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Religion And Democracy In Pakistan – OpEd


Since 9/11, there has been a furious debate on the relationship between Islam and democracy. Many people have written on the issue. “To put it briefly, the significant democratic progress in countries such as Tunisia, Indonesia and others in Southeast Asia undermines the assertion that Islam and democracy are necessarily at odds with each other.” However, the case of Pakistan tells otherwise.

Since the beginning, religion has been entrenched into statecraft in Pakistan. The first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan passed the Objective Resolution on March 12, 1949. Since then, the Resolution has been the part of all the three constitutions of Pakistan namely the 1956, 1962 and 1973 Constitution. The Resolution weaved Islam into the polity and laid the foundations for future constitution-making in Pakistan. The original scheme of the relationship between the state and Islam under the Resolution was inclusive and egalitarian, and extended certain rights, liberties and safeguards to the minority in Pakistan. Furthermore, under the Resolution, Allah’s sovereignty has been accepted over the entire universe; and it was laid that Quran and Sunnah will guide the legislation and policy-making in Pakistan. Similarly, it recognized representative form of government and federal structure for Pakistan; it also recognized democracy to be introduced in Pakistan as enunciated by Islam.

Adoption of religion by state may lead to discrimination and persecution of religious minority and other sects within the same religion. For example, Zia’s Islamization programme was increasingly discriminatory against the religious minority and offended the Shia sect of Islam. In 1980, thousands of Shias gathered in front of the Parliament against several components of the Zia’s Islamization scheme. They ended their protest only when the government extended exemption to the Shias against such regulations as compulsory deduction of Zakat.

The genesis of the disruption of the democratic process and the consequent military rule in Pakistan could be traced to the religiosity of the Pakistani polity. In 1953, religiously motivated protests erupted against Ahmadis in Punjab. The protests went out of the control of the Punjab government and ultimately led to the imposition of martial law in Lahore. The martial law emboldened and opened the door for the military leadership to directly intervene in the civilian affairs. And since then, the military is intervening either directly or indirectly in the politics in Pakistan, which hinders the democratic development in Pakistan. Again in 1974, such protests erupted against Ahmadis throughout the country which ultimately led to the introduction of 2nd Amendment in the Constitution of 1973. Under the Amendment, Ahmadis were declared as a non-Muslim minority of Pakistan.

Similarly, Zial-Ul-Haq tried to legitimize his unconstitutional rule and elongate his stay in power through the introduction of his Islamization drive in Pakistan. In 2000s, under ‘Roshan Pakistan’ scheme General Pervaiz Musharraf tried to seek legitimacy for his military dictatorship by trying to reverse Zia’s Islamization program. However, he failed to reverse the process and instead generated an extremist response from the religious community. Even he failed to eradicate the religious and fundamentalist tendencies from his own institution. General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kiani, who was appointed by Musharraf as COAS, declared that Islam and Pakistan could not be separated; and that Pakistan Army is bound to protect both the territorial and ideological boundaries of the state.

Any endeavor to change the existing relationship between Islam and Pakistan may pose a serious challenge to a democratic government in Pakistan. Such endeavors may lead to the erosion of public support, which is must for democratic development, to an incumbent government. This is evident from the events that unfolded in the aftermath of the Electoral Reforms Act, 2017 which brought changes into the Khatm-E-Nabuwat related clauses in the oath for public representatives. The sitting government faced serious backlash from the people and other institutions.

Religious parties and interest groups were successful in invoking religious sentiments of the people against the government. Many MPs of the ruling party resigned from assemblies and joined the protesting religious groups. Even the military responded to it and declared that Army could not compromise on the finality of Prophet-hood of Muhammad (PBUH). The military was called by the federal government for aid to the civilian administration after the police failed to bring an end to the protest. However, the military showed increasing reluctance to disperse the protesters through crackdown and instead preferred a negotiated settlement to bring an end to the protest. To put in the words of Dr. Ishtiaq Husain, a prominent historian, the protest turned Pakistan into a mobocracy-rule of the mob.

Another example of how the religion and democracy interact in Pakistan could be Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification, which is considered by many as a blow to the democratic consolidation, from the office of Prime Minister. He was disqualified from the office by the Supreme Court of Pakistan under Article 62 f(1) which was introduced by General Zial-Ul-Haq under his Islamization drive. In 2010, under the 18th Amendment, the PPP suggested removal of all such conditions for qualification and disqualification of public representatives added by Zia-Ul-Haq to the Constitution of 1973. However, Nawaz Sharif allegedly opposed the initiative probably for a fear of losing the support of the religious constituency.

All these do not mean that Islam and democracy are necessarily incompatible with each other; rather it shows that how religion has been misused by the rulers and various interests groups for the promotion of their narrow political objectives without taking into consideration the harmful effects of their actions.

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2 thoughts on “Religion And Democracy In Pakistan – OpEd

  • June 18, 2018 at 11:30 pm

    The issue of democracy in Pakistan is more complex than a simple religion-based explanation offered in the op-ed post.

    The democratic process in the country have suffered repeated set backs at the hands of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, which is a secular institution in itself. With the exception of general Zia ul Haq, the military leadership (Ayub, Yahya, Musharaf, and even Kiyani, who is mentioned in the post) had little religious pretensions.

    Those who might claim that the military has close relationships with the religious extremist groups should note a few things. First, the history of toppling democratically elected governments in Pakistan goes all the way back to the time Field Marshal Ayub Khan when these groups were not around. Second, many avowedly secular countries have had links with the same extremist religious groups. The American CIA aided the Mujahedeen to inflict a military defeat on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Prior to 9/11 US had links with Taliban also. India supports the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a religious extremist group that has carried out many deadly attacks inside Pakistan. These links are to be seen in the broader geopolitical context rather than to be viewed as evidence of the religious orientation of the government in question.

    Second, Pakistan’s military has carried out one of the most successful counter-insurgency operations anywhere in the world against the religious extremist groups on its soil. This has led to a very significant decrease in the number of terrorist attacks in the country.

    The question then arises, why Pakistan’s democratic institutions are still weak and vulnerable? I feel that the reasons have little to do with the religious affiliations of its 200 million people. The factors responsible for the slow progress towards democratic governance are mostly structural or reflect poor policy choices of the past.

    Among the structural factors, the most important is that the political leadership that created Pakistan — the top leaders of the All India Muslim League – and who formed the early governments of Pakistan, were elected from constituencies that they left behind in India when they migrated to what is now Pakistan. With the exception of the founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah who is revered, the other politicians of the League had no local political base in the newly formed state of Pakistan. Following Jinnah’s death, which was a year after independence, these politicians showed little interest in electoral politics. They were easily pushed aside, first by civil the bureaucrats and then by the military.

    The early wars with India over Kashmir in 1948 and 1965, and the subsequent one in 1971 that led to dismemberment of Pakistan, created the need for a strong military. Pakistan’s foreign policy choices were greatly conditioned by having to deal with a powerful and hostile neighbor, India. Pakistan saw alignment as a way of balancing India – a strategy that led it into membership of western cold war alliances (SEATO and CENTO) and also got it into the Afghan imbroglios (both in the Soviet and post 9/11 eras). The United States while always paying lip service to the cause of democracy found it easier to deal with western trained, professional and secular generals rather than the chaotic, and populist, politicians who were not always pro-US. These developments strengthened the military’s hand, and prolonged the episodes when it was in power.

    Politicians on the other hand have been weak, mostly corrupt, and above all disunited. Their commitment to democracy did not go beyond grabbing power. The political parties are family dynasties and their lead politicians’ aim to hand over power to their heirs. The Intra-party democracy is a far cry, most party leaders are autocratic. While political competition is inevitable, the parties cannot remain united even on matters of principle – e.g. keeping military out of politics. But they certainly have the ability to do so albeit for short periods of time, as demonstrated by PPP and PML-N coming together in the face of post- election demonstrations that they feared had tacit support of the military.

    A salient feature of Pakistan’s polity has been the fractured and fragmented middle class. The middle class has found it a challenge to rise above ethnicity. The first fractures to appear in the middle class were between its segments in Eastern and Western wings of the country (that were geographically separated by a 1000 miles – that is why the structural, rather than religious, explanation of the slow progress of democracy in Pakistan is important. During the 80’s fragmentation occurred between the Northern and Southern (especially Karachi) segments of it. The members of middle class in the south were immigrants from India at the time of partition, and therefore, ethnic question was naturally very important.

    The result of middle class fracturing was dissipation of its political energy and its loss of clout in the political arena. However, at this time, the Pakistani middle class has achieved a size that matters in electoral politics, which in my opinion serves as the primary safeguard against the possibility of direct military takeover of the government, though this power is still not able to prevent the military from getting involved in political affairs.

    In the final analysis, democracy deepens gradually, and each country because of its own institutional history has had its own timescale to develop the institutions necessary for democracy to firmly establish itself. This is true of all democracies and not just of Pakistan. In Pakistan, despite the security challenges that created the need for a strong military, the pro-democracy public opinion has been able to force military dictators out of power. That Pakistan is headed towards general elections next month, and in all likelihood a second consecutive transition of power through the ballot, has a lot to democratic tradition slowly establishing itself. Moreover, the handing over of power before the upcoming elections to a caretaker prime minister who is not backed by the armed forces is a result of a rare consensus among the main political parties, especially PPP and the PML-N. The political parties in Pakistan are tainted by corruption scandals (including Panama leaks). They are down but not out.

    The struggle of Pakistan’s 200 million people for their political rights and for strengthening the democratic institutions is long and ongoing. The progress has been slow and marked by setbacks. This has to do with nuances of Pakistan’s institutional history, the challenges of nation-building, and its geographic location in a region that continues to be a geopolitical hot spot and a theater of great power rivalry. The reduction of this complex reality to a religion-based explanation alone is, in my view, simplistic.

  • June 20, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    I agree with this assessment of weak democratic institutions in Pakistan. Taking the reductionist approach and categorizing the current political landscape as religio-militaristic is bound to propagate an analysys that only serves geopolitical vested interests and their agenda. Kudos to Mr Riaz for debunking and blocking that line of thought which is an insult to anyone’s intelligence.


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