Pakistan’s Oversized Islamist Parties
Pakistan’s radical Islamic parties may not do well at the ballot box but they exert outsized influence through their stranglehold on religious education and control over networks of violent militias that project their power onto the street.
The sway of these parties are key to understanding why Pakistan’s ruling secular parties, which have much larger popular appeal, continue to act so timidly when it comes to legislation that matters to Islamists.
For instance, attempts by secular-minded politicians to reform Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy law — which sanctions the death penalty for anyone found guilty of besmirching the name of the prophet Muhammad — have stopped dead in their tracks due to Islamist opposition.
In a report published Monday, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict resolution advocacy organization, takes a close look at these parties and recommends what Pakistan could do to curtail their power.
The problem is that few in Pakistan are listening.
To an outsider, the report’s recommendations seem common sense: regulate better the network of “madrassas,” or religious schools, these parties run; prosecute people for speeches that incite violence against religious minorities; require Islamist parties to disband their militant wings; and, most importantly, work to repeal the blasphemy law and other legislation that discriminates against non-Muslims.
But Pakistan’s secular political parties, including the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, remain cowed by what they view as the power of the Islamist parties to wreak havoc through violent protests across the country in defense of their religious prerogatives.
Those who have spoken out against the blasphemy laws — like former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who was gunned down in January by his police guard — risk their lives.
His killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was feted as a hero by Islamist parties, which organized street protests calling for Mr. Qadri’s release from custody. The judge who handed Mr. Qadri a death sentence in October had to take his family to Saudi Arabia after receiving death threats.
Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s new ambassador to the U.S., a year ago was pushing for the reform of the blasphemy law in Parliament. But she backed off, reportedly under pressure from Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s government, which feared a backlash in Punjab province, the heartland of the Islamist parties.
Yet Pakistan’s ruling politicians also are complicit in the current situation, where minority Islamist parties can hold the majority to ransom.
Secular parties often form alliances with hard-line religious groups for short-term electoral gain, giving their partners a veneer of credibility. The PPP, for instance, has tied up with the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, one of the largest Islamist parties. The International Crisis Group points out this kind of electioneering should stop immediately.
The army, which has ruled Pakistan directly for about half its history and remains a powerful force in politics, has played an even more important role in propping up Islamist groups to diminish the role of the secular parties.
A coalition of six Islamist parties won elections in 2002 in two provinces — Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan – due to army support, which helped rig the polls, the report said. Without army support in the 2008 polls, the Islamist parties were routed.
In some ways, the problems Pakistan faces go back to its founding as an Islamic state in 1947. Others point to the 1980s, when former dictator Gen. Zia-ul-Haq empowered the Islamist groups, making them more violent, and brought in more discriminatory religious legislation.
These policies have back-fired on Pakistan. Many of the militant groups the army backed to fight Indian troops in Kashmir have turned on the state, attacking army and intelligence targets in recent years.
Pakistan has taken some action to crackdown on these groups but more generally has allowed them to operate underground.
And when it comes to Islamist politicians, who claim to eschew violence and operate within the system, the state continues to court their support.
But, as the report points out, it’s these groups, through their intolerance-preaching madrassas and private militias, that are keeping Pakistan on a dangerous course.
DECEMBER 12, 2011, 5:26 PM IST