ICG Report: Radical parties threaten Pakistan’s fragile democracy

Religious intolerance, sectarian violence and radical Islamic parties threaten to undermine the democratic reforms on which Pakistan’s stability depends.

Islamic Parties in Pakistan , the latest International Crisis Group report, examines the internal workings, policies and agendas of these parties, and their relationship with the state, particularly the military, in order to assess how they maintain political influence despite limited electoral support. Due to their ability to mobilise street power and influence public institutions, Islamic parties, particularly the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam-Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F), but also the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) remain significant political entities with narrow partisan agendas that they are willing to defend through violence. Equally important, they share the ideological goal of enforcing Sharia (Islamic law), while maintaining sizeable madrasa and mosque networks that are breeding grounds for extremist groups that threaten the country’s stability.

“Sectarian politics are, in fact, becoming increasingly violent, as more Islamic parties and groups espouse militancy as the most effective method to promote their interests”, says Samina Ahmed, Crisis Group’s South Asia Project Director. “The majority of Islamic parties are far from abandoning the concept of militant jihad or cutting their ties to local and regional militants, including sectarian extremists, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked jihadi outfits”.

Reforms during military rule, particularly General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation process (1979-1986), fundamentally altered the structure of the constitution and the legal system, giving Islamist forces new sources of influence and a political role disproportionate to their popular support. Around 25 Islamic parties are now involved in domestic politics in some form. A large part of their agenda is to prevent a rollback of those reforms. Largely independent of electoral results, their influence lies in their ability to pressure governments from outside parliament or by entering into politically expedient alliances with the two largest mainstream parties that are moderate on religious issues: the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

While their agenda and hence their popular appeal remain limited, the Islamic parties could still benefit from destabilisation of the democratic transition. To reduce religious intolerance and sectarian violence, enforce the rule of law, and strengthen democratic governance, the PPP, which controls the central government in Islamabad, should adopt a policy of zero tolerance towards all forms of religious discrimination, prosecute any individual or political party encouraging or supporting violence and require Islamic parties to disband their militant wings.

Zia’s discriminatory legislation remains one of the biggest tests for the PPP, a party that has repeatedly pledged to uphold the basic rights of all citizens and curb religious extremism. If the Pakistani state is to tackle these issues, its legislative branch should prioritise ameliorating discriminatory Islamic laws still in effect and pass a constitutional amendment to abolish the Federal Shariat Court.

“An Islamist takeover in Pakistan is highly unlikely, whether through militant violence or the ballot box”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “But as long as the Islamic parties are able to pressure governments, through parliamentary and/or often violent street politics, they will continue to obstruct vital democratic reforms, thus reinforcing an environment in which religious intolerance, vigilantism, and militancy thrive, the rule of law continues to deteriorate, and elected governments are unable to stabilise that vital country”.

Source: ICG


The ability of Pakistan’s radical Islamic parties to mount limited but potentially violent opposition to the government has made democratic reform, and by extension the reduction of religious extremism and development of a more peace­ful and stable society, more challenging. This is a reflection of those parties’ well-organised activist base, which is committed to a narrow partisan agenda and willing to defend it through violence. While their electoral support remains limited, earlier Islamisation programs have given them a strong legal and political apparatus that enables them to influence policy far beyond their numerical strength. An analysis of party agendas and organisation, as well as other sources of influence in judicial, political and civil society institutions, is therefore vital to assessing how Pakistan’s main religious parties apply pressure on government, as well as the ability and willingness of the mainstream parties that are moderate on religious issues to resist that pressure.

These parties’ ability to demonstrate support for their various agendas is an expression of coherent internal structures, policymaking processes and relations between the leadership and the rank-and-file. These aspects of party functioning are, therefore, as critical to understanding their role in the polity and prospects of influencing policy in the future as in understanding their relationship to the state.

The Islamic parties that are the subject of this report might operate within the current political order, but their ultimate aim is to replace it with one that is based on narrow, discriminatory interpretations of Islam. They have also taken equivocal positions on militant jihad: on the one hand, they insist on their distinction from militant outfits by virtue of working peacefully and within the democratic system; on the other, they admit to sharing the ideological goal of enforcing Sharia (Islamic law), while maintaining sizeable mad­rasa and mosque networks that are breeding grounds for many extremist groups.

Moreover, belying their claims of working peacefully, the major Islamic parties maintain militant wings, violent student organisations and ties to extremist groups, and have proved more than willing to achieve political objectives through force. After parlaying military support during the 1980s into significant political and legislative gains, and even absent military support and the electoral assistance that entailed, the parties have still been able to defend earlier gains through intimidation and violent agitation on the streets. In response, faced with their opposition, the mainstream moderate parties have often abandoned promised reforms while in government, or even made further concessions, such as the National Assembly’s constitutional amend­ment in 1974 declaring the Ahmadi sect non-Muslim.

Such compromises have not offset the pressure of the ulama (religious scholars), as intended, but only emboldened religious hardliners.

The success of the six-party Islamic coalition, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), in the 2002 elections in Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan was initially perceived to be testament to the Islamic parties’ power if they were unified in a single bloc. This result, however, was in fact due to massively rigged polls by the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf, which sought to sideline its main opposition, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Furthermore, the alliance, as reflected in its subsequent breakup, arguably revealed more about internal differences between the parties – particularly between the two largest and most influential, the revivalist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the orthodox Deobandi Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI) – than about their unity. Deprived of the military’s support in the 2008 polls, the MMA was routed by the PPP, PML-N and Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP).

Although the Islamic parties support the enforcement of Sharia, they represent different schools of thought, and their resulting acrimonious relations have resulted in intra-religious violence and created splinter factions that have weakened the original party or, in some cases, made it defunct. This has also diminished the likelihood of a restored alliance in the next general election. Nevertheless, the Fazlur Rehman-led faction of the JUI (JUI-F), the JI and smaller Islamic parties remain relevant due to their relative internal coherence; a committed hardcore base, including youth recruited through madrasas and, particularly in the JI’s case, university campuses; and the ability to leverage state institutions.

Their prospects for access to meaningful political power, however, still depend on military patronage. Should an ambitious high command decide to disrupt the current democratic dispensation, as in the past, it would likely rely on the Islamic parties to counter the mainstream moderate opposition. In a sustained democratic transition, however, the ability of these parties to influence the polity will depend on the effectiveness of the mainstream moderate parties to consolidate civilian rule and mobilise support for political and legal reform.

Discriminatory religious provisions and judicial and political structures such as the Federal Shariat Court and the Council of Islamic Ideology remain on the books and in frequent use. In the current climate, if the government is to fulfil earlier pledges to repeal discriminatory legislation, the mainstream parties, particularly the PPP and PML-N, will have to exploit their far greater and moderate popular base and create consensus on restoring and defending fundamental rights and equality for all citizens. Their success in rallying nationwide mass support against the Musharraf regime in 2007, ultimately effecting its ouster, demonstrates their capacity to do so. Building on the gains they have made with the return to civilian rule, both major parties should, adopt a policy of zero tolerance toward all forms of religious intolerance and extremism as a fundamental element of their efforts to stabilise a still fragile transition the success of which is vital to the country’s stability. But it will require far more active engagement with party activists and grassroots organisations to implement that policy.


To reduce religious intolerance and sectarian violence, enforce the rule of law, and strengthen democratic governance

To the Executive Branch of the Government of Pakistan:

1. Prosecute any individual or political party encouraging or supporting violence, including through hate speech and rallies against religious and sectarian minorities.

2. Require Islamic parties to disband their militant wings by invoking Article 256 of the constitution, prohibiting private militias; and take strong action against those that refuse, including disqualifying them from contesting elections.

3. Remove the ban on student unions but prosecute any student or student group engaging in hate speech or violence.

4. Revive earlier plans to reform the madrasa sector, specifically by:

a) registering all madrasas and enforcing transparent financial reporting requirements;

b) banning violent jihadi and sectarian teachings from syllabuses;

c) closing all madrasas affiliated with banned militant organisations and prosecuting their leaders, if sufficient evidence exists, under existing criminal law regarding violent acts or involvement in incitement to violence; and

d) keeping any madrasa suspected of links with militant jihadi groups under close surveillance.

To the Legislative Branch of the Government of Pakistan:

5. Repeal the Nizam-e-Adl 2009 establishing Sharia in the Malakand region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province and avoid any concessions to Islamic parties in the future that undermine basic constitutional rights and federal parliamentary democracy.

6. Ameliorate discriminatory Islamic laws that are still in effect by:

a) introducing and enforcing strict punishments for false/frivolous accusations of blasphemy or crimes under the Hudood Ordinances; and

b) ensuring a high level of protection for judges, prosecutors, witnesses and accused during trials under these laws.

7. Pass a constitutional amendment to abolish the Federal Shariat Court, whose functions to review legislation for repugnancy to Islam are covered by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII).

8. Ensure the impartiality of the Council of Islamic Ideology, so long as it remains in place, by:

a) prohibiting parliamentarians from serving as its chairperson; and

b) abiding by the letter and spirit of its constitution to ensure a diverse and representative membership, including judges, scholars and women.

To the Judicial Branch of the Government of Pakistan:

9. Develop a clear interpretation of the state’s authority to enforce Islamic moral values that is consistent with the Supreme Court’s 2006 decision on the Hisba Bill; and protect constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights by directing parliament, pursuant to such judicial doctrine, to repeal the Nizam-e-Adl 2009, the Hudood Ordinances and all discriminatory religious provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code.

To the Mainstream Political Parties of Pakistan, in particular the PPP and PML-N:

10. Cease partnerships for short-term political and electoral gain with Islamic parties and groups that propagate or resort to violence and/or limit options to implement democratic reforms.

11. Initiate a national dialogue and engage party bases to build public support for repealing all laws that discriminate on the basis of religion, sect and gender, including the blasphemy law, anti-Ahmadi laws, Hudood Ordinances and Qisas (retribution) and Diyat (blood money) laws.

Islamabad/Brussels, 12 December 2011

Source: International Crises Group



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