The South Asia Channel

The mosque and the state

There seems to be some disagreement between Pakistan’s extremists over participation in the May 11 elections. Pakistani Taliban spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan recently told Pakistanis to boycott the elections because democracy is un-Islamic, while Maulana Sami ul-Haq, a conservative cleric who runs a religious seminary that trained many Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, said in a follow-up ...

FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images

There seems to be some disagreement between Pakistan’s extremists over participation in the May 11 elections. Pakistani Taliban spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan recently told Pakistanis to boycott the elections because democracy is un-Islamic, while Maulana Sami ul-Haq, a conservative cleric who runs a religious seminary that trained many Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, said in a follow-up statement that voting is a religious obligation.   

Could it be that the Taliban’s brutal attacks on politicians belonging to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) coalition have actually been detrimental to the wider extremist movement in Pakistan? The attacks definitely handicap religious parties, who often share sympathies and ideologies with the Taliban, at a time when they could potentially capitalize on staunch public disappointment with the outgoing government’s performance.

While religious parties lost big in the 2008 elections, they probably anticipated some role for themselves in the next government, which is likely to be led by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, a conservative political party known for its own "special relationship" with extremists. Religious parties were further bolstered by a survey conducted by the British Council earlier this year revealing that 38 percent of Pakistani youth surveyed believed Islamic law is better suited for Pakistan than democracy.

Instead, Taliban attacks have likely increased chances of a high sympathy vote for the secular parties, a dynamic that helped usher in the PPP coalition in 2008 following the tragic death of Benazir Bhutto.

Why is it, though, that the extremists are not speaking with one voice? The commonsense – and most likely – argument is that they are just plain unorganized. Even though many of Haq’s students joined the Taliban movement, it’s doubtful that he has direct influence over the Taliban command and control structure – hence the very public statements contradicting the official Taliban position.

Let’s not forget that Haq is a politician who leads his own political party and previously served in the Senate. His statements are more a warning for his former students than anyone else to not ruin his chances or those of the others who have been sitting on the sidelines for several years. A return to politics means a chance to advance the ideological agenda of the religious right, but it also allows individuals like Haq and his friends to benefit from state resources, foreign aid flows, and other "perks" of being in power.   

No one expects the religious right to take over…yet. Religious parties never have much success in Pakistani elections. Furthermore, the likelihood of a General Zia ul-Haq figure emerging on the scene is low. Zia, the military dictator who introduced a conservative interpretation of shariah law in several areas of Pakistani culture and law, began the trend of mixing religion with politics as a tool of state power. The approach engendered a vast network of militants that fought mostly Pakistan’s battles while invoking the name of Islam; some were also used by the United States in pushing the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, while others advanced their own sectarian agendas. 

While no one can compete with Zia’s quasi-theocratic feat at the moment, religion and politics still mix – and badly. Pakistan’s long relationship with militants and its cooperation with the United States in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001 have engendered a new breed of religious right – those against the state, namely the Pakistani Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

It is because of this shift in the state’s relationship with militants that the Pakistani military has a clear interest in strengthening the religious right’s political chances. Could the likes of Sami ul-Haq and other religious political parties convince the Pakistani Taliban to stop attacking the Pakistani military, secular politicians, and ordinary citizens? Don’t bet money on it, but in February the Taliban did say they would participate in talks with the military if they would be mediated by one of the following individuals: Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz President Nawaz Sharif, Jamaat-e-Islami leader Syed Munawar Hasan, or Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

The talks did not happen. Instead, the Pakistani military began an operation in the Tirah Valley where numerous security officials and militants have died. It is becoming harder and harder for the Pakistani military to respond to battlefield challenges by militants who now want access to the ballot box too. In addition to militant leader Hafeez Saeed’s new "political career," dozens of individuals with alleged links to militant organizations have filed papers for the elections.

The entrée of such unsavory characters into Pakistani politics would not be a first, but it would be the wrong direction for a country that is still testing a rapidly evolving democratic culture and also trying to clarify the role of religion in politics. Islam, after all, is inextricable from Pakistan’s history. The country was formed in 1947 as part of a political push by Muhammad Ali Jinnah to establish a homeland for the Indian subcontinent’s impoverished Muslims. General Kayani, Chief of Army Staff, reiterated this point last week when he told the country’s premier military academy that "Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and Islam can never be taken out of Pakistan."

Many believed Kayani’s remarks justified religious extremism. This can hardly be the whole truth given the losses the military has suffered fighting the Pakistani Taliban. But the skepticism provoked by his remarks illustrates just how damaged religion and politics has become in Pakistan.

If extremists can take advantage of this characterization of Pakistan to advance their violent agendas, then surely the country’s secular parties and government institutions can strengthen themselves against the militant threat in the name of Islam as well. But with extremists such as the members of the banned sectarian group, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, fielding candidates in this week’s elections, such progress does not appear imminent.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010-2011.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and Senior South Asia Fellow at New America. She served as Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010 – 2011.

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