When Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the JUI-F chose to speak out against the 21st Amendment, and absented himself from parliament conveniently avoiding endorsement of the constitutional amendment — after having agreed to it in the All-Parties Conference with the prime minister, one might add — he was playing crass politics of the kind that only he can. Here was his thought process: the amendment is all but done with the PPP and the MQM throwing their weight behind it; the PTI, the ruling party in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), has a convenient escape from endorsing the legislation because of its absence from parliament unless its election complaints with the government are attended to — grounds for reasonable plausibility; may it not be then entirely offhand for the JUI-F to score some political brownie points on the basis of a contrarian view.
The JUI-F’s point is characteristically contrarian, yet not without political ends in mind. Consider: the PTI, the JUI-F and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) are the prime contenders for the right-of-centre vote in K-P. That established, K-P, over the last so many decades, has decidedly moved Right on the political spectrum. There are two overt as well as underlying causes to this anti-liberalist flavour of K-P politics. The ANP’s rise to the top in 2008 was an anomaly unlikely to be repeated soon; the PPP last ruled under the Sherpaos, Aftab Sherpao being half PPP. That leaves the space for the Right parties to vie for influence. Rural K-P remains mired in tradition and conservatism linked to a retrogressive social and religious culture which, in turn, became a convenience for the fleeing al Qaeda, and later the Taliban, to find succour in. Once entrenched, the two religious influences have only reinforced the conservatism in the society that anyway was the bedrock of the Pashtun culture. Religious extremism flourished. That gave way to terrorism as a tool to the groups that once having found residence and acceptability now vied for political control and social dominance. K-P and Fata both got mired in this unending tussle between terrorism and those fighting it (the state). This is the Right vote that the three political parties must appeal to for political domination in K-P.
In this backdrop, Maulana Fazlur Rehman played what would only be right, politically, socially and with a strong religious undercurrent. As al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban groups mutated or spawned more variations of the kind that the TTP now represent and became a nexus over time of militant and crime syndicates, it was also only a matter of time that they would not only divvy up the space between them and evolve into armed militant fiefdoms but establish their own political and militant organisational set-ups to control their respective areas of influence. It is thus that entire swathes have fallen to the influence of these militant religious organisations. It is thence that the socio-religious culture of K-P continues to be an important consideration for anyone hoping to make a political impact in the province. This remains true not only for the Fata region, or the many FR regions, but most of the rural and semi-rural K-P. Society at large is culturally conservative bringing even greater emphasis to values espoused under the guise of religious calling by the competitive groups — militant-religious and political-religious.
Religious groups sustain their relevance in Pakistani society by spawning a network of madrassas that teach, train and publish in their respective school of religious thought. They also produce a crop of followers who not only spread that particular strain of religious belief but also in turn produce political voters for politico-religious groups. Allama Tahirul Qadri, Imran Khan’s colleague of the famed dharnas, too, bases his strength around a similar group of followers schooled in his strain of religious belief. The trend is pervasive, but what remains disturbing to most Pakistanis is the commonly-held belief that some of these madrassas, other than spawning a rigid interpretation of religion also feed extremists and militants into the system of militant-religious groups who end up using them as their cadres for terror-based activities. Two elements of concern thus emerge from this tradition of madrassas: one, the strain of extremism, based around rigidity of belief and thus exclusivity to any other manner of thinking in religion; and two, the foot soldiers that many terror groups recruit from among the students of these madrassas and use them to their own purpose of garnering political influence and control of territory.
It is loudly suggested that some of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s madrassas may also be in the spotlight for serving the purpose of creating a religious cadre with a possibility of subsequent recruitment by the militants. This is not to suggest that his organisation encourages such dangerous diversion of the product from his madrassas but that the militants find them easier targets who with little encouragement will take up arms in support of imposing a certain religious strain. It would thus be only right for the Maulana to distance himself from any such political initiative at the national level that could impact his standing among his constituents — mostly from the conservative religious strain of thinking.
The PTI also finds it opportune to keep ambivalent to this particular nuance, aware of the political windfall that is associated with such ambivalence. Though it can never be considered a militant supporting outfit; not by any action of it can you see that it sustains madrassas of the kind that feed into militancy; but it has an important eye on the political consequences. Let’s say it was a good toss to lose for Imran Khan by staying out of parliamentary proceedings, given the socio-political make-up of K-P.
The JI is the one totally out on a limb on this one. Not the one ever to have to do with madrassas of the kind that we discuss here, more the enlightened among all Islamic parties, it has taken a position which remains inexplicable. And then, perhaps not. Some of the pronunciations of their ex-Amir, Munawar Hasan, have been unbelievable; there are allegations on party cadres to have been in cahoots with al Qaeda, with many of the latter’s operators having been discovered from the residences of Jamaat workers; and at the universities’ level, most extremist and militant tendencies are observed in the Jamaat-affiliated groups. Though I still hold that under as astute a leader as Sirajul Haq, there has to be a better sense in why the JI would take the position that it did on the 21st Amendment. Safely, the politics of K-P pervades all other determinants of this specific JI behaviour. That they colour their stance in religious terms is unfortunate.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 19th, 2015.
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