Islam and Politics

Pakistan’s political scene is dominated by two national level parties: the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and the Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP), plus a number of regional parties include the Pushtun Awami National Party (ANP), the Balochistan National Party (BNP), the Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP), Pashtoon Khwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (United National Movement, MQM). Additionally there are approximately 25 Islamic parties among the most prominent of which are the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). Another new entrant to the political scene is the party of former cricketer Imran Khan, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), which has, in recent years, gained support among sections of the Pakistani youth.

While most political parties in Pakistan pay lip service to upholding and protecting Pakistan’s Islamic principles, apart from the Islamic parties, only the Muslim League and its various splinter groups have an explicitly conservative right-of-center and Islamic orientation. In contrast, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a secular left-off center party formed in 1967, flirted with an “Islamic” brand of socialism1 under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1928-79) and has moved more to the center over the years but continues to emphasize the principles of secular politics, religious tolerance, women’s rights, equality and social democracy. Similarly, Pakistan’s regional parties have explicitly secular platforms, concerned with promoting, protecting and advancing ethnic and regional demands.

There are approximately 25 active Islamic parties in Pakistan ascribing to the principal Islamic sectarian orientations: approximately 75-80% of Pakistan’s 96% Muslim population are Sunni and 15-20% Shia. Sunnis are further divided into Barelvis, Deobandis, Ahle Hadith and revivalist, modernist movements such as the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) (ICG Asia Report No. 216, 2011, p. 1). While most of Pakistan’s Islamic parties participate in politics their electoral performance has been relatively poor as they have never managed to garner more than 12% of the vote. Their success has depended more on patronage from the military and their ability to strike politically expedient alliances with other mainstream political parties such as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Islamic parties, however, remain important because of their ability to mobilize the street and to act as an important pressure group. Over the years, they have frequently carried out rallies and demonstrations to pressurize the government to bow to their demands, one of which is the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law) in the country. Additionally, they “leverage” the legal and judicial system, which due to changes instituted in it as part of Zia ul Haq’s Islamization drive in the 80s, such as the formation of the Federal Shariat Court (FSC), provides them with a “powerful political apparatus” (ICG Report 2011, p.2).

Currently, Islamic parties have eight seats, including reserved seats, in Pakistan’s 342-member National Assembly. The most prominent and influential amongst them are the Jamaat -i-Islami (JI) and the Deobandi Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI).

A brief summary of the Muslim League and Pakistan’s Islamic parties follows:

  • 1. The PPPs slogan is “Islam is our faith, democracy is our polity, socialism is our economic creed, all power to the people”