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Monday, April 4, 2016

The politics of religious parties

Street activism demonstrated by a number of religious groups and parties identifying with the Barelvi traditions in Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore in the last week of March, 2016, has underlined the need of reviewing the role of religious political parties in Pakistan. Political groups in the Barelvi traditions are generally critical of Taliban-type militancy and support army action against such groups in the tribal areas. However, the March 2016 developments showed that these groups also resorted to violence to pursue their religio-political agenda.

Religious political parties are an important feature of Pakistan’s political landscape. Their number has proliferated since the early years of independence. With the exception of the Jamaat-e-Islami, religious political parties and groups invariably identify with a particular religious denominational or sectarian group; there can be more than one party with the same religious sectarian identity.

In addition to their mutual competition, these parties are squeezed from both sides. On the one hand, the nationwide and regional/ethnic political parties cultivate support that cuts across religious-sectarian, ethnic and regional identities. A large number of people prefer these political parties rather than religious parties. On the other hand, religious political parties are under pressure from hardline groups that espouse violence, if needed, to pursue their religious and political agendas. Those with strong religious orientations tend to lean towards these. Some activists shuttle between religious political parties and militant and jihadi groups.

All religious political parties advocate an Islamic socio-political and economic order for Pakistan and express varying degrees of reservations on the notion of the ‘Islamic Republic’ as set out in the Constitution of Pakistan. They talk of an Islamic order in broad terms to reflect their aspirations, or discuss its features at a level of abstraction. However, they diverge when it comes to translating the abstract principles or their assertions and pronouncements into a codified constitutional and legal system, institutional arrangements and processes of an Islamic system needed for running a state in the 21st Century. They have not been able to produce a shared constitutional and legal document as an alternative to the existing constitutional and legal system.

Religious political parties have weak electoral standing. No religious party has ever been able to secure more than a few seats in the provincial and national elections. Their performance is better when they build a nationwide or regional partnership or when they enjoy the blessings of a military government. If they create a coalition of their own, their electoral performance improves.

Several reasons explain their dismal electoral performance. Religious political parties cannot make a credible claim that they are the only saviours of Islam. The major political parties do not disown Islam. The PML and its various factions, along with the PPP, the PTI, the MQM and others, do not reject the identification of the Pakistani state with Islam. Their vision of an Islam-oriented political order diverges from that of religious political parties. The notion of a secular system in the Marxian sense has never been popular in Pakistan. Most nationwide and regional political parties talk of religious and cultural tolerance and socio-economic justice and the notion of equality.

All political parties recognise the 1973 Constitution as the basic law of Pakistan which provides theoretical as well as institutional arrangements for deep connections between the Pakistani state system and Islam. There is a definite guarantee for the Islamic character of the Pakistani political system that takes steam out of the slogan of some religious parties and militant groups that Pakistan is being turned into a secular system.

Most religious parties have a religious-sectarian identity that restricts the party to the people with a strong religious-sectarian orientation. Others, who do not share the religious orientations of the party, stay away from it. Religious political parties compete with one another on the basis of religious outlook, sectarian identity and personality of the leader. Even within each sect, there are more than one party, making competition more narrowly focused.

Religious parties have an image problem. Not many people, particularly the educated, trust religious leaders as having enough political acumen and an understanding of the dynamics of domestic and global politics. They tend to join the nationwide or regional political parties in a very large number. The religious parties have to compete with one another to build support from highly conservative religious circles. With some exceptions, many religious parties either sympathise with militant groups or maintain an ambiguous disposition towards these groups. This alienates a good number of people from these parties. The strength of religious parties lies in having street power of loyal activists and madrassa students. The parties that have links with madrassas and mosques tend to develop more political clout. Some parties have made inroads into government universities and colleges to recruit young people to their fold.

The strength of religious parties increased during the military rule of General Ziaul Haq, when he joined with the US and Middle Eastern states to build Afghan-Islamic resistance to Soviet troops in Afghanistan. It was during this period that the Jamaat-e-Islami and some other religious parties that were involved in the first Afghan ‘jihad’ or enjoyed the blessings of the military regime, strengthened their position as money and weapons flowed to selected religious parties and militant groups.

Some of these parties continued to maintain relations with militant groups even after the end of the first Afghan ‘jihad’ and extended support to al Qaeda and Taliban activists when they entered Pakistan from Afghanistan, after the US launched its air attack on Afghanistan in October 2001.

The recent use of violence by some religious parties with Barelvi traditions has created a spectre of increased protest and violence. However, the success of their protest depends on their capacity to muster support from other political parties. Their active role in the anti-Ayub and anti-Bhutto movements made a political impact because they were working alongside nationwide political parties. Similarly, some religious parties have exercised power at the federal or provincial levels, in collaboration with nationwide and regional political parties, or by either joining hands with military regimes or enjoying their blessings. Religious parties can make life difficult for any government because of their cadres but none can, on their own, come to power through elections.

By Hasan Askari Rizvi; an independent political and defence analyst. He is also the author of several books, monographs and articles on Pakistan and South Asian affairs

Published in The Express Tribune


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