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Jamaat-e-Islami is the only 'unsalvageable wreck' within Pakistan's broken politics

By Mosharraf Zaidi

Tuesday, December 22, 2009,
The News, Islamabad

In the 2002 elections, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) scored what was by all accounts a surprise victory in NWFP and parts of Balochistan. For a gang of unkempt exploiters of the tender religious sentiments of Pakistanis who had never been successful in electoral politics, winning the entire NWFP province was a bonanza unlike anything they'd previously experienced.

Too often, the MMA victory in NWFP is explained by the strategic rigging that Gen Musharraf and his supporters allegedly oversaw in that election. The massive success of the religious parties was not just a numerical surprise. It was a cultural anomaly too. Mullah politics in Pakistan had always been seen until that point as an issue-based phenomenon. The theory was that mullahs could mobilise thousands to rampage on the streets over Satanic Verses, or the apostasy of Ahmedis, but hardly manage even a few dozen to vote for them. That traditional and conventional wisdom was turned on its head in the 2002 election.

Of course, the truth, as always, is a bit of a casualty of our obsession with the truths we fashion. Three factors that are less sexy, and therefore less frequently mentioned in the analysis of the 2002 MMA surprise, may help explain what happened to NWFP back then, and what is happening to Pakistan now, in the closing days of 2009.

First, the MMA was a unified force of the major religious parties in the country. Their unity, regardless of how it was orchestrated, demonstrated for the electorate a trait that they had come to long for but never quite been presented with. The MMA coalition, by very virtue of coming together, presented a solid reason for religiously-oriented voters to consider voting for them.

Second, by virtue of the banishment of the party leaderships, the PPP and the PML-N were almost entirely shut out of the electoral process. This meant that the traditional four-way split of the NWFP vote (across the PPP, PML-N, ANP and the religious parties) became, instead, a two-way split (across the ANP and the MMA, with a marginal spattering of PML-Q votes). The PPP voter in NWFP is decidedly more conservative than the ANP voter, or the PPP voter in Punjab or Sindh. A PPP-less election in NWFP therefore was a boon to the MMA.

Finally, perhaps the most significant factor in the MMA victory in NWFP -- notwithstanding the substantial vote-rigging and -engineering that allegedly took place -- was anti-Americanism. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan began on Oct 7, 2001. The election was held almost exactly a year later, on Oct 10, 2002. The MMA had a full year in which to help create, deepen and sustain an anti-American strain within NWFP. This anti-Americanism was rooted in the same language that Taliban opposition to the US presence in Afghanistan is rooted in. The short version is simple: Pakhtuns don't like to be occupied.

What the MMA was able to do very successfully (and what American public diplomacy has failed in countering so miserably) is marrying anti-Americanism with Islam, and concurrently, marrying the American presence in Afghanistan as a vast conspiracy of the kuffar (infidels) to take over Muslim land.

Why is any of this relevant to a post-NRO Pakistan? Mostly it is relevant because in the past several weeks the Jamaat-e-Islami seems to have been given an injection of adrenalin. It may be hazardous to speculate where the energy is coming from in terms of financing and other logistical support. What is entirely transparent, however, is where the energy is coming from in terms of political substance.

It is coming from an anti-Americanism that has grown far beyond NWFP, and far beyond the mullah's narrow and restricted space in Pakistani society. The Jamaat is finding it easier to get onto the front page because the only faith it preaches, anti-Americanism, just happens to be the fastest growing faith in Pakistan.

This is an unmitigated disaster in the making. The MMA's sudden good fortune in 2002 is not so long ago as to have faded from memory. The disastrous impact of five years of MMA rule over NWFP is also not such a distant memory.

If the Jamaat is allowed an uncontested monopoly over anti-Americanism, then it will almost certainly enjoy resurgent popularity that is not only wholly undeserved, but also potentially calamitous for the hopes that have been pinned on the fragile equilibrium of Pakistan's emerging urban middle class.

Some evidence of what we should fear was filed in this paper yesterday in a story by Muhammad Anis, and featuring the increasingly recognisable face of Jamaat boss Munawwar Hasan. It was titled "JI to go all out to defend SC." In it, Munawwar Hasan vows to "protect the supremacy of the Supreme Court and enforce its decision against the NRO."

The supremacy of the Supreme Court is given to it by the Constitution, not by the learned elders of the Jamaat. The enforcement of the Supreme Court's decisions is the responsibility of law enforcement, and whatever units of the executive that are instructed to action by the court. Munawwar Hasan is probably not entirely unfamiliar with these facts. But for the first time since 2002, the Jamaat can see daylight.

Why would it not steal something that doesn't belong to it (political momentum)? Since the Jamaat is incapable of winning an election in Pakistan fair and square, it will revel in the fact that its unique brand of cynical and conspiratorial poison has become the national dish of choice.

In August 2008, I wrote in a column titled "Measuring the Jamaat's descent" that the Jamaat is the only "unsalvageable wreck" within Pakistan's broken politics, and that "the Jamaat's political savvy is outrageously overstated." I don't mind admitting a mistake. But in this case, I made no mistake. The Jamaat is an outrageously unsalvageable wreck. Its election of Munawwar Hasan, rather than that of a younger leader, and its consistent dependence on the US government and Pakistani elite for its talking points offer a limitless supply of proof that it is more an opportunistic clash-of-civilisations gang than it is a viable political force.

Since the Jamaat is unsalvageable, the only control we can exert on the situation is through understanding the factors that are allowing it this undeserved relevance.

At least some of the responsibility for increased anti-Americanism (and therefore increased relevance for the Jamaat) has to be pinned on Uncle Sam himself. There seems to be no appreciation in Washington DC to the legitimacy of questions about the use of mercenaries, or the impact of increased drone attacks, or US support for leaders widely perceived to be corrupt.

Finally, whatever we may think of it, the dominance of anti-American sentiment on Main Street, and its absence from the language of the major political parties should tell us much about who butters the Pakistani elite's bread. The danger in this situation, of course, is that, as mainstream political parties neglect anti-Americanism, they allow the Jamaat (and the perpetually out of touch Imran Khan) a monopoly over articulating this important and popular mainstream sentiment.

The best indicator of how serious America's image problem in Pakistan is becoming is that, despite not being unified with other religious parties and despite being crowded out by mainstream parties, the Jamaat is finding life in its anti-American rhetoric.

The best indicator of how serious Pakistan's anti-Americanism problem is becoming is that, despite its offering nothing but old and hackneyed cynicism, people don't mind watching the Jamaat spew its conspiracy theories on prime-time television.

The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy. He can be reached through his website www.mosharrafzaidi .com

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