At the centenary celebrations of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) last year, the party managed to pull in scores of speakers. Leaders of varied hues and delegations from 30 countries were in attendance to pay tribute to South Asia’s grand old religious-political outfit. But, even if one discounts the call of the historic event, the weight of our portly Maulana Fazlur Rehman in national and international politics is such that any entity – regional, national or international – can only ignore him at its own peril.
For as long as there has been a Pakistan, there has been JUI. Whatever its current or past avatars, the party’s influence in shaping electoral fortunes – its own and that of others – cannot be gainsaid. More so because Fazlur Rehman occupies, cleverly, the fulcrum in our electoral seesaw where he can claim religious credentials as much as democratic ones, notwithstanding the fact that he has madrasa-educated conservatives in Khyber Paktunkhwa and Balochistan as his constituency. His relevance to either side – be it the secular Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the right-of-centre Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) or the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) now that the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) has been resuscitated – makes him and his JUI-Fazl a force to contend with. With that in mind, Fazlur Rehman’s prospects for the 2018 elections will continue to be shaped by his politics of pragmatism — agitation here, conciliation there. His detractors accuse him of ‘opportunism’ but to his disciples, the madrasa students, he once said that they could serve Islam better by staying in power under a democratic dispensation.
But there is an ill wind blowing for the democrats in this country and amidst it is caught Fazlur Rehman. Having courted the establishment’s bete noire, Nawaz Sharif, he has stood on thin ice in recent years. And he has made known his antipathy for Imran Khan. Amid all this, the merger of the tribal areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has exposed Fazlur Rehman’s flanks because his strong support base there has become open to influence and wheeling and dealing from other forces, political or not. In a politically realigned province, JUIF stands to win if Fazlur Rehman’s constituency in the tribal areas comes to his rescue, but could also lose if others encroach into that support base.
JUIF comes to the 2018 elections looking for support in like-minded political parties and a familiar ground to tread. And it may well have found it in JI — a party that diehard JUIF followers look down upon because it is devoid of religious scholars. JUIF has always modeled itself as a party of ulema, whereas JI is just that, a jamaat of organised Islamists with no religious scholarship. No matter how uncomfortable this union of convenience for the two parties, they are old and experienced enough to know that it is better to stay wedded in the face of adversity than to be apart. It is also through MMA that Fazlur Rehman will seek to reclaim the space ceded to nationalists in Balochistan in the 2013 election.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, he has pitched himself against the nationalist and secular political parties in the Peshawar valley – the Awami National Party, PPP and Sherpao’s Quami Watan Party – saying that they develop their districts at the cost of those in the south. These mainstream parties have been weakened by militancy, military operations and PTI’s ascent. Their loss, as individual parties, could be MMA’s gain, that comes to the election as a collective.
Still, Fazlur Rehman, like other mainstream political leaders, finds himself in an increasingly divided Pakistan. Considering the numerous fronts opened against pro-democracy forces – religious or secular – reading the tea leaves must leave a bitter taste in his mouth. One thing is certain though: with PTI catapulted into ascendance, if it comes to power one can rest assured he will not only be absent from a political set-up in power, but on the side of an anti-establishment opposition. His democratic credentials have never been in doubt. Remember: JUI splintered due to his resistance against Ziaul Haq and he had to go to jail. Even though he is known to have made compromises in the past, this time around, a compromise with Imran Khan would be a death knell to JUIF because it would be with an enemy out to eradicate him and others of his disposition.
The author is a Peshawar-based freelance writer. He has reported on for various outlets, including daily Dawn and the Herald.
This was originally published in the July 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.