The amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan (JI), Sirajul Haq, is engaged in an effort to bring his once influential party back to the heart of right-wing politics. In recent years, religious groups have emerged that veer far to the right of the JI and they attract its potential adherents, with sectarian faultlines becoming ever more visible.
Political Islamists like the JI, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazlur Rehman faction (JUI-F), and other like-minded groups fear being sidelined as the new incarnation of the right-wing Barelvi sect, Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasullulah (TLY), the jihadist-turned-political-party, Milli Muslim League (emerging from the Jamaatud Dawaa (JuD), as well as the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), old foes of the JUI-F in a new avatar, take positions centre stage. They could act as spoilers in the upcoming elections, causing a split in the conservative religious vote.
At a workshop held in Karachi on November 20 for JI members and supporters, Sirajul Haq resorted to the JI’s decades-old mantra, lamenting that the ruling class, instead of looking towards the holy city of Makkah, took its directions from the United States.
His statement only shows how far the JI has drifted from reality. As a matter of fact, US-Pak relations are at an all-time low, and looking East to pin all hopes on China is the new state narrative. Even if turning to Makkah was meant in a rhetorical sense, the Saudi monarchy has chosen a path the JI would not favour. In the last couple of years, the kingdom’s support to the Egyptian military against the Muslim Brotherhood, and their attack on Yemen were publicly opposed by the JI.
In the past, such statements had some credence. In 2002, the JI and its allies rode high on the anti-US bandwagon, with parties of the religious right, including the JI, joining hands to form the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), to oppose the US and Nato allies’ attack on Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. The attacks had resulted in the toppling of the Taliban regime, then in power in Afghanistan. As a response to this, religious groups formed the Difa-e-Pakistan and Afghanistan Council (DPAC) alliances and started agitating against the Musharraf regime for its support to the US-led alliance. They later formed an electoral alliance.
Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a senior journalist and former chairman of the Mass Communications department, at Federal Urdu University, Karachi, sheds some light on the JI’s efforts to reassert itself. “The JI’s influence has been challenged on multiple fronts. It enjoyed street power in the days of Qazi Hussain Ahmed, thanks to the politics of agitation in the ’90s. It enjoyed good repute among powerful quarters. But the last JI amir, Munawwar Hasan, made some controversial remarks regarding military operations against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and that didn’t go down well. The JI’s party electorate refused to extend his term, and Hasan was replaced by Sirajul Haq in the intraparty elections. Street power has since shifted to the likes of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), who champion the politics of agitation. Siraj, despite being PTI’s coalition partner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, chose not to join the PTI dharna, but instead tried to act as an interlocutor between the federal government and the PTI. “Now, whoever wants to participate in jihad has better options than the JI, and whoever wants to engage in politics can opt for the PTI,” he says.
Naghma Iqtidar Sheikh, a political worker, and civil society activist says, “With the decline of student politics, the JI’s student wing, Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT), is no longer that effective in providing young blood to the mother party. Instead, former IJT affiliates have joined the ranks of hardcore jihadis like Al-Qaeda and Jundullah, or the new phenomenon, Ansarul Sharia Pakistan (ASP), due to increased radicalisation in educational institutions. On the political front, young enthusiasts prefer to join the PTI.” She referred to the 2015 local bodies elections in Karachi, when the JI had an electoral alliance with the PTI, but JI camps in most places had hardly any member under the age of 50. “The centre of debate has shifted to social networking sites, where the JI cannot compete with the highly charged PTI zealots who make the most of social media.”
In an attempt to regain lost ground, the JI, along with JUI-F and other groups, announced a decision to revive the MMA on November 9. The alliance had proved to be an electoral success in the 2002 general elections. Its candidates formed their own government in KP and a coalition government in Balochistan. They had 10 members elected from Karachi to the Sindh Assembly and eight in the Punjab Assembly. Maulana Fazlur Rehman became the opposition leader in the National Assembly.
But the road to the revival of the MMA is riddled with differences in the ranks of its erstwhile constituents. The first major setback came when Samiul Haq who heads a faction of the JUI, the JUI-S, chose to make an electoral alliance with the PTI. Pervez Khattak’s overtures to Samiul Haq included providing 30 million in financial assistance to his madrassa, and requesting his guidance in instituting Islamic reforms. On November 13, Khattak visited the Samiul Haq-run seminary, Darul Uloom Haqqania, and was briefed on construction and maintenance work funded by the provincial government.
Sohail Khattak, a Peshawar-based journalist working with the Express Tribune said, “Talks were held between the two parties over the last few months, but the JUI-S initially debated whether to join the MMA or go with the PTI. When I spoke to Hamidul Haq, Maulana Samiul Haq’s scion and former MNA during the MMA reign in 2002, he said the fate of the MMA had yet to be decided.”
Maulana Samiul Haq didn’t hesitate to criticise his political adversary and JUI-F amir, Fazlur Rehman, declaring him a major obstacle in the revival of MMA in the past, as he had refused to leave the federal cabinet, and opposed the integration of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into KP, which is ironic since the majority of political parties support the move.
Samiul Haq is also the head of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC), a conglomeration of religious groups, jihadis and sectarian organisations formed in 2012, in the aftermath of the Salala attack, when US and Nato forces bombed a checkpost in Pakistani territory while pursuing militants, resulting in the death of 24 Pakistan Army men.
The DPC started an agitation across Pakistan, and provided its platform to jihadis and sectarian organisations to offer their services to take on western forces. It provided space to Hafiz Saeed of the JuD, Fazlur Rehman Khalil of the banned Harkatul Mujahideen (HuM), rechristened the Ansarul Ummah, and the banned ASWJ formerly known as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). Later, it strongly opposed Pakistan’s plan to assign Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India. The plan was first delayed by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government in 2013, and later scrapped by the PML-N government, when relations with India deteriorated.
In an interesting development last month, DPC allies too agreed to form an electoral front, the Milli Yakjehti Council (MYC). The forty-party DPC includes three MMA parties. The JUI-S decision to make an electoral alliance with the PTI is a development that affects such electoral groupings. Before this, a major force in the DPC, the JuD, came up with its own political faction, Milli Muslim League (MML), making it uncertain whether the DPC would function as an electoral alliance, or whether each party would be free to make its own choice.
Some members of the JUI-F are opposed to the revival of the MMA. Although it has agreed in principle to joining the alliance, it is still weighing its options. A final announcement is expected in mid December, after a meeting in Karachi presided over by Maulana Anas Noorani, son of the late Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani and head of his own faction of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Pakistan (JUP-N).
Muhammad Imran, an Islamabad-based journalist working with Mashal Radio, says, “The JUI-F is not that enthusiastic about the revival of MMA, as the local party leadership thinks it would hardly benefit them in the upcoming elections. They are more inclined to make an alliance with the ruling PML-N, with whom they enjoy good terms in the federal government and at the KP level. The PML-N’s Ameer Muqam and JUI-F local leadership have held talks on seat adjustment in the upcoming elections,” he adds. “The JUI-F and JI do not have a good working relationship at the lower level, and their past experience of the MMA government was also a bitter one. That is why both parties didn’t continue with the alliance in local government elections in later years.”
The JUI-F was in successive coalition governments, in 2002 with the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) and later, in 2008, with the PPP. They were desperate to join the 2013 set-up as well, but the PML-N’s coalition partners were not willing to include them.
Umar Aziz Khan, a journalist from KP based in Lahore, explains, “The JUI-F is more of an ethnic party in Balochistan, as its support mostly comes from the Pashtun districts of Balochistan. The Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), coalition partners in the Balochistan government, are their main rivals. Whether the MMA is revived or not will have hardly any effect on Balochistan’s electoral politics, as the JI and other MMA parties have negligible support there. Their opposition comes from within their own ranks, the breakaway faction, the JUI-Nazriati that disagrees with the former head of JUI-F Balochistan and party stalwart, Muhammad Khan Sherani’s stance on militancy and the Afghan jihad. The Nazriati faction could be joined by ASWJ, which is increasing its footprint in the province.”
Hamayoun Kaasai, a Quetta-based lawyer and political worker, concurs, but says that JUI support is not just confined to Pashtun districts, “Akhtar Mengal was defeated in his home constituency by the JUI-F candidate. Even in the recent by-elections on NA-260, they managed to succeed by winning over Baloch votes.”
Farnood Alam, an Islamabad-based political commentator and widely read Urdu columnist in digital forums, praises Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s political acumen. He says, “Maulana Fazlur Rehman is known for taking decisions based on his own readings of the political scenario, and hardly anyone could disagree on this count.
“The Maulana knows that the political situation these days revolves around two kinds of narratives. The first is the post-Panama scenario in which political forces are divided into two camps; the anti-corruption camp calls the PML-N chors (thieves) and its allies choron ke sathi (their abettors), while the second camp portrays itself as the anti-establishment camp. They equate the battle for Nawaz Sharif with the battle for civilian supremacy and opposition to the army’s involvement in politics and foreign policy. The third camp rides the anti-liberalism bandwagon, popularly referred to as ‘Islam is in danger (Islam khatrey mey hai)’; they accuse mainstream political parties of conspiring to make Pakistan a secular state and amending the constitution for that purpose.
“The third camp comprises religious groups. None of the mainstream political parties dare to confront them due to fear of losing electoral support. Besides, these groups could incite violence. Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Sirajul Haq understand this. They have different views in the post-Panama divide, but these positions have the PML-N and PTI as their main contenders.”
By coming together, the MMA could create problems for the ruling PTI in many constituencies in KP, especially in the Peshawar valley that is known for its anti-incumbency voting tendency. Knowing this, the PTI approached Samiul Haq for an electoral alliance, though it realises that the JUI-S has limited electoral support, except for a very few constituencies. The move has actually come as a response to dent the MMA, and to respond to the rhetoric against Imran Khan, primarily from the JUI-F, terming him a Jewish agent. To further erode JUI-F support, the DPC parties, especially the Jamiat Ashat Tauheed Sunnah, led by influential hardliner cleric Maulana Tayyab Tahiri, and his brother and former ISI man, Major Amir, who is known for his militant connections, could be brought forward. Both Maulana Tayyab and Major Amir are known for their criticism of Maulana Fazlur Rehman. They had a public meeting in Swat in October in which they accused Fazlur Rehman of using the name of Islam for his political interests.
On another front, the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP), the oldest of the political parties of the Barelvi school, is also divided into various factions. Former lawmaker from Hyderabad, Sahibzada Abulkhair Zubair, developed differences with Anas Noorani, and now heads his own faction of JUP, a part of the DPC. The Punjab JUP amir, Qari Zawar Bahadur, also parted ways and made his own faction. He eyes an alliance with the PML-Q, led by former Prime Minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. Probably these factions could be brought back to the MMA, although the faction headed by Sahibzada Zubair may choose to remain with the DPC.
The emergence of the TLY, post-Mumtaz Qadri execution, their electoral performance in the by-elections in Lahore and Peshawar, and their siege of Islamabad demanding the resignation of the federal law minister for making alleged changes in the oath on the finality of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), have made them strong contenders for the votes of the Barelvi sect. Another contender for the Barelvi vote is the Pakistan Sunni Tehrik (PST), but it has not recovered from the setback it suffered when the whole of its leadership was wiped out in 2006, in a suicide attack on their public meeting at Nishtar Park. However, it still has some influence in parts of Karachi. It stood besides TLY in its agitation last year, and was part of the Islamabad dharna.
On the prospects of the MMA in Karachi, Naimat Khan, joint secretary of the Karachi Press Club and political analyst, refers to another player, the ASWJ. He says, “They could cause a split in the MMA vote. It is now registered under the new name of Rahe Haq Party (RHP). In 2013, it contested elections under the banner of Muttahida Deeni Mahaz (MDM) and bagged more votes than both the JUI-F and JI in most constituencies.” He adds, “In Karachi, 2002-like electoral results for the MMA depends on the inclusion of the RHP — the political face of Maulana Aurangzeb Farooqui-led ASWJ in the alliance. Currently, the JUI-F chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, is resisting its inclusion.
“But the fact remains that the Sunni sectarian outfit was the highest vote-taker in PS-93 in the 2013 general elections. It won a Landhi UC in alliance with the JI in the last local bodies’ elections and various political parties, including the liberal PPP, PML-N and PTI, made alliances with it in the last local government polls, due to its vote bank in Pashtun-dominated areas like Keamari, Banaras and Baldia Town.”
The Shia vote in Karachi also faces a split, as support for the old guards, Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqh-e-Jafaria (TNFJ) rechristened as the Tehrik-e-Islami Pakistan (TIP), led by Allama Sajid Naqvi, has withered away. Majlis-e-Wahdat-o-Muslimeen (MWM) of Allama Nasir Abbas, Allama Ameen Shaheedi and Allama Yusuf Hussain, emerged as a new contender for the Shia vote in the 2013 elections.
In a bid to reenter the political arena, General Pervez Musharraf announced a 23-party alliance on November 11. With few exceptions, these parties were largely unknown. Musharraf addressed a handful of people representing 23 parties through video link, announcing an end to Sharif’s reign. He asked the Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM-P) to shed its party name. Musharraf invited the MQM-P and the Mustafa Kamal-led Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) to join him. But, on the very next day, three political parties enlisted as part of the Musharraf-led alliance — Pakistan Awami Ittehad, Pakistan Awami Tehreek , Sunni Ittehad Council and MWM — denied being part of any such alliance.
Some people hold that the MMA, like Pervez Musharraf, is a foregone chapter in national politics. It is not likely to be revived while its past success can be attributed to a combination of favourable circumstances and political engineering. It was a time when the Musharraf government was desperate to keep two major political forces, the PPP and the PML-N, out of the political equation, and their leadership had already been forced out of Pakistan. Some attempts at political engineering are expected in the coming days, but whether the revival of the MMA is on the cards remains to be seen. For one thing, Maulana Fazlur Rehman is not looked upon with favour due to his support for the PML-N. However, a political pragmatist like the Maulana may yet change sides, depending on which way the wind blows.
Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order