For more than a decade, Imran Khan was the angriest person in Pakistan. In the new division of labour, the burden of anger has shifted to his sworn enemies. The most enraged politician, outside Pakistan’s prison system of course, is now Maulana Fazlur Rehman. The 2018 election signifies a major shift in religious politics and the use of religious sentiment in politics that can have far-reaching consequences.
In the past two decades, we saw a hybrid civil-military government led by the PML-Q, a government by the PPP and one by the PML-N. Perhaps, the only thing common between these three governments was Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the major Deobandi religious party. Only greybeards will be able to recall when the Maulana was in opposition last time.
The Maulana has been accused of power, lust and greed for his attitude of sticking to the government irrespective of the nature or ideological alignment of the ruling party. In my estimation, the Maulana had adopted a shrewd survival strategy in the face of the declining fortunes of religious politics in Pakistan.
Religious politics in Pakistan has been in a decline since the 1980s. The Barelvi Jamiat-Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) and the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) have been the main casualties. The JI first lost its Karachi stronghold to the MQM and later lost its voters in Punjab to the PML-N. The once-powerful JUP has been wiped out of the political scene altogether.
During the last four decades, the JUI has fared better than other religious political parties due to the Maulana’s leadership. Unlike the JI’s leaders, a young black-bearded Maulana fought Zia’s dictatorship heroically – almost forcing the military ruler to put him behind bars – because he thought it was necessary for him to claim his political position.
The JI’s bond with the establishment, strengthened due to its involvement in the Afghan and Kashmir jihad, continued during the 1990s. Throughout the 1990s, the JI banked on its association with the establishment and used various populist gimmicks to win the attention of the electorate. Unfortunately, nothing worked for it in the electoral arena.
The Maulana realised that the only way for him to remain relevant was to shift to politics of patronage and the only way to ensure patronage for his followers was to remain in power. The Maulana stayed in power and, alongside paradise, also ensured worldly comforts for his followers.
The Musharraf period revived the fortunes of religious parties for a brief period (2002-2008). These parties formed an alliance called the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal to make the best use of the opportunity made available by the military dictator. The MMA formed a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and led opposition at the centre.
The MMA splintered in 2008. The JI boycotted the elections while the Maulana won his share and formed an alliance with the PPP government. In the 2013 elections, the PTI emerged as a potent threat to the religious parties in KP. With an extreme rightist posture, it captured a section of the JUI-F’s vote bank. The 2018 elections appeared dangerous for the two established religious parties. Alongside the threat from the PTI, these parties faced risks from emergence of the two new religious parties – the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan of Khadim Rizvi and the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek (AAT) of Hafiz Saeed.
Rather than an opportunity, it was fear that brought the religious parties together. Surveys showed a rout for the MMA – and it did lose badly. What is worse, its leadership including the Maulana and Sirajul Haq, head of the JI, lost their constituencies. The party led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi bagged 2.2 million votes and emerged as the fifth-largest party in the election in terms of number of votes secured countrywide. The TLP and the AAT combined bagged more than 2.3 million votes, which figure hugely in the total number of votes won by all right-wing parties – which is 5.2 million.
The change in the nature of religious politics in Pakistan hints at a major shift in the alliance between Pakistan’s ruling elites and the Deoband. Pakistan has been ruled by a modern educated and secular elite who are bearers of the Aligarh tradition. This modern class had formed a close association with the Deoband during the life of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. After a short period of conflict, the two institutions had struck a deal. Deobandi teachers were offered jobs at Aligarh to teach Islamic studies, a compulsory subject for Muslim students. An arrangement was also reached to allow Aligarh students to attend lectures at Deoband. Aligarh, on its part, started enrolling Deoband graduates to learn English.
Almost a century later, on the eve of Independence, the two institutions developed a serious conflict as Aligarh supported the Pakistan movement while an overwhelming majority of Deoband scholars opposed Partition. However, an accommodation was reached as Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani founded the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam in opposition to Deoband’s Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind. It was Usmani who led the funeral prayers of Quaid-e-Azam and spearheaded the Objectives Resolution.
The Deoband School played a major role during the era of the Afghan and Kashmir jihad. Except for one jihadi organisation, almost all good and bad jihadis, including the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, belong to the Deoband school of thought.
The reasons for the decline of Deobandi politics are both internal and external. A new type of religious politics has taken birth all over the world, one that depends on identities rather than religious scholarship. Religious sentiment plays a more important role in politics today rather than direct religious politics. In this respect, Imran Khan has proved a better Maulana than the Maulana himself. For example, the Maulana has never issued a fatwa against his political opponents. Imran Khan, on the other hand, has used blasphemy allegations against the PML-N quite effectively.
This adjustment between the secular ruling elite and the Deobandi scholars had evolved over decades and it survived close to two centuries. Both classes had a lot in common and both were entrenched in the system. The new religious parties bring new social dynamics to the political arena. Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his party has found resonance with a section of Pakistani society that had been left untouched by the political activism of the PTI and were discontent with the patronage politics of other parties. In many ways, Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi can be equated with Imran Khan. While Imran Khan has mobilised the educated middle class by articulating their frustration, Maulana Rizvi has mobilised the religiously inclined lower-middle and working class.
We have a new alliance that is inherently unstable and unsustainable and we have an old alliance that is not working. This is not good for a state that likes to rely on religion for its nation-building project and finds itself hostage to religious classes too often.
The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.