Conflicts & War

Why Islamist radicals impose their will in Pakistan

By Jaime Leon

Islamabad, July 22 (efe-epa).- Islamists in Pakistan neither hold important positions in the government nor have economic power, yet they continue to dictate terms in the country due to their enormous social-mobilization capacity and ability to unleash violence.

This conservative Muslim-majority nation of 207 million people was founded based on religion in 1947, following its independence from the British Empire.

This has allowed Islamist radicals to wield a large amount of influence in the name of Islam, propelled by their power to mobilize on the streets and largely unstable governments during its history.

The most recent displays of power involved stopping the construction of the first Hindu temple in Islamabad, supported by the government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan and the parliament, and pressurizing the authorities to reopen mosques amid the Covid-19 crisis while the country was under lockdown.

These radical groups have a presence of just 15 representatives in the country’s 342-member parliament.

How, then, did they succeed in stopping the construction of the temple and manage to reopen the mosques?

“They have street power. What they do not get through elections, they get through the streets, violence, protest, blocking cities,” human rights activist Tahira Abdullah told EFE.

Generally, protests in Pakistan do not witness large crowds except when they have a religious tone, and demonstrators come out in thousands.

“They have a captive audience. Students from madrasas (Islamic seminaries). It is like an infantry. With them, they can bring thousands to the streets,” the activist said.

Moreover, Islamic radicals have a great influence on the population, going beyond the seminary students.

Ayesha Siddiqa, an academic, explained that the influence is due to the country’s identity as an Islamic nation, founded as a refuge for Muslims from the Indian subcontinent and defined as an Islamic republic following a constitutional amendment in 1973.

“Pakistan has nothing to fall back upon apart from the Islamic identity. In Pakistan, there is no ethnic identity. The formula is religion,” Siddiqa, an associate researcher associated with the South Asian Institute at the University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies), told EFE.

The academic noted that Pakistan is a hybrid theocracy, unlike Iran or Saudi Arabia, where religious groups enjoy formal state power.

“The informal power of the clergy to selectively apply sharia is tremendous,” she underlined.

For the analyst, the fact that Islamists carrying no electoral weight is irrelevant, since electoral power and ideological/religious power are two different things, and the latter has a great emotional power that resonates with the people.

To this, there is an addition of violence and religion. “Discussion on religion immediately invokes violence,” said Siddiqa.

Moreover, the constant instability of governments empowers clerics, a weakness sometimes promoted by the all-powerful military, which has ruled the country for half of its history and has enjoyed great influence in the matter of security and foreign policy under democratic rule.

“One of the tactics used by the army to destabilize the government is religion,” affirmed Siddiqa.

The academician cited the example of the Islamist protests in 2017, when radical groups blocked the main entrance to Islamabad for 21 days, resulting in the resignation of the then justice minister for having taken the oath of office in a manner they considered blasphemous.

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