By Dr Ayesha Siddiqa
15 Sep 2017
The time does not seem far off when Mawra Hocane might star in a morality play called ‘Hawwa Ki Beti’ produced by Jamaat-ud-Dawa Television Network. If an Ahle Hadith group like JuD can start a political party, an act that its leadership always opposed, then why not a television channel producing soap operas for an Islamic society? The Ahle Hadith known in the Arab world as Salafis or Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia are the most orthodox set of Muslims who want to only follow the Holy Quran, the Hadith and the ways of the early caliphs.
The Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and JuD trace their roots to an organization called Markaz-e-Dawwat ul Irshad (MDI) that was established in 1987 to focus on jihad, which was taking place in Afghanistan, and Dawah (proselytizing) for which Hafiz Saeed set up the JuD in 1985.
The organization evolved over years from jihad during the 1980s and the 1990s to doing charity and more recently politics. It is adept at the art of survival by staying on the right side of the Pakistani state. This has kept it intact and allowed it to expand. The fact that the LeT/JuD network quickly adapts to changing circumstances, does not stick out like other militant outfits, and does not cross powerful state elements has turned the relationship between this network and the state into one of mutual dependency.
Thus, today when the member states at the BRICS summit condemn numerous Pakistan-based militant institutions, the JuD was on the forefront supporting the state and presenting itself as a non-militant outfit by arguing that it is a welfare organization which has nothing to do with violence.
The dizzying pace at which the MDI has changed shape and grown sub-organizations can be difficult to track and decipher for the layperson unless they read an excellent new account of the MDI and its narratives titled ‘Jihad and Dawah’ (Hurst) by Dr Samina Yasmeen. A professor at the University of Western Australia, Dr Yasmeen is known for her meticulous research and careful analysis. Her book is full of details about the organization, its links with Pakistan’s military and its involvement in various critical operations. None of this is based on hearsay; it is all derived from MDI’s own literature. In fact, it took Dr Yasmeen several years to sift through the material.
Forming a political party is certainly a departure from the philosophy of the man who was an inspiration for the MDI: Abdullah Bahawalpuri is Hafiz Saeed’s maternal uncle, later father-in-law, and a person who figures prominently in MDI literature. Bahawalpuri vocally condemned democracy as a system of governance throughout his life until his death in 1991. Bahawalpuri’s philosophy set Hafiz Saeed and the men around him, who formed the MDI, apart from other Ahle Hadith groups and their leaders. For instance, other prominent Ahle Hadith leaders in Punjab such as Ehsan Elahi Zaheer and Senator Sajid Mir, who is the emir of Markaz-e Jamiat Ahle Hadith, did not oppose the idea of getting involved in politics.
Interestingly, Hafiz Saeed, Zafar Iqbal and Ehsan Elahi Zaheer, who was assassinated in March 1987 months before the formation of the MDI, were all taught at Medina University by the Saudi Arabian grand mufti, Sheikh Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, who is known as a ‘quietist’ Salafi or someone who emphasized Tawheed and principles of Islam without calling for rebellion against the state. He was also against democratic politics. However, once back in Pakistan, these leaders took off on their own path.
Jihad & Dawah
While one of the key LeT/JuD leaders Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhavi was one of the first ones from the group to go to Afghanistan in 1983 to fight, Hafiz Saeed and Zafar Iqbal spent the early 1980s being educated in Saudi Arabia. (Later, even Iqbal went to fight in Afghanistan.)
But even before going to Saudi Arabia, Hafiz Saeed was familiar with the idea of jihad and had met mullah Sayyaf, one of the first generation of Afghan Mujahideen. This meeting took place in 1980 with the help of Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian teacher at the International Islamic University, Islamabad who later joined Osama bin Laden.
The formation of the MDI thus brought together the varied experiences of jihad of some JuD leaders and Dawah of others. It was also the structure that “was to be engaged by the Pakistan military, though the idea of setting up the organization may have been discussed a year earlier”. It was unique in the sense that it was a bridge between jihad and Dawah.
Thus, MDI’s primary goal was to build a symbiotic relationship between the two elements. They preached jihad for the protection and growth of the Muslim Ummah. Perhaps, this is what they learnt during their time in the Middle East, because Ehsan Elahi Zaheer, as Dr Yasmeen notes, was even noticed by the Saudi intelligence for his vocal support for the Palestinian cause while he was on their turf. And thus, more than any Deobandi militant group but quite like the Jamaat-e-Islami, MDI had Saudi Arabian footprints. While Jamaat-e-Islami founder Maulana Maududi had been close to the Saudi leadership since the 1950s, the JuD leadership was ideologically closer to the Saudi clergy. As Dr Yasmeen points out in her book, Sheikh ibn Baz was a major influence in the life of the MDI as was Abdullah Azzam.
But when MDI was formed, preaching the Ahle Hadith creed was not a popular mission in a Barelvi- and then Deobandi-dominated Pakistan. Despite the presence of numerous Ahle Hadith scholars in the country, the outreach was limited until the MDI broke the pattern by getting close to the Saudis and involved in the Kashmir jihad, which would endear it to Pakistan’s security establishment.
The Afghan war of the 1980s was critical in shaping MDI as this is when, as mentioned by Dr Yasmeen, the organization developed contacts with state actors and honed its war-fighting skills. The LeT was formally launched in 1990 in Kunnar, Afghanistan. It operated two training camps, one there and the other in Pakistan for men recruited from Pakistan, mainly Punjab but with some members from NWFP, Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan. The Jihadi network could utilize its training even beyond Afghanistan into Kashmir which turned into a haven for Jihadi activities after the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Though, as Dr Yasmeen points out, the army denies the linkages with MDI for Kashmir. The author also argues that, “it can be assumed that MDI received support as a preferred partner [of the military] for most of the 1990s.”
One of the strengths of the LeT/JuD network that made it a preferred option for state actors was that it did not get distracted by the sectarian agenda even though Ahle Hadith ideology considers both Shiism and Sufism bidah and impermissible add-ons to religion. I remember interviewing JuD Jihadis in Rawalpindi during the early 1990s in which they always claimed having both Sunnis and Shias on board. Single-minded focus helped the MDI overtake other Ahle Hadith militant competitors such as Tehreek-ul-Mujahideen that was prominent during the 1980s but faded away in the 1990s. One of the factors that may have helped MDI and its subsidiary beef up was their concentration in Punjab, particularly the urban centres. Scholars such as Christine Fair have examined the LeT’s membership data to corroborate its ethnic bias.
State Of Affairs
In her detailed analysis of the MDI through its own narrative, Dr Yasmeen seems to indirectly and very gently point out the relevance of the Pakistani state for the organization and vice versa. Although the author doesn’t say this much clearly, it seems that the mission of making Kashmir independent was a vision that both the Pakistani state and the MDI shared, despite the fact that a majority of people in the valley were not Ahle Hadith but Barelvi.
The LeT literature, which the author has presented, claims that the organization was a key partner of the Pakistan army during the Kargil operation, a view that has been debated by other scholars. In either case, amplifying its role during the Kargil operation helped the LeT attract recruits and be accepted by both state and society.
Dr Yasmeen is of the view that the Kargil operation signifies a moment when the LeT began to re-define itself and move away from purely jihad activities to Dawah and welfare. She seems to argue that Hafiz Saeed decided against confrontation with the state; he did not agree with Islamabad’s decision to withdraw and had announced through several writings that his men would continue to fight in Kashmir even if the army did not.
Though it is not mentioned by Dr Yasmeen, who has stayed away from discussing details of the military’s relationship with the LeT/JuD network, Hafiz Saeed’s sagacity could be attributed to advice from elements in the army denoted by people such as Lt. Gen. Hameed Gul who had cautioned militant organizations against confronting the armed forces. I remember personally interviewing him regarding Pervez Musharraf’s de-weaponisation plan in which his opinion was that Jihadi organizations must cooperate with the military and avoid a public display of weapons as a sign of cooperation. He was the view that the relationship had to be kept intact.
Indeed, more than Kargil, it was post-9/11 developments that forced Hafiz Saeed to branch off to navigate turbulent times for militant organizations when Pervez Musharraf tried to clamp down on networks. While this embittered relations of many militant organizations with the security establishment, resulting in a backlash, Hafiz Saeed kept his group of men clear of any such discord.
He went further in securing them through a two-pronged formula. First, a firewall of fake perception was created to encourage people to think that the LeT had internally fractured and would peter out.
I remember my only meeting with LeT’s spokesman Yahya Mujahid in 2009 arranged by journalist (late) Saleem Shahzad in which a mind game was being played to assure me that the militant organization had lost control over its men and thus had not remained effective. Trying to give such an impression had the dual effect of creating a false impression about weakening while ensuring that its operations by members were perceived as the work of rogue elements.
(A similar impression is being given these days by the JuD establishing a political party, the Milli Muslim League. It is claimed by some prominent members of the media known for their affinity to Hafiz Saeed that the MML is a bid to secure the JuD from leaking manpower that could drift towards ISIS). While there were instances of some LeT members participating in acts of terror inside Pakistan, the organization remained fairly in control and disciplined which means it dedicated itself primarily to issues that the state and its security establishment considered jihad. This discipline is worth noting because by 2001, the LeT had also developed links with international Jihadi organizations it had made contact with during the Bosnian war, which means that it could strike out against the state as al Qaeda did with Saudi Arabia.
The second part of Hafiz Saeed’s formula for survival was to bring about a structural change in which the MDI announced that the LeT and JuD were splitting. In 2004, it was claimed that the Kashmir operations were being handed over to Kashmiris while the JuD would engage in social welfare and Dawah work in Pakistan. This is indeed the position that several Ahle Hadith scholars, including Abdullah Bahawalpuri, took. These Ahle Hadith scholars, whose thought must have guided the JuD, were ‘quietist’ Salafi/Ahle Hadith who disagreed with fomenting internal chaos. Others such as Sheikh Badi-ud-Din, who was a major Ahle Hadith scholar in Pakistan, and was present at the meeting for the formation of the MDI, believed that Kashmiris should fight their own war with help from Pakistan to be limited to moral support.
Notwithstanding internal differences, MDI’s restructuring helped it swim through the tide of public rancour against violent extremism by other militant groups that attacked the state. For the common person on the street it was difficult to distinguish between various kinds of militancy. How would men in Central Punjab, who were often confronted with gentle or hard arm-twisting from militant outfits, including the LeT/JuD, differentiate between state-friendly or unfriendly militancy, especially with operations taking place in Swat and South Waziristan? There would probably be an expectation of a similar clean-up operation inside Punjab or other parts of the country. Indeed, voices were raised for action to be taken against JuD and other Pakistan-based groups.
A series of natural disasters provided MDI the chance to create the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF) as an entity totally dedicated to welfare work. As a result, JuD was involved during the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir and the Northern Areas. Apparently, its well-trained men were at the frontline on the LoC during the disaster. Sources claim they were para-dropped there. Consequently, the JuD men were often seen operating in close vicinity of American and other foreign manpower who arrived to help.
In the ensuing years, the JuD and FIF developed a specialty at crisis management to a degree that many analysts began to consider them sine qua non to disaster relief. Notwithstanding the fact that the security forces were always reluctant to allow non-religious NGOs or international organizations join in with the relief effort, the JuD and FIF developed an image of being out there to help whenever it was needed.
This allowed it to penetrate areas that the state considered politically unfriendly. For instance, the JuD enhanced its influence in lower Sindh without facing any major restriction. In areas where people would be stopped at check posts and journalists were told not to use cameras, you could not fail to notice JuD graffiti, which is one of the methods it uses to announce its presence and publicize its power. The relief work allowed the JuD to penetrate areas with little Muslim presence. Although the Hindu population came out in support of the JuD and there was no evidence of forced conversions, it did add to the overall climate in the province where anything un-Islamic became less acceptable. Its work opened the door for Ahle Hadith ideology to take root in a place where earlier proselytizing by indigenous scholars had limited impact.
A similar expansion took place in Balochistan where the JuD members now claim to have greater knowledge of the area than other ordinary Pakistanis.
Reading Dr Samina Yasmeen’s book we would probably draw the same conclusion as she did that establishing the Milli Muslim League (MML) this August is a natural trajectory for MDI. The leadership is careful to keep on the right side of the law by not making leaders such as Hafiz Saeed (or others accused of involvement in major terror attacks such as Mumbai) the head of the MML. The fact that Khalid Saifullah has been associated with the JuD for a long time does not legally bar him from heading a party but it helps with the claim that the MML is independent of the JuD.
As Dr Yasmeen aptly explains, various regional and international crisis such as the Kargil war, 9/11 and the Mumbai attacks have shaped the MDI structure. However, what she leaves to the imagination of her readers is that such changes were meant to keep it relevant to the Pakistani state, and build links with society. It is amazing to see how over years the JuD network has crowded out all other Ahle Hadith organizations and expanded in areas with a limited number of followers of its sect. The MDI’s expansion, in fact, denotes the mainstreaming of Dawah and jihad in society and develops dependency of state institutions on its infrastructure. Therefore, currently you will find the FIF men providing scuba-diving training to district government teams in Punjab and Sindh or donating items for relief. The donation may not be very impressive but its intelligent marketing helps raise its profile.
The LeT/JuD network has not moved away from jihad as doing that would reduce its attraction. It has kept the symbiotic relationship between jihad and Dawah that helped the JuD dent even the Jamaat-e-Islami’s influence in many Punjab cities. While Dr Yasmeen argues that the MDI’s infrastructural expansion makes it difficult for the state to tackle it, even if it so desired, the fact is that the organizational twists and turns have taken place to ensure it stays relevant to the state to avoid getting axed.
Thus, in the short term it would suit the establishment to see the MML divide the pro-PMLN vote in Punjab since it would be impossible for the new party to win a seat. Its tweets and slogans, “Modi Ka Jo Yaar Hey, Ghaddar Hey (Whoever is Modi’s friend is a traitor) is aimed at the PMLN, which makes it the flavour of one of the several “king’s parties” out there to take down the Sharifs. Even the Ahle Hadith (not JuD) followers in general I spoke with were doubtful about the party’s capacity to win seats. The MML’s story is not one of electoral growth like that of the RSS or BJP in India. The sectarian divide in Pakistan is real and while the Ahle Hadith and Deobandi organizations might hold each other’s hands on certain occasions, it is difficult to see people from other sects voting for an Ahle Hadith political party.
The other purpose seems to be to turn public narrative on the streets, which is where the power of religious groups lies, in favour of a continuation of Articles 62 and 63 that are the new version of the repealed Article 58 (2) (b) of the 1973 Constitution.
In the long term, politics is a difficult game to play for Hafiz Saeed and his men, who had consistently spoken against democracy as a redundant system. Thus, when reminded of JuD’s earlier anti-democracy rhetoric, one of its official representatives had to claim that the party was established “for the betterment of Pakistan more than the love for democracy”, indicating that its position on democracy as a political system remains one-directional and linear. But this may not silence those Ahle Hadith who believe that: “if it were possible to change the system by becoming a part of it then [Holy] Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) would have accepted his rival Abu Jahil’s offer to join the tribal ruling system in his hometown of Mecca.” Indeed, not even all Ahle Hadith in the country are likely to vote for the party which will make electoral politics also a game of the MDI network versus other Ahle Hadith groups.
It is also far-fetched to imagine that the MML can clean up corruption that is a by-product of the strong culture of patronage in the country’s power politics of which the MDI is a beneficiary. But the move will certainly help it survive as long as the state wants such organizations around, not to mention the fact that the co-dependency between the MDI and the state is a two-way process—ending it will require a transformation of the state and its power structure rather than the simple dissolution of a non-state infrastructure.
Dr Ayesha Siddiqa is a research associate at SOAS, University of London South Asia Institute