Interview: Haroon K. Ullah

Author and State Department official Haroon K. Ullah on how the West should be dealing with Islamic parties.

Interview: Haroon K. Ullah
Credit: Haroon K. Ullah

Haroon K. Ullah is a staff adviser to the U.S. State Department and was a member of the late Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke’s policy team on Pakistan and Afghanistan. His work focuses on democratization, security studies, and political party dynamics, and he is the author of Vying for Allah’s Vote and The Bargain from The Bazaar. He recently spoke to Hamza Mannan for The Diplomat about Islamic parties and Western policy towards Muslim majority countries.

You have said that there is a tendency to view Islamic parties as monoliths with little variation. In what ways does this obscure a proper study of Islamic parties?

There are few nations where the rise of extremist political groups is of greater international significance than Pakistan. Poised with a fully loaded nuclear arsenal at the crossroads of religious fundamentalism, nationalist fervor, and the war on terrorism, Pakistan’s importance to global geopolitical stability and international peace is inescapable. While Pakistan’s political landscape still depends on military patronage, its current democratic transition will depend on how political parties contribute to civilian rule and mobilize support for political reform. Voters are stuck between a series of tough choices. The most under studied aspect of key political stakeholders in Pakistan are political parties, especially those that use religion to leverage their agenda. How do common voters make decisions about who to follow? What is the role of religion in these decisions?

I lay out a new typology for understanding Islamic confessional parties based on a close

examination of politics in Pakistan. Contrary to the prevailing monolithic approach, which sees all Islamic parties as ‘‘Islamists,’’ I argue that Islamic parties exist on a spectrum—what I call the sharia–secularism continuum— from those who believe that Pakistan should be governed by Islamic law, with little or no lay person’s input, to those who believe that religious authority has no place in governance. Furthermore, the parties frequently move back and forth along this spectrum in order to gain political advantage. Despite this ideological diversity, however, Islamic parties can be organized into three distinct types, each with their own ideological underpinnings, organizational structures, and political strategies. And while Islamic parties incorporate aspects of their religious traditions and theology into their platforms, party leaders are not singularly (or even primarily) committed to pursuing a purely ideological agenda. Like all political parties,

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Islamic confessional parties want to compete and win elections.

The case of Pakistan reveals that electoral participation does not necessarily yield moderation; however, it does lead to instrumentalism, or, in other words, pragmatism. In fact, Islamic political organizations frequently engage in political strategies that require them to condone actions, including using extra-electoral means (violence) and forming coalitions with militant and secular organizations, that run contrary to their own platforms. Recognizing that Pakistani Islamic parties are as tethered to practical political considerations as is any other party has huge implications for our understanding of what drives political extremism and how to create incentives for moderation.

In your book Vying for Allah’s Vote, you have upended some of the wisdom that has guided Western foreign policymaking in Muslim majority countries. For example, you argue that electoral participation does not necessarily lead parties to moderate their views. Why is this so critical to understand?

It is important to question the “moderation hypothesis” because it puts a hyper focus on

elections as a proxy for democratization. Pakistan proves that democracy does not necessarily moderate Islamist party platforms and ideologies. While Islamists can become more moderate through repeated electoral competition, they are just as likely to become more extreme if it serves their interests. They are eager to win a seat at the table, and if toeing an extreme line will help them garner votes, they will do so.

Islamist parties in Pakistan have never managed to win a significant percentage of the vote in national elections and yet they exercise a disproportionate influence over political affairs. What explains this dissonance?

Islamist parties are sometimes stronger by being smaller. They also shape the political

landscape and debate [in a way] that isn’t simply measured by national level elections. (Islamists do better at lower levels of aggregation, something missed in most literature.) This reality has been overlooked because most current scholarship makes the false assumption that [Islamic] parties are primarily or solely interested in winning national elections. The nature and frequency of party instrumentalism, however, become clear only when we take seriously these parties’ interests in winning local elections as well. The literature also mischaracterizes voters’ motivations, assuming that economic deprivation or generalized Islamic militancy drives the electorate into the arms of far-right Islamist political parties. My research shows that voters make much more sophisticated calculations about their self-interests and that these calculations vary considerably at the national and local level.

Part of your book Vying for Allah’s Vote deals with questions of extremism. Should there be an effort on part of Western governments to engage extremists?

The lack of engagement with important groups outside the executive branch is most

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pronounced in terms of Western dealings with Islamic parties, especially regionally important Islamists. From 2001 to 2007, the Islamist coalition party of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal was a potent political force in Pakistan, but some Western officials not only limited but also avoided contact with its members. The same approach was adopted toward other network and hierarchical Islamist groups with sway in the National Assembly or strategically important districts. Beyond simply refusing to engage these parties, much of the West’s policy directed toward Islamic political parties in Pakistan has been designed to suppress, disable or circumvent them. Founded on the demonstrably faulty conventional wisdom that political Islamism is driven by economic disenfranchisement and militaristic zeal, Western officials have undertaken to limit or weaken confessional Islamic parties by limiting engagement and providing few avenues for capacity building.

The assumptions underlying these policies and suggest that such efforts might well be

counterproductive. Islamic parties are neither a recent development in Pakistan nor an

outgrowth of militant Islam; rather, they are foundational to the nation itself and its democratic political process. It can be reasonably concluded that such parties will remain an integral fixture of the political landscape regardless of third-party efforts to eradicate them or limit their growth. These parties can (and should) be differentiated from violent Islamist militias, though in some instances they do have loose ties to such groups. While the Islamic parties have complex attitudes toward violence, they are invested in the political process and would not stand to gain from a transition to autocratic religious rule. As such, despite their rhetoric, these parties are important potential allies for Western powers.

The historical conduct and core interests of Pakistan’s Islamic political parties suggest that they could actually be useful allies in the effort to allay and limit the spread of violent Islamism if properly incentivized. While Islamist parties have recently deemed it an electoral advantage to affiliate to varying degrees with militaristic organizations, these affiliates (such as the Taliban) are actively working to destabilize the political system that Islamist parties depend on for their own survival.

Rather than pushing Islamic parties further into the arms of extremists through policies of

suppression, Western powers would be wise to exploit the tensions between these groups and look for points of shared interest with Islamic parties that may serve as the basis of dialogue and cooperation.

This new approach will require a major realignment of perspective as the West must interact with political parties that are considered moderate in the Pakistani context rather than with those that would be seen as moderate by Western norms. To be sure, this shift poses domestic political challenges for Western allies. There is a risk of being seen as cooperating with polarizing groups that employ anti-Western rhetoric and have connections to the Taliban and other extremists. However, Western policymakers would do well to look beyond the rhetoric of Islamic parties, to determine their underlying motivations, and to create innovative ways to provide support to groups that espouse anti-violence measures.

In the area of public diplomacy, and particularly on the education front, we should be directly challenging the myth that the West is opposed to Islam. We should send the message that expanding quality education is a priority across Pakistan and that religious schools play an important role in that task (as some would argue that in the West). We should also stress that violent radicalism is the main issue both for Pakistan and the West. The West should make clear that its problem is not with madrasahs but with murderers.

You spent quite a bit of time in Pakistan doing field experiments, interviewing party activists, and gauging opinions. What are some of the common myths about Western policymaking that you encountered?

First, the violence carried out by extremist groups in Pakistan is not indiscriminate or gratuitous, but targeted and strategic. Through connections with extremist groups, Islamists leverage political violence to push their agenda and maximize votes. In many electoral districts, voters are told that they may bear the cost of violence if they do not support a specific Islamist party.

Second, Islamist parties are not monolithic. In Pakistan, they are diverse and compete hardest against one another. To increase their appeal to the electorate, each party claims to be the most authentically religious, creating significant animosity between them.

Third, the idea that poverty drives militancy – which is often assumed when formulating policy  in the Middle East and South Asia – is largely mistaken. In Pakistan, the key constituencies for Islamists hail from the thin middle class and urban areas; this and other factors may help explain why Islamist parties do better in provincial, regional and local elections than at the national level. In order to be more effective on the ground, international stakeholders should align its programs based on this rethinking of what drives militancy.

What are some of the lessons from Pakistan’s political landscape that we can draw about Islamic parties elsewhere in Muslim majority countries?

Islamist political parties in are not inherently anti-Western, though they frequently use religion to mobilize voters and have helped create a toxic environment in the country. Many of these parties billed themselves as anti-American while they were in the opposition, but they did so largely to maximize votes. Going forward, western policy makers could influence such groups through public diplomacy and faith-based engagement. For example, by interacting with figures who hold sway among Islamists – such as imams who are increasingly bearing the cost of violence – international partners could greatly improve its credibility. After all, most Islamists are like other political parties: they are pragmatists, not staunch ideologues.