The rise of the Right

Print edition : November 08, 2002

Leaders of MMA (from right) Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Shah Ahmed Noorani, Fazalur Rehman, Samiul Haq and Sajjid Naqvi at a meeting on October 16 in Islamabad.-B.K. BANGASH/AP

EVER since the creation of Pakistan in the name of Islam, the "religious Right" has been struggling to establish a foothold in the country's mainstream politics. The "liberal lobby" always boasted that the religious groups had never been able to muster double-digit figures in terms of seats or vote share in any general election in all of Pakistan's five-decade-plus electoral history.

Ironically, the general elections have changed it all. There is little doubt that the emergence of the alliance of religious parties as the `third force' in national politics is yet another outcome of the September 11, 2001 terrorist strike in the United States and its aftermath. Even optimists in the alliance had not dream that they would actually rule the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan, bordering Afghanistan, which together account for over 60 per cent of Pakistan in geographical terms.

This was a first of its kind in the political history of the country. Six traditionally fratricidal religious parties united on the electoral platform on the basis of a common agenda of anti-Americanism. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) was born only weeks before the elections. Its surprise victory, bagging 45 seats in the 272-member National Assembly and ruling majorities in the NWFP and Baluchistan, has set in motion intense analysis and speculation.

Analysts here say that it was "mainly the Jamaat-e-Islami's (J.I.) brain and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam's (JUI) brawn that led to the surprise victory'' and ''Mansura, the well-organised and well-equipped headquarters of the J.I., played its usual magic to run the MMA's campaign in an effective manner''. The alliance has been able to bring together the Deobandi school of Islamic thought as represented by the JUI faction, the Barelvis grouped under Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani's Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) and the Shiites in the Tehrik Millat-e-Islami Pakistan.

Religious parties had come together earlier too under the banner of the Milli Yakjehti Council (MYC), and led by Noorani but the J.I's attempt to convert the MYC into an electoral alliance before the 1997 elections did not click. The religious Right won very few seats then. But all this changed with the `War against Terror' campaign of the U.S., at least on the face of it. The MYC moulded itself into the Pak Afghan Defence Council (PADC) in the post-9/11 scenario; the PADC was the forerunner of the MMA.

The six constituents of the MMA the J.I., the JUP, the JUI (of Maulana Samiul Haq), the JUI (of Fazlur Rahman), the Islami Tehreek Pakistan and the Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith (JAH) aspire to bring the `true Islamic' system in Pakistan. But differences exist among their leaders at ideological and personal levels, including their views about the Taliban. Only two of the six entities the Jamaat factions led by Maulana Haq and Fazloor Rehman support the Taliban's worldview while the J.I., which is the largest religious party in the country openly denounced the Taliban version of Islam. However, all the six are unanimous in their opposition to the decision of the Pervez Musharraf regime to join the U.S.-led coalition in the `War against Terror' and the subsequent military operations in Afghanistan.

Leaders of all these parties were in the forefront of the anti-U.S. demonstrations in different parts of Pakistan after 9/11. Many were put behind bars on charges of disturbing peace. The Musharraf government released them after three months of detention. Since the beginning of this year they have been opposing Pakistan's support to the U.S.-led coalition and have from time to time demanded that Americans vacate its `military bases' in Pakistan.

Thus united, all these religious groups contested the election under one flag and a common manifesto. At the time of formation of the alliance, it was proclaimed that the religious parties should play an active role to `protect the Islamic identity' of the country and promote the basic objectives of the creation of Pakistan. The MMA condemned the ban on jehadi outfits and the arrest of their leaders. It called for the immediate restoration of the right of the people to carry out political activities. It urged the government to review its `attitude of extremism and harassment' against deeni madaris (religious schools). India figured on its agenda as an `oppressor' in the context of Kashmir.

The reference to harassment of religious schools was in the context of the efforts of President Musharraf to `regulate' their functioning. Under pressure from the West, Musharraf formulated an ordinance in January to `weed out' the bad apples that were poisoning young minds and churning out jehadis. But the ordinance never went beyond the draft stage as religious groups put up stiff resistance. The success of the right-wing parties in stalling the ordinance is a reflection of their clout at various levels of the establishment.

Civil society in Pakistan is extremely concerned about the rise of the right-wingers, with enough reasons. MMA leaders have very conservative views about women and the enforcement of Shariat (Islamic laws). Their insistence on the introduction of Riba (interest-free banking) is a matter of serious concern for the banking industry and the entrepreneurial class.

The unexpected electoral success of the Right has raised speculation as to how their world view is going to affect the course of economic and civil reforms in Pakistan. As some columnists point out, it has brought to the Assemblies "those who were riding bicycles instead of Pajeros and Land Cruisers".

When the election results were announced, MMA leaders and commentators of the print and electronic media supporting them claimed that the MMA victory was a reflection or the fall-out of the Afghan War. They pointed out that the reckless killing of civilians in Afghanistan by the U.S.-led coalition and the `imposition' of the Hamid Karzai regime had had a backlash. The U.S. pressure on the Musharraf regime to comb sensitive areas in Pakistan for Al Qaeda elements, added to it. After all, Frontier and Baluchistan had sheltered nearly two million Afghan refugees since the early 1980s. The Pasthun bonds still remain strong.

Another section of analysts theorised that the MMA was a creation of the military establishment. The religious parties have always had a `special' relationship with the military. After all, it was the cadre of the religious parties that sustained the Afghan and Kashmir policies of the Pakistan Army. Days after the general election, former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Hamid Gul went on record that the military and the religious parties were `natural allies'. In the aftermath of 9/11 there was a clash of interest for the first time between the right-wingers and the military.

Still a section of Pakistan cannot believe that the people have opted for the clergy. The Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) led by Altaf Hussain, who runs the party from his exile home in the suburbs of London, posted an interesting query on the party's web site about the success of the MMA. It pointed out that amazingly, the MMA impact was not felt in the largest populated province of Punjab. "Does it mean that the people of Punjab do not love Islam or have no sympathy for their Afghan brethren or are secular? Does it mean that the Punjab is the only secular and pro-America province while the rest of the provinces are anti-American?" it asked. "Is it not true that the central offices of all the religious parties are based in the Punjab province and the Establishment that provides training, funding, hire and harbour the Jehadi Groups also hail from the Punjab?"

The MQM has a serious grouse about the success of the MMA. The party espousing the cause of migrants from India had virtually driven out from the political scene the main religio-political force in Karachi, the J.I. Now it has resurfaced, though the MQM continues to be the dominant force.

Political analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai says that the MMA is "a complex conglomeration of Islam-minded parties, and there is more there than meets the eye". Though JUP chief Maulana Noorani leads the MMA, the alliance is dominated by the two Islamist leaders, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Qazi Hussain Ahmed, he explains.

However, the J.I's Amir Qazi has taken on the king-maker's role for the present. The MMA had announced Fazlur Rehman as its prime ministerial candidate. Fazlur Rehman's faction of the mainstream JUI won the largest number of Assembly seats among the MMA constituents, especially in NWFP and Baluchistan.

Qazi's J.I. is a close second, winning seats in Punjab and Sindh besides NWFP. The remaining three component parties of the MMA won only a few Assembly seats. Noorani's JUP failed to win even a single National Assembly seat though its candidates were able to win a couple of seats in the Sindh Assembly, including a seat in Hyderabad where its candidate defeated the MQM leader Aftab Ahmed Shaikh. Maulana Samiul Haq's splinter group of the JUI did slightly better than the JUP and Syed Sajid Naqvi's Tehrik Millat-e-Islami Pakistan.

The Tehrik Millat-e-Islami Pakistan, which was named thus after the government banned its former body Tehrik-e-Jaffria Pakistan, failed to win any National Assembly seats on the MMA ticket. Its sole victory was a Punjab Assembly seat from Attock in a recounting. The sixth MMA component, the JAH, has had estranged relations with the alliance. Its leader, Professor Sajid Mir, who was close to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has had off-and-on relations with the MMA.

Though the MMA claims to have captured the imagination of the people with its `anti-American' slogans, the U.S. has no reason to worry. If there is any country in the world that knows the right-wing forces in Pakistan well, it is the U.S. After all, the U.S. fought its proxy war against the erstwhile Soviet Union mainly from the shoulders of the rank and cadre of Pakistan's religious parties.

Optimists in Pakistan say that the MMA is a passing phenomenon. "Islam would continue to be their slogan but they would never get Islamabad,'' said a political analyst who did not wish to be identified.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor