Thursday June 30, 2022

The mullah and the Pakhtun

July 02, 2017

Part - III

Khyber mail

Not so long ago, a new leader started rapidly rising through the ranks of the JUI. This clean-shaven leader’s rise was ruthless, and it is said that his father was especially proud of his son’s newfound wealth and status.

This leader returned to a local bazaar where many years back he was hurried away with shouts of “makh ke sha” (Pashto: move ahead). He looked around and said, proudly, to someone “Look at them, I’ve travelled so far ahead, they can’t even see me!”

Events had dramatically turned by 2001, when he was one of the first politicians who Pervez Musharraf would meet. Post-9/11, and despite leading aggressive protests against Pakistan’s siding with the US, this new religio-political alliance was treated with kid gloves by the government. The MMA did not return the favour, taking advantage of a divided opposition. Or Musharraf had  intentionally created the ideal situation for the MMA.

The Muslim League vote, the MMA’s main threat in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was divided between the PML-Q and the PML-N, the PPP in KP had been split between Aftab Sherpao and the main PPP, and the ANP was no better split between the ANP and the Ajmal Khattak-led National Awami Party of Pakistan. If this was not enough, both Benazir and Nawaz Sharif were in exile and unable to campaign in the province. This was on top of a condition that all candidates must be graduates, thereby disqualifying several strong candidates.

The MMA campaigned aggressively and, in a move reminiscent of the 1970s’ election, skilfully exploited voter’s emotions – but this time against the military government. The ideological purity tests of the 1950s through to the 1980s were now being applied by the JUI allies, under the MMA banner, on the state itself.  Voters were told that the Q in the PML-Quaid was Kaaf for kaafir, and the MMA election symbol book was again overtly implied to be the Holy Book. And a vote against the book would be a vote against faith. Unsurprisingly the MMA swept the Pakhtun belt – from Dir to Quetta – and attracted a significant number of voters from elsewhere. There was no doubt that a significant percentage of the 3.1 million votes cast nationally and a staggering 43 percent of KP votes for the MMA were given by Pakhtuns.

The election marked a major break from the past. Most candidates were newcomers; the choice of chief minister was Akram Durrani who was not your typical ulema by any stretch. Nationally, they claimed the leader of opposition post. The party’s agenda was one of aggressive Islamisation, which would range from aggressive anti-Americanism, denial of the rapid growth of militant groups to the collusion with such groups. This was in addition to a legislative agenda that included policies ranging from Hasba bills to a retreat on women’s empowerment to promotion of interest-free banking.

Many of these changes, along with anti-Americanism were initially popular. It also mainstreamed their image in the eyes of the voters. With the disintegration of the PML, the JUI-F was now the acceptable choice for many old influentials and a new generation of politicians, from the old Khattaks of Karak to the Zamans of Haripur to the new wealth of Azam Swatis and Ghulam Alis. This extended to the national sphere, where Maulana Fazlur Rehman was the leader of opposition supported by the PML-N. Maulana Fazl’s politics was overly ambitious. He saw himself as entirely suitable to be prime minister, and as leader of opposition would effortlessly hold anti-government rallies while keeping communication lines open with Pervez Musharraf.

However, things were rapidly changing on the ground, as a wave of heavy violence-hit KP and Fata. This was combined by the opportunistic support the JUI-F provided the PML-Q, triggering the collapse of the MMA as well as the 2008 election defeat.

The period from 2004 to 2012 was marked by introspection within the JUI-F ranks and in Pakhtun society. Scholars like the late Dr Farooq Khan and ulema like Maulana Hasan Jan pushed back against growing radicalisation; they were both assassinated. The failure to push back in time meant the new voters looked for an alternative.

On May 11, 2013, a tsunami of new PTI voters nearly overwhelmed the Maulana. He had on two occasions been within inches of being prime minister of Pakistan. Unfortunately for him, he had to come to grasp with a new reality. Due to social mobility and greater awareness, he could no longer rely on his religious status and networks to ensure electoral success. He had for the first time found in Imran Khan an opponent who could challenge him in his home seat and was immune to attacks on character.

The period of 2013-2017 has been one of re-alignment by Maulana Fazl. He reached out to protect the ANP. He then built fences with the PML-N and looks prepared to contest the next election jointly. At a societal level, the JUI’s networks within Pakhtun society remains strong; this was seen in its ability to mobilise people at its centenary celebrations. The party now has members coming from the middle class and elites that a generation prior would have looked down on them.

It’s religious teachings, as seen in madressahs and tableeghi events across the country, are dominated by Pakhtuns. It blends elements of Pakhtun identity under the umbrella of the Deobandi sect. And yet, despite these successes, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the JUI from 1993-2013 have also inadvertently created a vulnerability. If the mullah is mainstream, electable and capable of becoming the elite, then perhaps he is also capable of becoming unelectable and despised.


The writer is the founder of the website:

Twitter: @qissakhwani