In search of relevance
WHAT led the religious forces to keep their reaction to Mumtaz Qadri's hanging within bounds? Many believe it was the restrained media coverage of the funeral and news of the hanging. Others give credit to some religious leaders who did not encourage violent demonstrations. The National Action Plan (NAP) too acted as a deterrent.
But it's too early to say the anger has subsided. Apart from the role of a few religious scholars in defusing tensions, the religious forces still see an opportunity in the hanging to exploit religious sentiments for political purposes. They think this could help them remain relevant in the country's political and social discourse which has started to appear more moderate and progressive. Whenever the state tried to correct legal structures related to women and minority rights, religious circles would start feeling marginalised, labelling the attempts as acts of 'liberalisation' meant to please the West.
This time other factors have added to the religious circles' anger including action against hate speech; the shrinking space for ultra-radical voices in the mainstream Pakistani media; the prime minister's repeated promise for a progressive state for all; Qadri's hanging; the passage of the Punjab women protection bill; and the global achievements of Pakistani women such as Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. The frustration of these circles grows when they try to explain that they nurtured extremism and sectarianism with the consent and help of the state.
Importantly, religious politics survives on continuous social activism, which keeps workers of religious political parties active and their support bases intact. Issues linked to religion or regional and international politics appear worthwhile to religious-political parties. They try to be active on other issues of public importance as well but may not get much of a public response. For instance, the Jamaat-i-Islami recently launched an anti-corruption campaign but failed to activate even its hard-core support base. However, when its chief declared Mumtaz Qadri a martyr, the party workers and supporters suddenly came alive.
Leaders of religious political parties were in search of an opportunity to revive their relevance and they found one in the hanging. The JUI-F's Maulana Fazlur Rehman has been active in trying to revive the MMA religious alliance which once ruled two provinces. They know their street power is still intact. If they cannot form a government, they can destabilise one; this is what Maulana Fazl said recently.
The religious forces can only create limited turmoil, mainly because of internal compulsions and differences. But the forces, which want to destabilise the current government, can exploit the religious forces' movement. Though leading religious-political parties are mature enough to not become part of a drive which may go against the system, they will bargain with the government to maximise the benefit. The JUI-F already has an out-of-proportion share in the federal government and the JI has it in KP.
Seen in this perspective, efforts to revive the MMA may fade. Interestingly, the MMA has become a tool in the hands of the religious leadership to threaten the government with and to gain certain benefits. Over the past decades, many attempts have been made to revive the alliance. While there was no hurdle, religious leaders lost interest in the unity of religious forces. The last time we saw this was in 2012 before the JUI-F's inclusion in the federal government.
Meanwhile, the JI is facing an internal challenge, as an Islamist political party, to find relevance in a changing Pakistan. Its Islamist allies in other Muslim countries are facing similar challenges. Islamist parties have become a recruitment base for ultra radical and violent outfits, including the militant Islamic State group. The reason is the realisation among their young cadres that they cannot succeed through democratic struggle. They believe that powerful elites would not allow them to govern even if they won the elections.
That is why the JI always looks towards avenues which keep its cadres engaged in activism. Similarly, whenever opportunists in religious-political parties will feel that an alliance or agitation movement of far-right parties is emerging, eg the Pakistan Defence Council, they want to jump in. Pakistan's far right does not comprise only a few banned, ultra- radical groups. It is very diverse and comprises non-violent and violent religiously motivated groups and parties.
However, the prospects of establishing such an alliance are bleak, as the far right is under NAP's immense pressure, and the media's support is uncertain. And, they might not get the support of the powerful quarters they usually depend on. The reason is obvious: the state is fighting a war against terrorism, and engaging the religious far right would prove detrimental to its counterextremism and anti-terror campaigns.
Organisations subscribing to the Barelvi school of thought are more sentimental in the context of the Qadri execution. They claim to be the custodians of Qadri's legacy. They see this as an opportunity for the revival of Barelvi politics, which had been stumbling for decades. Barelvis do not have organised structures and networks. The pirs and influential religious scholars constitute local power centres and seek strength from the followers of their respective shrines. However, the rise of the Sunni Tehreek and its expanding outreach in central and north Punjab is a worrying sign. The cadre of this group is highly charged and has the potential to trigger violence. Militant groups are also trying to exploit Qadri's execution to win the hearts of his sympathisers.