Religion's Importance in Pakistani Politics

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

Religion's Importance in Pakistani Politics

Posted on: 11th September 2014
Ambassador Zamir Akram
Pakistan Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other International Organizations in Geneva

Q1. Religion was a key factor in the creation of the Pakistani state; to what extent is it still relevant to the nation’s politics?

We should first understand that Pakistan is a country that was based on Islamic identity but was not created as a theocratic state, nor as a state that was meant to be exclusively for Muslims, to the exclusion of other religious groups. It was really a state that was established to protect the religious, cultural and historical identity of the Muslims of the subcontinent when the British withdrew from South Asia.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah's Pakistan movementaimed to establish a country that worked to protect the identity of Muslims but that would not exclude other minorities, who would go on to play a very important part in the country, whether they were Hindus, Christians or any other religious denomination. But Islam is still a very important aspect of Pakistan's ethos, identity and even foreign policy.

Q2. Can Islam in Pakistan be considered a unifying ideology for many sub-national identities? 

Islam is definitely a unifying force but at the same time cannot be considered as the only force that brings people together. One can at one level talk about pan-Islamism but at the same time there are other interests which crosscut, so you see across the Islamic world an effort to identify with broad Islamic ideas and to come to each other's help and assistance. However, this doesn't preclude the fact that some Islamic countries have differences with each other, particularlywhere national or sub-national identities come into play. Islam is not a hard and fast bond, it's a bond that varies from place to place and even from time to time.

Q3. International reporting on Pakistan’s foreign policy is often focused on dispute with India. How does India’s recent election of a Hindu nationalist leader affect regional Pakistani foreign policy?

Unfortunately the emergence of Pakistan and India has left behind a disputed colonial legacy over the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This dispute is essentially about the fact that the majority of the people of Jammu and Kashmir are Muslims and according to the basis upon which the two countries were created, Pakistan believes that Jammu and Kashmir should have been a part of Pakistan, and that now they should have the right to decide where they want to go.

The Kashmir issue has not yet been resolved under any government in power in India. However the current BJP led government has taken some steps that go back on their own position with regard to Jammu and Kashmir. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution recognises that the status of Kashmir is different because of this Muslim majority, as compared to other states within the Indian union. Now the government intends to remove this specific article, which would deny Jammu and Kashmir that special status within the Indian union. That is a matter of concern for Pakistan because there will be resistance to that from within the parts of Jammu and Kashmir under Indian control.

The wider danger is to do with the relationship between the Hindu majority of India and the Muslim minority, with the word 'minority' being relative because this Muslim minority is very large, and tensions may emerge between these societies. There is talk amongst some of the hardline BJP supporters about the need to recognise or identify all Indians as Hindus, as well as a move to introduce a unified civil code,which until now varied between Hindus, Muslims and other minority communities according to their own traditions and laws. These issues could have foreign policy implications because of the large number of Indian Muslims that have families in Pakistan.

Q4. Can religion, so often seen as being the problem, be utilised as a possible instrument towards peace between these countries?

It can be, but the problem is not religion but rather how it is used or misused. No religion whether Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or Judaism propagates the use of violence, force or discrimination against others. We can and should use religion as a basis for unifying, but the problem at a lower level is that unfortunately countries often use religion as a smokescreen behind which they pursue their national interests.

Q5. To what extent does the current Pakistani military offensive against militant networks in North Waziristan represent a clash between a more and a less tolerant interpretation of Islam?

The Islam that was propagated by Prophet Mohammad is a very tolerant religion. The form of Islam that spread in South Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Turkey, can be understood in a broad sense as Sufi. Sufism, as an approach to the exercise of belief, is a very tolerant and inclusive approach. It is inclusive of all others who are not Muslims, approaching them as human beings.

Unfortunately in some parts of the Muslim world, we have seen the emergence of a very extremist interpretation. The word fundamentalism is the wrong word for this approach, which can broadly be described as Wahhabism or Salafism. That's what is happening in parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in the extremism that is playing out in Iraq and Syria. This kind of militant extremism is really an abuse of Islam rather than an interpretation of the religion in its correct form because none of the actions of these groups are actions that traditional Islam justifies in any way.

What Pakistan is really trying to do is to expunge the country from this extremist belief. We tried for many years to engage with these groups to try and bring them into the fold through peaceful means, dialogue and opening up. That door is still open, but the response has been the use of terrorist methods and therefore as a country we have felt compelled to use force to contain these groups.

Q6. To what extent can the current government protests in Islamabad, co-led by the Canadian Sufi cleric Tahir ul Qadri, be considered religious in motivation?

We have to understand that Mr Tahir ul Qadri is a person that is asking for reforms within the political system. He's asking for accountability, for reform of the election commission and more equitable distribution of wealth, which he justifies under Islamic tenants of equality and justice and responsibility of government. There is obviously a clash between what he is propagating and what the government's view is. On the other side of the coin is the fact that this is a government that has been elected and the government's argument is that change can only come through a political process.

There is a common saying that if there is an imperfect democracy then the solution to that is more democracy, so what you are seeing is more democracy being played out. So I will say that this is eventually going to strengthen the process of democratic change.

There is no religious issue at stake here. The real issue is differing perceptions of governance, and Mr Qadri is using Islamic tenants of good governance to make his case. He is arguing that Islam calls for greater accountability, greater transparency, equity and other factors that he is raising. Mr Imran Khan is not using Islam as an argument, but is still arguing for very similar things.

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