By Zaigham Khan
Fazlur Rehman is one of most complex and exciting figures of Pakistani politics.
He assumed the office of the Secretary General of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam in 1980, at the mere age of 27, following the death of his father, Maulana Mufti Mahmud.
The young leader was able to outfox all the maulanas of the Deoband school and has been heading JUI-F, the largest faction of the party, without any challenge since the late 1980s.
Since the 1990s, the other two major religious parties — the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan and the Jamaat-i-Islami — have watched their fortunes dwindle and their vote bank erode as the religious vote shifted to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in Karachi, the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz in Punjab and, to some extent, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well.
But Fazl was able to weather these hostile conditions through unlikely alliances with successive ruling parties, allowing him to sustain patronage networks in his areas of influence.
The Musharraf era saw Fazl at the peak of his power, proven by his status as leader of the opposition between 2004-2008 and the chief minister in the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal-led KP government being a legislator from his party.
Today, the PTI has emerged as a serious threat to the JUI-F. Imran Khan has been able to lure many young voters out from under JUI-F’s influence and into the PTI.
If the PML-N, by some miracle, forms a government after the polls, Fazl will be a coalition partner in all likelihood.
However, it will be difficult for the JUI-F to enter into a coalition with a PTI-led government. In that case, we could see the maulana out of power after a long time.
But, he can be a formidable foe as part of the opposition. One can trust him to have a few surprises in store for us in the coming months.
Fazl advocates imposition of Shariah law in Pakistan but at the same time considers an armed struggle to do so against the teachings of Islam.
He says his party believes in a peaceful struggle for the implementation of Shariah and spreading the message of Islam. However, he has often allied with or supported parties that do not have a religious bent essentially. Fazl has been a consistent PML-N ally since 2013. However, he has also formed coalitions with other religio-political parties. In the 2018 election, his party is part of the broader MMA alliance of religious parties.
In the past, Fazl offered to mediate between the Pakistani Taliban and the government but changed his position on that front later on. He was also the target of suicide attacks carried out by militants.
The JUI-F chief has also opposed the merger of KP and Fata, which he says is not in accordance with the wishes of the tribal people. He has also suggested a referendum in order to understand what the people of Fata want. Fazl however says he wouldn’t oppose the region’s mainstreaming, which he emphasises isn’t the same as a merger with KP. The decision to merge Fata with KP was however taken earlier this year without Fazl on board.
The JUI-F has taken anti-American position on occasion but has changed tack on that front now and then.
He has called on the country’s political leadership to ensure the release and repatriation of Aafia Siddiqui, who he said became a victim of the government’s flawed policies that were put in place to please the United States.
The Americans however do not necessarily see him as anti-US. Internal State Department communications have described him as “more of a politician than a mullah”.
Fazl has also routinely opposed laws for protection of women and laws revising the legal age of marriage, calling them ‘Western’ in character and damaging to Pakistani society and culture.
He also rejected the ‘judicial murder’ of Mumtaz Qadri and called him a martyr, saying the hanging was based on bad intent and could be part of a conspiracy to abolish Pakistan's blasphemy laws.