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Faith in democracy: A review of political parties of Pakistan – by Nadeem Paracha

An apt analysis by NFP of the political parties in Pakistan and their attributes and religious tendencies:

Islam holds an important place in the workings of society and thus politics of Pakistan, a fact even some of the most secular political parties of the country cannot ignore. Just what is the religious make-up of Pakistan’s political parties in this context, especially regarding their response to the rise of extremist violence? Let’s explore.

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)

Formed in 1967 by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the PPP soon became the country’s premier progressive party. Right from the onset, three distinct groups of influence emerged in the party. The most dominant among the three (at the time) was the party’s urban leftist/Socialist group led by Marxist ideologues. This group had the support and backing of large leftist student groups, labour unions, urban intellectuals, and progressive journalists. This group was also radically inclined towards secularism.

The second group within the party was led by ‘Islamic Socialists’. Inspired by the nationalist-socialist ideologies that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s (such as Egypt and Algeria’s ‘Arab Socialism,’ and Iraq and Syria’s ‘Ba’ath Socialism’), this group attempted to construct Pakistan’s own nationalist-socialist alternative.

Keeping in mind the Islamic mind-set of the country and facing attacks from Islamic parties for being ‘anti-religion,’ Bhutto agreed to build in the term ‘Islamic Socialism’ in the party’s rhetoric. The idea was to present the PPP’s original socialist manifesto as being closer to Islam’s egalitarian notions than to the socialism of men like Marx or Mao.

The third group of influence in the party was made up of progressive-minded large land owners of rural Sindh and Punjab, and moderate Muslim ulema. This group was vehemently opposed to the radical socialist group of the party.

After the PPP’s landslide victory in the 1970 elections (in West Pakistan), the resultant PPP government padded its socialist economic policies of widespread nationalisation by adopting the moderate, anti-clergy, and flexible cultural paraphernalia of ‘folk Islam’ that was followed by a majority of Pakistanis (especially those belonging to the rural peasant classes and the urban working classes). But this could not contain the tussle between its radical socialist wing and its more conservative group of land owners and moderate ulema.

In 1973,  perturbed by the criticism he was facing from the PPP’s radical wing for slowing down his socialist reform, Bhutto began a purge in the party. With the influence of the radical group curtailed and members of the Islamic Socialist group absorbed into the conservative lobby, the PPP’s ideological make-up was shifted from the left to the centre, so much so that the word socialism was severely relegated in the party’s manifesto for the 1977 general elections.

As the Jamaat-i-Islami-led movement against the Bhutto regime (soon after the controversial 1977 elections) gained momentum, Bhutto even exhibited willingness to facilitate the demands of the conservative Islamic parties of closing down night-clubs, bars and horse-racing and make Friday (instead of Sunday) as the new weekly holiday.

After Bhutto was executed in 1979 (through a sham trial) by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship, the PPP’s student-wing, the Peoples Students Federation (PSF), that was facing constant violence from the military regime, became overtly militant, and other confrontational cells also cropped up in the party whose members led a number of movements against the Zia regime.

The party’s radical-left group began to reassert itself. Hundreds of PPP and PSF militants lost their lives during the Zia regime. Thousands more were kept in jails (without a trial); many were tortured and flogged and at least five were hanged.

It was Benazir Bhutto who in 1986 reintroduced the word socialism to the PPP manifesto. But with the Cold War winding down, Benazir gradually pulled the PPP back towards the centre, now exhibiting it as a modern liberal-left party.

Today the PPP is one of the most vocal critics of religious extremism. It continues to demonstrate its religious side through its historical association with ‘folk Islam’, Islamic reformism, Sufism, and localised versions of secularism which attempt to keep the relationship between religion and the state at a bare minimum.

Strongholds: Interior Sindh; South Punjab; Peshawar (Pakhtunkhwa); Quetta (Balochistan); Gilgit-Baltistan; parts of Karachi.

Student-wing(s): Peoples Students Federation (PSF); Peoples Youth Organisation (PYO).

Ideological Evolution: Socialist (1967-73); Centrist (1975-77); Radical-Left (1978-83); Liberal-Left (1986-present).

Voters (Class): Rural peasants; urban proletariat; sections of middle-classes.

Voters (religion): Sunni-BarelviShiaSecular; Hindu and Christian Minorities.

Years in Power: 1972-77; 1988-90; 1993-96; 2008 – present.

Website: PPP

Party Song: Teer Bija

Pakistan Muslim League (PML)

There have been various versions of the PML, all claiming a direct link with the All India Muslim League (AIML). Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s AIML was steeped in Syed Ahmed Khan’s modern reformist Islam (Aligarh Movement). But the Muslim League soon disintegrated as Pakistan’s first ruling party.

Though it was revived in 1962 by the military dictator, Ayub Khan, to work as his civilian mouthpiece, the party broke into various self-serving factions after the downfall of Ayub in 1969.

The PML was rebooted once again in 1985, this time as a staunchly conservative civilian platform of the intransigent Pakistani military dictator, Ziaul Haq. This PML had very little to do with Syed Ahmed Khan’s reformist Islam or with Jinnah’s conservative-secularism; instead, PML became the civilian expression of the Pakistani military-establishment that had become increasingly reactionary during the Zia dictatorship.

This PML too broke into factions. PML-Nawaz became the bigger and more popular faction. In the 1990s, PML-N (in the context of religion) was associated with various puritanical Deobandi groups such as the Tableeghi Jamaat, and it also became a champion of Sharia law in Pakistan.

However, after the second PML-N government was toppled by General Musharraf in 1999, the PML-N began to reinvent itself as a populist democratic party, albeit a conservative one. Indeed, the PML-N is not strictly an Islamic party. It whole heartedly believes in democracy and also has as members a number of conservative-secularists.

Nevertheless, its main leadership and policy-making apparatus is overwhelmingly dominated by conservative politicians, some of whom have had links with the Jamaat-i-Islami’s student-wing, the IJT.

On the issue of religious extremism, the PML-N has been awkwardly ambiguous. Some believe that the thinking of the party is still being held hostage by its ‘Zia-ist’ past and legacy.

Strongholds: Punjab.

Student-wing: Muslim Students Federation (MSF)

Ideological Evolution: Conservative-secularist (1947-69); Conservative-Islamic (1985-99); Conservative-Democratic (2002-present).

Voters (Class): Rural and urban middle and lower middle-classes; trader class.

Voters (Religion): SunniDeobandiTableeghi; some Shia.

Years in Power: 1947-56; 1962-68; 1985-88; 1990-92; 1997-99.

Website: PML-N

Party Song: Iss Kay Saath Chalian

Jamaat-i-Islami (JI)

Formed in 1941 by conservative Islamic scholar, Abul Ala Mauddudi, the JI has been a leading advocate of Political Islam and Sharia law in Pakistan. Though perhaps the most organised political party of the country, JI has never been a popular party with the voters. It has never managed to bag more than 3 per cent of the votes (ever since the 1970 elections). It supported Ziaul Haq’s coup against the Z A. Bhutto government and the dictator’s controversial ‘Islamic laws.’

JI’s already unimpressive electoral record has further deteriorated, but its Islamist rhetoric has increasingly become more radical. It openly sympathises with extremist groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.

Strongholds: Parts of rural Pakhtunkhwa.

Student-wing: Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT)

Ideological Evolution: ConservativeIslamic (1941-present).

Voters (Class): Sections of middle-class; trader class.

Voters (Religion): Sunni Deobandi; Sunni Wahabi.

Years in Power: 1977-79 (as part of military regime); 1990-92 ( PML-led coalition).

Website: Jaamat-i-Islami

Party Song: Hamara Qazi

Awami National Party (ANP)

Formed in 1986 from the ashes of the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP), ANP has risen to become a most effective political and cultural expression of secular and progressive Pushtun nationalism. The ANP remains a stern critic of religious parties and extremism.

Strongholds: Pakhtunkhwa province; parts of Karachi and Balochistan.

Student-wing: Pushtun Students Federation (PkSF)

Ideological Evolution: Secular/Progressive; Pushtun Nationalist.

Voters (Class): Urban working class; and sections of middle/lower middle classes.

Voters (Religion): LiberalDeobandi; Shia; Sikh minority.

Years in Power: 1972-73 (NAP-led provincial governments in Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan); 2008-present (PPP-led coalition government).

Website: ANP

Party Song: Pakhtunkhwa Watan

Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM)

Formed in 1985, MQM rapidly rose to become Karachi and Hyderabad’s leading political party. Adopting JI’s polished organisational structure and the PPP’s populist imagery, the MQM applied these to Karachi’s inherent liberal sociology and pluralistic politics.

Upholding the political and economic interests of the city’s Mohajir (Urdu-speaking) majority, MQM was embroiled in a deadly conflict with the state in the 1990s, before giving itself a federalist orientation.

The MQM became increasingly secular in the late 1990s, and is one of the strongest critics of religious parties and extremist/sectarian organisations.

Strongholds: Karachi; Hyderabad; Gilgit-Baltistan; parts of Azad Kashmir.

Student-wing: All Pakistan Muttahida Students Organisation (APMSO)

Ideological Evolution: Militant-Mohajir Nationalist (1985-97); Secular-Democratic (2001-present).

Voters (Class): Urban middle and lower middle-classes.

Voters (Religion): SunniBerelvi; Shia; Secular; Hindu minority.

Years in Power: 1989 (PPP-led coalition); 1992-93 (PMLN-led coalition); 2002-2008 (PMLQ-led coalition); 2008 – present (PPP-led coalition).

Website: MQM

Party Song: Saathi

Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI)

The JUI was actually a progressive Islamic party that (unlike JI) supported Jinnah and almost got into an electoral alliance with the PPP for the 1970 elections. Though it turned anti-Bhutto in 1977, it retained its moderate make-up when throughout the 1980s it opposed the Zia dictatorship along with the PPP. A militant faction broke off and became the notorious sectarin organisation, the Sipah Sahaba.

With the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996 (supplemented by madrassahs run by JUI), the party became increasingly conservative, even though its leader, Fazalur Rheman, is more of a pragmatist.

Though JUI is part of the recent PPP-led coalition government, it opposes the army’s operation against extremists and the Taliban.

Strongholds: Rural Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

Student-wing: Jamiat Taleba Islam (JTI)

Ideological Evolution: Moderate-Islamic (1945-95); Conservative-Islamic (1996 -present).

Voters (Class): Rural lower middle-classes.

Voters (religion): Deobandi Sunni.

Years in Power: 1972-73 (part of NAP-led provincial governments in Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan); 1993-96 (PPP-led coalition); 2002-2008 (MMA-led provincial government in Pakhtunkhwa); 2008 – present (PPP-led coalition).

nadeem_80x80 Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and

Source: Dawn

About the author

Ali Arqam


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  • A very informative article by Nadeem Paracha. In the article we can see that in a way some parties have exploited religion as their rationale for conducting politics. Politics should be done for the people by the people. Using religion as a base for politics needs to be avoided.

  • MQM’s ideology is interesting, ‘ COALITION’ with every one in power. May be a good strategy to continue progress in every government. They really upgrade very common people into politicians as against already a ruling mind set of big wigs into politicians in rest of the parties other than molvis.

  • The passion for Bhutto
    Nadeem F. Paracha
    Sunday, 04 Apr, 2010

    This handout picture from the Press Information Department dated December 31, 1974, shows former premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto addressing a gathering in Patan. — AFP Photo
    The majority of Muslims in Pakistan are ensconced in the popular Barelvi creed of Islam that is the mainstay of Muslims in the subcontinent. It reassures the enshrinement of the traditional Sufism that prevailed due to a long period of interaction between Islam and the esoteric strains of Hinduism and other faiths of India.

    ‘Folk’ Islam became the dominating creed of the rural peasant, the urban proletariat and the semi-urban petty-bourgeoisie. It incorporated the anti-clergy elements of Sufism, and a more relaxed fiqh, fusing these with accommodating forms of worship and the concept of overt religious reverence of people it considered divine. The result was a sub-continental Muslim ethos that was socially tolerant and repulsed by the puritan dogma.

    Though agrarian in its worldview, ‘folk’ Islam did not negatively react to modern Islamic reform initiated by rationalists like Syed Ahmed Khan, and consequently (by the 1960s), it became the chosen expression of populist (secular) politics in Pakistan. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) became the first Pakistani political party to set the tone of its rhetoric according to the populist imagery of ‘folk’ Islam, in the process managing to attract the urban working classes and the rural peasantry towards its social-democratic programme.

    Not only did the PPP chairman, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, become one of the first major Pakistani political figures to start being seen indulging in rituals associated with ‘folk’ Islam (such as visiting Sufi shrines), PPP rallies too started radiating an aura of the colourful activity found at many Sufi shrines. The 1970s in Pakistan thus became an era of populist extroversion.

    With ‘folk’ Islam adopted as a populist political expression by the ruling PPP, this form of expression eventually became the tool that culturally connected the country’s secular political parties with the spiritual and political moorings of the working classes and the peasants.

    The cultural synthesis emerging from such a connection was one of the reasons behind Bhutto’s image, graduating from being that of a ‘brave patriot’ (1967-68), to becoming a people’s messiah (1970s) and the embodiment of a Sufi saint posthumously.

    The ZAB regime was a vibrant mix of rural and urban populism (such as through the promotion of folk and proletariat art and music), and of modern bourgeois liberalism that helped urban society maintain a liberal aura. Night-clubs, horse racing and cinemas continued to thrive; religiosity largely remained a private matter, or manifest itself in a display of passion at shrines through dhamal, qawali, etc.

    However, lurking within this mix was also an awkward anomaly. As the popular variation of Islam in Pakistan peaked in the 1970s, the modern variation (tied to the Aligarh thought) started to erode when things started to change within some state institutions after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle. A move was seen afoot in the army towards puritanical strain of Islam, especially those advocated by renowned Islamic scholar and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) chief, Abul Ala Maududi.

    The JI was an early advocate of what came to be known as Political Islam. It first emerged as an opponent of secular/socialist Muslim nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s and was also opposed to the more populist strains of the faith. The JI was eventually successful in converting a sizable section of the urban middleclass to its cause after the former stopped resonating with the modern, reformist tradition of Syed Ahmed Khan. The populist ‘folk’ Islam they began to associate with ‘Bhuttoism’ or a ‘vulgar’ populism, supposedly aimed at undoing the hold on society of bourgeois politics and economics.

    Thus, the urban bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie became the main players against the Bhutto regime during the 1977 PNA movement, led by the JI and its allies. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the Ziaul Haq dictatorship and the anti-Soviet Afghan Jihad that political Islam managed to find state approval.

    As the US and Saudi Arabia pumped in millions of dollars of aid for the ‘jihad’, the more aggressive and puritanical strains of Islam that were largely alien to the region’s Muslims began finding official sanction as well. But in spite of the rapid proliferation of the jihadi mindset and penetration of puritanical Islam in the workings of society that Zia initiated, Bhutto is still remembered as an icon in the devotional sense of loyalty to the culture of ‘folk’ Islam.

    Thus, it is not surprising that his death is not seen by his supporters as martyrdom gained through the puritanical concept of ‘jihad’ against an infidel. Instead, his execution by the Zia dictatorship is embroiled in the kind of folk imagery that would leave the Islamists cringing. It is remembered more as a murder of a modern Sufi saint who danced to the gallows in defiance of a usurper and his malicious, scheming team of puritan clerics.