Religious intolerance, sectarian violence and radical Islamic parties threaten to undermine the democratic reforms on which Pakistan’s stability depends.
Islamic Parties in Pakistan, the latest International Crisis Group report, examines the internal workings, policies and agendas of these parties, and their relationship with the state, particularly the military, in order to assess how they maintain political influence despite limited electoral support. Due to their ability to mobilise street power and influence public institutions, Islamic parties, particularly the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam-Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F), but also the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) remain significant political entities with narrow partisan agendas that they are willing to defend through violence. Equally important, they share the ideological goal of enforcing Sharia (Islamic law), while maintaining sizeable madrasa and mosque networks that are breeding grounds for extremist groups that threaten the country’s stability.
“Sectarian politics are, in fact, becoming increasingly violent, as more Islamic parties and groups espouse militancy as the most effective method to promote their interests”, says Samina Ahmed, Crisis Group’s South Asia Project Director. “The majority of Islamic parties are far from abandoning the concept of militant jihad or cutting their ties to local and regional militants, including sectarian extremists, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked jihadi outfits”.
Reforms during military rule, particularly General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation process (1979-1986), fundamentally altered the structure of the constitution and the legal system, giving Islamist forces new sources of influence and a political role disproportionate to their popular support. Around 25 Islamic parties are now involved in domestic politics in some form. A large part of their agenda is to prevent a rollback of those reforms. Largely independent of electoral results, their influence lies in their ability to pressure governments from outside parliament or by entering into politically expedient alliances with the two largest mainstream parties that are moderate on religious issues: the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
While their agenda and hence their popular appeal remain limited, the Islamic parties could still benefit from destabilisation of the democratic transition. To reduce religious intolerance and sectarian violence, enforce the rule of law, and strengthen democratic governance, the PPP, which controls the central government in Islamabad, should adopt a policy of zero tolerance towards all forms of religious discrimination, prosecute any individual or political party encouraging or supporting violence and require Islamic parties to disband their militant wings.
Zia’s discriminatory legislation remains one of the biggest tests for the PPP, a party that has repeatedly pledged to uphold the basic rights of all citizens and curb religious extremism. If the Pakistani state is to tackle these issues, its legislative branch should prioritise ameliorating discriminatory Islamic laws still in effect and pass a constitutional amendment to abolish the Federal Shariat Court.
“An Islamist takeover in Pakistan is highly unlikely, whether through militant violence or the ballot box”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “But as long as the Islamic parties are able to pressure governments, through parliamentary and/or often violent street politics, they will continue to obstruct vital democratic reforms, thus reinforcing an environment in which religious intolerance, vigilantism, and militancy thrive, the rule of law continues to deteriorate, and elected governments are unable to stabilise that vital country”.