THE far right in Pakistan may finally have succeeded in grooming a leader to give public expression to their discourse.
It is essential for any ideological movement to have a charismatic leader as the face of the movement. Prof Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, chief of Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), is one such leader, who finds himself in the kind of limelight he may not mind. The US bounty on him has only added to his charisma that the far right has cherished.
This is not to say that the far right in Pakistan has been without leaders, but, despite its huge human resources, there have been two major constraints; first, the right to ownership, since the direction of ‘jihad’ had been external, and second, the complex internal dynamics.
Many Pakistani groups took part in the jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Some, in fact, contributed much more than their Afghan or Kashmiri counterparts.
However, such contribution could not be highlighted because that would have contradicted Pakistan’s official stand that these were indigenous movements. And so Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Hizb-i-Islami and Syed Ali Gillani of Jamaat-i-Islami were nurtured as the heroes in Afghanistan and Indian-held Kashmir respectively. After the Taliban movement surfaced in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, the group’s supreme leader Mullah Omar emerged as the new hero. Although Osama bin Laden, too, seemed to occupy that place for a while, the search of the Pakistani far right for an indigenous hero continued.
The internal dynamics were even more complex in the last decade of the last millennium. The far right was fragmented along sectarian, political and personal agendas.
Although militant organisations were freely operating inside the country, major religious political parties, with whose patronage or affiliation the militants were functioning, were not ready to share with them the mainstream political leadership.
They strove to be the custodians of the far right and of the militant discourse emanating from Pakistan.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of his own faction of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam or JUI-F, not only nurtured the Taliban but also launched a countrywide anti-US campaign in July 1999 to mount pressure against a possible strike in Afghanistan to target Osama bin Laden.
The Pakistani media even referred to him as ‘Osama bin Laden the second’.
After 9/11, the JUI-F was active from the platform of the Afghan Defence Council. The movement, later in the form of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, eventually garnered electoral success in the 2002 general elections.
To become acceptable to the international community and enjoy the benefits of power, the maulana gradually detached himself from the violent expression of the far right and connected his party with the Deobandi political discourse.
Maulana Masood Azhar, head of the banned Jaish-i-Muhammad, was another contestant for the crown. An aura of a spiritual jihadi leader was built around his personality and his release from Indian captivity in exchange for passengers of a hijacked Indian plane in late 1999 boosted his image. But differences within Deobandi militant outfits in Pakistan and his alliance with the Sipah-i-Sahaba damaged his case.
A Pakistani militant outfit hobnobbing with sectarian organisations was a definite no-no until the late 1990s. The thinking went that any outfit fighting for a nationalist cause, mainly in Kashmir, could not commit a bigger sin than associate itself with violent sectarian groups in Pakistan.
Hafiz Saeed had been groomed well. He already had good academic and ideological credentials and unquestioned loyalty to the state. He had served in different government institutions, including the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), and also taught at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore.
Saeed had a post-graduate degree from a Saudi Arabian university, where he developed good ties with the clergy and the royals, which served him well.
Sheikh Abdul Aziz — a rich Saudi businessman — was co-founder of Markaz-i-Dawatul Irshad, established by Hafiz Saeed. This was the predecessor of JuD. Saeed’s background as a member of the Jamaat-i-Islami helped him organise his party in a structured manner.
Above all, he proved himself as hardcore anti-India on both the militant and political fronts. These were already the makings of an ideal leader of the far right.
Although it was JuD’s militant wing Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) that pioneered fidayeen strikes in Indian-held Kashmir, when militant factions in Pakistan turned against the state Hafiz Saeed declared that suicide attacks inside the country were prohibited by religion.
Many analysts suspect that JuD had links with Al Qaeda but it severed those because of its equation with Riyadh. The reason was that Saudi Arabia’s biggest terrorist challenge came from those who accused other Muslims of apostasy, and Pakistan was also facing the wrath of terrorist groups who had absorbed similar tendencies and developed a close association with Al Qaeda.
These groups included Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and the so-called Punjabi Taliban militants.
When the Saudi government launched a programme in 2003 to engage religious scholars to build a response against extremist tendencies and terrorism, the impact on the Salafi clergy in Pakistan was immediately discernible.
JuD took it upon itself to condemn such thoughts among militant groups and the LeT distanced itself from all such groups and even spurned any cooperation with the Pakistani Taliban. This may help put in context recent media reports that JuD is playing a role in militants’ rehabilitation in Pakistan.
This defines the direction of all pro-state militant organisations in Pakistan and signifies the far-right’s preference for change in the country through peaceful means, while justifying the use of force to protect regional interests.
Hafiz Saeed has successfully projected the notion and through his public stances pushed the state onto this path. As the centre right and liberals seem confused and directionless, the increasing strength of the far right will have internal and international implications.
In addition to his credentials, Hafiz Saeed seems to be pursuing an agenda that resonates with his constituency. The US bounty will only add to his allure for the far right.
The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.