By Ayesha Siddiqa
November 18, 2012
Lately, Hafiz Saeed of the Jamat ud Dawa (JuD) seems to have emerged as one of the stars of Pakistan’s media, giving interviews to anchors, all set to eat out of his hands. Many in the print media have also joined hands in selling the JuD as if it was always peaceful. On social media, which is infested with youth, who have little sense of history, an artificial distinction is drawn between the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) that brings a militant image of Mumbai to mind, and the JuD, presented as a welfare organisation. The unprofessionalism, lack of training and ignorance of the media is to the JuD’s advantage.
Without getting into the ‘dos and don’ts’ of the claim regarding the JuD being nothing else but a welfare institution, there is a concerted effort to fashion a new image of the militant outfit and make Saeed look like Santa Claus. More importantly, this narrative-change is happening in the West as well. The Pakistani deep state may have its need to fashion a new image of the JuD, but it is tougher to understand why this dressing up is being done by the West. For instance, in the past couple of years, two publications — which are essentially doctoral theses done at top British universities such as Oxford and Cambridge — were produced that aimed at rationalising the JuD and its activities. While Humaira Iqtidar has projected the Jamaat-e-Islami and the JuD as entities, which will eventually secularise society, Masooda Bano in her book has presented the JuD and other religious zealots as “Rational Believers”. Bano has tried to awkwardly fit new institutional economics with her study of madrasas and in doing so, tried rationalising militants including that of the JuD. Both ladies are well anchored in British academia.
In the media, there are several British and American journalists who insist on focusing on the JuD’s welfare work as if this could be an alternative activity that could become more central to the organisation than jihad. Many inside and outside Pakistan seem impressed with the JuD’s assistance during the 2005 earthquake and the 2010-11 floods. This new narrative tends to put the JuD’s jihadism on the back-burner. These journalists are happy to buy the argument, which is peddled by the ISPR or even some people in Pakistan’s Foreign Office, regarding the JuD being a necessity as it has tremendous capacity to deliver during a crisis.
Saeed’s recent interview by CNN was pretty intriguing. He comes out in the interview as radical but principled and human, offering the US help after Sandy despite the bounty on his head. He is also shown as fairly flexible; a man who has agreed to give an interview to a woman despite the fact that he would not break bread with her as she is a woman. We are also told that he doesn’t even hide despite the bounty. No probing questions are asked and we don’t even get a sense that the anchor has a grip over the evolution or history of the LeT/JuD discourse. The question was what was being said to a foreign audience, which was the main target of this CNN programme?
Why is the Western media and academia willing to give Saeed a positive spin? Why is he being given greater intellectual space that would make him more palatable? It is as if there is a willingness to deal with most of his idiosyncrasies and explain it as intrinsic to his religious belief as long as he promises to stay away from violence.
We could actually be witnessing a process of détente between the West and the JuD for two obvious reasons. First, the strategic community in the West may consider it important to isolate al Qaeda from its other partners around the world. Since LeT/JuD is considered a potential al Qaeda partner, it would make sense to lure it into a conversation and establish certain rules of the game that may allow the organisation to continue with radicalism, as long as it does not graduate into violence.
Second, this is actually coming to grips with the most important reality that the Muslim world is drifting towards the religious right even in Turkey, Tunisia and many other countries. The West has probably also realised its limitation to change this reality. For example, look at some of the Western countries like Britain, where university campuses are brimming with Hizb-ut-Tehrir (HuT). The agreed upon rules of the game in the UK are that as long as HuT does not engage in violence, it will be allowed to exist. However, the British state will also remain vigilant that it does not allow the kind of violence that happened in 2007.
Returning to Saeed in Lahore, perhaps, the West will now not have an issue if the JuD chief manages to get the majority behind him and gets into power just like the recent happenings in Egypt. But that is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future because the religious right or political right wing is not Saeed’s monopoly. All prominent parties in Pakistan today are right wing in their operations if not thinking. Resultantly, the voters have a range of choices and not one. Even within the radical-militant-political framework, there are other entities contesting for power like the Sipaha-e-Sahaba Pakistan. In any case, Saeed would have to cover a lot of ground converting people from the Deobandi and Barelvi schools of thought to the Ahl-e-Hadith school of thought.
The head of the JuD may not be electable but he could still help in steering public opinion, especially amongst the radical element. Perhaps, the West thinks it is worth engaging with Saeed as many have engaged with another latent-radical leader like Imran Khan. The search is probably for someone who could neatly organise what is suspected to be a radical population under a banner and helps negotiate with them. The US would certainly not like to be caught on the wrong foot as it was in 1979, at the time of the Iranian revolution. Washington was caught supporting a pro-West Shah when the population was on the opposite side. A better option may be to have partners as Muslim societies drift towards a non-pluralist culture.
A war between the West and the Islamic religious right might not be a logical direction. The religious radical leadership could be as susceptible to negotiation with the West as others, as long as some power adjustment was made. It is just a matter of finding the right radical.