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Maulana Fazlur Rehman at the ‘Azadi March’ in Islamabad | AP

THE MAULANA FOR ALL SEASONS

Maulana Fazl is in his mid-60s but his ambition can yet take him to ever newer landscapes on an already eventful journey
Updated Nov 24, 2019 11:22am

From being all but marginalised after the 2018 elections, Maulana Fazlur Rehman has managed to use his recent march on Islamabad to make himself relevant once again in national politics. How can one begin to understand the way his mind works?


Whether as a success or a failure, you typecast Maulana Fazlur Rehman at your own peril. There is only one constant in his politics — his tendency to resort to religion to make quick gains or to get out of difficult situations. Otherwise, over the years, he has proven his all-round ability to make adjustments for power — an ability that has earned him both admiration and outright condemnation.

The latest episode in Islamabad adds to the mystery of the Maulana, whose madressah and Deobandi-based support was never in any real danger of erosion in case of a failure of his march and sit-in. The two-week-long dharna encompassed many moods before it ended, rather abruptly, with the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) coming up with a ‘Plan B’, immediately dubbed by many as an exercise in face-saving. This new plan envisaged rallies across the country to block roads, as it turned out, causing great distress to common people.

Back in Islamabad, meanwhile, the debate raged over what Maulana Fazl had gained with his march-cum-dharna. He was credited with playing an important role in helping the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) secure an escape flight for its ailing leader, Mian Nawaz Sharif. And the JUI-F protest added to the woes of an already under-pressure government, to the advantage of a Sharif camp that was looking desperately for an exit for Mian Sahib.

There are some other gains that people like the well-connected and forever-resourceful Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi have more than hinted at. The current Punjab Assembly speaker speaks of a ‘reserved ruling’ by the ‘authorities’ Maulana Fazl was ‘actually’ appealing to. The promises that are said to have influenced the JUI-F to end its siege of Islamabad are being kept secret but, whatever their worth, there is quite a lot of panic in the ranks of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). This affords a lot of credibility to whatever warnings the Maulana continues to hurl at Prime Minister Imran Khan. Maulana Fazl is either a likely ally or an imminent threat in the Pakistani political dangal (tussle), depending on which side you stand on.

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The pull of power has led the Maulana into shaking hands with the unlikeliest of partners. He was once accused of being a sellout when he joined hands with Benazir Bhutto — despite his party’s long battle with those who had the gall to introduce themselves as secular and despite an overwhelming disapproval among religion-based parties against rule by a woman. That is not to mention that one battle in which Maulana Fazl’s father took part had led to the fall of Benazir’s father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and to Gen Ziaul Haq’s long martial law.

But true to the JUI’s crisscross history, and also in line with the tradition of Pakistani politics at large where such somersaults are normal, Maulana Fazl was also there as an important member of the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) against Zia. This was one of his earliest assignments as heir to his father’s legacy.

As per accounts favourable to the JUI (the ‘F’ to signify the Fazl faction came slightly later), just before his death in October 1980, Maulana Fazl’s father, Mufti Mahmood, had decided to join the opposition alliance against the regime. That was of course after his party, along with many others, had provided Gen Zia with the early support that he desperately needed to settle in. All in the name of religion, which still runs central to the Maulana’s thrust.

The JUI-F chief’s hesitant political allies in his latest adventure, the ‘Azadi March’ on Islamabad, were squarely criticised for being too scared of the establishment’s presence to go full-throttle into agitation. However, perhaps they had equal reason to be wary of the Maulana’s next move, considering his propensity to give in to faith-based sentiment, as one of the reasons for keeping a safe distance from him.

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari speaks at the 'Azadi March' alongside Maulana Fazlur Rehman | White Star
Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari speaks at the 'Azadi March' alongside Maulana Fazlur Rehman | White Star

At least Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is on record as having expressed his clear reservations about the use of religion as a tool by the march’s leader, well before the start of the protest. Even then, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman came under severe pressure for having shared the stage with a man who, only a few days later, was eulogising the killer of Salman Taseer, the long-time PPP politician murdered for speaking for a Christian woman accused under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Losing and making allies comes naturally to the Maulana, whose political influence in the country has always been somewhat restricted to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Today’s allies have been subjected to severe censure and opposition by the JUI-F and its parent JUI in the past. Back in the late 1970s, one justification forwarded by Mufti Mahmood’s associates for favouring martial law was that, far from being impressed by Zia’s Islamicisation, they had been pushed into his camp by PPP’s ‘ladeenyat’, or disregard for religion.

Later, the Maulana was also accused of having spoken against rule by a woman when Benazir Bhutto’s first term in power was imminent. But he appeared to have taken the high road when, in the latter half of the 1990s, he was able to thwart a move by the then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the name of Islam, that would have ultimately seen Sharif bestow upon himself the title of Amir-ul-Momineen (Leader of the Believers).

Losing and making allies comes naturally to the Maulana | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
Losing and making allies comes naturally to the Maulana | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

Secularism is anathema to the Maulana. So is a mention about women’s rights that, in his book, are synonymous with secularism and westernisation. In this day and age, he and his cadres still boastfully speak of their exploits against women battling for their rights. A bill by a provincial assembly against domestic violence appears a Western conspiracy to these honourable geniuses, proudly occupying pivotal positions in an outfit created a century ago in the name of ulema or scholars.

Maulana Fazl’s own journey, which began with his famous father’s death in October 1980 — when Gen Zia was already three years into his government and acting his most pious — has taken him to many battlefronts. The result is, he now knows the shortest way to a destination of his choice.

MARCH MADNESS

JUI-F leadership addresses supporters while standing atop a container | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
JUI-F leadership addresses supporters while standing atop a container | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

The Azadi March that kicked off from Karachi on October 27, 2019, was immediately heaped with criticism. One of the most logical objections mounted against this advance on Islamabad was where supporters of the ruling PTI accused the Maulana of skipping all possible initial forums of redress for his grievances and launching directly into a raid on the seat of power. The PTI’s advocates reminded everyone how their party had first tried to get relief from the courts against the alleged rigging in the 2013 election, before Imran Khan was forced to stage his well-known dharna, preceded by a march from Lahore to Islamabad.

JUI-F spokesmen ventured many rather lame answers to this question raised about their siege of the capital half a decade later. They could have given a shut-up call to all these critics with one simple response based on truth: unlike a less experienced traveller looking for fortune, Maulana Fazl knew the shortest way to convey his complaint to the right people.

This was not the first time Maulana Fazl had found reason to complain — with the right people, of course — about how his political space was being encroached upon. Past accounts about his activities provide an insight into how he openly blamed Maulana Samiul Haq, chief of his own faction of JUI who was murdered last year, of putting up candidates in elections with the single aim of containing the JUI-F.

Lawyers, courts, judges, arguments, counterpoints, piles upon piles of files filled with meaningless details and legal jargon and figures that didn’t quite come up to the expectations of the losing election candidates — who wanted to wade through all that? The Maulana knew this was a political ailment and, because of his past expeditions, he had on him the address of the right doctor. He did not need to set off for his goal via the proverbial Bhatinda.

Imran Khan has had his own backers. He has been around as a politician for more than two decades — his well-wishers forever tell us by way of establishing his credentials. Did he need to go through the drill of filing cases with the election tribunals and other courts to press his case against the alleged rigging before he began his march on Islamabad in 2014? Khan should have known from the outset that his was a political, not legal case.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman uses binoculars to see his supporters during the 'Azadi March' Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
Maulana Fazlur Rehman uses binoculars to see his supporters during the 'Azadi March' Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

Five years later, Maulana Fazl offers a lesson in brevity. He just walks up to the capital at the top of an impressive collection of his supporters, he roars, and lo and behold… he has none other than the director-general of the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations almost immediately receptive and reacting. What more could he have asked for, considering that his original grievance was against the alleged helping hand the PTI had been extended in the 2018 election to secure victories over the JUI-F men? (Yes, there can be no women candidates of the party going by its current state of mind).

Once this premise about who the actual intended recipients of his angry message were is understood, it is easier to get down to the most likely causes behind the ups and downs in the Maulana’s moods, his bright moments and his occasional shows of frustration during his dharna. He undertook the campaign to Islamabad not to hear the authorities rule that this was a matter between politicians and the politicians must settle it among themselves. He was prepared to negotiate beyond his demands, so long as he got the right people to discuss his case with. And who were the right people? It certainly wasn’t Pervez Khattak, who led the government’s team of politicians to have a dialogue with the JUI-F chief.

Pervaiz Elahi meets Maulana Fazlur Rehman | White Star
Pervaiz Elahi meets Maulana Fazlur Rehman | White Star

Later on, the respect Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi received from the Maulana’s camp as an emissary was quite understandable. Elahi is a coalition partner of Imran Khan, yet he is so apart. He has a reputation of being a long-term believer in not pushing for politicians’ supremacy and efficacy in all matters. His involvement could have given Maulana Fazl a sense that his words were making an impact in the right quarters, over and above the ineffective front put up by the prime minister and his team.

This was not the first time Maulana Fazl had found reason to complain — with the right people, of course — about how his political space was being encroached upon. Past accounts about his activities provide an insight into how he openly blamed Maulana Samiul Haq, chief of his own faction of JUI who was murdered last year, of putting up candidates in elections with the single aim of containing the JUI-F. But much louder was his response after the setbacks in the 1997 general election, in which Maulana Fazl lost his National Assembly seat. He took his case directly to the military.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman is in his mid-60s but his ambition can yet take him to ever newer landscapes on an already eventful journey. The most telling evidence of his ambition yet came from WikiLeaks, which recorded him and his deputy Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri opening their hearts out to the American ambassador to Islamabad in 2007.

The book ‘Amreeka Ki Islam Dushmani Per Zarb-i-Derwaish’ is essentially a follower’s compilation of news and comments about the JUI-F chief’s opposition to America-sponsored policies pursued in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It provides useful insights into the Maulana’s mind in some crucial moments in his political life. Recalling the situation in the wake of the 1997 election result, it says: “The army’s soldiers filled the boxes with ballots in Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s constituency. They couldn’t decrease the number of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s votes, but increased the tally of votes polled by the PML-N candidate. In any case, Maulana Fazlur Rehman strongly protested [against the rigging] and confronted the Pakistan Army. Gen Karamat [the then army chief Gen Jahangir Karamat] tried to explain but he was unable to properly present his viewpoint against Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s arguments. However, he promised that the Pakistan Army would direct its agencies to discontinue adversarial policies against the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam.”

Maulana Fazlur Rehman speaks to journalists in Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt/White Star
Maulana Fazlur Rehman speaks to journalists in Peshawar | Shahbaz Butt/White Star

Two decades later, visibly distraught over the results of the 2018 elections, Maulana Fazl could well have been looking for a conclusion of this protest march of his on similar lines. His expectations must have risen after he was able to establish a direct link with those he felt were really in a position to give him reassurances with a minimum of fuss early into the siege. But as there was hope, there were also signals that frustrated the march leader, the two moods reflecting in the tone and content of Maulana Fazl’s long and frequent lectures from the stage about ‘what ailed Pakistan’ in an unyielding Islamabad.

Generally, he seemed to relish this opportunity to display, for daily national viewing, the various shades that make him the politician, without allowing anyone to ignore the religious card that he always carries in his pocket. He was a master of reconciliation and jorr-torr (convenient alliances) one moment and a stern cleric, with an iron-grip command over his diehard menacingly poised cadres, the next.

His speeches covered the whole gamut of issues the people in Pakistan have been faced with. However, he essentially began with religion, quite deliberately leaving his audience, and more importantly the rulers, guessing about his intent of undertaking a faith-based scrutiny of the government and establishment.

The teachers beaten up on the streets, the agitating doctors, the households crushed by uncontrollable inflation, the jobs that the PTI had failed to create and the millions of houses that did not come up despite promises by Imran Khan, all made an appearance in due course in the JUI-F supremo’s speeches — but only after his sentiment about religion had been duly registered everywhere. The line had to be reiterated every now and then: the JUI-F is an ideological party.

A CENTURY-OLD IDEOLOGY

Participants of 'Azadi March' say Jumma prayers ahead of the rally in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
Participants of 'Azadi March' say Jumma prayers ahead of the rally in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

November 19, 2019, marked the 100th anniversary of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind (JUH), from which the JUI claims descent. Since the JUH had opposed the creation of Pakistan, Maulana Fazl is likely to raise eyebrows whenever he talks about the ideology he inherited from his father.

The JUI-F’s well-wishers, who perhaps believe that current Pakistani patriotism must always be traceable to the times of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, insist that the JUI-F of today is a continuation of Allama Shabbir Ahmed Usmani’s Jamiat Ulema-Islam. Allama Usmani’s JUI was JUH’s pro-Pakistan offshoot, established in 1940. The claim is countered easily. Maulana Fazl’s father and political predecessor, Mufti Mahmood, who was also born in 1919, was among the JUH group that opposed the creation of Pakistan. The JUI-F can never delink itself from that heritage.

Many explanations have been offered as to why the mullahs were so opposed to the Quaid in the build-up to Pakistan and how Jinnah Sahib’s secular credentials have been questioned in the country of his making. Let’s venture a most simple answer culled from historic events: the JUH was a political organisation, in that it presented a system of Sharia law as identified by the Deoband ulema as a pinnacle for a state and people and the world at large. As a reformist organisation, it aimed for power despite the fact that a majority of Muslims did not follow the Deoband school.

The Maulana was an advocate of not just the Taliban but also of the foreigners from distant lands who had settled in the country’s northwest; most prominent among them: a man named Osama bin Laden. It was only later that details emerged in which the Maulana had reportedly asked the Americans whether they made a distinction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The influential ulema in the JUH had every reason to be upset as the Quaid and the Muslim League stole the mantle of leadership of the community. The JUH must have considered itself more eligible than most since, at the heart of the conflict, was a religion-based division and the JUH itself was a faith-based organisation. Whether these ulema could have ultimately got around to pursuing a separate homeland was a question not quite relevant. The idea of separation could only have rightfully evolved among those who could first genuinely claim to represent the aspirations of a majority of Muslims in India.

The honour of championing that idea fell to the Muslim League leader, the Quaid. The JUH were left to rue the waywardness of the ummat generally. It tried to wean away Muslims by flaunting its more fundamental character and by painting its more worldly competitors for Muslim sympathy as secular, or worse, as people with no religion. The rhetoric was built and the JUH followers found of plenty of freedoms and opportunity to exploit it in Pakistan, a country created in the name of Islam, even if by the wayward secularists of their times. Maulana Fazl’s father, Mufti Mahmood, was among the earliest — and one of the most distinguished and most successful — Deobandi practitioners of this anti-secular brand of politics in the new country.

MUFTI MAHMOOD SETS THE TONE

Hailing from Dera Ismail Khan, Mufti Sahib chose Pakistan as his homeland and one of his earliest methods of gathering influence in the newly created country was in the role of a teacher in Multan, a city Maulana Fazl’s family has deep ties with. Mufti Mahmood’s profile grew through the 1950s and it got a boost with his opposition to Ayub Khan’s policies, not least against the general’s family planning drive. Political parties in the country were restored in 1962, and Mufti Mahmood took charge of the JUI. Over the next few years, he was open to aligning forces with the democrats and Islamists in both East and West Pakistan who could agree on a common minimum agenda.

In popular politics, Mufti Sahib peaked when he famously gave Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) a solid drubbing in the first general election in the country in 1970. Along with the National Awami Party, he reached an understanding with ZAB after the fall of Dhaka, for a smooth running of governments in what remained of Pakistan. But less than a year later, he resigned as the chief minister of a coalition government in NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) over ZAB’s autocratic dismissal of the Balochistan government. He was among the illustrious batch that gave the country its first democratic constitution in 1973. But many of the same team combined not too long after to help Gen Ziaul Haq install himself as ruler after overthrowing ZAB and ‘suspending’ the constitution.

MAULANA FAZL’S TIME

Maulana Fazlur Rehman Speaks to a gathering at Gulshan-i-Iqbal | M.Arif/White Star
Maulana Fazlur Rehman Speaks to a gathering at Gulshan-i-Iqbal | M.Arif/White Star

Maulana Fazlur Rehman is in his mid-60s but his ambition can yet take him to ever newer landscapes on an already eventful journey. The most telling evidence of his ambition yet came from WikiLeaks, which recorded him and his deputy Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri opening their hearts out to the American ambassador to Islamabad in 2007. Benazir Bhutto was then still alive and in the run for the elections.

The leak had Maulana Haideri saying that “all important parties in Pakistan had to get the approval of the USG [US Government]. JUI-F wanted to be a major party and therefore wanted to be more engaged with the US.”

For all his anti-Americanism of the past and his known penchant for entering relationships that may cause antagonism in certain quarters, to this day, the people behind the three assassination attempts on him between 2011 and 2014 remain unnamed. Others in his party were also targeted. Like Maulana Fazl, his top aide, Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, too had a narrow escape, a development that created a lot of fear about violence in the country escalating to a new level.

The leaked diplomatic cable continued: “At one point in the conversation, [Maulana Fazlur] Rehman asked the Ambassador if the USG would deal with him if he was [sic] elected as Prime Minister and cautioned the USG not to put all of its eggs in the basket of Benazir Bhutto…”

And apparently, to prove his importance, Maulana Fazl asked the ambassador “if he could ‘send a message’ across to the ‘opposition forces’ in Afghanistan that the US did not want to stay in Afghanistan for a long time.” He said, “This would pacify them a bit.”

The leaked cable ended with a succinct comment by the US diplomat in Islamabad for Washington’s benefit: “Fazlur enjoys being courted by both Musharraf and Bhutto and sees himself increasingly in the lucrative position of being kingmaker, if not the next Prime Minister, because of JUI-F’s voter strength in what may be a three-way vote tie among Pakistan’s major parties. Even if JUI-F’s voter support drops, he has made it clear that, free and fair elections notwithstanding, his still significant number of votes are up for sale.”

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Maulana Fazl’s career has been four decades of intense politicking, marked along the way by numerous opportunities for him to demonstrate enough support to offer bargains to other players.

In an interview many years after the fact, Maulana Fazl remarked that the 1977 elections were rigged to get rid of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In that sense, he was lucky to have spent his initial years in opposition to the prime beneficiary of that purported conspiracy against the PPP founder. His opposition to Gen Zia culminated in his alliance in power with Benazir Bhutto. But that did not stop him from forming partnerships, when necessary, with Nawaz Sharif, a Zia protégé, as well. His most remarkable, and perhaps most fruitful, alliance was with the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) early into the new century, which saw the two parties rule over the then NWFP from 2002 to 2007.

The JUI-JI combine thrived on the prevailing anti-Americanism after Gen Pervez Musharraf decided to side with President George Bush’s war in the wake of 9/11. In the days following that decision, amid increasing threats, both of terrorism rooted in Pakistan and Afghanistan and a United States-led violent action, this Islamist front put up by the two parties — the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal — emerged as the political equivalent of resistance against imperialism.

Maulana Fazl’s career has been four decades of intense politicking | Shahbaz Butt
Maulana Fazl’s career has been four decades of intense politicking | Shahbaz Butt

The Maulana was an advocate of not just the Taliban but also of the foreigners from distant lands who had settled in the country’s northwest; most prominent among them: a man named Osama bin Laden. It was only later that details emerged in which the Maulana had reportedly asked the Americans whether they made a distinction between the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

For all his anti-Americanism of the past and his known penchant for entering relationships that may cause antagonism in certain quarters, to this day, the people behind the three assassination attempts on him between 2011 and 2014 remain unnamed. Others in his party were also targeted. Like Maulana Fazl, his top aide, Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, too had a narrow escape, a development that created a lot of fear about violence in the country escalating to a new level.

It may be taken as proof of Maulana Fazl’s influence and outreach, however, that it took him a shorter period of time than some other similarly affected politicians to be fully mobile in politics again after these attacks. He has sustained his brand, by and large, on the strength of his madressahs. These seminaries have continued to have grown in size and numbers through all the governments, helping him expand his clout over to Afghanistan.

Along the way, some of these Deoband madressahs and scholars have deemed it right to part ways with the central command offered by the JUI factions led by Maulana Fazl and Maulana Samiul Haq. Some satellites have also emerged, which generate resources and work by their own code. But, for the most part, the stamp matters and, with the passing away of Maulana Samiul Haq who had been leading his own faction of JUI right from the 1980s, Maulana Fazl is now the sole owner of that seal.


The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore

Header: Maulana Fazlur Rehman at the 'Azadi March' in Islamabad | AP

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 24th, 2019