The Marriage of Religion and Politics in Pakistan

April 14, 2014

 Host: The Atlantic Council

Event: Rising Political Islam in Pakistan: Causes and Consequences


Amb. Husain Haqqani, Director, South and Central Asia Program, Hudson Institute

Dr. Haroon Ullah, Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State

Religion has played an important role in Pakistani politics and society since the All-Indian Muslim League founded the country in 1947. Today in Pakistan, both religious and militant leaders now play a key role in garnering votes for politicians and also providing funds for their campaigns. Groups like the Haqqani Network and Lashkar-e-Taiba – both of whom have carried out attacks against Hindus, Shias, and other minorities – largely go unprosecuted in Pakistan as their their leaders enjoy close ties to politicians. However, as the sectarian violence continues to worsen in Pakistan, it is becoming increasingly clear that this current marriage between religion and politics is unsustainable.

In Western media, sectarian attacks and the use of religious rhetoric by politicians, are largely portrayed as isolated and independent phenomena, and are rarely understood as strategic and politically motivated maneuvers. Dr. Ullah argues that this portrayal misleads Western policymakers and promotes misguided aid initiatives. While living in Northern Pakistan, he described fear and coercion from militants as key factors that drove people to vote. Further, contrary to popular Western narratives, it is not just the poor and uneducated that are being coerced and are susceptible to sectarian politics and narratives. In fact, he described the “thin middleclass” – those making $200 – $1,000 a month, and who have typically been educated at rural, local colleges – as those most targeted by religious groups. It is these people who can provide financial support and typically enjoy a higher social standing within their communities. In order for the political system to change in Pakistan, he believes that more engagement is needed here, challenging the religious rhetoric that influences these more capable individuals.

Ambassador Haqqani agreed that the current portrayal of Pakistani politics throughout Western media fails to highlight the large influence that religion plays in both campaigning and policy making. However, he also sees the influence of religion as going far beyond politics and being rooted in Pakistan’s own foundation, when the country’s founding leaders were determined to portray their selves as an alternative to “Hindu India.” This narrative has only been further reinforced over the years as the Pakistani military waged proxy campaigns against India in Kashmir. Some of those groups that were once celebrated by Pakistan’s leaders are now causing domestic unrest and violence, while no politician or military official has the will to change the national discourse.

Both speakers agree that this is a problem that must be solved domestically; no amount of aid and outside assistance can change the national dialogue. Dr. Ullah is hopeful that public diplomacy and people-to-people exchanges can help facilitate change in Pakistan, however also conceded that it cannot do so alone. Amb. Haqqani believes that Pakistani politics can only be rectified if leaders in Pakistan first accept the large number of problems that are currently holding the country back. The country’s current politics are currently so based on ideology that there is no room for rationalism. Pragmatic politicians are so intent on winning votes that they focus only on popular rhetoric and won’t address issues such as education and women’s rights – more than 65% of the country’s women are illiterate and only 2% of the budget goes to education. With a young and politically engaged population there is opportunity for change, but the question is whether anyone has the courage to speak up.

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15. April 2014 by Will Houstoun
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