At a recent event at The Heritage Foundation, Haroon K. Ullah discussed the influence of Islamist political parties in Pakistan, the subject of his new book, Vying for Allah’s Vote: Understanding Islamic Parties, Political Violence, and Extremism in Pakistan.
Ullah’s research found that, contrary to popular belief, attacks in Pakistan are not random but rather part of a calculated strategy for Islamist parties to bribe voters for their security. He explained that Islamist parties rely on violent attacks in a way that makes security a form of patronage. The Islamists seek to convey to voters that if they support the Islamist parties, they will receive protection from further attacks.
Ullah’s second major point was that, while democratization may encourage the Islamist parties to become more pragmatic in their politics, it has not led to any tangible moderation of their policies and agenda.
Thirdly, he noted that people who join the Islamist parties in Pakistan generally come from the middle class, not the lowest classes of society, as largely assumed.
Lisa Curtis, senior fellow for South Asia at The Heritage Foundation, pointed out the alarming nature of Ullah’s points in terms of what they mean for the future of democracy in Pakistan. She noted that freedom of choice is essential for any democratic process, and if Pakistani voters are being violently intimidated into choosing political parties and candidates, there is little hope for Pakistan achieving a stable and prosperous future.
The role of Islam in Pakistani politics is “here to stay,” remarked Peter R. Lavoy, former acting assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs. He further noted the complexity of political dynamics in Pakistan and how difficult it is for Western analysts to fully understand them. Lavoy said Pakistanis are increasingly self-identifying as Muslims and less as Pakistanis, suggesting just how much Islam has grown as a major political and social force in Pakistan.
Influence of the Islamist parties has helped make Pakistan one of the least religiously tolerant nations in the world. Pakistan’s religious minorities face intense persecution—particularly because of strictly enforced blasphemy laws. One recent case involved Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly speaking ill of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. The 2011 assassinations of Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer and minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti (the sole Christian cabinet member) were directly attributed to their opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of Pakistan’s parliament, recounted an incident when the speaker of the National Assembly prevented a Catholic member of parliament from saying a prayer to commemorate Bhatti’s death. He acquiesced only when Ispahani and another member of the Pakistan People’s Party stood up and demanded a moment of silence. Ispahani emphasized the need for U.S. support of those who call for change and reform in religious freedom and human rights and who risk their lives by speaking up.
James Banks is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.