By Amir Mateen

MANSURA, Lahore: Now Jamaat-i-Islami Ameer Munawar Hassan, years ago, sought a meeting with a group of Islamabad journalists to discuss why had the Jamaat not captured the popular imagination of Pakistanis.

The discussion, of which I was a part, took place 15 years ago at journalist-turned-politician Azeem Chaudhary’s residence. The gist of his discussion was since the Jamaat was a pious party of pious people, so what was missing.

I recall a colleague, saying in a lighter vein that perhaps the Jamaat people were too ‘pious’ for ordinary Pakistanis.

The general response was that it was difficult for the average Pakistani to identify with Jamaat. Its members dress differently—always clad in shalwar qameez as if it were a practice of the Prophet (sunnat).

They talk differently—with a distinct mannerism perfected in study circles. Some may exaggerate to even suggest that the party members even sit, eat or sleep differently.

The term ‘Jamaatia,’ used for a member of the Jamaat in liberal circles, is almost a metaphor that is sometimes not received positively.

To put it politely, it roughly means that the indoctrinated genesis of a Jamaat member is a permanent part of him, regardless of where he might go or how liberal he might pretend to be. Once a ‘Jamaatia’, always a ‘Jamaatia’, it is said, or so believed.

Former known and famous ‘Jamaatias’ like late Maulana Kausar Niazi, Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, Hussain Haqqani, Ahsan Iqbal may have changed political parties, ideologies or governments over the years, but they still share something in their core.

It also denotes a self-righteous person who knows the truth with a capital T. This may be Jamaat’s fundamental issue.

The party wants to change the people in accordance with its concept and interpretation of life, politics and religion instead of trying to adapt to ‘them.’

A former IJT president confessed that it was difficult for them to accept women serving food while they were attending an Islamic convention in Malaysia.

It was equally difficult for them to adjust to former Turkish President Erbakan’s yellow ties or Hamas’ tolerance of women bathing in swiming suits on Lebanon’s beaches.

Some who have moved to the West may, however, have forced themselves to adjust to the inevitable of their jobs, like serving liquor to their guests but still stay away from drinking themselves.

In other words, the post-partition generation of Jamaat has not been exposed to multi-culturalism nor is it comfortable co-existing with other religions—something which is a norm in most Muslim majority countries, except for Saudi Arabia.

Historically, Jamaat’s student wing, IJT, has been encouraged to stop people from celebrating, say the New Year Eve, Valentine’s Day or even Basant and Nauroze; imposing their code of morality on university campuses; enforcing their political views through the streets and not through Parliament.

And this IJT leadership, which grew up using violence to orchestrate such ‘virtuous’ campaigns, now leads the Jamaat.

“This cultural Puritanism has not worked for Jamaat in 69 years,” says former NSF activist Arshad Butt, who has fought the IJT on campuses in his youth.

“It may have won Jamiat a loyal cadre but in the process the party lost the majority.”

The biggest issue that has always plagued the Jamaat-i-Islami is the party’s failure to win any major elections.

This is all the more serious because in theory, Jamaat has got all a party needs to be politically successful in Pakistan. No other political party in Pakistan can match its history of uninterrupted organisational continuity, elected leadership and politics.

The Pakistan Muslim League, though over a century old, stands divided into virtual A-to-Z factions. Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, the parent party of the present Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan is older than Jamaat.

However, the Pakistani chapter now stands divided into factions with the biggest one led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who has turned it into a family fiefdom.

The Awami National Party, too, has become a dynastic party of the Khans of Charsadda. The PPP is no exception to the dynastic order.

The Jamaat’s closest rival in terms of organisation is perhaps its political nemesis in Karachi, the MQM. But then the MQM is all about Altaf Hussain whereas the Jamaat has collective decision-making.

The Jamaat leadership is not dynastic; the party has always held elections to choose its office holders. Nobody can seek leadership; instead a politburo of sorts (Shura) proposes three candidates from whom the party members (Arkan) then choose their Ameer for a four-year term. There is no limit on the number of terms an individual can serve.

The party is egalitarian in that most of its top leadership comes from lower or middle class rural or small town families. The Mansura headquarters is no less organised than the army GHQ; and commands no less power over its rank and file.

The Ameer of the Jamaat and Nazim-i-Ala of the Jamiat are beholden to a shura for consultation. This structure at the top is replicated down to the level of every town and cluster of villages.

The Jamaat’s propaganda machine is matchless; its student wing, IJT, controls the country’s major universities and can gather a few thousand workers in a matter of hours; party members have penetrated all sections of society over the decades from journalism to bureaucracy to judiciary, the most important being the military; its relief agencies run a network of charity hospitals, schools and madrassas and are always at the forefront of every calamity or disaster.

Yet, the Jamaat has somehow never won the hearts and minds of the ordinary folk in Pakistan.

However, this is not an issue the party is oblivious to. The Jamaat is seemingly undergoing an internal discourse on its positioning on emerging political and social realities.

Either it will adjust to the popular culture or it will band together with its own kind, becoming more rigid in its interpretation of life. The party seems to be swinging both ways at the moment.

Qazi Hussain Ahmad’s ascension as Ameer was the beginning of the change in Jamaat-i-Islami. A glasnost of sorts was initiated during his tenure.

The establishment of ‘Pasbaan’ and then ‘Shabab-i-milli’ organs in the Jamaat was basically an effort to accommodate people other than their trained cadres in the party.

We saw ‘songs’ being played in Jamaat rallies that the party old guard disapproved, but Qazi persisted with his ‘modernisation.’

Liaquat Baloch once raised a controversy by asking a female reporter to leave a press conference because her head was not covered. Qazi, on the other hand, tolerated ‘Farangi’ journalists patiently.

The phenomenon of the Pakistani Taliban has brought forth an opposite trend in the Jamaat.

Its support for the Taliban way of life may force the Jamaat back to the fringes of the political divide. What is not clear, however, is how much of this support is political posturing or whether the Jamaat is really interested in imposing the Taliban’s sharia in Pakistan?

Munawar did not say whether he agreed to our views on why Jamaat failed to win the masses 15 years ago.

As I waited in his office to get my answers recently, a member of his media team was scanning a newspaper with pictures of models on the catwalk. “Tauba, Tauba, Qiyamat Hi Aa Gai Hai,” he said while cursing the models. “Why can’t somebody stop them?”

I advised him to relax, adding that it was difficult to control a more globalised world where an average Pakistani had access to 100 TV channels.

Munawar was asked how he would balance Jamaat’s ideology with the new political realities. He simply did not see any conflict between the two. Well, it’s easier said than done.

On my way out, I found the media gentleman still staring at the photographs of the models.


The News

June 1, 2010