Situating PTI’s Islamism

An shorter version of this article can be found at Muftah.


Exemplified by influential articles such as The Mehran Man, charting Pakistan’s rightward drift has become a favorite preoccupation since the country rose to new prominence in the War on Terror. Not only those interested in American and NATO security interests, but also Pakistani observers concerned with creeping religio-cultural fanaticism have devoted significant resources to the task.

The rise of Imran Khan’s populist, right-leaning Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has further sparked interest. Those troubled by Islamist ascendency in the wake of the Arab Spring find disquieting similarities in PTI religious vocabulary. And observers concerned by the growing intolerance in Pakistan believe the party’s rhetoric will strengthen jingoistic narratives in the country.

Among ordinary left-leaning Pakistanis, PTI’s rise has exposed a sharp cleave. Once united in their support for a less Islamically oriented Pakistan, the leftist laity now finds itself divided as this divestment from religion is being parameterized. Supporters stridently highlight Imran’s philanthropy and the perceived authenticity of PTI’s commitment to the country. Detractors, disconcerted by PTI’s religious vocabulary and the sordid relationship of the state and Islam, allege clandestine military support and focus on Imran Khan’s decidedly impious image and past. They also highlight the contradiction in the induction of longtime political mainstays into a party campaigning for fundamental change.

Meanwhile, among Pakistan’s left intelligentsia, the party’s religiosity finds it few friends. Ayesha Siddiqa asserts that PTI typifies the Zia generation in its exclusionary Islamic nationalism; Nadeem Paracha finds much the same. Fahrat Taj believes Imran Khan’s flawed Taliban narrative aids militarism, and author Salman Rushdie pines for the areligious Imran of the 1990s.

The framework of General Zia’s military era of the 1980s, when the martial government embarked on a violent Islamization campaign, informs such analyses. Criticism has coalesced around the party’s silence on the exploitative machinery of military and bureaucratic elites; and its Islamism has evoked deep distress.

This prominent section of the left, in its focus on the Islamization, finds Islamist rhetoric inexorably linked to militarism and intolerance. So great are its fears that it in ahistoric memory, it denies the military and Islamists divergent interests. Although the relationship between Islam and the Pakistani state is frequently characterized as a transparent patron-client association, in fact, opposition and conflict have been as central to the formation of the space that Islamists enjoy in the national discourse as has the state’s nurture of religious parties.

Veteran Pakistani journalist, Amir Zia’s “inimitablereview of Imran Khan’s book is archetypical of the alarmism the party’s religious references have elicited. I quote here at length to illustrate:

Khan has gone the extra mile to conjoin democracy with Islam and Islam with democracy, although the two stand in stark contrast to each other. Islam allows no dissent, alteration and divergence from its fundamental teachings. Democracy is all about dissent and the will of the people. It draws its strength from secularism, which does not allow interference of religion in the affairs of the state. There can be a secular state, which is undemocratic, but no democratic state can exist without secularism as its cornerstone.

Amir Zia asserts two positions that betray quintessential, vestigial General Zia-era worries of the Pakistani left. The first is explicit, that Islam and democracy are axiomatically irreconcilable, making PTI inadequate for Pakistan’s democratic progress. The second is implicit and suggests that political movements with religious incorporations, among which is PTI, cannot move Pakistan towards a secular society. Informed by unexamined notions of the mechanics of the separation of religion and the state in Pakistan, neither position is truly tenable.

Reactionary Opposition to Islamism

Scathed by General Zia’s violent Islamization campaign, and informed by ideas of secularism en vogue during the 1980s, many among the Pakistani left finds necessary incompatibility between Islam and the democratic state. Yet, the works of Khalid Abou El Fadl at Columbia University, of John Esposito at Georgetown, of Aziza al-Hibri at Boston College, and countless American intellectuals; and the works of  Mawdudi in Hindustan, Hashim Kemali in Malayasia and Khatami in Iran, and similar eminently influential Muslims, posit the opposite: the inherent inseparability of democracy and dissent, and Islam. Further – and this I find most persuasive – in a searing critique of this bifurcation of governance paradigms into Islamic and democratic, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, in countless venues, and in Islam and the Secular State forcefully argues against such juxtaposition that conflates “a world religion with a geopolitical reality.” Muslims may or may not live democratically, but that condition does not bear upon the exhortation to or prohibition from democratic practice in Islam.

But these rich annals of theology are forgotten in the fear of creeping theocracy, and dismissed as merely discursive with scant empirical buttress. However the political experiences of Muslim communities – in Pakistan and beyond – too offer a contrary history. And the key role of some Islamists in democratization movements provides particularly formidable challenge.

As the progenitor of most modern Islamist politics, Jama’at-i-Islami’s activism provides a good example. Although now cast frequently as the military’s marionette, the party has a long history of democratic agitation. The Jama’at led its first major movements for democracy between 1962 and 1965. It mobilized in large numbers again in 1969 against Ayub Khan, and then in 1977 against Z.A. Bhutto’s increasing authoritarianism, demanding that the government abide by the constitution. During much of General Zia’s Islamization campaign, when many of the Jama’at policy objectives were being instituted through state coercion, the party continued its demand for a return to democracy. More recently, the party had been at the forefront of campaigns against General Pervez Musharraf and today the party rhetoric remains vociferous in its rejection of a military coup, and commitment to democracy. Just this month, the party proposed a law to limit ISI’s powers of detention, and the Jama’at remains the only major national-level political party to choose its heads and office bearers through democratic elections.

Similarly, the excellent works of Samer Shehata on the Ikhwan al Muslimoon in Egypt; of Murat Somer on the AKP in Turkey, and Lisa Wedeen’s seminal work on the facilitation of Yemeni democratic processes by Islamic and cultural practices further challenge the incompatibility Islam and democracy.

There exists also the fear, revealed hideously by the rise of the Ikhawan al Muslimoon in post-Mubarak Egypt, that Islamists will subvert democratic norms once incumbent. While this bona fide of many Islamists is yet to be determined, it is worthy of note that reneging on democratic promises is hardly the province solely of Islamists. Secularists including Z. A. Bhutto, General Iskander Mirza and Adnan Menderes too belong to this ignoble tradition. One might disagree with the Islamist political vision; but that is altogether different from denying all Islamists democratic claim.

This is not to say categorically that Islamists have not rejected democratic norms. But rather that the notion that Islamist parties are prima facie anti-democratic is assuredly false.

Instead, party actions and rhetoric are context specific. Policy positions are not expositions of normative ideals, but products of the competing priorities of political exigencies, constituency pressures and party goals. Thus, while Islamic vocabulary frames PTI positions, Imran also asserts to university students in Karachi the quintessential liberal perspective: “A PTI government will not interfere with women’s clothing.” And while espousing an Islamic welfare state, Imran echoes the far-left in his characterization of Baloch mistreatment as colonialism.

Secularization through Islamists

The second and related concern Zia highlights is that PTI’s sanction of the religious in the public sphere will inhibit Pakistani progress towards secularism and consequently democracy. In the stark rejection and untrammeled fear of religiously aligned movements, these critiques have conflated secularism – of the existence of a secular polity – with secularization, the process of reaching the secular outcome.  While secularism is the goal – and Pakistan is far from a secular country – the path to it is unclear.

In contradiction to dominant theories of secularization, which locate the genesis of the privatization of faith in the grassroots, most Pakistani liberals advocate a “top-down”, state-led approach to reducing religion in the public sphere. And this method is not without precedent in Pakistan.

Much of the history of the secularist project in Pakistan comprises violent state-led projects to regulate and define religion. Indeed, it was the real and epistemological violence of the colonial secular campaign – much as that of the colonial feminist campaign – that created the Indian Islamist. The campaigns of secularization under Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, and more recently under Musharraf, endowed equally sparse tolerant and democratic credentials to the secularist project. Similar experiences of Islamists in the Middle East reinforce the association of secular governments with violence. Thus the state-led project, accompanied by violence and promoted under autocracy, has been manifestly incapable of affecting change.

Paradoxically, in their pursuit of the creation of a modern religious state through the rationalization and individualization of religion, Islamists are creating the public dialogue regarding the function of religion in the public domain that reinforces processes of secularization. Competition among Islamists for electoral relevancy has engendered secularization through meaningful debate on the scope of religion in the public realm.

Within the Jama’at this debate manifests itself, for example, in the Jama’at acquiesce to showing sexual education videos for women and the party’s strong stance against honor killings, the infamous outburst by Munawar Hussain, which met strong disappointment from rank and file, notwithstanding.

The distinctly separate notion of Islamist governance of PTI that asserts the institution of the social welfare policies of Scandinavian states as a paramount Islamic priority challenges the Jama’at’s idea of the relationship of religion and the state. Similarly, and in an interesting cooption of the touchstone of secular foundations of the republic, PTI’s Islamism asserts equality before law for all citizens, regardless of faith.

PTI’s and Jama’at’s utilization of Islam – and that of other Islamists – to substantiate their disparate policy positions lays the framework for a grounded, grassroots process of the role and scope of religion in the public sphere. This dialectic with Islam and governance creates the venue for a democratic dialogue where the limits of religion – secularization – are meaningfully discussed.

Dislocating PTI’s Islamism From the 1980s

Although religious movements have enjoyed state patronage, the state has also been incapable of circumscribing the extent of mobilization. Consequently, the divergent interests of groups employing the Islamic idiom have undermined the state’s primacy in that dialogue.

Within Pakistan, Islam is a tool of both the left and the right. For the left, from the socio-economic leftism of Pakistan People’s Party Islamic Socialism in the 1970s, to the quasi-secularism of Musharraf’s post 9-11 Enlightened Moderation, the definition and redefinition of doctrine has enabled the Islamic idiom for a breadth of movements.

However, the concentrated and violent Islamization campaign of General Zia, whose policy agenda aligned with those of the religious right, left Pakistani liberals deeply wary of Islamist politics.

In a continuation of these concerns, many critics of PTI contend that the party is a product of the Zia era. However, it is the converse that is more true. Seemingly unable to locate Islam and the state in contours other than those dominant in the 1980s, these critics fail to discern between divergent stands of Islamism – those that abet the state’s intolerant agenda and those that undermine it via the same vocabulary.

Saadia Toor characterizes this mood among contemporary Pakistani liberals so preoccupied with oppressive Islamism as to become undemocratic in the pursuit of its mitigation. As a particularly egregious manifestation of this, she describes the elation of liberal NGO workers at Musharraf’s coup of the Sharif government for the new dictator was presumed to have secular liberal leaning.

Many criticisms of PTI are valid, but intransigently linking its Islamism to state violence and undemocratic practices ignores a history of Islamist democratic movements, the fluidity of the Islamic idiom that has previously abetted leftist mobilization, and the varied and central position Islamic vocabulary holds across the socio-political landscape of the country.