MAULANA Fazlur Rehman’s Azadi march has ruffled many a feather in recent days. From the accounts of rifts within the PML-N to the PPP’s confusion to predictions about Imran Khan’s uncertain future, no political player has been left untouched.
Commentary has followed where politics leads and no analyses these days is complete without mentioning the maulana and his merry marchers. Indeed, it has led many to argue that his objective has been achieved — to occupy centre stage and become relevant. One commentator went so far as to say that if the maulana succeeds in removing Imran Khan’s government, he will be a strong contender for the prime minister’s position.
This may be stretching the truth a bit; apart from dislodging a government, the path to Constitution Avenue also runs through Punjab, and the maulana’s party has little political presence in this province.
Commentary about Fazlur Rehman’s short-term relevance ignores the larger context of the relative irrelevance of religious parties in the country’s electoral politics.
The religious political parties seem to be becoming more irrelevant than before.
For a Muslim-majority country, Pakistan’s politics has rarely ever been dominated by an Islamist party. And in recent years, they seem to be becoming more irrelevant than before.
It has been argued that where the state itself used Islam to legitimise itself, most mainstream political parties used similar language, not leaving the more Islamist parties much to offer that which is radical and an alternative. In other words, if most parties are already promising to abide by the Objectives Resolution, protect Islam (and even the state of Madina) as well as Islamic laws, what is left for the Islamist parties to offer to the public?
For contrast, consider Turkey, where the predecessors of the ruling AKP were opposition parties which offered an alternative vision to the secular ideology of the state. In fact, back in 1997, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was sent to jail for reciting a poem publicly, which was said to undermine the secular values — this was the alternative the AKP presented to the Kemalist state.
The religious right in Pakistan, on the other hand, was usually found collaborating with the state and much of what it offered was being implemented by the latter. In addition, it was rarely persecuted or hounded by the state; again to give the example of the AKP, it was the third reincarnation of the Islamists in Turkey as twice before it was banned by the Supreme Court. Hence, the religio-political parties have never been able to present a radical alternative electoral choice at any point.
In addition, the appropriation of Islam by the state and by most political parties meant that others such as the PML-N and the PTI have offered a more ‘mainstream’ version of Islam — akin to the AKP — rather than the bearded and turbaned image offered by the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and JUI-F. And to be frank, if people are to vote for right-wing politicians with Islamist leanings, they would still prefer the clean-shaven, shalwar kameez-clad Noonies and Insafians to those who look like clerics.
But to return to the collaborative relationship between the state and Islamist parties, perhaps the first time in years the Islamist parties had a different line to offer in Pakistan was in 2002, shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan. They cashed in on the anger of what was happening in our neighbourhood, opposing Pakistan’s decision to support the action in Afghanistan. Forming an alliance, the JI and the JUI-F (the biggest of the Islamist parties) swept Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and formed a government in the province. However, in retrospect, this victory was not seen as genuine by many.
Since then, both the JUI-F and JI have been on a downward trajectory, electorally as well as ideologically.
As the state struggled to control extremism, the more radical elements within the JI disagreed with their party’s policy and joined the ranks of those using violence within Pakistan; it is noteworthy that many of the missing in the years after 2001 were found to have links with the Jamaat and a splinter group of the party was reported to have taken part in an attack on a Rawalpindi mosque in 2009. And both the parties ended up facing the wrath of the militants — Maulana Fazlur Rehman has survived at least two terrorist attacks while a JI rally also witnessed an attack.
These attacks were seen as proof that as the militants and the state were locked in a confrontation, the more mainstream Islamist parties were no longer acceptable or kosher for those on the fringes. The JI in particular has struggled with trying to maintain its appeal to the more radical elements and hanging on to its mainstream credentials — the election of Munawar Hasan (who called Hakeemullah Mehsud a martyr) was a case in point.
But perhaps all this pales in comparison to the electoral crisis the two parties face currently. Despite forming an alliance (which had been in place when they won in 2002), their performance was disappointing to say the least. The 2018 election results simply underlined their growing irrelevance.
Both parties conceded space in the KP pockets they considered their strongholds. And in addition, they were overshadowed by the emergence of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which momentarily dominated the Islamist horizon thanks to its dharna politics. Indeed, the new kid on the block even outperformed the two older parties. An article in Dawn said that “the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal got a paltry 0.44m votes in Punjab against the TLP’s tally of around 1.9m votes.”
In other words, it is hard to imagine that a march — however successful — can catapult the maulana to centre stage for more than its duration. There may even be some quid pro quo. But beyond that, there is little he can achieve — because even if he locks down Islamabad, brings down the government and emerges as Imran Khan’s nemesis, he doesn’t enjoy the popular support, or the votes, to lay claim to power.
The Islamist parties in Pakistan face a serious existentialist crisis, which is not limited to the 2018 election and will not be resolved even if the maulana gets some concessions in the coming days. But the maulana doesn’t seem to realise this, which is why he remains obsessed with a march rather than his party’s long-term future.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2019