June issue 2016
Born Again? Is the MMA re-convening?
On February 24, the Punjab Assembly passed the Protection of Women Against Violence Act, 2016. The act, a version of which had already been passed into law by the Sindh and Balochistan assemblies, protects women from violence, and awards offenders unprecedented punishments.
On March 15, Islamist parties assembled in the Jamaat-e-Islami’s (JI) Mansoora headquarters to unanimously denounce the Women Protection Act as “un-Islamic.” The Mansoora moot was jointly spearheaded by JI chief, Siraj-ul-Haq and Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, the head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F).
JUI-F is a part of the federal coalition government with the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), under whom the Women Protection Act was passed in Punjab. The JI, meanwhile, is in a coalition with the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman was the key figure in the religious parties’ show of strength against the PML-N government at Mansoora,” says one of the party’s attending members at the religious parties’ conference, wishing to remain anonymous. “He engaged in talks with both Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, to score brownie points with the religious right by calls to repeal, or at least amend, the Women Protection Act. And while the Act remains in place to date, it has, nevertheless, been sent to the Council of Islamic Ideology to elicit their opinion on it. It is believed that Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman will now be crucial for orchestrating the rebirth of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).”
A JUI-F official confirms that the recreation of the MMA, the Islamist coalition that won 58 seats in the National Assembly and 11 per cent of the votes in the 2002 elections, has been increasingly seriously mulled over since pressure began to build against the PML-N government. “First it was NAB and now the Panama Papers. The ruling party has been on the back foot and the religious parties feel there’s no better time to unite than now,” he says, off the record. “It is believed that we could even get the Women Protection Act annulled if we give a message of political unity.”
Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) President Ijaz Hashmi says part two of the MMA has been on the cards for quite some time. “We believe that only through the MMA’s revival can the religious parties fight secular forces,” he maintains. “We tried to get the discussion going before the local bodies’ elections, and I discussed the matter with Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman and Siraj-ul-Haq as well. We’ve also had discussions with Sajid Naqvi (of the Islami Tehrik) and Sajid Mir (of the Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith).”
However, Hashmi concedes that efforts to relaunch the MMA have been in vain thus far.
“We’ve tried to bring together all the parties that were in the MMA, but unfortunately, our efforts are yet to succeed. Right now all we’ve managed to reaffirm is that unless the religious parties unite, we cannot achieve our common goals,” he says. “The parties are coming together over the implementation of Nizam-e-Mustafa in the country, but if the two major religious parties, which are also present in the Parliament, continue to be divided along government and opposition lines, I don’t see how this will work.”
General Secretary, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Abdur Rauf Farooqi believes the only way religious parties can unite is if they leave their respective coalitions elsewhere. “The three major religious parties are each in a coalition with either the federal or different provincial governments. The only way we can come together is if every party abandons its selfish interests,” he says. “Our party’s stance is that all religious parties should abandon the politics of power and focus on the implementation of Nizam-e-Mustafa and Shariah.”
Farooqi continues: “In March the religious parties had come together over matters like the Women Protection Act and the martyrdom of Mumtaz Qadri, but then Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, Sajid Mir and Asadullah Bhutto attended the lunch organised by Shahbaz Sharif, and the entire movement for the unity of the religious parties was sabotaged.”
Hashmi believes the religious parties need “sincere dedication” towards their cause and a commitment to doing well in the 2018 elections. “What we’re doing right now is uniting over smaller matters like the Women Protection Bill, but we’re yet to abandon our differences for long-term unity and the fulfillment of our major goals,” he says.
He continues, “When the MMA was formed, it produced results, but unfortunately it died with Maulana Noorani and everyone went their own way. But if you look at the situation right now, one has to ask whether anyone is really faring well.
“Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman’s party might have six-seven seats, but he was once the leader of the opposition. The Senate’s opposition leader was also from among us. We had governments in two provinces. We can only recapture this if we return to the aim of Pakistan’s creation and implement Nizam-e-Mustafa.”
The JUP president reiterates that the JI and JUI-F have split over political fault-lines, supporting their respective leaders. “One party is with Nawaz Sharif and the other is with Imran Khan. If you look at the major political events of the past three years, they have been dominated by the PML-N and the PTI. So if the two biggest national parties have the two major religious parties divided among them, how can the religious parties unite?” he asks.
Farooqi says the religious parties need to put out the message that there won’t be any compromise on Shariah across more forcefully. “We need to be firm in our stance: We will not compromise on Shariah and any negotiations with the government will be subject to agreement over the implementation of Islamic laws,” he says. “The government’s agenda isn’t Shariah — their aim is to create a secular, liberal state. Hence, there can’t be any negotiations when the kind of state that the two groups envisage are polar opposites.”
The JUI’s general secretary adds, “We want to see the state being formed in accordance with the ideology of Pakistan. But since major religious leaders broke the back of our religious movement by accepting Shahbaz Sharif’s invitation, we can no longer risk initiating or working on anything that might eventually collapse owing to the self-interests of a few.”
Farooqi criticises Fazl-ur-Rehman for ignoring the MMA due to his own interests. “Just look at how Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman is backing the government over the Panama Leaks. He is offering it unconditional support over the creation of the judicial commission.”
The JUP president says all religious leaders should abandon their parties’ interests and focus on the common cause. “It’s time we stopped being the leaders of our respective parties and strived to become national leaders. I even said this to Maulana Fazlur Rehman at Mansoora. I told him ‘Maulana, it’s time for you to become a national leader now, and not just guard the interests of your own party,’” says Hashmi.
He continues, “Unity demands sacrifice. And it’s evident that there are more political benefits for the religious parties if they come together before the 2018 elections. There’s no point winning five, six seats, if you can’t form the government anywhere. But self-interest and money that jars national politics is now evidently engulfing the religious parties as well.”
JUI-F leader Amjad Khan meanwhile, rubbishes other Islamist parties’ claims against Fazl-ur-Rehman and his party. “We’ve always been staunch supporters of the unity of religious parties,” he says. “Even before the 2013 elections, our effort to unite all religious parties on a common platform is on record, but unfortunately this could not transpire. But we are happy that even if we’re not on the same electoral platform, all religious parties unite whenever there’s discussion about the implementation of Islam in Pakistan, or countering the influence of western culture in the country. I’m hopeful about electoral unity in the future as well.”
Khan doesn’t think there is a lot of political disunity among the religious parties. “We’re hoping to take that to the elections as well, considering our positive experiments in 1977 and 2003. We want to repeat that. The nation is disappointed on many fronts and is looking towards the religious forces for solutions,” he says.
“If you look at our strategy during the 2013 elections, our aim to unite was obvious. No one was bound by any coalitions then. But even now, despite the differing coalitions, when it comes to religious matters, we’re all one,” Khan adds.
Meanwhile, JI Secretary General Liaqat Baloch says that while reconstituting the MMA would strengthen the religious parties unity, there hasn’t been any serious talk about this possibility. “This is all just media talk. No one at our end has discussed anything along these lines,” he says. “All religious parties are united in the Milli Yakjehti Council, and we’re organising a conference in Peshawar for this purpose. But as things stand, the revival of the MMA is not under consideration,” he sates.
“The fact is that there are major fault-lines within the religious parties. The Ahl-e-Hadith is divided, the Ahl-e-Tasheeh is divided… once the internal divisions are overcome, maybe something substantial can be formed. Till then the media will have to rely on the noise created by the smaller religious groups,” says Baloch.
He maintains the religious parties are already in agreement over protecting the constitution and Islamic laws. “We believe Pan-Islamism can overcome the divides — not only in Pakistan, but all over the world — and revive the spirit of the Muslim ummah. We will also strive to improve the corrupt system in Pakistan. Of course the real aim is the implementation of Nizam-e-Mustafa,” he says. “We’re already working on that. We recently conducted a Nizam-e-Mustafa conference in Rawalpindi, where all religious parties were together. That sent a clear message.
“Apart from electoral unity, which we have not yet attained, all religious parties are on the same page, and we’ve even formed a steering committee for this purpose,” says Baloch who is heading this committee. “And we’re regularly conducting conferences to achieve our common goals. Professor Sajid Mir is also heading a committee that is working on this front.”
Amjad Khan says there’s no doubt the creation of MMA would bring electoral strength to all the Islamist parties. “Of course, our performance in the elections will improve if we all unite. That is what we want. If you look at recent elections, we’ve been losing seats only by narrow margins — 1,500 votes, 2,000 votes. So unity will help us convert narrow defeats into wins.”
But Baloch says JI will think about that when the elections are around the corner. “Right now we have other things to work on.”
However, Farooqi believes time is running out. “We just have two years to go till the general elections. This is the time to unite if we want to make an impact in the elections. It’s now or never. We’re discussing the matter among ourselves. Senior leaders like Maulana Sami-ul-Haq are of the opinion that if the religious parties do not abandon their coalitions, we’ll need to think of a new line of action,” he says.
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a journalist and writer based in Lahore.