This is a passage from Vali Nasr’s book on the JI, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jama’at-i Islami of Pakistan (which I should’ve read a long time ago but somehow never got around to it).
Despite its roots in the Islamic tradition, the Jama’at-i Islami is a modern party. Its structure, procedural methods, and pattern of growth reflect modern ideas and attest to a successful accommodation of modernization with an Islamic milieu. It has managed to escape the decay that has, for instance, reduced the Congress party, the Muslim League, and the Pakistan People’s Party to patrimonial and dynastic political institutions, and in the case of the last two led to debilitating factionalism. The Jama’at has rather created mechanisms, bureaucratic structures, and management that have thus far withstood the pressures of the fractious and patrimonial system in which it operates. The organizational strength owes much to the European models on display in the 1930s — fascism, and even more, communism. Mawdudi had avidly studied these models. As a result, the Jama’at was never a “party” in the liberal democratic sense of the term — translating popular interests into policy positions; it is, rather, an “organizational weapon” in the Leninist tradition, devised to project the power of an ideological perspective into the political arena. While Mawdudi differed with Lenin in seeking to utilize this “weapon” within a constitutional order, its structure and functioning closely paralleled those of bolshevism.
I think this makes a great deal of sense, and I also think not enough of political analysis in Pakistan focuses on parties and what they look like. We know somewhat intuitively that the MQM is organized very differently to the PPP, but if someone were to ask me to list five distinctive features of the MQM vis-a-vis the PPP, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I think journalists, analysts and intellectuals in Pakistan need to do a better job of bringing parties back in, so to speak. They are important actors, and we should know more about them, rather than just the personalities they contain within them.
On a slightly unrelated note, one thing I’ve been thinking about recently is the whole “religious parties have never won more than 10 percent of the vote” thing. As Umair rightly notes, that historical statistic does lead to a certain complacency amongst people opposed to religious parties. But it is worth pondering why the statistic is alive in the first case. Is it because voters don’t agree with their worldview? I doubt that – Pakistanis are religiously conservative people, and in poll after poll seem to support Islamist injunctions such as stoning adulterers (82 percent), cutting hands off for theft (82 percent), and the death penalty for leaving Islam (76 percent).
Is it because religious parties have a bad record in power in terms of governance? Well, that can’t be it either — first of all, they’ve never been in power, so how would we know? And secondly, it’s not as if nominally secular parties have done a sterling job when in control, either in the center or in the provinces (though of course there is some variation here).
We have a ready-made explanation for why religious parties are so powerful on the street — it’s the mosque, stupid. Almost all their rallies and shows of strength take place on Fridays in the afternoon, right after Friday prayers, when they can tap into a vast network of socio-political allies and volunteers through a decentralized structure of mosques. But I really don’t think we have a good explanation for why religious parties do so poorly at the ballot box, beyond the trivial (“they are divided amongst themselves”).