By Muhammad Amir Rana
April 9th, 2017
THE Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) is one of the oldest religio-political parties in the subcontinent. It has rendered a valuable contribution towards shaping the contemporary Muslim identity in India and Pakistan, besides influencing religious and political behaviour in other parts of the wider region.
In Pakistan, the faction of the JUI that is led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman is considered the true custodian of Deoband’s religious legacy and that of the parent JUI’s political legacy. The party is celebrating its 100th anniversary, according to the Hijra calendar, near Peshawar. During these 100 years, it has gone through several transformations. It has been part of the federal and provincial governments besides actively participating in many political and religious resistance movements.
The Pakistani JUI, by adapting to the local context and environment, strengthened its political credentials far better than did its Indian counterpart. Moreover, despite suffering internal differences and divisions many times, it managed to keep its traditions and legacy intact.
At present, the party is facing a new challenge. Many expect it to revisit the traditional religious discourse and narratives that it had constructed and promoted in partnership with state and non-state actors. The JUI-F’s centennial celebrations follow a party campaign structured around messages of peace, counter-extremism, and counterterrorism. Party supporters and sympathisers anticipate a significant outcome of the anniversary gathering, which could change the dynamics of the country’s religious landscape. However, the question is: how can a party rebrand its image and completely disconnect with its past? One cannot ignore the fact that the JUI-F will build its campaign for next year’s election on this anniversary summit.
The party had constructed its last election campaign around an anti-establishment stance. It has its own constituencies and support base, cultivated through the madressah network. Thus the JUI-F’s anti-establishment stance was not for public consumption but to address the anger of its religious vote bank, which was not comfortable with the state policies on Afghanistan and other internal security and political issues.
The environment has changed much since APS Peshawar: the terrorist attack put more pressure on religious circles. The National Action Plan and Operation Raddul Fasaad have added further pressure. Anti-violence and anti-extremism voices are getting more space in society.
The prime minister — who though leads a right-wing party with all shades of far-right tendencies — has recently issued some unequivocal statements against religious extremism and its supporters. Maulana Fazlur Rehman has also amended his political approach. He is bringing non-Muslim community leaders into the party fold, addressing European diplomats’ concerns about interfaith harmony and extremism. Banners carrying messages on counterterrorism and religious and sectarian harmony line the roads in the federal capital. It seems as though JUI-F has correctly assessed the changing scenario.
However, these moderate expressions notwithstanding, is the party willing to declare its position on forced conversions, equal citizenship (including for minorities), complete disconnect from militant narratives and other sensitive religious issues?
The JUI-F had issued two manifestos before the last general elections. An English language version — fairly modern in outlook — was disseminated among the foreign media and diplomats, while an Urdu version — containing clauses about compulsory jihad training and expressing conservative views on women and minority rights — was for the general public. It is also hard to erase the memories of 1999 when Maulana Fazlur Rehman launched an extensive anti-American and pro-Taliban campaign, and also the fact that he never objected to being called the ‘Pakistani Osama bin Laden’.
Now the JUI-F argues it was the state that had created the paraphernalia of militancy. But the party cannot deny that it remained a beneficiary of the state’s ‘jihad project’ directly and indirectly: indirectly, because the jihad project created a conducive environment for religious institutionalisation in the country, and directly because of the party’s active partnership in the ‘Taliban project’.
A pragmatic politician understands that the past is a ghost and not a sin. The JUI-F is primarily a political party and believes in political pragmatism. The JUI-F head is considered the most pragmatic political leader in the country, and like any other political leader, would like to maximise political advantages for his party.
It is significant that the JUI-F leadership sees an opportunity in the contemporary political and ideological scenario against extremism. Adapting to this scenario may help the party build its image in the eyes of the people and the international community, but it will also certainly reduce state pressure on the religious institutions falling in JUI-F’s constituency.
This is not an unfair aspiration. It may discourage the fence-sitters from joining militancy, but it would not encourage the militants to renounce violence and join JUI-F. Those who have chosen the path of destruction and become part of different violent ideological paradigms will hardly pay attention to such messages. It remains to be seen though how such a move can trigger a counter-narrative to militancy and extremism.
Without rigorous intellectual support, such political changes cannot be expected to deliver. It is known that the majority of Deoband scholars are not comfortable with the changing political scenario, which is increasingly becoming anti-extremist and anti-sectarian. They are conservative in their approaches and incapable of responding to the challenge posed by the extremists and terrorists. The real challenge is the extremist arguments that underpin the terrorists’ violent acts. These arguments refute the modern-day concept of nation-based citizenship and call for a pan-Islamic statehood. The fact is that it is the religious parties that have constructed the extremist organisations’ narrow worldview and sectarian outlook. So when a JUI-F leader invites militants to join his party to achieve their objectives through a peaceful and political struggle, it indicates disagreement only on the strategy to achieve what is a ‘shared’ purpose.
The JUI-F is a party of a particular sect; that limits its electoral success. At the same time, the sect is vibrant and active on multiple fronts in order to establish a socio-religious society. However, this offers both advantages and disadvantages. The growing Deoband outreach will increase the JUI-F’s political influence, but the party has to bear the burden of the sect’s conservatism and radical tendencies as well. Under such circumstances, how can it claim to be progressive and moderate?
Muhammad Amir Rana is a security analyst.