The rise of Imran Khan’s populist, right-leaning Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has sparked a considerable amount of interest and anxiety about the similarities between its rhetoric and that of Pakistan’s right-wing religious parties. Those concerned by the growing religious intolerance fear that the PTI’s rhetoric will strengthen this jingoism.

The PTI’s rise has also exposed a sharp cleavage among ordinary left-leaning Pakistanis. Once united in their support for a less religiously-oriented Pakistan, leftists now find themselves divided. Supporters of Imran Khan highlight his philanthropy and the PTI’s perceived commitment to Pakistan. For his detractors, the PTI’s religious vocabulary is cause for concern in a country where religion has been often used to mask and justify political authoritarianism.

In particular, the PTI’s religiosity finds few friends among Pakistan’s leftist intelligentsia. Ayesha Siddiqa, a preeminent Pakistani political analyst, has drawn parallels between the PTI and the philosophy of Pakistan’s notorious dictator General Zia ul Haq, arguing that the PTI is reflective of General Zia’s propaganda of exclusionary Islamic nationalism. Nadeem Paracha, a prominent left-leaning columnist, has reached much the same conclusion. Fahrat Taj, a renowned columnist and author of Taliban and Anti-Taliban, believes Imran Khan’s flawed narrative about the Taliban has aided militarism.

Such analyses are influenced by the country’s experience in the 1980s with General Zia’s military dictatorship, which included a violent state-sponsored Islamization campaign. Leftist criticism of the PTI’s Islamism has been fuelled by a feared return to that framework. According to these analyses, the PTI’s Islamist rhetoric is inexorably linked to intolerance and militarism.

Veteran Pakistani journalist, Amir Zia’s “inimitablereview of Imran Khan’s personal memoir is typical of the alarmism adopted by many Pakistani intellectuals. Zia states,

Khan has gone the extra mile to conjoin democracy with Islam and Islam with democracy, although the two stand in stark contrast to each other. Islam allows no dissent, alteration and divergence from its fundamental teachings. Democracy is all about dissent and the will of the people. It draws its strength from secularism, which does not allow interference of religion in the affairs of the state. There can be a secular state, which is undemocratic, but no democratic state can exist without secularism as its cornerstone.

Amir Zia presents two positions that betray quintessential worries influenced by the General Zia era. The first is explicit: Islam and democracy are irreconcilable, making the PTI’s platform ill suited to Pakistan’s democratic progress. The second is implicit and suggests that religiously inspired political movements, such as the PTI, are out of line with a secular Pakistan.

By overlooking the multifaceted histories of the Pakistani state and the country’s Islamists groups, both conclusions are untenable. Wrapped up in the memories of General Zia’s regime, leftist critics have forgotten the diversity among Pakistan’s Islamists, both in terms of ideology and links with the military. Although the relationship between the state and Pakistani Islamists is cast as a symbiotic, transparent patron-client association, opposition and conflict have been as central to this relationship and to the Islamist positions within the national discourse as has state support for these religious parties.

Reactionary Opposition to Islamism

The works of Khalid Abou El Fadl at UCLA, John Esposito at Georgetown, Azizah el-Hibri at the University of Richmond, Mawdudi of pre-partition India, Hashim Kemali of Malaysia and Mohammad Khatami of Iran and similar eminently influential thinkers, suggests that democracy and Islam are perfectly compatible.

This notion is reinforced by the key role Islamists have played in a number of democratization movements. The activism of Pakistan’s Jama’at-i-Islami (JI) is a good example of this. Although currently cast as the military’s puppet, the party has a long history of democratic agitation. The JI’s first major push for democracy took place between 1962 and 1965. In 1969, the JI mobilized in large numbers against Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first military dictator, and then in 1977 against the increasing authoritarianism of President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, demanding government adherence to the Constitution.

During much of General Zia’s Islamization campaign, when the state was coercively instituting many of JI’s policy objectives, the JI still continued its demand for democracy. The party was also at the forefront of opposition to General Pervez Musharraf. The only major national political party to choose its leaders through democratic elections, the JI’s rhetoric remains vociferously in favor of democracy. In fact, in early February 2012, the party proposed a law to limit the detention powers of Pakistan’s formidable spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

While many observers in Pakistan fear that Islamists will subvert democratic norms when they come to power, we should remember that Islamist groups are not alone in reneging on democratic promises. A number of Pakistan’s secularist politicians, including Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, General Iskander Mirza and Adnan Menderes, also belong to this tradition.

Instead of viewing religious political parties like the JI as reflecting essential incompatibility between Islam and democracy, leftists should consider these groups in terms of their specific circumstances and contexts.  A religious party’s platform is informed not only by religion, but also by the party’s competing priorities, goals, and external political pressures. For example, while the PTI’s positions are religiously framed, among liberal university students in Karachi, Imran Khan espoused a liberal view on women’s rights, stating that “a PTI government will not interfere with women’s clothing”. And, while supportive of an Islamic welfare state, Khan has also evoked the far-left in characterizing the exploitation of Balochistan and the brutal repression of its people as colonialism .

Secularization Through Islamists

The history of secularist policies in Pakistan has been marked by violence. The state’s secularist projects, from Presidents Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, to President Musharraf’s Enlightened Moderation, have been coercive state-led initiatives to regulate and define religion in the public sphere. This top-down approach to secularizing Pakistani society has been a manifest failure.

Paradoxically, Pakistan’s Islamist parties are engaging in behaviors that further secularization in the country. In their pursuit of a modern Islamic state, Islamists have grappled publicly with the role of religion in politics, creating a space for meaningful public discussion of the limits of religion.

Dislocating the PTI’s Islamism from the 1980s

Within Pakistan, politicians on both the left and the right have used Islam for parochial political purposes. On the left, the Islamic socialism of the 1970s, the socio-economic leftism of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the quasi-secularism of Musharraf’s post 9/11 ‘Enlightened Moderation’ approach, all deployed an Islamic frame. On the right, General Zia’s Islamization campaign and the Islamists are obviously steeped in religious rhetoric. Despite these contrasting realities, many fail to differentiate between those stands of Islamism that aid the state’s intolerant agenda, and those that undermine it. Saadia Toor, a professor of social anthropology, describes this failure as a preoccupation with oppressive Islamism to the detriment of true democratic reforms in the country.

We must view the PTI’s Islamism not through the lens of General Zia’s violent Islamization campaign of the 1980s, but through the wider prism of Pakistani history. This includes acknowledging the role of Islam in bringing about social and democratic change in the country.