There are reports that the defunct alliance of religio-political parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), will be making a comeback soon. An agreement to resurrect the MMA has been reached between leaders of two of the main component groups — the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). Another important outfit of religious clerics, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Sami (JUI-S), has outlined certain preconditions before it can rejoin the six-party alliance. The MMA has been practically non-operational since the end of 2007 when serious differences cropped up between the JUI-F and the JI, the two largest parties of the alliance.
Since then, the JUI-F had been trying hard to resurrect the MMA but could not succeed due to the JI’s reluctance. The latter had been insisting that the religious parties’ alliance could only be revived if the JUI-F stopped supporting the government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). After the 2013 elections the JUI-F joined the federal government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) while the JI became an ally of the government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) province. While the JUI-F has been hesitant to leave the federal government, the JI has steered clear of a confrontation with the PTI — a clear foe of the JUI-F — and put the question of the MMA revival on the back burner.
The JI adopted exactly the same strategy as a junior coalition partner of the JUI-F during 2002 and 2007 when the MMA had a government in K-P. After enjoying all the perks and privileges of power it resigned a couple of months before the five-year tenure of the government. And it is going to do exactly the same by bidding adieu to the PTI government in K-P after nearly five years. So political expediency and lust for power have kept components of the defunct MMA from reviving the grouping.
Both these parties have decided now to revive the MMA in order to secure as many seats as possible in the next elections. The timing of the revival is quite important. Only by uniting, the religious parties can expect to win a decent number of parliamentary seats. Never in Pakistan’s political history have religious parties won a worthwhile number of parliamentary seats except in 2002 when the MMA bagged around 60 National Assembly seats and a majority in the K-P Assembly. Whether even in 2002 the MMA mandate was real is debatable. Noticeably, a former head of an ISI cell, Ihtisham Zameer, had stated at one point that the 2002 elections were rigged. This statement proved correct the allegations that the MMA got such a large number of seats in the 2002 elections as military ruler General Musharraf wanted to portray the alliance as a bugbear to the West. Against this backdrop, expectations that the religious parties can win a sizable number of parliamentary seats in the next elections seem unrealistic.
However, conservative parties like the JUI-F and the JI think that the unfolding political situation is quite conducive to their ‘success’. In this regard their premise is that the PPP has become extremely weak, the PML-N has lost a lot of ground while there is only one serious contender for power that is Imran Khan’s PTI. As the PTI has seriously damaged the traditional political constituency of both the JUI-F and the JI in K-P, they think only by uniting the religious vote, they have any prospects of preserving their political base. Under these circumstances, the JI despite still being a coalition partner of the PTI in K-P is joining hands with the JUI-F, which is leading the opposition in the K-P legislature. Moreover, the emergence of two new sectarian parties, the Labaik Ya Rasul Allah (LYRA) and the Milli Muslim League (MML), has made the situation quite tough for the JUI-F and the JI. This is evident from the recent by-elections in National Assembly constituencies of NA-120 Lahore and NA-4 Peshawar. In both constituencies the JI’s performance was dismal while the JUI-F, which supported the PML-N candidate in NA-4, was trounced by the PTI. In both these constituencies, the LYRA and the MML secured a number of votes. Thus unity is the political compulsion of the traditional religious parties at this point in time but sectarian and ideological differences may keep the alliance straitjacketed.
Ideologically, the JUI-F subscribes to the Hanafi-Deobandi school of Islamic Fiqh. The JI, on the other hand, does not subscribe to any Islamic school per se. Its political philosophy is entirely based on the 20th-century Muslim scholar Abdul Ala Maududi. This ideological difference had been intrinsic to rifts in the MMA as committed members of both parties from the core of their hearts never really accepted the alliance.
The ideological difference within the MMA was not only limited to the JI and the JUI-F but also to the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), which also has had serious differences with JUI factions on the one hand and the JI on the other. The JUP subscribes to the Barelvi school of thought, with which Deobandis have traditional differences.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 17th, 2017.