By Nasir Jamal
November 27, 2014
THE Jamaat-i-Islami’s recent gathering at Minar-i-Pakistan was yet another attempt by its leadership to “pull the party out of a state of political irrelevance”. But can the populist rhetoric of JI Emir Siraj ul Haq salvage the party’s fortunes and make it relevant to new socio-political realities?
Amidst the various strands within the Jamaat, Siraj ul Haq appears to be pursuing the politics of his recent predecessor, Quazi Hussain Ahmed, who tried to make the party more effective in mainstream politics, but with limited success.
He had forged alliances, settling for junior coalition roles, gone solo, and established the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal government in KP together with JUI-F during Pervez Musharraf’s time. The JI is still part of KP’s ruling alliance with PTI in the lead.
Of late, there has been a feeling in Jamaat circles that the party must reinvent itself to play an assertive role in national politics, and explore possibilities beyond its current stature, even in KP.
The reputation that Siraj ul Haq has built for himself as a pragmatic mediator in the PML-N-PTI stand-off has added to hopes of a ‘revival’. Many in JI circles feel his role as a sensible mediator could produce the needed impetus to revitalise his party nationally.
As head of arguably Pakistan’s most organised political party, the JI emir has a legacy that attracts just as it deters. JI is a party whose influence in the country’s politics, even beyond, is superimposed on its lack of electoral success. Over the years, it has been a front-runner in the effort to create a constituency for the establishment of an Islamic state.
There are theories that it has not been able to fully exploit its support base, but those who accuse it of compromising on principles — by, for instance, supporting Gen Zia’s military regime — are given the counter argument that it was an attempt to capture political power to establish an Islamic state.
For long the JI’s main ‘ideological’ rival has been the PPP. The PML-N in the post-Zia period and PTI now are parties with which the Jamaat has shared causes and the stage to a level where both are believed to have greatly encroached upon territory once controlled by JI. The tone and tenor it adopts in pleading the people’s case — and often its own — is frequently attributed to‘desperation’ to reclaim its position.
“JI is taking up causes that others gave up long ago,” argued Nomanul Haq, adviser to the Institute of Business Administration. The JI, for example, now talks more vigorously against the US — to benefit from popular anti-US sentiments. “Similarly,” he notes, “its leadership clearly has a soft corner for the Taliban and its views on terrorism aren’t shared by mainstream parties. The Jamaat, it seems, believes it can broaden its popular base by taking up such causes because the PML-N and PTI are ambiguous about their Taliban policy, and their anti-American stance is not effective.”
Struggle between Two Strains
Doubts are also expressed over the Jamaat’s ability to influence and woo back more radicalised segments who now have multiple options to work with to bring about an Islamic revolution through jihad. Indeed, we’ve seen the JI cadre leave the ‘vanguard of Islamic revolution’ for extremist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda in recent years, giving ‘ideological’ opponents like the MQM the opportunity to label it a ‘terrorist’ party.
Some analysts say even the pro-Taliban stance spelt out by some Jamaat leaders such as former emir Munawwar Hasan has failed to ‘arrest’ this trend amongst the party cadre.
“The JI convention at the Minar brought to the fore the struggle between two strains struggling against each other within the party,” an analyst wishing to remain anonymous noted. “The dominant strain led by Sirajul Haq is pinning hopes of changing JI fortunes through populist politics. The other is trying to exert itself through Munawwar Hasan. Even if his recent statements on the Taliban, terrorism and jihad have been ‘misinterpreted’ or ‘misunderstood’, this group in the Jamaat appears not too confident of changing society through the ballot.”
Still, the party downplays talk of an ideological or political rift. “We take every decision collectively; everyone follows them,” stressed Munawwar Hasan. Yet, he says, democracy “in its present form” has failed to deliver. “We need to instil in people a new commitment to serve, if democracy is to deliver. This was precisely what I meant when I spoke of Jihad-O-Qattal Fi-Sabeel Allah in my speech at the congregation.”
The former JI emir is unhappy with voters who elect people with “fake degrees and money”. “Still, democracy and elections are the best option available to us and we are striving to get this system fixed. When we have a better option [to implement our party agenda] we will take that route,” he said.
Doubts over JI’s Future Electoral Success
He did not agree with the criticism that the Jamaat had been socially and politically marginalised despite compromising on its objectives. “It depends on what yardstick you use to measure our popularity. We haven’t been successful at the polls because all elections after 1970 were rigged and engineered by the [intelligence] agencies. I won’t say we haven’t made mistakes, but the increased intervention of agencies is a major reason for our [poor] electoral performance. No one after [Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto or Mujibur Rahman has won elections with public support. On the other hand, I think our credibility has increased in people’s eyes because of our work during natural calamities.”
However, critics remain doubtful about the JI’s future electoral success despite its adoption of populist politics.
“The JI is not designed to be a populist party; it was formed as the vanguard of the Islamic revolution. The party leadership should have known this for long now,” said a senior journalist who has written extensively on the Jamaat. “They have tried to revive their electoral fortunes through populist slogans before and failed. This strategy will not help them displace mainstream populist parties like PML-N and PTI in future either. Nothing short of an Islamic revolution in Pakistan can bring it out of irrelevance. And if that ever happens, the Jamaat will not be leading it.”