In the Pakistani political arena, the Jamaat-e-Islamic lost its electoral relevance long ago. Adding to its political non-entity status is the fact that more radical Islamists groups have pushed JI out of the center stage since 9/11 by hijacking the role of the Pakistan’s security apparatus’ front organizations in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Jamaat-e-Islami had achieved prominence on account of its role in militancy in the region during Zia’s military rule. But the Jamaat-e-Islami had been in the political wilderness for a long time.
Victory in the Karachi local elections was the first glimmer of hope for JI to get back into the limelight. It’s out of Punjab politics. In the 1993 General Elections, it was generally believed that the JI’s marginal vote bank in urban constituencies of Punjab ensured Nawaz Sharif victory in central Punjab. If this right-wing vote bank was split between Nawaz Sharif and the JI, the former was likely to lose more than a dozen national assembly seats from cities in Central Punjab. This status was gradually lost as the size of the JI vote bank in successive elections was reduced from a few thousand to a few hundred. In Baloch and Sindh, the JI never had any presence. KP is the only province left where the JI is still somewhat significant and holds a few constituencies.
Karachi’s migrant population’s association with religion, and politics associated with religion have a long history. Anthropologists say that migrants or those displaced from their ancestral lands develop a deep sense of association with whatever religion they practice. Karachi’s migrants are no exception. Even MQM, which replaced Jamaat-e-Islami in Karachi’s politics as a popular force, didn’t part company with religiosity completely.
Altaf Hussein and his close comrades used religious idioms and symbols most fervently in the initial years of their popularity. Jamaat-e-Islami seems to be the favorite for the post of Mayor of Karachi.
Does this indicate that religion and religiosity is bouncing back into prominence in the country’s biggest city? Or is it the pragmatic, social services-oriented face of Jamaat-e-Islami that has won the second largest numbers of seats in local bodies elections in the city?
I think the second possibility is more likely as Jamaat-e-Islami’s ideology was not an issue of contest in these elections. The question is how this ideology will play out once Jamaat-e-Islami succeeds in getting its mayor elected in the city. Karachi is perhaps the only city in Pakistan which has a cosmopolitan culture. How will a JI mayor influence that culture?
JI’s founder Maududi, was himself a migrant from Hyderabad Deccan. But he decided to settle in Lahore after partition, where he influenced a large number of middle-class professionals including doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and university teachers. Maududi was speaking in the vernacular of modern social sciences, which was acceptable for middle-class professionals after their encounters with the modern education system. Theologically, Maududi was close to the Deobandi school of thought – a movement with which he remained associated as a journalist. It is difficult to categorize Maududi as a modernist – he certainly was not a modernist. But he was not a traditionalist either.
In the Pakistan of the 1950s, Maududi was attacked by the traditionalist Ulema fervently. An avalanche of fatwas against Maududi emerged, equating JI with other heterodox sects that originated from Islamic reformist movement in north India under British rule. Maududi’s party model was borrowed from the Leninist model where a minority leads the way for the masses. In the case of the Bolsheviks, it was Communist intellectuals and leaders of industrial labor groups; in the case of the JI, it was a group of pious Muslim well-versed in the affairs of the state.
The JI never succeeded in reproducing this model on the ground, where JI styled pious people were in over supply, but politics and statecraft remained a far cry.
In its initial years, the Jamaat-e-Islami served as a party of the downtrodden in Karachi and the urban middle classes in Punjab. In Karachi, JI secured seats in parliament in the 1970s. In Punjab, its electoral performance remained unimpressive. JI fully supported Zia’s martial law regime. Some people say it was because General Zia shared an ethnicity with the then Chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Mian Tufail Muhammad. Till the middle of the 1980s, Jamaat-e-Islami organizational structures were dominated by Punjabi middle class professionals and Urdu speaking elite of Karachi. The Afghan war and the election of Qazi Hussein Ahmed – a Pashtun – as the new JI chief transformed the ethnic character as well as theological orientation of Jamaat-e-Islami. It became indistinguishable from the more rural based Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI).
JI was now emerging as a Pashtun party with control over some constituencies in KP. It became involved in providing support to Afghan Jihad in the 1980s and correspondingly engaged in much violence in universities and colleges in Punjab and Karachi. The more radical extremist groups with a salafi background started to push Jamaat-e-Islami out of the center stage in the 1990s.
With a partial election victory in Karachi, will the JI undergo another transformation to become a social service oriented religious political party? Remember that the JI received praises from across the spectrum of the politically fractured political scene in the country when its workers helped provide relief to flood affected areas of Sindh in the summer. This is the new model of Islamists across the Muslim world – social services, social and political policies which accommodate broad social and political trends in society.
I think Jamaat-e-Islami, if it gets the mayorship of Karachi, ought to institute two reforms in line with its world view, in order to succeed in this task. Firstly, it should shun the belief that people working for religion have a special political and social status or position in our society. This spawns a special sense of entitlement, which coupled with a special association with state machinery, gives secondary status to everybody who is not working for the implementation of Sharia in the society and who has a non-religious political agenda up his sleeves. There will come many occasions in the running of Karachi’s affairs when the JI’s mayor will have to accept non-religious political and social agendas as legitimate.
Secondly, the JI should make sure that it doesn’t interfere in the cultural life of the city – a city of light without dance, music and other performing arts will be like barren land.
Lastly, I think all political groups advocating for corruption free politics should first realize that corruption free societies are not a product of wishful thinking, nor of pious acts. It’s partially a technical issue for which a lot of expertise is required to eradicate corruption from the society, which unfortunately groups like JI and PTI lack. Besides, Karachi has become a disaster in urban planning and a hotbed of terror groups.
To make Karachi a city of lights again, wishful thinking and fake confidence will not work.