May Issue 2013
The Jamaat-e-Islami was founded in 1941 by renowned Deobandi theologian, Abul A’la Maududi. Drawing on technocrats and activists instead of the traditional Muslim clergy, the party came to represent the devout Muslim middle class of Pakistan’s urban centres. Maududi and the Jamaat were vocally opposed to Jinnah and his idea of a Muslim state. They claimed partition would weaken Muslims, questioned Jinnah’s Islamic credentials and called his Muslim League ‘a party of pagans.’ However, once Pakistan became a reality, Maududi was quick to seize on the new-born Muslim state as a vehicle for implementing his Islamist vision.
The Jamaat attempted to establish its nationalist credentials when its cadres partook in the political and military struggle against Bengali separatism in East Pakistan. Electorally, they continued to fail and opposed the subsequent leftist government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, again through political agitation and unrest. It was during General Zia-ul-Haq’s reign that they came close to achieving power. They were initially granted cabinet positions and helped formulate many of Zia’s infamous Islamic laws. However, given Zia’s reluctance to institutionalise Maududi’s vision for the state and preference for the other ulema groups, the Jamaat soon grew disillusioned with Zia’s military regime and started demanding a return to civilian rule.
When Benazir Bhutto assumed power after Zia’s assassination, the Jamaat predictably opposed her rule too, playing on the fears of a female prime minister — a total volte face to the time when they had supported Ms Fatima Jinnah against Ayub Khan at the polls. In the 1993 elections, they secured only three seats in the National Assembly and understandably chose to boycott the 1997 elections. In yet another turnaround, the Jamaat welcomed General Musharraf’s coup in 1999 but turned against him when he joined the US-led ‘War on Terror’ and started propagandising against his idea of ‘enlightened moderation.’ However, they secured their greatest electoral victory yet under him in the 2002 elections as part of the MMA religious alliance with 53 seats in the National Assembly.
They boycotted the 2008 elections and lost their seats to the secular ANP and the MQM. They were opposed to the PPP government, led by Asif Ali Zardari, and were particularly critical of Pakistan’s foreign policy which they see as being pro-American. They have been careful not to condemn extremists/terrorists operating in Pakistan for fear of reprisals and of alienating their own hardcore supporters, many of whom have reportedly turned to violence.
The Jamaat bitterly opposed the Women’s Protection Bill in 2006 and their amir, Syed Munawar Hasan, recently sparked outrage within Pakistan’s liberal sections when he insisted that sexually abused women hold their silence if they cannot produce four witnesses to the crime. Analysts suggest this emphasis on gender issues and cultural values represents a shift in the Jamaat’s strategy: appealing to conservative Pushtoon society to make up for dwindling support from the educated Mohajir middle class.
Recently the Jamaat’s attempts at seat adjustment with the PTI and PML-N in the 2013 polls failed to bear fruit. Reason: they demanded more seats than they deserved. While many of the religious parties have banded together to revive the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the JI has kept its distance from the alliance. This is because of previous disagreements with JUI-F, which is a key player in the MMA, over distribution of tickets and, what the JI perceives as, Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s tacit support of the government’s pro-US policies.
Though technically a small group of Islamists without a wide-ranging popular appeal, the Jamaat is the most organised and disciplined political party in Pakistan, enjoying influence disproportionate to its numerical strength. But whatever the outcome of the upcoming elections, the Jamaat-e-Islami will remain a significant force in Pakistani politics.