SURPRISINGLY, far-right religious groups in Pakistan appear to be maintaining their silence despite recent triggers such as the flaring up of the Kashmir issue. Previously, even events of lesser import would see them take to the streets. In their current reticence, many see the establishment’s changing approach towards the use of religiously inspired actors to achieve national and strategic objectives.
Pakistan’s far-right religious groups have been known for mobilising their street power whenever the country has faced a crisis in its ties with its neighbours or Washington. The Pakistan Defence Council is the most recent example of such an alliance of religious groups. Among other things, it has been used to whip up public sentiment against the US for conducting drone strikes inside Pakistan, the Salala check-post attack in 2011, and the Raymond Davis affair that saw an American spy kill Pakistani civilians in Lahore. The composition of Pakistan’s far right is sectarian in nature; this has been clear in the constituent groups’ efforts to show off their strength and loyalty to Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Some argue that growing international pressure, in particular the FATF-linked wariness, has led the country’s power elites to rethink their reliance on religiously motivated groups, as this could prove counterproductive for Pakistan’s diplomatic and economic ventures. Others believe that the security establishment is getting weary of the religious groups’ use of street protests to gain moral and political legitimacy in the country. For one, allowing space to the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan proved a horrific experience for the security establishment that had to face criticism. It also deepened the sectarian divide in society. It will take time before the country recovers from aggressive sectarian narratives.
Some say that growing international pressure has led the power elites to rethink their reliance on the clergy.
The media has over the years reported meetings of the army chief with religious leaders. Some among the latter have observed that during these meetings, the army chief tried to convince them to play a constructive role and address sectarian discord in society. Apparently, this approach has been yielding results — at least for the moment. The leaderships of sectarian groups are also under pressure to reconsider their sectarian bent of mind.
While dealing with the clergy, however, the real test for the establishment will be to differentiate between a soft approach and appeasement. Religious groups of all shades have shown themselves capable of developing a compatibility with the changing interface of the power elites. They seek legitimacy through their interaction with the civil and military leadership of the country, but that does not mean they have become submissive. They are thoroughly conversant with the art of influencing the country’s power elites. There are examples of that in the state’s recent engagement with the clergy.
For one, many had projected Paigham-i-Pakistan — a consensus counter-extremism document that was signed by about 1,800 Islamic scholars — as the country’s new religious contract. State institutions also gave the impression that it would change the religious discourse of the country for the better. But gradually, many changes have been made in Paigham-i-Pakistan, apparently in an attempt to bring all religious stakeholders on board. It would not be out of place to say that the idea now resembles the manifesto of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the farm beasts, after their revolution, bring back the old system as they gradually change the manifesto.
It seems that the establishment wants to curtail the powers of the religious groups, but is struggling to find ways of doing so. The religious groups know the state’s weaknesses and are exploiting these very dexterously. This situation can be compared with Myanmar, where the military junta had allied itself with the monks and given them the power to suppress the minorities and the opposition. But at one point, monk power in that country surged to a level where the Buddhist clergy started exploiting the junta and other political powers. The Myanmar ruling elites are not happy with the clergy’s power, but find it difficult to conduct certain affairs of the state without the monks’ consent.
Back in Pakistan, the recent madressah-government discourse suggests that the religious elite has convinced the state that apart from the registration of seminaries with the federal education ministry, it will not surrender anything else. In May this year, the government and the madressahs reached an accord that the latter’s educational boards would not share with the state their authority over the curriculum, examinations, and other educational and administrative affairs. On its part, the state is even considering allowing madressah students to appear in compulsory subject examinations and get degrees equal to those issued to students in the mainstream educational system.
The state’s varied approaches have not yet challenged the political economy of the religious institutions. Demolishing the sect-based madressah educational boards would have been the first step in that direction. Similarly, there is a need to evolve a monitoring mechanism led by citizens and the government, besides regulating the curriculum and educational standardisation processes in the madressahs.
Muslim societies at large are struggling to create a moderate religious outlook that is compatible with the modern era. Though Muslim societies have their own unique backgrounds, the Pakistani clergy has been boosted by two major factors. First, the clergy has been a strategic partner of the establishment in its nationalism project and has extended its help to the state’s political and geopolitical ventures. Secondly, the state, on the whole, has left society to the mercy of a clergy disposed towards religion-oriented sociocultural engineering.
The establishment can review its approaches and stop some of its practices, but controlling the damage needs bigger initiatives from the government and the moderate segments of society. However, the establishment usually eyes the moderates with suspicion because they cannot provide outright support for ventures entailing a democratic cost. The moderate forces are surviving on the civilisational, spiritual and cultural ethos of the country.
Perhaps the establishment fears that the moderates cannot become an alternative to its religious allies and keeps trying to reform its old friends.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, September 8th, 2019