Pakistan's powerful religious right

Islamist parties and organizations across Pakistan are warning of anarchy if the civilian government attempts to repeal the nation's strict blasphemy law and pardon Asia Bibi, an illiterate farm worker who was sentenced to death last month. Following Bibi's sentencing, on Dec. 12 a doctor in Pakistan's Sindh province was arrested on suspicion of violating the same controversial law.

An understanding of the religious right's rise, particularly its powerful role in the Islamization of the country and its laws and the group's continuing significance, highlights one of the key challenges to Pakistan's stability.

This is a puzzle that has played a major role in the US government's failure to force or persuade the Pakistanis to eliminate the safe havens for the Taliban and al Qaeda across the border in Afghanistan, where America has been embroiled in a nine-year war that started after the Sept. 11, 2001 destruction of the World Trade Towers in New York and so far has cost nearly 1,500 NATO troops' lives.

The influence of such parties is all the more striking given their lack of a popular support base comparable with the mainstream secular parties. Although Pakistan remains on the whole a largely conservative country, the most recent general elections, held in February 2008, produced a resounding defeat of the Islamist parties.

Nevertheless, the religious right has succeeded in blocking or diluting any attempt to reform discriminatory Islamic legislation, including the blasphemy law. This is because over the years, politically expedient alliances with the military have afforded Islamist parties a level of authority and influence that is disproportionate to their electoral clout.

The religious right and the army have come together at various times in Pakistan's recent history. Under the rule of both Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, the military has allied with conservative religious groups with the shared objective of undermining the secular mainstream parties, namely the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

For example, during the 1980s, General Zia's allies included the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and orthodox Sunni political parties such as the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) among others. Both the JI and JUI were the military's main partners during the Afghan jihad, helping to recruit and indoctrinate foot soldiers for the anti-Soviet campaign. During this conflict, JI and JUI-operated madrassas in the northwest of Pakistan, near the Afghan border, became primary recruiting and training grounds for jihadi forces. The JI also became an important ally in domestic politics. Indeed, the general's Islamization drive at home was aimed at legitimizing his rule, winning the support of JI and other religious parties, and marginalizing the PPP-led secular opposition. This resulted in a raft of amendments, which institutionalized discrimination against minority communities such as non-Muslims and Ahmadis, a marginal Sunni sect, and women.

Similarly, Musharraf's desire to crush his main opposition, Benazir Bhutto's PPP and Nawaz Sharif's PML-N, prompted him to back and empower the Muttahida Masjlis-e-Amal (MMA). This six-party Islamist alliance was led by the JI and the JUI-F, Fazlur Rehman's Deobandi (a puritanical Sunni sub-sect) faction of JUI. Rigged elections in 2002 saw the MMA gain control of the North-West Frontier Province and become the main coalition partner of Musharraf's party in Balochistan. In NWFP, in particular, the MMA pursued extensive Islamization policies, while at the same time voting for Musharraf's substantial constitutional amendments and his continuation as president. Musharraf's courtship of the religious right for political ends allowed Islamist parties an unprecedented level of political influence, allowing it to derail several intended reforms.

Further, their association with jihadi groups continued to grow. In fact, according to the International Crisis Group, JI madrasas "have long maintained links with jihadi organizations" and Fazlur Rehman's party "made no attempt [when it was in power] to hide its support for the Afghan Taliban with JUI-F madrasas recruiting and training Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns for the Taliban."

In addition to military patronage, particular Islamist parties such as the JI have been able to sustain their influence because of their robust internal organization. For example, JI's notorious student wing, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba – which has a strong presence in mainstream universities and high schools – as well as the group's vast network of madrassas, provide the party with its significant street power. This is underpinned by strong relations between the party base and its leadership, a characteristic that is sorely lacking within the ranks of the PPP and PML-N.

The JI-led street demonstrations are, at the very least, extremely disruptive, especially in major urban centers such as Karachi, and have the ability to derail reform efforts. The secular parties, despite their strength at the ballot box, have been reluctant to roll back the blasphemy law and other discriminatory legislation for fear of a backlash from the religious right.

The threat to stability posed by the religious right is not, however, restricted to violent street protests. Indeed, a dangerous by-product of the blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws – which are based on orthodox Sunni interpretations of Islam – is that they have encouraged religious and sectarian extremism. According to the Jane's Intelligence Review, "these laws, and the general climate they create, provide fertile turf for radical sectarian groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Jundallah, Jaish-e-Mohammad and others." Inter-sect violence in the form of attacks on Shias by radical Deobandis comprise the bulk of terrorist incidents in Pakistan, followed by intra-sect hostility in the form of targeted killings of Ahmadis and, to a lesser extent, Barelvis, a rival Sunni sub-sect.

Regardless of how Asia Bibi's case plays out, unless the blasphemy and other such discriminatory laws are repealed, the religious right will continue exploit them to advance a narrow ideological agenda. Indeed, a holistic appreciation of Pakistan's extremist threat is incomplete without understanding the impact of Islamist parties on the country's complex religious landscape and polity.

Urmila Venugopalan is a freelance writer and consultant. She can be reached at urmila.venugopalan@gmail.com