Where Area Studies Err

, Spencer Irvine, Leave a comment

There’s a very good chance that everything you’ve learned in your Middle East studies class is wrong.

Haroon Ullah, currently on the policy planning staff of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Policy Planning Staff and a former Harvard University Presidential Scholar among other distinguishing achievements, spoke at the Heritage Foundation on the political situation in modern-day Pakistan. He is also the author of two books, Bargain from the Bazaar and Vying for Allah’s Vote.

pakistan islamist rally

In Pakistan, Ullah said, “words matter” in politics. But, what Americans fail to grasp (and that includes policymakers), is that Pakistan’s Islamist political parties are built on fear. To them, violence is “a very powerful signal” and they have “made security a form of patronage.” In other words, if one votes for the Islamist party, then one’s security is guaranteed. Who suffers if they do not adhere to party pressures? “It’s the urban poor that bear the costs of violence.” To Ullah, that is the first point he wants Americans to understand, of how these parties are “playing on this idea of fear” to get a seat at the political table and that “a lot of these Islamic groups are leveraging” violence for political gain.”

His second point, “this idea that democratization…moderates parties,” does not hold true in Pakistan. In American circles, “there’s a notion that democracy will moderate confessional parties [or Islamic political parties].” Ullah said, “That’s not the case, actually.” These parties “can moderate, but they can just as easily become extreme” because “these political parties are pragmatic.” In Pakistan, these parties are “driven not by ideology, but they’re driven by instrumentalism.” He explained, “That means they want to win, they want a seat at the table” and “they will take a position to maximize their votes.”

Typically, “Islamic parties actually do well at lower levels of aggregation”, “regional, provincial and even local elections” when you see how “they’re trying to maximize votes in their particular district.” Why do they perform better locally than nationally? Ullah believed these parties have a “better use [of] public houses of worships,” shrines and prayers to maximize voter turnout and mobilization, which means these local results have not been replicated at the national level.

Ullah’s last point was that poverty does not drive people to the Islamic parties. The common perception, as he said, “People that join these organizations come from lower socio-economic means, that it is poverty that drives them to join,” is false. Policymakers and others frame it as if the voters are “choosing between subsistence” and “a fraternity,” when neither is true. Ullah stated, “Poverty does not drive joining the Islamic parties” because the Islamic parties are currying favor and mobilizing the middle class. “It’s the thin middle class that are the key constituents” in Pakistan, where the young people are well-educated and are “the ones actually joining these organizations.” In his experience, “Poverty doesn’t drive militants” and that knowledge “has profound policy implications.”  He saw firsthand how the situation in Pakistan, with Islamic parties, is “very much tied to the electoral process” and how “the biggest group was the middle class, they can function as a swing vote…to shift a seat, and that’s why Islamic parties are very important” in Pakistani politics.