WHENEVER there is a mention of religion in Pakistani politics, it is regarded as nothing more than a tool to exploit the public’s religious sentiment for personal political gains. While it is true that religion has been and continues to be used as a political tool in Pakistan, such absolute criticism often ignores the social benefits which can be realised through the meaningful integration of religion into politics.
The most recent example of this is the Riyasat-i-Madina model popularised by former prime minister Imran Khan. While there were glimpses of his use of religion before the 2018 elections, Khan’s religio-political narrative turned prolific after he became PM. As weary spectators of history repeating itself, we were quick to write off his aspirations as the machinations of another ‘secular’ political leader using religion for personal political gain.
According to the latest World Values Survey, Pakistan has a Muslim denomination of 98 per cent. Almost 90pc of Pakistanis regard religion as very important in their life, while 37pc highly approve of having a system governed by religious law without political parties or elections, with 27pc deeming it fairly good. In a country where a sizable percentage of the population appears to be in favour of religion having a say in how the country is governed, religious representation in politics is a democratic right. Just as the misuse of religion deserves condemnation, its rightful use deserves appreciation.
So, is Imran Khan’s use of religion in politics the same as that of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s, or other political leaders’? Why is the use of religion in politics often criticised by certain segments? Can religion only be represented through the bully pulpits of religious leaders? The question is not whether or not religion should be used as a political tool, it is how religion can be employed in politics in a way that is beneficial for society.
Excluding faith from politics will inspire reactionary narratives.
What makes Khan different is that he took initiatives to materialise his religious-political narrative. His relentless advocacy for the Muslim world made the UN designate March 15 as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia. He established the Rahmatul-lil-Alameen Authority with renowned Muslim scholars to provide empirical solutions for the social issues prevalent in Pakistan. Khan also established the modern Islamic Al Qadir University, a continuation of the worldwide post-secular proliferation of religious universities. He mainstreamed madressahs and reprioritised Islamic education through the Single National Curriculum.
Finally, Khan’s umbrella Ehsaas programme, which has been lauded internationally, is the materialisation of an Islamic welfare state vision. These initiatives are important to mention because they portray a political leader who uses religion for greater social good than for personal political gains.
The offhand criticism of religion in politics is also not without grave social implications. What happens when a strong social sentiment is not given space for expression? It finds expression through more extremist outlets. Just like the excluded Baloch finds solace in militant Baloch outfits, the unrepresented ordinary Muslim finds refuge in religiously inspired extremist outfits, or more commonly today in the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan. The meteoric rise of TLP should not come as a surprise when Islam has been repeatedly misused by political (and ‘non-political’) actors only for it to be put aside when their ends have been met.
In a speech on diversity to the UK House of Commons in 2017, the British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed commented on the similarity between actors and politicians, “We’re here to represent … And when we fail to represent, people switch off. They switch off the television and they switch off the ballot box, and they retreat to other fringe narratives, sometimes very dangerous.” Where does the TLP get its support if not from the same ordinary Pakistani Muslim who has lost hope of representation in traditional political parties? Against this backdrop, Imran Khan’s PTI represents both the secular and religious masses and is more inclusive than most political parties in Pakistan today.
The use of religion in politics is not wrong in itself but depends on the ends for which it is used. When religious-political rhetoric is backed by actions that drive positive social change, it restores trust among the religious populace, makes them feel represented and prevents them from co-opting fringe narratives. Exclusion of religion from mainstream politics will only lend more legitimacy to the reactionary narratives propagated by certain religiously inspired groups. Allowing faith its rightful place in Pakistan’s political discourse is critical for a progressive, democratic, and cohesive society.
The writer is a sociologist based in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2022