested, warnings of an impending jihadist coup. Instead, they are theatrical performance aimed at an electoral audience.
It isn’t that organisations like the Jama’at-ud-Dawa have dropped their jihadist ambitions. In a recent speech, its chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed claimed that Prophet Muhammad had called for war “against the Hindu, so that the greatness of the jihad can be evident.” Following “the success of this jihad, after the end of Judaism, after the end of Christianity, after the end of obscenity and irreligiousness, Islam will rule the world,” he said.
The resolutions passed in Karachi, though, show the Difa movement isn’t just concerned with jihad. It seeks, for example, a rollback of electricity tariffs, a reversal of the privatisation of Karachi’s power utility, an end to load-shedding, and the reinstatement of sacked public sector workers.
Ever since 2010, this new alliance of the religious right has evolved slowly. That May, for example, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s Hafiz Abdul Rehman Makki, the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Farid Paracha and the Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s senior vice-president Ejaz Chaudhury addressed an all-party meeting called to voice anger at India’s alleged choking of river waters. Makki, a key Lashkar ideologue, said India was working to “to destroy the next generation of Pakistan.”
In March 2010, a jihadist convention held at Kotli drew speakers from terrorist groups linked to many of the same political formations — using, for the first time, the Difa-e-Pakistan name. The Lashkar’s Muzaffarabad-based leader Abdul Wahid Kashmiri addressed the Pakistan government: “you beg water from India, whereas we are battling to levy jizya [a tax on conquered non-Muslims]”.
The same themes have suffused Saeed’s speeches since 2006, and earlier, as well as those of others on the religious right-wing. The religious right, however, never succeeded in uniting under a single banner for any length of time.
Now, though, parties like the Jama’at-ud-Dawa have grasped that patronage from Pakistan’s militaries isn’t a substitute for the acquisition of state power. In turn, the Islamist search for power is being welcomed by a military leadership under fire from a defiant political leadership. Founded on the bedrock of the pious bourgeoisie of businessmen and white-collar employees, a class shut out of a share of power by landed elites and big capitalists, the Islamist has, in recent years, found a wider audience — notably, elements of urban youth and landless peasants with no other language of resistance.
For the most part, commentators have been dismissive of the reach of Pakistani Islamists, noting that their parties have had limited electoral success. This argument is based on the fact that the Islamist parties have never bettered their 1970 electoral performance, when they won 21.6 per cent of the vote. Even in 2002, despite a helping hand from Pakistan’s military, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition won less than 11 per cent.
It is worth considering, though, that these figures are not insignificant. The Bahujan Samaj Party won 5.33 per cent of the vote in the 2004 elections, but has transfigured Indian politics. The Islamist vote in 1970 was just one percentage point lower to the Bharatiya Janata Party mandate in 2004.
Even though the electoral clout of religious fundamentalists and Islamists has been limited, their ideological influence has shaped Pakistan’s political destiny. In 1949, the Jama’at Ullema Islam, political wing of the Deoband clerics, successfully lobbied for the Objectives Resolution, which decreed that sovereignty belonged to god, rather than people.
From 1951, the Islamist movement began to gather momentum. The Majlis-e-Ahrar, a movement of clerics drawing legitimacy from the Deoband clerical tradition, launched a campaign against the heterodox Ahmadiyya sect. In 1953, large-scale sectarian riots forced the imposition of martial law across Punjab.
Ayub Khan & Islam
General Ayub Khan’s military regime, which took power in 1958, sought to roll-back the armies of the pious. He removed the word “Islamic” from Pakistan’s name, making it a simple republic. But in 1962, Pakistan’s politicians decided General Khan had gone too far, and the country went back to being “Islamic”.
Islamist ideologues began to see electoral democracy as an asset. Maududi continued to condemn what he described as Pakistan’s “Hinduistic, western semi-feudalistic and semi-capitalistic foundation.” He thought, however, that democratic mobilisation could bring change. “For this,” he wrote in 1960, “the first prerequisite would be to acknowledge and restore the sovereignty of god over the state”
Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto realised this desire: his 1973 Constitution declared Islam the state religion, and voided laws repugnant to the Shari’a. Bhutto committed the state to teaching Islam, and set up a Council on Islamic Ideology to bring secular laws into line with religion.
General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, which included the Jama’at-e-Islami, saw the Islamic state consolidate itself, with a new system of theocratic institutions and codes that superseded secular law. He also made the Pakistani state a patron of Islamist causes, notably the jihad in Afghanistan.
Bhutto’s death-row testament makes clear General Zia’s state emerged from within the dominant zeitgeist. “We were on the verge of full nuclear capability when I left the government to come to this death cell,” the former Prime Minister wrote. “The Christian, Jewish and Hindu civilisations have this capability. Only the Islamic civilisation was without it.”
It is improbable the Difa movement will dethrone Pakistan’s democratic establishment, as Gen. Zia did in 1974. President Zardari’s government has genuine bases of support. Rural incomes have risen; social security schemes have put cash in the hands of large chunks of the rural poor; landless peasants continue to be bound to the PPP’s politicians by ties of deference and economic dependence.
The fact, however, is that Pakistan’s democratic politicians have shown no stomach for a frontal confrontation with the ideas of the religious-right — and without this rupture, the growth of Islamist influence will remain inexorable. Pakistani politicians have long thought Islam is the glue that holds the nation together — a quasi-religious faith that has survived the secession of East Pakistan, multiple crises in Balochistan and murderous jihadist violence.
Evidence that liberal-democratic silence is allowing toxic Islamism to suffuse civil society isn’t hard to find. Last week, Lahore’s bar association barred the sale of soft drinks made by Ahmadiyya-owned firms, while a 14-year-old was imprisoned for flying a kite — a small pleasure the religious right-wing has long railed against.
In the wake of the 1953 crisis, Justice Muhammad Munir and Justice Mohammad Rustam Kayani made this observation: “as long as we rely upon the hammer when a file is needed and press Islam into service to solve situations it was never intended to solve, frustration and disappointment must dog our steps”.
Pakistan’s liberal-democratic rulers need to listen to that message.