When the US military launched its air strikes against Afghanistan in October 2001, waves of anger started spilling into Pakistan’s streets. Demonstrations often started after Friday prayers, where mullahs’ speeches branded the US forces as “enemies of God” who seek to establish their hegemony over Muslims’ land.
While Pervez Musharraf, then the country’s military chief, aligned the country on the US side in what was called the “war on terror”, many Pakistanis who opposed the war found an echo in the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA – United Council for Action), a coalition grouping together Pakistan’s five religious political parties. In the subsequent parliamentary elections in October 2002, it won the majority (65 of 124 seats) in the Provincial Assembly of Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province (NWFP).
There were also other reasons leading to the MMA’s success. “Above all, the unity the religious parties showed in their ranks lead to better results,” says Amirul Azim, information secretary of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s oldest religious party. The MMA coalition was formed to oppose Musharraf’s alliance with the US.
Then there was Musharraf’s policy at the time to marginalize secular parties by barring from the elections exiled former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), and Benazir Bhutto, head of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which created a vacuum benefiting the Islamic parties.
“But one thing is quite clear,” says Professor Khurshid Ahmad, vice president of the Jamaat-e-Islami. “The MMA has come to power democratically and with the overwhelming support of the masses. It did not enter the corridors of power through some back door.”
Founded by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi in 1941, the Jamaat-e-Islami seeks to implement the Islamic Sharia law through a democratic process. Frederic Grare, a French expert on South Asia who has served in the French embassy in Islamabad and who specializes in Islamic movements, writes: “A distinction should be made between religiously inspired political parties and organizations, and sectarian or jihadi groups. Political parties participate in electoral politics and seek power and influence through democratic means; jihadi groups resort to violence.
“Links exist between the two: jihadi groups are often (but not always) the fists of political organizations. Notwithstanding occasional mutual reinforcement, politico-religious parties play legitimate roles and will be important to Pakistan’s democratization, but sectarian or jihadi groups behave outside the legitimate bounds of any civilized polity.”
Professor Khurshid sums up his party’s ideology: “Maulana Maududi’s objective was to establish a welfare state that is loyal to Allah and to his Prophet and that is directed towards the wellbeing of the people,” he says, “because Sharia is a blessing, and stands for education and justice. That is the reality. And our policy is very close to all those who struggle for justice, liberty and the moral integrity of humanity, including non-Muslims.”
Islam and Pakistan’s constitution
Islam played a central role in the foundation of Pakistan, which, in 1947, was de facto intended to be a homeland for Muslims on the Indian subcontinent.
In the words of the nation’s father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, “the creation of a State of our own was a means to an end and not the end in itself. The idea was that we should have a State in which we could live and breathe as free men and which we could develop according to our own lights and culture and where principles of Islamic social justice could find free play.”
Hamid Gul, who headed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from 1987 to 1989, and who promotes the implementation of “the golden practices enshrined in the Quran and the Sunnah,” says: “We wanted to get a piece of land where we could try out the Islamic system,” adding, “there is nothing wrong with Sharia, because Sharia does not mean a clergy rule; it means the sovereignty belongs to Allah.”
Professor Khurshid Ahmad explains how the process of enforcing the Islamic system was engineered: “Pakistan’s constitution was made a document that is Islamic, democratic, federal and oriented towards people’s welfare.”
The next step was to pave the way for implementing Islam: “It must be done through the rule of law, not by force,” he says. “For that, we have established the Federal Shariat Court, the Islamic Ideological Council and the Directive Principle of State Policy.”
Today, although Pakistan is not a Sharia-based state, its constitution “derives its inspirations from the Quran and Sunnah,” as political analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi puts it. “There is no law that is in conflict with the basic principles of Islam. And if some aspects of Sharia are turned into law, then that becomes applicable.”
A mullah-military alliance?
Secular opponents rebuke politicians and lawmakers for their use of religion to achieve political aims. There has always been a commitment from the politicians’ side to make the country an “ideological state”, they argue.
They especially point their finger at the army, asserting the existence of a “mullah-military alliance”. In Pakistan the army is, to many people’s dissatisfaction, a powerful institution deeply involved in the state’s politics. Pervez Musharraf has been the fourth military ruler in the country’s short lifetime after Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia-ul Haq.
The “alliance” was reinforced by events and actions ranging from the exacerbation of religious antagonism between Hindus and Muslims from Pakistan’s early years on, to Zia-ul Haq’s “Islamization” of Pakistan’s legal and educational systems and Pakistan’s involvement in Afghanistan under his regime, where the army, the mujahideen – and, incidentally, the Americans – fought against a common enemy, the Soviets.
A leading advocate of the “mullah-military alliance” theory is Professor Husain Haqqani, former advisor to Pakistani prime ministers, including Benazir Bhutto, and newly appointed ambassador to the United States.
Very much a promoter of a secular, civilian regime, Haqqani blames this “alliance” for the country’s failure to develop a sustainable economy and democracy when compared to India and Bangladesh. In his book, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, he writes: “Religious fervor did not motivate all Pakistani leaders who supported this strategy; in most cases, they simply embraced Islam as a politico-military strategic doctrine that would enhance Pakistan’s prestige and position in the world.”
Today, he writes, although Musharraf apparently intends to move Pakistan away from its jihadist past, he continues to use Islamists for political purposes, believing that secular politicians are his rivals for political power.
None of the claimed alliance’s members agrees with this theory. If there were such an alliance, a man at its centre would be the Islamist General Hamid Gul. “Don’t call it an alliance – this is ridiculous,” he says, arguing that there is no nefarious objective.
He suggests an interesting explanation for the occasional cooperation between Islamists and the regime. For him, Pakistan was a means; Islam was the end; and not the reverse.
“The armed forces and institutions are conservative and draw their strength from Islam,” he says. “Its members may belong to one political party or they may not belong to the political party, but Islam runs in the blood of every Muslim.”
Referring to the cooperation between the army and religious parties, he says, “Pakistan’s army has a natural incitation towards these people because they are the ones who stand with them, whereas the enlightened moderates in the world of Pervez Musharraf are shy of putting their weight behind the armed forces. For instance, when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, they were not in line with Zia-ul Haq’s policy. Religious mullahs, on the other hand, were in line because their voters had always had an Islamic orientation.
“Even in America, the Republicans always lean towards the army, while the Democrats do not. In the UK, it is the Conservatives who lean towards the army. Similarly, in Pakistan, Islamists lean towards the army, and the army towards them. And it will continue – I can assure you.”
But Islamists do not endorse being linked to military rulers. They even distance themselves from General Zia-ul Haq, who enforced the Nizam-e-Islam (Islamic system) during his 11-year rule. “Zia-ul Haq was a military ruler. We did not support him,” Amirul Azim says. “You can’t even point out a single person in the Islamic parties who was brought up under the umbrella of Zia-ul Haq or Musharraf.”
Under Musharraf, the relationship has considerably deteriorated. In response to the allegation that Musharraf has secured his mandate with Islamists’ help, Professor Khurshid says, “The only time we cooperated with Musharraf was for the 17th constitutional amendment (in 2003) through which we intended to bring the military regime under the rule of the constitution. But General Musharraf betrayed us, breaking his promise that, by 1 December 2004, he would resign from his position in the army.”
Furthermore, it is asserted that the MMA’s five-year term in NWFP – it was the first time in Pakistan’s history that religious parties assumed power – was characterized by challenges from the federal government.
Frustration is the real danger
Social reform was on the top of the coalition’s agenda. A major step was the modification of the structure of the province’s budget. The category of welfare was added beside the two conventional ones – administration and development. “This is the category that Omar ibn al Khattab – Islam’s second caliph – introduced into the state economy,” Professor Khurshid says. “We were able to mobilize 52% of the inward budget for welfare, which involves education, health and other services. The education budget, for instance, was increased by 300%.”
Despite these achievements, and although the situation was not different in Pakistan’s three other provinces – Punjab, Baluchistan and Sindh – the mullahs were unable to fulfill peoples’ aspirations. In the last elections (18 February 2008), it was the secular Awami National Party (ANP) that took over power in the NWFP’s Provincial Assembly.
But the MMA’s reduction in influence started long before. “Our situation was best in the first four years,” Professor Khurshid says. “In the last year it deteriorated because of American intervention in the tribal areas and the use of force by the military regime.”
Additionally, the loss of power in February 2008 was less a verdict from the people than a consequence to the MMA parties’ withdrawal from the National Assembly in protest against President Musharraf’s decision to be elected by the out-going National Assembly. The only religious party that contested the elections was Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), which scored a total of six seats out of 336 in the National Assembly.
Even during the first four years of power, Professor Khurshid blames the “real financial constraints as well as the administrative control from the federal government” for having “handicapped the MMA’s performance.” The state chief secretary and the chief of police were appointed by the federal government, he says, and 93% of the province’s budget was administered by the federal government, while the provincial authority had control of only 7%.
Whatever the relationship between religious leaders and the regime is called, and whatever influence religion has on politics, there is one thing on which Pakistanis agree: practices are not in compliance with the law.
The constitution is constantly suspended and reshaped by military rulers, judges are sacked and the judiciary lacks independence, all this fuelling corruption. This spiraling process is frustrating people.
The danger is that, if democracy fails to bring about change, people might be forced to believe that force is the only way to rid the country of injustice.
© 2008 Asma Hanif