It is important that the open, secular parties make specific arrangements for representation of religious and ethnic minorities in parliament and in sharing public office. Under all circumstances, a clear distinction must be maintained between the private religious beliefs and the public rights and obligations of an individual
The shocking news that a senior faculty member of the Punjab University, Professor Iftikhar Baloch, was badly beaten up because the university disciplinary committee had expelled some goonda elements of the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) is a sad reminder of the overall decay of Pakistani society. If I am not mistaken, it was in 1970 that the IJT and other right-wing students raided the residence of the then Vice-Chancellor Allama Alauddin Siddiqui and manhandled him. Allama sahib was a pious Muslim with quite outspoken sympathy for an Islamic revival. That even he was not spared because he had tried to establish a modicum of law and order meant that much worse was on the way.
That proved to be very true in the years that followed. The IJT simply captured the Punjab University. This happened even when the PPP was in power in Pakistan under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In the 1980s the PPP lost out in Karachi University to even more violence-prone students associated with the MQM. The universities became the preserve of reactionary political parties. In the wider society the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a fanatical Sunni movement, clashed with Shia outfits such as the Sipah-e-Ahle Bait, which later changed its name to Sipah-e-Mohammad. Neither the violent politics of the IJT nor that of the Sipah-e-Sahaba or the Shia outfits would be possible without politics in general having moving towards extremism.
It is a matter of common observance that a political system that establishes fixed and exclusive majorities and minorities does not provide an incentive to disparate religious, ethnic and cultural groups to forge closer ties among themselves. Political parties that restrict membership on the basis of race, religion or sect insulate their members from other sections of the population. As a consequence, there is no incentive to mix politically to arrive at a common national agenda that can be shared by the nation. Accommodation of each other’s interests becomes a matter of sheer expediency instead of a self-evident principle of democratic politics.
No democracy can stabilise if its social base is fissured. The term nation becomes a misnomer when describing the aggregate population of a state, because a nation is not simply the sum-total of a given population; it is a political entity held together by shared emotions and a sense of solidarity. Democratic political parties are the medium through which individuals are socialised and groomed into becoming law-abiding citizens. Therefore, it is imperative that political parties competing for power should uphold rational interests and be open to all citizens. Individuals can voluntarily join them or leave them.
While the party that obtains a majority should have the right to rule, the opposition parties must be entitled to oppose it and be ready to provide alternative government. In an open political system, majorities and minorities should in principle reflect the result of an election. Consequently, permanent disability cannot be imposed on any section of the population to vote or compete for public office. This is not possible in a system where political parties represent exclusive and narrow religious interests. In such systems, religious majorities misuse the democratic process to tyrannise minorities.
The problem is of course that the Pakistani state itself is based on religious ideology and since 96 percent of Pakistanis are Muslims, one can wonder if it does not follow that Pakistani political parties would automatically be religious as well. The answer is that it does not follow that political parties should be religious. In Western Europe, where the population is 95 percent or more Christian, ethnic and religious parties that impose restriction on membership are considered anti-democratic. The most extreme among them are even banned, but even those that are allowed to function are shunned by mainstream political parties.
In contemporary western democracies, Christian democratic parties are an established feature of the multi-party political system. Such parties subscribe to the rules of the game of democratic politics; their membership is not restricted to Christians only; and, they uphold a set of social ethics deriving from Christianity rather than an ideology aiming at the establishment of a theocracy. More importantly, they do not challenge the inalienability of human rights, women’s rights and minority rights. In other words, they adhere to the separation of religion and state, and cater essentially to the secular interests of conservative sections of society.
In contrast, in a deeply-religious society such as the one that exists in Pakistan, it is far from clear if the rules of the democratic game are understood and accepted by individuals and their collectives such as religious and sectarian communities. Under the circumstances, religious political parties can be a dysfunctional factor in consensus building and nation building, because they obfuscate membership in the nation with membership in a religious community.
On the other hand, a democracy completely impervious to the facts of religious and ethnic diversity can marginalise the minorities even if open political parties constitute the political system. Therefore it is important that the open, secular parties make specific arrangements for representation of religious and ethnic minorities in parliament and in sharing public office. Under all circumstances, a clear distinction must be maintained between the private religious beliefs and the public rights and obligations of an individual.
As long as Pakistan declares itself an Islamic Republic and not simply a republic, discrimination will be part of its constitutional and legal processes and procedures. Israel is a democracy for Jews but orthodox Jewish laws impose several restrictions on freethinking Jews as well. The Arab minority is of course denied several rights, though they may be enjoying some freedoms that are denied to the Arabs by Arab regimes elsewhere in the Middle East.
In the case of Pakistan, the 96 percent Muslim majority is a misleading description that suggests compact solidarity. The distinctions between Barelvis, Deobandis and Ahle Hadith within the Sunnis, the Shia minority and the other religious minorities are politically significant and such differences can only be neutralised if the polity is neutral on matters of belief and political parties are open to all sects and religions. One can also argue that in educational institutions, student organisations should be prohibited from pedalling a political ideology. This should apply to all organisations and not just the IJT.
Ishtiaq Ahmed is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) and the South Asian Studies Programme at the National University of Singapore. He is also Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University. He has published extensively on South Asian politics. At ISAS, he is currently working on a book, Is Pakistan a Garrison State? He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org