Brown University

Military, Religious Populism, and the Fall of Pakistani Democracy by Will Conard @ Brown University

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was established, in the midst of religious conflict. In August 1947, West and East Pakistan gained independence both from India and from the Empire of the United Kingdom. However, it wasn’t until 1971 that East Pakistan actually separated from West Pakistan, with the support of India, to become Bangladesh, and West Pakistan solidified itself as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (herein referred to as Pakistan). Attempts at democratization in Pakistan started in 1956 but these attempts often resulted in martial law and/or dictatorship. The government leaders often were heavily pro-Islam and systematically oppressed those within the country who were not Muslim. Instability remained until 1988 when Democratic Elections returned and they have remained through 2017 – albeit not without conflict. To this day the religion of Islam has remained a quintessential element of Pakistani society and law. Backed by overwhelming military support, hardline, conservative Islamists have been allowed to flourish. In fact, many Pakistanis, as well as international scholars, have criticized the military – which holds considerable national power – for allowing extremism to remain within mainstream Pakistani philosophy. If the Pakistani military continues to consolidate power and fund and support Islamic fundamentalists, and through it, religious populism, democracy will disappear in Pakistan.

In many ways, Pakistani democracy has been prosperous over the past year. The independent judiciary has displayed its own power, helping to bar the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, from holding the office of Prime Minister ever again (due to corruption charges). Elections appear to be free and fair, power is decentralized and exists primarily in the provinces, and the country has a successful multi-party system. Additionally, terror attacks have declined significantly and there have been no major assassinations of political figures. Unfortunately, populism and religious fundamentalism are on the rise.

Populism is defined in this essay as Jan-Werer Müller describes it in her work What is Populism: a movement, primarily based on identity politics, that criticizes the elite and is inherently anti-pluralist. In Pakistan, much like in the United States (with Christianity), the current notable populist movement is heavily religious – in this case, Muslim. Members of this movement tend to criticize the administrative elite for a lack of religious care and zeal and charge them with religious blasphemy. Müller notes, “populism tends to pose a danger to democracy. For democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also irreducibly diverse citizens.” This danger of a growing lack of accepted diversity is certainly palpable in Pakistan.

A prime example of this populist threat is the November 27th, 2017, resignation of Pakistani Law Minister Zahid Hamid. Starting on November 6th, protestors blocked Faizabad Interchange, a major road into Islamabad, the country’s capital. The protesters demanded the removal of Hamid on blasphemy charges – in exchange, no fatwa (or a ruling based on Islamic law) would be dealt to him or his family. This action was in response to Hamid altering the electoral oath, removing the name of the prophet Muhammad. Additional demands of the protesters included the release of all protestors held in custody, the public release of the report altering the oath and all who supported it, the government paying for all costs of the protests, as well as several others related to further entrenching Islamist ideas into mainstream Pakistani politics. The Pakistani government met nearly all demands and protestors began to leave the streets.

The political consequences of acquiescing so easily to the demands of populist groups are severe. The International News reported that, “The ramifications of caving in to the TLYRA will continue to be felt for years. Every extremist group in the country now knows that it only needs to gather a couple of thousand people to blackmail the government…” It is apparent that the rising power of religious populist groups is not a welcome sign to those who support liberal democracy within Pakistan.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) – an Islamist party, led the protest The document listing demands notably thanked Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa for his “special effort” in helping approve the list of demands and for “saving the nation from a big catastrophe.” Further, Major General Azhar Navid Hayat was caught on video giving envelopes of 1000 rupees to those who participated in the protest for bus fare. Hayat is also heard saying “This is a gift from us to you. Aren’t we with you too?” This is certainly far from an admission of military collusion with protesters, but many Pakistanis have criticized the government’s weak spine as well as the military’s non-action. The military has been under fire since the removal of Prime Minister Sharif who claimed it was the military who was responsible for his ousting. Many believe the military has a “soft-spot” for religious groups who are easily mobilized against political parties.

The military displays a significant level of control over the government – primarily concerning security. It has impunity for excessive and arbitrary use of force. It still takes responsibility for handling Pakistani relations with India and handles all issues of public security – especially regarding terrorism. The military has almost entirely silenced criticism of it’s own support of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and India. Further, in recent weeks the military has shown direct and indirect support for fundamentalist, religious, populist groups within Pakistan.

Pakistan now faces a critical threat of “authoritarian reversion,” that is, backsliding to a form of despotic government. One of the largest means of enacting this threat is through the strengthening of military power. The Pakistani military gained popularity via their ending the protests on November 27th and a popular military is something to be feared. This is primarily because a strong independent military is the most common means of initiating a coup. Additionally, with popular support – which the Pakistani religious right has given, the military can take power with little to no national backlash – although there may be serious international repercussions.

In many countries, the people have control over the military via their representatives. However, in Pakistan, the military operates largely autonomously. This is primarily because of historic instability of the region as well as fear of terrorist insurrection. The military is not checked by the public and in many ways has promoted itself and increased its own independence via positive public opinion. This can be an issue particularly during crisis – a major concern in a country where domestic terrorism is not remotely abnormal. Growing popularity and a lack of institutional checks may not result in a military coup; in fact, Pakistani democracy may be completely stable and successful in the future. However, it may also be a sign of instability to come; further it may be a precursor to the eventual failure of Pakistani democracy.



  1. Roxana Sanchez

    December 11, 2017 at 6:38 am

    Very nice analysis of the role of the military in Pakistan, Will. I agree that heavy militaristic control and influence in any government is cause for concern. I think a very important factor to consider when discussing countries with historically intricate political ties with the U.S. is that of foreign intervention. While you explain how part of the reason the military is powerful, is because of historic tensions with India, I would also argue that U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan is also a factor. This is particularly important when discussing the cash grants and “security assistance” programs in which the United States has extended considerable sums of money and militaristic aid in the efforts to counter terrorism in the region. While all countries have to deal with foreign relations, when the U.S. decided to intervene or aid another country, it’s wishes carry more political weight than any other foreign relationship–and Pakistan is not the exception. And incidentally, the fact that the U.S. just waltzed in to Pakistan, with no warning, for the capture of Bin Laden did not go by unnoticed.
    Comedian Kumail Nanjiani, who is of Pakistani descent, had a striking joke in his movie The Big Sick. When his girlfriend’s parents skeptically asked him what he thought about the 9/11 attacks, he responded with: “We lost 19 of our best guys.” Nanjiani dropped it as a joke, but the parents did not laugh. And in this short scene the tensions between U.S.-Pakistan relations are very clear: the United States is willing to support and aid countries to ensure they suppress terrorist movements- even if the cost is giving the military too much power in government. Especially as Pakistan is one of four nations in the world to not join and respect the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

  2. Santosh Digal

    April 18, 2018 at 11:02 am

    Pakistan like many countries in the world has been an abode of religious populism. As a theocratic country, where Islam is a state religion, it has paved a way for the growth of hard-line Islamic extremist groups who continue to exert tremendous influence on the Democratic narrative of the country, often at the cost of common man.

    The same religious populism of Pakistan gives sufficient avenue for the growth and proliferation of many Islamic extremists groups who wish to dictate the lives and actions of people regardless of religious affiliation and democratic institutions. Most importantly, other minority religious communities are marginalized and have become subject to untold spates of violence over the decades. The country also faces unflinching instances of polarization based on religious lines often categorizing people–Muslims and non-Muslims–in public discourses. These two sensitive constituents of Pakistan—religious populism and religious polarization—can cause democratic erosion in a greater manner in the long run. Efforts must be made how to preserve its democratic roots and traditions, especially with its free and independent judiciary– making its vibrant democracy and address the forces that cause for its democratic backsliding with grit and grace.

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