In January 2002, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized control of the Pakistani government in a 1999 military coup, delivered a major address to the nation—and to the world at large. Mindful of Pakistan’s designation by the global media as a crucial front in the US “war on terrorism,” Musharraf promised to curtail the activities of radical Islamist groups and to reform the curricula of the Islamic schools (madrassas) that had become infamous worldwide as incubators of the Taliban. In this speech, the general positioned himself as the moderate Muslim ruler who had heeded the wishes of the silent majority in Pakistan that is against fanatical Islam.

When, four months later, Musharraf anointed himself president by calling a referendum of questionable legality, the State Department brushed aside widespread complaints of ballot stuffing and other fraud by pointing to the parliamentary elections planned for that October. But there was great surprise in Pakistan and abroad when, in those elections, a newly formed coalition of Islamist political parties, Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA), won a plurality of votes in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan. The MMA won a total of 45 National Assembly seats, as well as 49 of the 99 seats in the NWFP provincial assembly and 13 of the 51 seats in the Baluchistan house.

Although there have been alliances of religious parties in the past, never before had they formed a single group to contest elections. The MMA’s showing—2.9 million of 29.5 million total votes, or almost 11 percent—was by far the most respect- able for a religious party in Pakistani history. In the previous two elections of 1993 and 1997, the combined vote of the religious parties was 2-4 percent of the total. Never before, as well, had an Islamist party independently acquired enough votes to govern a province in Pakistan, as the MMA does today in the NWFP. The Islamist coalition is also a partner in the Baluchistan government and has a sizable minority in the national parliament.

Along with recent reports of a Pakistani role in supplying nuclear technology to Iran and Libya, the common belief that Osama bin Laden is hiding among friendly tribes along the Afghan frontier and two attempts to assassinate Musharraf in December 2003, the electoral success of the MMA is often cited as evidence that the general is not up to the task of reducing the role of radical Islam in Pakistani politics. Pakistan’s own nuclear arsenal, its proximity to Afghanistan and its long- running dispute with India over Kashmir make the country’s governance a source of great concern in the West. Speaking on the PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer after the second attempt on Musharraf ’s life, Brookings Institution scholar Stephen Cohen channeled the worries of the US foreign policy establishment when he said that “Pakistan is quickly emerging as our greatest foreign policy problem.” Yet to counterpose Musharraf and his policies with the influence of religion upon Pakistan’s political system is to miss the point.

In Pakistan, Islamist parties have emerged as national players when the ruling elite engages in undemocratic practices, resulting in the absence of representative institutions or national parties with cohesive programs. In a state that, from its very inception, has been divided along ethnic, linguistic and sectarian lines, Islamic rhetoric has been the bridge for shared national values. For this reason, even such secularist stalwarts as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding leader of the country, and Liaqat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister, used religion as an intermediary between state and society. The nation’s secular politicians, not Islamist activists, initially confirmed the centrality of Islam in the national political discourse. Of course, the state cannot selectively appeal to Islam without taKing on the risk of inviting the clerical establishment (‘ulama) and the religious parties into the fray. The emergence of the MMA is also a result of manipulation of the political process in Pakistan. As much as the MMA leadership deploys a rhetoric of democratic values, its constituent parties have, both traditionally and recently, aligned themselves with the Pakistani military. Hence the Islamist-secular divide is not necessarily the salient division in Pakistani politics.

The Question of Ethnicity

Pakistan, since its independence in 1947 as a homeland for South Asian Muslims, has been a configuration of competing political and social ideologies. One dominant feature of the state, along with its emphasis on the Islamic nature of the polity, has been the non-resolution of the ethnic problem. In the cultural sphere, the Mohajirs (“refugees,” those who migrated from India), along with the majority Punjabi ethnic group, have been the most closely linked with Muslim nationalism and with Urdu’s status as the Pakistani national language (though English has remained the language of government and commerce). [1] Urdu’s dominance of the cultural center has bred a sense of exclusion among other linguistic groups, which has led to a proliferation of ethnic nationalism and the strengthening of regional identities. Ethnic nationalism, in turn, has hindered the emergence of a national culture inclusive of the diverse voices and languages present in the Pakistani cultural spectrum—and protective of the political and economic rights of the smaller provinces.

Pakistan’s Pashtun-populated areas in the NWFP and Baluchistan are geographically contiguous with the Pashtun-speaking belt of southern Afghanistan, resulting in cross- border kinship ties. Where these solidarities were at times exploited by secular Pashtun nationalist forces, the Pakistani security agencies, charged with running a covert war against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan in 1980s, were successful in turning these ethnic bonds into ties of Islamist resistance. The MMA’s electoral victory flows from the still unwritten part of Pakistani history when the NWFP changed from a hub of nationalist and leftist politics into a region identified with radical Islamic movements.

The MMA’s success hints at the possibility that Pashtun nationalism, at least in the 2002 elections, was represented to a large degree through the idiom of Islam. Of course, there were elements of anti-Americanism as well, but cross-border Pashtun solidarity also played a significant role. In interviews for this article, MMA leaders expressed confidence that their party was the best guarantee against the ultra-nationalist Pashtun sentiments that seek to break away from the federation. They said that the party seeks a stable political environment to accomplish its strategic agenda of creating a “true” Islamic republic. Ghafoor Ahmed, one of five lieutenants to the leader of the Jamaat-e Islami (JI), a major constituent party of the MMA (see box), stated that the alliance is committed to the geographical integrity of Pakistan, yet if people are pushed to the wall then even the MMA will not be able to contain separatism. The onus, Ahmed says, will be on the Musharraf regime. Rhetorical guarantees against Islamist and ethnic radicalism may be bargaining positions in the MMA’s evolving relationship with Musharraf and the military.



The Pakistani state has countered the politics of ethnic identification by periodically relying on Islamic rhetoric and symbols. Present-day social conservatism is partly related to the legacy of “Islamization” left by Gen. Zia ul Haq, who led a military coup in 1977 and ousted the democratically elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The JI, which joined Zia’s government in 1979, and other religious par- ties supported the dictator in his efforts to implement rigid interpretations of Islamic law to police women’s honor and sexuality, as well as restrict civil and minority rights. The Hudood Ordinance, promulgated by Zia’s regime in 1979 and still on the books, instituted harsh punishments for adultery. Rural and urban poor women have been the main victims of these laws. [2]

Further, Zia ul Haq augmented his domestic agenda with an aggressive anti-communist posture that endeared him to the West. His Islamization program was partly underwritten by economic aid and donations from the US and Saudi Arabia, which backed the Pakistani regime in its support of the mujahideen fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion of that country in 1979. Development funds were used to establish madrassas across Pakistan. The madrassa system became an avenue for social advancement for many of the rural and urban poor, for whose education and employment the state had otherwise forsaken responsibility. Such schools, operated in many cases by more orthodox factions of the Jamaat-e Ulama Islam (JUI), another major party within the MMA, became recruiting grounds for the conflict in Afghanistan or the Pakistani military’s other state- supported war in Kashmir. The present head of the JI, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, was the point man in the party’s relationship between the mujahideen and the Pakistani army. [3] More than 60 percent of the US-supplied aid funneled to the mujahideen through Pakistani state channels in the 1980s went to the JI’s preferred commander, Gulbuddin Hikmatyar of the radical Islamist party Hizb-e Islami. [4]

Undemocratic Practices

As in the era of Zia ul Haq, the prominence of Islamist parties and agendas in contemporary Pakistan has coincided with a broad-based assault by the regime upon constitutional democracy. After seizing power, Gen. Musharraf forced seven of the 13 justices of the Supreme Court to sign oaths of loyalty to the regime, paving the way for the court, in May 2000, to grant its official blessing to his coup. The May 2002 referendum that made Musharraf president as well as army chief of staff recorded a 98 percent “yes” vote that was tragicomically reminiscent of referenda in Husni Mubarak’s Egypt or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. After the referendum, the general issued the Legal Framework Order (LFO), by which he allocated to himself the power to appoint the Supreme Court and the prime minister. He can also unilaterally dissolve the legislature at any time.

As the October 2002 elections approached, Musharraf’s regime disqualified the leaders of the two mainstream non-religious parties, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML [N]) and Benazir Bhutto of the PPP, and blocked ex- tensive canvassing by opposition politicians. Irrespective of Musharraf ’s moderate rhetoric, some news reports suggest that government intelligence agencies encouraged the creation of an Islamist coalition to counter the strength of the two main op- position parties. [5] These agencies may have erroneously thought that the religious parties would win only seven or eight national assembly seats, keeping their influence limited. In the NWFP alone, the MMA won three times as many.

The formation of the alliance long before the polls gave the MMA a head start in the campaign. The coalition adopted the powerful symbol of a book, identified as the Qur’an among sections of the pious, largely illiterate populace. Bypassing state restrictions on campaigning by using mosques for political meetings, during Friday sermons the MMA’s cadres argued for a socially just alternative to the corruption of previous governments. Despite credible allegations that some contests were rigged, in addition to its success in the NWFP, the religious coalition and component parties won assembly seats in the country’s other three provinces. Religious parties re-established themselves in urban Sindh and also made progress in urban Punjab by securing seats in Lahore, Islamabad and Gujranawala. In many Punjab constituencies, the MMA came in a close second to Nawaz Sharif ’s Muslim League, the more popular party in the region.

Lowering the Volume

Yet the MMA recognizes that its mandate is presently limited to Pashtun-speaking areas. Even within the NWFP, it did not do well in the Hindko belt (Hazara division), where the Muslim League and other parties won most of the national and provincial assembly seats. The MMA leadership seeks to showcase achievements in the NWFP to convince the larger Pakistani electorate that they are capable of good governance, can follow democratic norms, can provide services and have a plan for the economic development of the country. With an eye to future elections, they have also lowered the volume of their radical Islamic rhetoric.

In the Northwest Frontier Province, the MMA faces a sobering socio-economic reality. The province has a small middle class, a non-existent manufacturing base and most of its agricultural land is barani (non-irrigated). The mineral resources (primarily semi-precious stones, but also iron ore and coal) have not been fully exploited and only a handful of paved roads link the province to the national highway system. Since the 1960s, inhabitants have migrated to Karachi, and then to the Arab Gulf states, to escape poverty and joblessness at home, but lately opportunities for work abroad have been drying up. Migration and the global media have brought a degree of cosmopolitanism to the mostly Pashtun working classes of the province, though Islam and Pashtun nationalism remain strong. The MMA is seeking to balance these multiple forces in its desire to consolidate its power.

In the first months of their rule in the NWFP, the MMA government was criticized for banning films and allowing the destruction of billboards. In interviews in the summer of 2003, leaders of the coalition parties endeavored to distance them- selves from such incidents, especially the billboard vandalism, blaming the acts on over-zealous supporters who should not have taken law onto their hands. Party figures, however, inveigh against “indecency” and the commercial exploitation of women. Ghafoor Ahmed, the JI leader, responded to the charge of vandalism by asserting that “civilized people should not allow the use of women’s bodies to sell commercial products.” Yet the MMA has not scrubbed provincial towns clean of signs of modern popular culture, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. In Peshawar, movie houses are open, Internet cafes do a thriving business and music blares from popular restaurants. Aware that their electoral victory may reflect evanescent anger over the war in Afghanistan among Pashtuns, the MMA is looking to combine a new image of social tolerance and anti-corruption with its opposition to feudalism. Nearly all of the coalition’s sitting parliamentarians from the NWFP belong to the middle peasantry and won their seats by defeating well-established members of the local landowning elite. [6] In this way, the coalition hopes to further dislodge the electoral power of the secular Awami National Party (ANP) and the traditional feudal elite (khans) in the province.

The MMA’s ideas about social and economic policies have seldom gone beyond general rhetoric about Islamic social justice, and they need the help of sympathetic technocrats to govern the province. In interviews, MMA leaders stressed how their government is committed to free schooling until the tenth grade and subsidized health care for the poor. In June 2003, they also announced an overly ambitious Annual Development Program costing 14.7 million rupees that launched 970 new development schemes in the province. [7] These included a women’s university and a women’s medical school. In contrast to the spirit of these pronouncements, however, the MMA continues to oppose the repeal of the Hudood Ordinance and to undermine local NGO efforts to provide education for young girls. They have further objected to a law reserving 25 percent of seats in national and provincial assemblies for women (though they have nominated female party members to these seats). [8]

The federal government has failed to respond to requests from the NWFP government for funds for its ambitious agenda. As a consequence, the MMA does not have moral qualms about borrowing money with interest — contradicting the prohibition of interest in Islamic law — from any available lender. The World Bank is discussing delivery of the second of three installments of $90 million in credit to the NWFP government. Similarly, the Asian Development Bank has 15 operations totaling $400 million in the province. [9] All these contradictory gestures hint at the MMA’s desire to balance the cultural sentiments of its more radicalized supporters with a broader social agenda and good governance.

The Federal Game

Since the October 2002 elections, no significant piece of legislation has been passed by the Pakistani parliament, primarily due to contentious battles over the Legal Framework Order (LFO). The MMA leaders joined other parties in opposing the LFO, arguing that the 1973 constitution should be implemented instead. They emphasized that the pivotal questions of distribution of powers and the Islamic nature of the state were settled in that document. Yet, of course, the MMA entered the political arena on the terms set by the Musharraf government in the LFO.

Their “principled stand” against the LFO notwithstanding, the MMA eventually compromised. Among the coalition’s parties, the JI had pushed hardest against the LFO, while the JUI factions were more conciliatory. [10] With an eye on future elections, the JI leadership had decided that to compromise on the LFO would undermine the MMA’s democratic credentials. Yet the military was also exerting its own pressure by denying the NWFP government development funds and by threatening to dissolve the national assembly. In some cases, the regime threatened to remove MMA parliamentarians lacking a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent — qualifications required under Pakistani law to enter one’s candidacy in elections.

On January 1, 2004, the Pakistani parliament and the four provincial legislatures, by majority votes, accepted the basic tenets of the LFO, giving the system put in place by Musharraf a legitimacy that had been elusive. The bill, known as the Seventeenth Amendment to the National Electoral College, reaffirmed the controversial results of the May 2002 referendum. The amendment’s passage would not have been possible without the active support of the MMA leadership, which abstained from voting in Parliament, but unlike other opposition parties did not oppose the bill. The most important aspect of the LFO amendment is that Musharraf shall retire from the army by December 2004, yet remain president of Pakistan for another five years. As president, he will retain the power under the constitutional article 58(2)(b) — another legacy of Zia ul Haq’s rule that was deleted from the constitution by popular mandate in the previous Parliament — to dissolve the national assembly (though such a decision would be referred to the Supreme Court for ratification).

In negotiating with the MMA, the Pakistani military struck deals with familiar partners. The regime could have negotiated with the more secular parties, like Bhutto’s PPP and Sharif’s PML(N), yet the regime chose to ostracize them and divide the opposition to its rule. The regime also sought to neutralize the Islamic radicalism which remains a feature of MMA’s political base. Above all, the military establishment’s evolving sense of Pakistan’s international isolation may have shaped its domestic strategy. The Pakistani state is under tremendous external (primarily US) pressure regarding nuclear proliferation and Islamist radicalism. On the one hand, Musharraf’s conciliatory remarks on Kashmir, the détente with India, the military action against suspected al-Qaeda forces in the north- western “tribal” belt of the country and the acceptance of MMA demands to step down from army command point to definite shifts in the regime’s policies. On the other hand, through the LFO mandate the military has made sure that it will not risk civilian scrutiny until it can guarantee further entrenchment of its own power in Pakistani society. Indeed, in April 2004 the military strengthened its legal position via the passage of a parliamentary bill that allows for a supra-parliamentary National Security Council (NSC). Headed by the president, the NSC includes the joint chiefs of staff and the heads of the army, navy and air force — along with other civilian members. The NSC provides legal cover for the military’s undeniably unrestricted hand in running the country.

For the MMA, the LFO compromise opens up many possibilities. In exchange for its agitation, it received an assurance that the parliament will complete its term and that Musharraf will retire from the army. A more conciliatory relationship with the federal government could emerge, leading to transfer of more funds to the NWFP government. The MMA is also counting on passing laws to enhance its national profile on economic, cultural and social issues.

Yet the grand bargain is fragile. The Pakistan military is the most disciplined institution in the country, but it is not a monolith. Factions within the military may reverse the pres- ent political process based on their own analysis of Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policies. If the insurgency in Afghanistan becomes more sustained, some constituent groups within the MMA may not want the Pakistani state to support US-led military efforts in the area. The relationship between the military and the Islamist alliance has already soured with the Pakistan army’s March 2004 offensive against Islamist forces in the Wana region of Waziristan. In response, the MMA op- posed the NSC bill in Parliament and called demonstrations against the army action, which they blamed on Musharraf’s adherence to the US line. Ironically, the MMA could not muster enough strength in the street to have any impact on the military’s policy.

Within the MMA, doctrinal and political divisions have already occurred. Maulana Sami ul Haq is threatening to leave the coalition and has accused the two larger groups, JI and JUI, of sidelining his party in allocation of ministries in the NWFP and within the structure of the MMA. [11] These problems may become more obvious as the constituent parties assert their electoral strength in the coming months. For the time being, however, the MMA may be most concerned to pass legislation that they can represent as beneficial to the Pakistani electorate. As the secular opposition parties are left out of the processes of distribution of resources and passing legislation, the MMA will further augment its strength for the next election cycle. The goal is to consolidate enough electoral power so that, eventually, they can implement their political and social agenda through acts of Parliament. In the absence of a contravening political force, if the Islamists manage to remain united and uncorrupted, and provide social and economic relief to the populace, their gamble of backing the general might pay off.


[1] Muhammad Qasim Zaman, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).
[2] In 1993, five years after the end of Zia’s regime, 75-80 percent of the women in Pakistani jails had been imprisoned on charges of hudood offenses. See Shahnaz Rouse, “The Outsider(s) Within: Sovereignty and Citizenship in Pakistan” in Patricia Jeffery and Amrita Basu, eds. Appropriating Gender (London: Routledge, 1998).
[3] Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994).
[4] Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).
[5] Newsline (Karachi), November 2002.
[6] Ibid.
[7] The program has stalled due to paucity of funds and pressure from lending agencies such as the World Bank. Dawn (Karachi), March 8, 2004.
[8] Newsline (Karachi), October 2003.
[9] New York Times, January 18, 2004.
[10] Newsline (Karachi), October 2003.
[11] Dawn (Karachi), March 2, 2004.


How to cite this article:

Kamran Asdar Ali "Pakistani Islamists Gamble on the General," Middle East Report 231 (Summer 2004).

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