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#4371, 4 April 2014

Political space of religious parties

Importance of Jamat-e-Islami
D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS

Last week, there was an important election in Pakistan. Sirajul Haq was elected as the new Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami for the next five years, replacing the controversial – Syed Munawar Hasan. For Sirajul, it was actually a three cornered contest with Liaqat Baloch, another prominent leader of the JI.

Sirajul Haq, the fifth Amir is expected to take the JI forward, as Pakistan is facing multiple transitions at the political and regional levels. Challenges for Sirajul Haq is not only in terms of what is happening at the national and regional levels, but also in terms of what is happening within the supporters of the JI. Sirajul Haq himself being from the next generation, and a former leader of Jamiat-e-Talaba (the student wing of JI), there will be a substantial expectation from the young activists as well.

It is unfortunate, that in a democratic and secular polity, the religious parties have always been perceived by the intellectuals with a not so positive perspective. Though there have been political parties with a religious and conservative outlook in other parts of the world, in South Asia, they have been generally perceived with contempt by the secular sections. However, religious parties do have an important role and space in the democratic polity in South Asia. The succession to JI in Pakistan has to be interpreted in this background.

Multiple theses have been put forward to analyse why the previous leader – Munawar Hasan was defeated in the elections. At least, there have been four predominant theses. First one is being projected by the supporters of Munawar Hasan – that he was not interested in continuing in the first place and he stood only because there was a pressure from the Shura. So the argument goes, though he contested, he was not serious.

Second and the most plausible theory is that the Jamaat is actually looking for a different leader, as they did not agree with few statements and decisions of Munawar Hasan during the last couple of years. Some of his decisions and statements were seen as damaging to JI’s political position and the standing in Pakistan. For example, Munawar’s statement on Taliban and the military; Munawar was on record claiming that the Pakistani soldiers who fought the Taliban in Swat and the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) were not martyrs. This statement in fact had ruffled many feathers within Pakistan’s polity and also in the military. While there were multiple pro-Taliban statements by Munawar, the above one was seen as uncalled for and damaging to party’s position.

Third thesis being projected for Munawar’s downfall has been related to the performance of JI during 2013 elections. But this criticism is misplaced; given the fact that all decline in JI’s performance in 2013 elections was relative to its rise during Musharraf’s period. It was primarily due to Musharraf’s initiatives to keep the mainstream political parties such as the PML-N and PPP away from the primary scene during the early years of the last decade, that the religious parties in Pakistan including the different factions of the JUI could perform better electorally. Else, the political performance of the JI in elections have always been limited both at the national and provincial levels.

While it did well in select pockets of its own influence, JI never had a substantial support in the provincial and national assemblies. Musharraf’s period and the MMA experiment was the only exception during the last two decades. Hence blaming Munawar for the bad performance of JI during 2013 elections cannot be reasonable explanation for his downfall.

The final thesis, explaining Munawar’s defeat is a part of a larger conspiracy theory – where the military and its ISI are seen as behind the scene changes, as the previous Amir turned hostile against the Establishment.

The second thesis seems to be more plausible. Perhaps, many within the JI did not agree Munawar’s outbursts against the military, and his open support for the Taliban. How different would be the new leader – Sirajul Haq? Will he able to take the JI forward and ensure its better performance in the next elections?

Sirajul Haq hails from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and is a serving minister in the coalition ministry, where JI works with Imran Khan’s PTI. Sirajul was elected to the provincial assembly as a part of the MMA coalition in 2002 but gave up his seat protesting against the US led drone attacks. Sirajul is seen as a pragmatic politician and a young leader (in his 50s), who will be able to take the JI into the next elections.
The political environment in Pakistan today is complex, and will not be easier for the JI. Secular political parties such as the MQM and Awami National Party (ANP), have become more of regional political parties; even the PPP has become restricted to Sindh, where these parties have been working hard in the same space, where the JI also has an influence. PML-N, in ideology and spirit is closer to the JI, than the secular political parties mentioned above. Besides the serious political competition between the above secular political and right of center political parties, the JI is also facing a tougher challenge from Taliban and its franchisees all over Pakistan.

The hard reality for the JI today is – its space is shrinking. While the Taliban is on a violent war path, the mainstream parties are also fighting hard to protect their own turf. As a result, Sirajul would face a serious challenge in keeping the JI relevant and yet retain its unique position.
The JI in Pakistan, for that matter all over the region, occupies a unique place. It is a political party, with regular intra-party elections. Unlike some of the secular political parties, it does not believe in dynastic politics, in allowing the sons and daughters taking over the reign of their father. More importantly, it believes in a political agenda and believes in winning the elections through ballot and forming the government through mainstream politics. Also, the JI pursues a coherent, well explained ideology and plays within the existing constitutional framework, unlike the radical groups that aim to overthrow established institution through violence and force.

Besides, the JI also provides a platform for conservative sentiments, without allowing them to become radical and violent. It is unfortunate that in today’s politics, especially the secular movement essentially considers the conservatives as radicals and treats them synonymously. Religious parties such as the JI occupy a unique space in the political landscape. This space needs to exist and be protected in a region such as ours.

Sirajul Haq has an important role to play. Not only he has a significant task of shaping JI’s future away from supporting the Taliban, but also to ensure it remains a strong political party, contributing to Pakistan’s stability and thereby its future. In fact, a stronger JI may reduce the space that the Taliban is trying to occupy.

By arrangement with Rising Kashmir

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