Politics in Pakistan is marked not simply by its religion, but rather its fragmented identity and a strong military, which has grown out of Pakistan’s need to secure itself.
Seventy years later we are still struggling to answer the question, who is Pakistan? In a sense, Pakistan is a paradox, cut between its religious identity and its need to formulate a state. Unlike India, it did not declare itself as a secular democracy but at the same time, it also failed to define its religious identity. Nationalism and Islam have often found themselves in opposition in the Pakistani state, creating a grave identity crisis. Even Jinnah was ambivalent about the role Islam should play in defining Pakistan’s identity; sometimes he claimed Pakistan should be based on the ‘principles of Islam,’ while on another occasion he portrayed Pakistan to be a secular state, ‘you are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan.’ This meant that from its very existence Pakistan faced an ‘ontological insecurity’ being unable to create a stable identity for itself. This conflicted identity and highlighted insecurity then impregnated Pakistani politics to define its domestic and foreign policies.
While Islam has not been the driver of shaping politics in Pakistan, those in power have alluded to religion in order to wield their political interests. In part, it was believed religion would override all cultural differences in Pakistan. However, it became very apparent that the limited notion of Islam would come into conflict with the other forms of identity people attached themselves with. If Pakistan was to distinguish itself as a democratic state, it would diminish the role Islam would play as an organising factor to mobilise political action. While there was no definitive made as to what Islam’s role would be, the political representation of cultural identities was suppressed. Therein lay the roots of Pakistan’s problems; its failure to accommodate ethnic diversity and provisional autonomy, which has led to a mobilisation of ethnic nationalism.
Bangladesh and Baluchistan both presented a threat to the Pakistani state. In the absence of a common identity, the ‘self’ was projected in negative terms against India as the ‘Hindu’ other. The belief that India would mobilise internal threats to break Pakistan blurred the distinction between internal and external threats, pushing Pakistan to increase its military expenditure, while creating a civil-military imbalance.
To say that religion alone is what shaped these dynamics of Pakistani politics would be reductionist. One cannot discount the colonial legacy when accounting for the imbalance between the civil-military rule, where Pakistan inherited a larger share of the Punjabi military in comparison to gaining stronger political institutions. Although what institutionalised the military rule and embedded an existential threat in Pakistan were the wars that it faced at an early stage in 1965, 1971 and 1999.
Even though it is correct to assert that the military did use the language of religion and that of Jihad against India it was much less for religious reasons and more so to achieve the domestic legitimacy that the military rule otherwise lacked. One should look towards Pakistan’s realpolitik and the way military has influenced Pakistan’s strategic interests to understand the political dynamics in the country. Pakistan, lacking the military capability to match India in a conventional war, has made use of Islamist insurgents to create proxy wars to achieve its strategic interests.
Sitting between the mosque and military, Pakistan often finds herself in a game of tug of war. Islam has never been a monolithic idea in Pakistan. While the religious parties and ullemahs have pushed for an Islamic state underlined by the Sharia Law, the secular-minded leaders just want to acknowledge the cultural existence of religion in the state. Moreover, religious groups are multifaced in Pakistan, each having their own notion of what the Islamic State of Pakistan should look like. These religious groups like Jamaat and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) (JUI-F) further differ from Islamist groups. This is because unlike the Islamist groups they participate in elections.
Islamist groups are mostly localised and do not operate within the formal institutions of the state, therefore, the military does not have complete control over them. Over time these groups have grown and become so fragmented that most of them do not even operate under Pakistan’s command, while some have also started to attack the Pakistani state. Where it has not been able to command Islamist groups, the military has been successful to an extent in controlling religious groups by bringing them into the political process. One such group is the Muthahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).
Even though religious parties have limited electoral success in Pakistan they can portray a disproportionate amount of influence over political decisions. This is because they can effectively mobilise a political base by using an ‘Islamic identity’ and pressurising the martial government in accepting aspects of Islamic reforms. However, the rise of MMA into the political mainstream reflects the ability of the state to bring Islamist groups into the political process. What explained MMA’s success in 2002, rather than that of previous religious groups?
External factors did help mobilise an Islamist alliance in 2002 against the war in Afghanistan and the American invasion, however, domestic factors accounted more for the rise of MMA. The formation of the MMA alliance benefited the Musharraf regime and gave him the legitimacy the military dictatorship lacked. It helped to foster the idea in the US that Islamism was at a rise in the Frontier and that only a strong military could stop the emergence of such danger. Secondly, Musharraf saw the MMA as less of a threat compared to nationalist parties, PPP, PML-N, and ANP. The nationalist parties were only given a short amount of time to campaign for the elections, while MMA was given a freehand to capitalise on anti-American sentiments in the Frontier.
In this sense, with the state’s assistance MMA came into power. However, once in power MMA did not possess the ability to roll out its Islamic agendas. An example of this can be seen with the Hisbah Bill which the MMA wanted to pass. It wanted to establish an office of mohtasib, a religious scholar, to whom people could complain about any un-Islamic behaviour. In turn, the mohtasib would have the ultimate decision to examine documents and compel witnesses. However, the Hisbah Bill was rejected twice by the Supreme Court. Even though the bill did not become law, both the government and MMA were happy to keep the issue alive. For Musharraf, it displayed the opportunity to argue that Talibanisation of the Frontier was succeeding and push for his government of ‘enlightened modernisation’ as the only force against an Islamist threat, while MMA used the claim to argue that Shariah Law was just around the corner.
While it is not in the scope of this extract to access the reasons for the downfall of MMA, it is pertinent to note that its rise allows us to understand the dynamics between religious parties and those in power. Politics in Pakistan is marked not simply by its religion, but rather its fragmented identity and a strong military, which has grown out of Pakistan’s need to secure itself. While religious groups play an important role, they do not have much leeway. Religion must not be taken at face-value, rather it must be looked through the nations socio-political context and understood by the forces that wield and manipulate it in the political realm.
Mahso Gichki is a Research Assistant at The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs. She holds a first class BA degree in International Relations from King’s College, London.