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Religion in politics

July 16, 2012


IN the run-up to general elections, the findings of a new survey by the Pew Research Centre sheds light on Pakistani attitudes on the role of religion in public life.

Eight-two per cent of Pakistanis surveyed believe that “laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran” — a significantly higher percentage than respondents in Jordan (72 per cent), Egypt (60 per cent), Turkey (17 per cent) and other Muslim countries. Pakistanis are also more prone than most of their Muslim world counterparts to thinking that Islam plays a major role in politics — 62 per cent made this claim, up from 46 per cent in 2010. At the same time, only 42 per cent are in favour of a democratic set-up.

The survey’s findings, which suggest that the Pakistani state is primed to become much more assertively Islamic, have already attracted much commentary.

Blogging at, Murtaza Haider cautions against thinking that these attitudes hearken an Afghanistan-under-the-Taliban future for Pakistan. He argues that widespread disillusionment with democracy results from the PPP-led coalition’s mismanagement of the economy, since 58 per cent of Pakistanis polled preferred a strong economy to a vibrant democracy.

Haider also suggests that the desire for a greater role for religion in public life stems from the perception that Islam will restore the justice, honesty and prosperity that are lacking from contemporary politics. Moreover, he makes the astute point that Pakistanis may not yet fully understand the concept of democracy; after all, 52 per cent believe that Saudi Arabia supports democracy in the Middle East!

As subtle as Haider’s analysis of the Pew survey is, he downplays the reality that Pakistanis are increasingly religious — and occasionally extremist — in their views and thus genuinely in favour of the further Islamisation of the state and its laws. This trend is something we have all documented in our personal lives in the form of growing attendance at neighbourhood mosques, put-downs by strangers for un-Islamic attire or behaviour, proliferating religious content in the media and on billboards, and much more.

The survey itself offers clues that Pakistani attitudes on religion in public life have more to do with ideology, belief and values than disappointment in the ruling government. For instance, 72 per cent of respondents would like to see the print and electronic media censored, while only one in five support unfettered access to the Internet. These responses can be interpreted as a reaction to the perception that these mediums distribute blasphemous material, pornography, western and Indian propaganda, etc. — in other words, content that does not comply with Islamic values.

More explicitly, in the context of religion and politics, Imran Khan’s shifting political rhetoric suggests that the Pew findings are on to something. Although Khan’s image as a practising Muslim has been cultivated over time, it has been in overdrive in recent days: his comments on the contempt bill have been peppered with references to the Sunnah; he recently declared that the concept of the European welfare state originated during Hazrat Umar’s caliphate; photographs of Imran Khan kneeling on a prayer mat have inundated the Internet. Khan’s increasing use of religious rhetoric — rather than the earlier language of transparency and anti-corruption — suggests that the use of Islam in a political context resonates with the public.

Indeed, the Pew survey finding reiterates something that has been repeatedly documented in academic literature: that Pakistan is trying to realign its national identity to fit in with the Arab-speaking Muslim world at the expense of its subcontinental identity, which is necessarily tainted by associations with Sufi culture, Hinduism and the pre-Islamic Indus Valley Civilisation. The general zeal to reinvent Pakistan as a Middle Eastern (and thus supposedly more authentically Islamic) rather than a South Asian entity is reflected in the fact that Pakistanis are more enthusiastic about Islam in the public sphere than the nationals of Muslim countries such as Egypt and Turkey.

Of course, in the process of eradicating our subcontinental identity, we have forgotten important lessons learnt along the way. Our country’s history has repeatedly shown that when the public clamours for Islam in the public sphere, the first question that arises is whose version of Islam? Deobandi? Barelvi? Shia? Other Muslim sects and schools of thought? Saudi Arabia?

As early as 1953, Justice Munir and Justice Kiyani pointed out the dangers of instituting an Islamic state in Pakistan. On seeing that clerics were not even able to agree on the definition of a Muslim, they wrote, “Keeping in view the several definitions given by the ulema, need we make any comment except that no two learned divines are agreed on this fundamental. If we attempt our own definition as each learned divine has done and that definition differs from that given by all others, we unanimously go out of the fold of Islam. And if we adopt the definition given by any one of the ulema, we remain Muslims according to the view of that alim but kafirs according to the definition of everyone else.”

Calling for a greater role for religion in the public sphere necessarily raises difficult issues of interpretation. Already, staunch religious positioning has led to a resurgence of sectarian violence and the ostracism of religious minorities. More religion in politics will lead to more schisms, systemic exclusion and, inevitably, more violence — the very challenges that an inclusive, democratic set-up seeks to avoid. Given the shifting attitudes of religiously inclined Pakistanis, highlighting this basic difference in values (inclusion vs exclusion) between a genuine democracy and an Islamic state is more important than ever.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Twitter: @humayusuf