Can Pakistan become a theocratic state?

Religion, politics and the working class

After the murder of Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, many questions have been raised about the future of country and possible take over by religious extremist forces. A lot of material has appeared both in the local English media and international press about the rising tide of religious extremism and collapse of liberal and secular layers in Pakistan. Some articles even gave the impression that whole country is in the grip of religious bigotry and the entire liberal and secular layers have been silenced.

This impression is wrong and is an exaggeration of the current situation. There is no doubt that religious extremist forces have gone onto the offensive on the issue of blasphemy laws and the ‘liberals’ have mainly been on the receiving end. But it will be a mistake to draw the conclusion from the present religious offensive that religious political parties enjoy overwhelming support amongst the masses throughout Pakistan.

The same religious parties, who are organizing large rallies and protest demonstrations in some parts of the country, were routed in the last general elections held in February 2008. These parties got less than 3% of seats in parliament and less than 5% of the popular vote. It is true that the religious parties are better organized and have a better trained layer of activists compared to the capitalist liberal and secular parties of the country. It is also important to note that a majority of the participants in these rallies come from religious schools where nearly 2 million students are studying the religious syllabus.

There is no doubt that generally, Pakistani society has become less tolerant and progressive in last three decades thanks to the politics of deceit, hypocrisy and religious bigotry. But it will be wrong to assume that overwhelming majority of Pakistani people support religious extremism and its ideology. We need to differentiate the religious sentiments of the ordinary people from support for religious extremism in general. The ruling classes have played with the religious emotions of the masses and used religion as a tool to justify their cruel and repressive rule over the years. The Pakistani state has mixed general religious beliefs and politics to the extent that it has become impossible to separate them on some occasions. The use of religion by the state to gain political mileage has made it easier for the religious parties and clerics to exploit the religious emotions of masses. That is what is happening at the moment. The religious clerics and parties have simply made the debate on the misuse of the blasphemy laws into the issue of protecting the honor and dignity of the Holly Prophet (PBUH).

The rising tide of religious extremism also poses serious dangers for the organized trade union movement and Left forces in the country. We have to accept the reality of the situation: that religious extremist forces do exist and will continue to exist until the system is that creates such reactionary forces is changed. The capitalist and feudal system is responsible for the conditions in which such forces flourish. They are also incapable of completing the tasks of the national democratic revolution (bourgeois revolution) in the country.

What is clear is that our “liberal intelligentsia” is floundering. Both the substance and strategy of their campaign separate defense of these democratic rights from demands that related directly to popular grievances. And it is understandable why many of the leading advocates come from either the bourgeoisie which had come to the fore during the lawyers’ movement, or from the PPP and its sympathizers—groups that have been in recent years, as a rule, consistent cheerleaders of war and neo-liberal restructuring.

It is a sad fact that, even while the blasphemy laws remain a barometer of the cruelty of life in Pakistan today, they do not figure in the everyday injustices faced by the vast majority, who remain centrally preoccupied by hunger, poverty, and war. The number of cases registered of the use of blasphemy laws in the last three decades is in the hundreds—less than the number of Pakistani children that die, daily, from malnutrition and related causes.

This is not to suggest that these laws are unworthy of urgent attention. But it is to argue that the task of making their repeal central to people understands of progress is precisely that – a task. Progressives find themselves in a political context that requires them to make the case, as organizers and not just as commentators, that freeing the State from the grasp of religious bigotry is an important step in the struggle to transform the society along socialist lines. A progressive society can not be built on the basis of a rotten capitalist system, as many liberals and progressives believe. The struggle to emancipate society from the clutches of religious bigotry is not a separate struggle, but an integral part of the struggle to emancipate the working class and poor of the country from the shackles of capitalist exploitation and repression.

The so-called liberal and secular ruling parties and ruling classes have failed to offer anything to the working masses and poor. This has created a political vacuum which the religious right is trying to fill with religious slogans. This is indeed an ideological offensive from the religious right and so-called liberal and secular leaders and parties have no answer to counter this attack. The reason is simple. These parties and leaders have no ideology, vision, strategy, programme and manifesto to launch the counter-offensive. They also lack the courage and determination to take up the challenge. In this situation, these leaders and parties find it easier to appease the religious forces to calm them down. The parties like PPP, PML-N, MQM and ANP are more concerned to maintain their vote and thus avoid confronting the religious right. All these parties support one religious party or another to get their votes at elections. The religious right knows this and exploits the weakness of these parties and leaders to their advantage.

What the religious right want?

The ongoing movement of the religious right has raised some important questions that need to be answered.

Firstly, what is the real agenda behind this movement? It seems that the main purpose of this movement is to re-gain the ground that the religious right has lost in last few years. The suicide attacks and bombings carried out by the Taliban and their supporters against innocent women, children and the general public in the main cities have proved counter-productive. The overwhelming majority of the masses are against these acts of barbarism and the tactics used by Taliban and Al-Qaeda linked extremist groups. Many religious parties and groups directly and indirectly support the Taliban and other extremist groups. The results of the last general elections (and by-elections held in the last two years), clearly show that the religious right had lost considerable support amongst the masses. All the surveys conducted by foreign and local organizations before the beginning of the present right-wing onslaught confirmed this trend in the society. Now these religious parties are using the issue of Blasphemy laws to make the political gains.

Secondly, the right-wing fundamentalist sections of the establishment want to use this opportunity to form an alliance of the religious parties to campaign around the issues concerning them. This alliance will be converted into an electoral alliance along the lines of MMA (an alliance of main religious parties), which contested the 2002 general elections and won a considerable number of seats and over 11% of the votes. It is generally believed that the intelligence agencies were behind this alliance at the behest of General Musharaf’s military regime. The same people wanted to repeat the drama of the 2002 elections in the next elections to manipulate politics inside and outside the parliament. But it will be difficult for the religious forces to repeat the electoral successes of 2002 in the next general elections.

Thirdly, the present campaign is being used to bring together the rival religious parties belonging to the different sects. There was bitter division among the religious forces before the eruption of this movement. The religious parties belonging to the Braelvi sect were organizing the protest demonstrations and large rallies against the attacks on the most respected shrines in Lahore and Karachi. No one ever imagined that anybody could attack the shrines of these most respected Muslim Saints. The Braelvis alleged that Deobandi’s armed religious groups and the Taliban were behind these attacks. All the religious parties belonging to the Braelvi religious sect formed an alliance called Sunni Ittehad Council (Sunni alliance council). They openly allege that some Deobandi religious schools are involved in the religious militancy and should be closed down. They also organize anti-Taliban rallies and demonstrations in different cities. The situation was very tense between these sects and there was the possibility of clashes and killings. These tensions are not entirely over yet, even though they have eased up a bit because of the blasphemy issue.

Fourthly, the blasphemy issue is also being used to divert the attention of the working masses and poor of the country from the real issues faced by them in every day life. The acute energy shortage, skyrocketing prices, unemployment, increased poverty and hunger and crippling public services are the real issues faced by the masses. There is growing anger and desperation among the masses. The massive protest demonstrations, rallies and blocking of railway lines and main roads for hours by angry people in many cities in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwah provinces against the long hours of power and natural gas cuts sent shock waves through the ruling class. Once the economic and social issues come to the fore of the movement, the religious right will be pushed aside and loose control of the movement. The government is happy that the religious right has successfully diverted the attention of the masses and provided a breathing space for the government.

Fifthly, the religious forces want to maintain their superiority over the parliament in making or amending any Islamic law. They want to kill any debate on such issues, inside and outside the parliament. Various right wing political parties and extremist groups have succeeded in their malicious agenda of rendering the elected parliament ineffective by not allowing it to debate major political and social issues confronting the country.

The final and the most important factor in the situation is that the mainstream religious political parties are under immense pressure from Al-Qaeda linked groups and other developments that are taking place in these religious parties. The Pakistani and international media and intellectuals are just discussing and analyzing the increased tensions between religious extremist forces and liberalism. But tensions are also developing within the religious right and extremist forces. Al-Qaeda’s second in command, Aimanul Zawahri, has written a long article that is being distributed among the religious groups. In this, he declares that the Pakistani constitution is un-Islamic and asks the Muslims in Pakistan not to accept the constitution. This decree from Al-Qaeda’s top gun has put the three main religious political parties in a difficult position. JI, JUI-F and JUP leaders signed the consensus constitution in 1973. New extremist groups and hardliners within these parties are now posing new challenges to the leadership.

The mainstream religious political parties are part of electoral politics and also an integral part of power politics. The religious leaders have become part of the ruling class since 1977 and are enjoying all the perks and privileges of the ruling elite. Their declared aim is to bring the ‘Islamic revolution’ about through ‘democratic methods’. Now groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda with their increased influence and ideology have started to challenge the credibility and integrity of these leaders and parties. These leaders and parties have launched a movement to save the honor and integrity of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) to prove their credentials as the true leaders of the religious right. On the one hand, these leaders are putting pressure on the liberal sections of the ruling class and, on the other hand, they are struggling for their own survival within the religious right.

Middle class and religious right

Some liberal intellectuals and commentators are painting the picture that the majority of the educated and professional middle class are supporters of the religious right and that religious extremism is deep rooted in this class. Before we draw any conclusion in this regard, it is important to analyze the middle classes in Pakistan. Traditionally, the middle class in Pakistan consists of traders, landed rural petty bourgeoisie, professionals like doctors, engineers, professors, lawyers and managers, and civil and military bureaucrats. The middle classes are not as stable in Pakistan as they are in the advanced industrialized countries.

Traders are the most conservative and religious section of the middle class and also the largest section of middle class. Traders are conservative both politically and socially. Their political affiliations differ from province to province and area to area. Traders provide much-needed financial support to the religious political parties and some sections of traders even generously supply money to religious extremist groups. Jihadi groups also collect a major share of their money from the traders. Historically, traders back almost every reactionary movement launched on religious issues and oppose every progressive movement.

The landed rural petty bourgeoisie are not as religious as the traders but hold conservative views. This layer of the middle class is more stable as it owns large and medium sized land holdings. This layer also produces professionals and military and civilian bureaucrats. This layer mainly supports two main political parties, the PPP and PML-N. It holds no particular political ideology. This layer is renowned for changing political loyalties in no time at all. This is one of the most opportunist layers of the middle class. In feudal dominated areas, this layer is an ally of the feudal lords. In central Punjab, it is closely linked with the bourgeoisie and military establishment.

The educated professional urban middle class is the layer that is often linked to religious extremism. There is no doubt that in recent years, this layer has inclined more towards religion than the past. In the 1950s, 60s and early 70s, this layer was considered more liberal and progressive compared to other layers and sections of the middle class. The absence of the left as alternative force in the political arena paved the way for religious fundamentalist organizations like JI to make inroads on the university campuses. In recent years, a small minority of the educated professional middle class has joined new militant organizations. But it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that whole layers have embraced the ideas of religious extremism. Once the working class starts to move and enters into the political arena, big sections of this layer can be won to the ideas of Socialism.

Role of the Working class

The other missing link in the analysis of western commentators and the Pakistani liberal intelligentsia is the role of working class. None of these ‘experts’ ever mentions the existence of a powerful working class. According to the official figures, of a population of 170 million, 49 million are from the working class. If the workers in the informal economy and rural women workers in agriculture are included, then it numbers 69 million. That is nearly 40% of the population. The middle classes are around 34 million..

It is true that at this stage the working class in general appears as a mere spectator. It is also true that the trade union movement is weak and isolated. The working class in general is not involved in the political process because there is no party which represents their interests.

But this situation will not last forever. The working class will be compelled to take part in politics as it did in the 1960s, when it appeared on the scene like a thunderstorm. Nobody thought that the working class could take on the powerful military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan and defeat it. The working class did it in 1968-69. The working class also took on the religious right and defeated it in the first general elections in 1970.

The religious right cannot take power in Pakistan and make it a theocratic state until either the majority of working class people embrace the ideas of religious extremism or the working class is crushed in a thumping defeat. Neither has happened so far. The overwhelming majority of the working class has not yet supported the ideas of religious right. As soon as class struggle starts to take develop and political class-consciousness and radicalization start to develop, the whole scenario can begin to change.

The setting up of the Progressive workers federation (PWF), which brings together hundreds of thousands of workers from various trade unions, is another example showing that the working class is still very strong in Pakistan. Furthermore, there have been a number of strikes and protests taking place in number of areas. The recent workers’ response to Karachi Electricity Supply Corporation (KESC) sacking 4000 workers is one such example.

Khalid Bhatti, general secretary of Socialist Movement Pakistan (SMP – CWI Pakistan)

This is an edited version of the article that appeared in the website on Jan 26 Jan, 2011. The entire article can be read by clicking on the following link: