How ‘right’ is the religious right?

There should be a sure but “gradual implementation” of NACTA guidelines against religion-based incitement, hate speech


Inam Ul Haque November 12, 2019
The writer is a retired Major General interested in International Relations and Political Sociology. He can be reached at [email protected]

Pakistan has a legacy of religious, political and societal influences from the greater Middle East, Central and South Asia and British India. These are reinforced by the challenges of state and nation building in the 21st century; further accentuated by the onslaught of social media and an ever-agitating street. It was the religion and nationalism “combine” that created Pakistan; however, these could not serve as the “enduring basis of nationhood”. This consequently created problems for the establishment of a pluralistic, democratic, decentralised and participatory entity that is inclusive of all ethnic, religious and sectarian groups. The rise in the clout of what is called a “religious right” has resulted in the lack of tolerance and extremism — at least on the surface — and has further eroded the much-trumpeted “Jinnah’s Pakistan”. This “image problem” per se has been causing difficult challenges for our domestic politics and foreign policy. This piece will discuss the rise of the religious right and a possible way forward.

Interestingly, the “religious right” is a Christian concept — also known as the “Christian right” — rooted in American politics dating as far back as 1940s, denoting Christian political factions “strongly supporting socially conservative policies”. Its influence enhanced especially after the 1970s and the term is now in wide usage to describe all religious groups with a conservative outlook. Pakistan’s mainstream religious parties like the JUI-F, JUI-S, Jamat-e-Islami (JI), JUP, Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith, Sunni Tehreek, TNFJ, and the myriad other parties and movements subscribe notionally and operationally — in varying degrees — to religious, social and political conservatism in that order.

Religious authority in Islam is highly dispersed as there is no “magisterium” or papacy. In Pakistan’s context, this authority flows through debating and mostly feuding scholars or ulema, with at times conflicting views. These ulema — generally speaking — unanimously act to legitimise religious authority mostly under a self-serving patronage system. There are countless examples where ulema — with exceptions — went along the British rulers in united India and later with the Pakistani military in justifying the rulers’ acts of omission and commission. When terrorism raised its ugly head around the turn of this century, there was copious literature dealing with the genesis of Pakistan’s religious right, whose components had gone astray; at least this being the impression. Ashley J Tellis of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a January 2008 Congressional testimony, categorised terrorism into sectarian, anti-Indian, Afghan Taliban, Al-Qaeda and affiliates and Pakistani Taliban groups. It is not surprising to find that all these subscribe to a religious philosophy and conservatism espoused by one or the other religious parties and movements.

In the wider regional context, there were “butterfly events” (apparently smaller events with far-reaching consequences) that shaped perspectives in the Islamic world. The 1979 Iranian Revolution swept away the liberal order of Pahlavi Iran. The Revolution not only comprised the Iranian religious right, it also had a sizeable combination of other segments of a disaffected society, including the capitalist-minded small traders or bazaris of Tehran. From this catalyst onwards, all events have had a religious and/or sectarian tinge, be it the Afghan Jihad, Iran-Iraq War, Gulf wars, or the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria; with the religious right providing and solidifying a casus-belli packaged in jihadi metaphor.

Last week in my article on “Pakistan’s Political Culture — Genesis and Prognosis”, I wrote: “The religious right [as an extension of the elite or ashhrafiyya] under the chosen few has bolstered its appeal by cleverly mixing religion with politics, menacingly banishing detractors as heretics. The clergy also stands as a bulwark against the forces of modernity; entrenched in its newfound power, privilege and insatiable ambition.” Generally it is believed that the Sunni orthodox parties benefited most from the political space provided by military regimes. President Zia’s Islamisation process and Musharraf’s “ceding” of two of the four provinces to MMA after the 2002 elections are two examples. Later, there were attempts by the PPP and PML-N governments to appease the religious right through political concessions.

Today the religious right is muscular as is evident by the increasing violence in sectarian politics. We see more Islamic parties and groups embracing militancy as the most effective means to promote their interests. The military-style salute by Maulana Fazlur Rehman from his stick-yielding Ansarul Islam is the latest display of this trend.

However, the religious right also embraces popular causes like inflation, injustice and poor governance that affect the common man. It also champions other segments disaffected with the government, like doctors and teachers. It blends these causes in a religious context, garnering larger public support of mainly the gullible rural public, who have a conservative affinity with Islam. It has the unmatched ability to mobilise public opinion through the pulpit, asthanas (seats of religious order), durbars (shrines), etc, besides raising the needed finances. Consequently the religious right enjoys a nationwide moral authority and irrespective of its political standing in a parliamentary system, it has the ability to influence political decision-making in general and decisions having some religious context in particular.

Pakistan has a vulnerable geography and there are identifiable choke-points to easily block the north south movement of services, goods and people. Any sit-in in Islamabad is potentially destabilising for any incumbent government, given its potential to spin out of control from its handlers. The near shutdown of the country at the hands of Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasulullah (TLYR) in 2018 is a case in point. Hostile outside powers know this and can play with abandon. When the rank and file are assembled for presumable Islamist causes — as in the current dharna — there is energy that can be dangerous. And given the staying power of administrations, the level of violence doesn’t have to be very high to bring the government to its knees, leading to appeasement and uneasy compromises. The Army with its motto of imaan, taqwa and jihad fi sabilillah (faith, piety, and struggle for Allah) has and would never use force, let alone excessive force, in such situations. So huffing and puffing by the liberal brigade aside, this is the reality of our situation that needs to be understood by all stakeholders. Not accepting it is a futile denial with inimical consequences.

When we publically support a political role for the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan; denial of the same to our religious right is at best, hypocritical. So one of the practical solutions is co-option of the religious right in governance/decision making in a systematic manner (we may consider nominations besides elections) and thereafter, modernising it through well thought strategies. We also need to study the British colonial model of financial inducements and endowments and the Turkish model of a paid cadre to dilute their clout to manageable levels. There should be a sure but “gradual implementation” of NACTA guidelines against religion-based incitement, hate speech, disbandment of militant wings, reform of religious legislation and madrasahs besides banning radical outfits. The alternative is history repeating itself in the open spaces and D-Chowk of Islamabad.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2019.

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