Making JI relevant: Can Sirajul Haq do it?

Published November 24, 2014
Sirajul Haq, chief of the Jamaat-i-Islami, addresses a crowd during the party convention in Lahore on November 21, 2014. –AFP
Sirajul Haq, chief of the Jamaat-i-Islami, addresses a crowd during the party convention in Lahore on November 21, 2014. –AFP

Sirajul Haq is different, or at least, that seems to be the case.

He has indeed played his cards well, unlike his predecessor who continues to put Jamaat in hot waters after first issuing, and then sticking to ever more inciteful and increasingly bizarre statements. In the recently held three-day annual Jamaat-i-Islami convention where Munawar Hasan was found crossing a line yet again, Siraj chose his words carefully.

The role Sirajul Haq has played during these turbulent dharna times makes it reasonable to have optimistic expectations from him. However, where the party deserves a token of appreciation for acting positively of late, at the same time, the Jamaat's decision-makers should put their heads together to fix the areas where the party is dreadfully failing.

Also read: Siraj asks people to struggle for Islamic system

Here are my two cents for the Mansoora-based policymakers:

Want to go up in the game? Better revamp your image

With changing times, political entities prefer to change their public images, and for an obvious reason: what was popular in the 1970s may not necessarily be the need of the hour today.

The call for Islamic socialism was fashioned by the Bhutto-led PPP, not because the Pakistan Peoples Party wanted to enforce it (even the party had no idea what it was all about), but more because it sounded good and struck a chord among the masses. However, if they were to promulgate the same discourse today, it would fail to capture political capital, as the world has moved on.

The public image of a political party needs to be deeply grounded in some urgent need that is a popular demand of the day.

With Jamaat-i-Islami, what is the first image that comes to mind? At least for me, it’s a group of aged ultra-conservative religious men living in their own world, content with repeating this same message over and over: all issues, local and global, individual and collective, social and political, can be addressed only through their theological interpretation.

The stereotype is there and sadly, it’s the party itself which perpetuates it. It may or may not have been an effective rallying cry, but as far as the present is concerned, there is very little room for this image in the wider Pakistani society.

Explore: JI, IS and Al Qaeda part of one nexus: MQM

The Jamaat's declining popularity is not due to them being deemed extremists but to the party's severe disconnect with the masses and their most pressing issues.

For example, look at the ruling Justice and Development Party of Turkey. They keep winning votes because of the fact that they practiced politics of the mainstream in Turkey — they made it trendy and open for all. To put it precisely, their politics connects with the people.

The Jamaat needs to learn from them and structurally revamp itself along modern lines. The rigid internal system which skews the chances of the young to be decision-makers, needs to be replaced by a youth-centric system.

Most of the older sages seem to have lost touch with the current realities, or at least aren't attuned enough to articulate them effectively. The results of last year's elections prove that claim.

Unique selling point = missing

Every mainstream party has to have a unique selling point (USP), something which makes the party different and better from the others.

Let’s look at the parties one by one.

We have PML-N which marks the line with their work on motorways, metro buses and laptops. Then we have PPP, all developmental work aside they stand firm on the Bhutto legacy; right or wrong the Bhutto brand still sells. Next we have the Imran Khan-led PTI, which sells itself on youth, 'Naya Pakistan', Shaukat Khanum, the 1992 World Cup and other things that we all know by heart, courtesy the past few months.

Read on: PTI closer to JI than other parties, says Imran

Now, what is Jamaat-i-Islami's USP?

I can’t find any. If they think it is an Islamic revolution under a premier from the Jamaat, then that's their political ambition, as opposed to a USP.

Their desired electoral victory would never actualise until and unless the party finds a substantive USP to give to the masses.

The age of ideology is gone — accept it

There was a time when a battlefield of ideas characterised Pakistan's political arena. There was a Soviet/China-inspired Left and in opposition to it was a religious Right. The breakup of Soviet Union changed the ideological landscape.

Today, it is neo-liberalism everywhere, and the moment ideology-inspired politics shows up in the arena, it deflects from persisting realities. Ideas and answers regarding current challenges need to come through a localised and domestic channel, not through an interpreted Jamaat-favourable ideology.

You are conservative, good. You are Islamist, fair enough, but the moment you base your politics around it, that is all your politics will ever be about; it is counterproductive for political growth.

Take a look: JI declares war on interest-based system

The world has moved on, and Jamaat-i-Islami, still stuck in the past, doesn’t want to.

The Pakistani world right now is all about populism. And Sirajul Haq clearly sees that.

At the recent ijtimaa, he used all the right buzzwords: VIP culture, girls' education, minority rights, accountability and so on. Every step towards the dilution of traditional ideology in favour of populism will be a step towards a more electorally successful party.

Clearly, Sirajul Haq is different, but can he, in turn, make Jamaat-i-Islami different? That's the real question.



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