In search of rel­e­vance

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Muham­mad Amir Rana

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.

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