Pakistan: Caught between secularism and theocracy



    • Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will cautiously pursue mild social reforms to project an image of stability in the hope of making Pakistan more attractive to foreign investors.

    • Nevertheless, he will not be able to completely separate religion and state in the Islamic republic, and both violent and non-violent Islamists will try to counter his progressive social measures.

    • Meanwhile, the military’s continued influence in Pakistani politics will limit the prospects for economic reform.

    The name Pakistan means “land of the pure,” but in many ways the country itself is a land of contrasts. Its geography features both the icy Himalayas in the north and the scorching deserts of the south. It is the birthplace of the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history and the warring militant insurgency that sought to kill her. It is the world’s fifth-largest democracy, yet its military has overridden the people’s sovereignty four times in the country’s history.

    Even so, none of these contrasts are as consequential to Pakistan’s future as the two competing visions of the country’s relationship with Islam. The first advocates a secular Pakistan, a pluralistic society in which religion is separate from the state and religious minorities are protected. The second envisions a theocracy, a nation shaped by the contours of Islamic law; a nation that would lead the arc of Muslim nations stretching from South and Central Asia to the Middle East. For much of Pakistan’s history, the latter has prevailed.

    But that may soon change. Pakistani politics are gradually becoming more democratic, and as more voters head to the polls, the country’s moderates are gaining influence. Still, their growing clout, made evident by the raft of progressive legislation recently passed in Pakistan, will not go unchallenged. Proponents of religious rule will continue to be an entrenched force in Pakistani politics in the near term, as will the military, which has shown no qualms about exploiting the country’s Islamists even as it seeks to limit their influence. Together, the two will prevent Pakistan from fully transitioning into a secular state, though they will not be able to block the process completely.

    The Prime Minister’s progressive agenda
    Over the past few months, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has pushed several social reforms forward, passing a variety of laws aimed at increasing rights for the country’s political and religious minorities. On Feb. 15, Sindh province, home to 90 percent of Pakistan’s Hindu population, adopted a law allowing Hindu couples to register their marriages with the state. Similarly, Punjab province, which hosts more than half the country’s 190 million citizens, approved a bill criminalizing all forms of violence against women. Two weeks later, the state executed Mumtaz Qadri for assassinating Salman Taseer, Punjab province’s progressive governor who was an outspoken critic of Pakistan’s religious blasphemy laws. And on March 15, Islamabad passed a law that officially recognized Easter, Holi and Diwali, enabling the country’s beleaguered Hindu and Christian minorities to take time off from work and school to celebrate the holidays.

    Of course, passing laws is far different from implementing them, and Pakistani lawmakers are still debating the scope of these bills. But since democratic politics often reflect the sentiments of the electorate they serve, Sharif’s attempts to enact reforms imply that he believes he has some mandate from his constituents — and the space to maneuver within Pakistani politics — to do so.

    Even Sharif himself is showing signs of becoming less conservative, despite heading the country’s largest conservative party. In the 2013 elections, voters chose economics over religion by voting the business-minded Sharif into power instead of his Islamist competitors. Since then, the prime minister has markedly departed from his previous terms in office, when he sought to incorporate religious law into Pakistan’s Constitution. This time around, Sharif is heeding voters’ concerns by prioritizing the economy. He recognizes that the foreign investment needed to boost growth above 5 percent will come only if Pakistan is seen as a stable and moderate destination. This image will also need to be established before the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor can move forward. Furthermore, Sharif believes that giving citizens higher standards of living and a stake in a prospering economy will lessen the appeal of Islamic extremism. And, like many leaders nearing the end of their tenures, the prime minister has a personal interest in adding to his list of accomplishments before his historic third term winds down.

    Roadblocks to reform
    Still, several formidable obstacles to Sharif’s reform agenda remain, and they will almost certainly keep him from fully attaining his goals. One of the biggest is Pakistan’s Islamist element, which will oppose any government-led effort to expand the rights of women and religious minorities. The Islamists have a sizable bloc of sympathizers behind them: Some 10,000 people flooded the streets in Rawalpindi after Qadri’s execution, showering the van that carried his body with flower petals. Afterward, two Islamist parties organized a 25,000-man demonstration outside the parliamentary building in Islamabad, demanding that Qadri be named a martyr, that non-Muslims be removed from government posts, and that a strict interpretation of Islamic law be implemented nationwide.

    The protests continued even after the Pakistani army sent 7,000 troops to quell them, and they did not dispel until the government agreed not to amend the country’s blasphemy laws. So although the Islamists have historically garnered no more than 10 percent of the vote in Pakistani elections, they have learned how to exploit demonstrations to achieve their objectives. Moreover, at least 20 of Pakistan’s Islamist parties have agreed to hold a million-man march against secularization in the near future. And while these parties reject the use of terrorism to further political agendas, other groups in Pakistan do not. The March 27 suicide bombing in Lahore against Christians who had gathered to celebrate Easter served as a grisly reminder of that.

    The Islamists are not the only challenge to Sharif’s platform, either. The military’s enduring role in the Pakistani government will also undermine secularization efforts in three ways. First, despite having gradually made room for civilian politics since President Pervez Musharraf resigned in 2008, the military still holds a dominant position in Pakistan’s foreign and security policies. In doing so, it appropriates funds that then cannot be used to promote economic development, health care or energy reform. The hoarding of resources in turn creates grievances among the public that the Islamists can use to their advantage, arguing that Pakistan’s corrupt leadership is incapable of solving the country’s problems. Second, the military’s presence in the government blocks civilian politicians from gaining the experience they need to effectively channel society’s interests, leading to the type of subpar governance that compels the military to intervene in the first place. Finally, by taking charge of Pakistan’s foreign policy, the army continues to promote its guiding tenet that India is an existential threat. As a result, India and Pakistan have a more difficult time deepening their bilateral trade ties, which are key to propelling growth in the Pakistani economy.

    A politically active military causes some of Pakistan’s security issues to endure as well. As the army purportedly continues arming its jihadist proxies to gain influence in Afghanistan and Kashmir, it also empowers militant Islamists who pose a threat to Pakistan. Moreover, as long as the military is in a position of power, the lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas — a haven for militants and a launch pad for military incursions into Afghanistan — are unlikely to be absorbed into mainstream politics. And because there is no end in sight to the war in Afghanistan, the United States will continue to fund and sell hardware to Pakistan’s military, ensuring it remains an influential force in Islamabad for years to come.

    Sharif will not be able to overcome the obstacles posed by Pakistan’s Islamists and military, and his secularization project will remain unfinished. But progress will come in fits and starts as the prime minister cautiously and pragmatically pursues mild social reform measures in an effort to attract foreign investment in Pakistan. In the meantime, the country will continue to strike a tenuous balance between secularism and theocracy, never fully embracing or abandoning either path. (Lead Analyst: Faisel Pervaiz)



    Please follow our commenting guidelines.

    Comments are closed.