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With Religious Groups Entering The Electoral Fray, Pakistan’s Polity Is Tilting Sharply


By Khaled Ahmed

April 15, 2017

A much-admired Canadian cousin of mine, Khan Zia, has written to inform me of research that finds Pakistan among the most “racially tolerant” societies in the world: “About 6.5 per cent of Pakistanis said they would not like to have a neighbour from a different race. In India, on the other hand, more than 40 per cent of people would apparently not like it” (Max Fisher, The Washington Post, May 15, 2013).

I would agree that in Pakistan, people don’t mind being near a person who looks different. When foreigners are served advisories by their countries about not going to Pakistan, these are not based on “racial intolerance” but on terrorism and the tendency of terrorists to kidnap foreigners — especially white, belonging to a rich country — and quite a few Japanese visitors have been kidnapped in Pakistan in the past.

The inward intolerance is not racial — but it can be religious. A shopping plaza in Lahore has put up a notice on its glass-front, recommending the state force Ahmadi citizens to wear a special dress, so that they could be identified easily and treated insultingly. This intolerance is religion-based and can extend to Shias and Christians in certain parts of the country. On the road from Peshawar to Parachinar, people have been killed on the basis of name endings, discerned from their national identity cards.

Zia has sent another important insight about religious parties not winning elections in Pakistan, perhaps disabusing me of excessive alarm about them: “You cannot judge a country by its fringe (sic!) elements. Prior to the 1945 general election, Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani of Darul Uloom Deoband, the fountainhead of Islamic extremism, declared it haram to vote for the Muslim League. Yet 90 per cent voted for it and Pakistan from every corner of India. The situation has not changed. In every election since then, less than 10 per cent of Pakistanis have cast their votes for the religious parties.”

He draws the following conclusion: “Pakistanis are among the most tolerant people in the world — more than in France, Germany and Holland. Only Norway, Sweden and Britain have a higher rating.” I mildly object to his mixing racial tolerance with religious tolerance. It is true that Pakistan’s religious parties don’t get to make governments and are now leaning for power on other means related to the Constitution of Pakistan. Under the British Raj, Muslim faith grew in darul ulooms (madrasas) that actually organised the Khilafat Movement, impressing Mahatma Gandhi enough into owning it. But the progressive, secretly pro-Home Rule British bureaucracy encouraged the formation of political parties. After the Congress, the Muslims formed the Muslim League, but its followers were still wont to address Jinnah as Maulana Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

The “unreality” of the Khilafat Movement’s clerical charter — which repelled the England-educated lawyers Jinnah and Muhammad Iqbal equally — taught the clerics a few lessons of realism. One lesson was: To stay out of politics where the principle of compromise set them on the edge. Madani became a realist and thought the Hindus and Muslims of India were one nation rather than two. Others, like Amin Ahsan Islahi, thought politics should be shunned. He fell out with Maududi when the latter took his Jamaat-e-Islami to the polls in Pakistan.

This happened to the Muslim Brotherhood too in Egypt, before it became the dominant political party. The Muslim mind, like the European mind, somehow still doesn’t accept clerics as politicians. But over time, power in Pakistan has become less related to the electoral process. There are two reasons for this: The Islamisation of the constitution and the empowerment of the madrasa through jihad. The embedding of the sharia in the constitution has taken the normal interpretive authority away from the judiciary and vested it with the madrasa, where a fatwa can be issued, although no law allows it. This has influenced the politician as well as the judiciary. The political party too, by adopting the plank of orthodox Islam, steals the thunder of the religious party.

The Muslim League has grabbed the Punjab vote that, by rights, belonged to the Jamaat-e-Islami headquartered in Lahore; it has done so by becoming more conservative-Islamic than Jinnah could ever have imagined. Many judges in the high courts look like religious leaders; a “liberal” judge, like the early Justice Muhammad Munir, would be an anachronism now. The name-endings of some Supreme Court judges today inspire reverence.

As power came from a deniable jihad, religious parties could afford to rest on the margins. But now, as the state of Pakistan reacts against the jihadi “recoil”, two terrorist-declared outfits are ready to become political parties, hoping to secure more votes at the polls than the Jamaat-e-Islami.

The Sipah-e-Sahaba or Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, dominant in South Punjab but also ascendant in Parachinar, Kurram Agency, has announced its changeover into a political party. Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa, allowed to become dominant in Sindh, has similar plans. Like the religious parties in the Knesset of “constitution-less” Israel, they plan to rule through coalitions in Pakistan, under an Islamic constitution.


Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’