History of Jama’at-e Islami suggests that election success will lead to little progress

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Ramadan 11, 1423 2002-11-16

Islamic Movement

by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 18, Ramadan, 1423)

Although the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA), a coalition of six Islamic parties, did unexpectedly well in Pakistan’s elections last month, the role of its component parties has not been widely discussed. ZAFAR BANGASH looks at the history and experiences of the Jama’at-e Islami, Pakistan’s best-established Islamic party.

In acres of commentary in the print media on last month’s elections in Pakistan or in gigabytes of electronic space, the unexpectedly strong showing of the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA), a coalition of six Islamic parties, has received much attention. Various explanations have been offered for its unexpected performance: consolidation of the religious vote bank, a military-engineered split in the ranks of secular parties, especially the Muslim League, to prevent former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s faction from gaining a significant number of seats in the National Assembly, and strong anti-American sentiment sweeping the country since America’s war on the Taliban in Afghanistan. All these are, of course, valid explanations and have contributed to the MMA’s success in various ways.

What has not been properly analyzed is the role that various components of the MMA alliance have played. Two parties in particular, the Jami’atul Ulama-e Islam (Fazlur Rahman faction [JUI-F]) and Jama’at-e Islami, won most of the MMA’s seats, in some cases as independents. In Lahore, for instance, Hafiz Salman Butt, a member of the Jama’at-e Islami, who did not get the MMA ticket because the official candidate refused to step aside, won his seat as an independent. Similarly Liaquat Baloch, deputy leader of the Jama’at, won by a huge margin in another Lahore constituency on the MMA ticket. In the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) the JUI(F) and Jama’at-e Islami got the largest number of seats. While the JUI has traditionally done well in the rural areas of the NWFP and parts of Balochistan, the Jama’at’s strong showing is a new development.

This is the result of changes the Jama’at has undergone in the last 10 or 15 years, especially under its present Amir (leader), Qazi Husain Ahmed. The consequences of the change from its rigid ideological position to a more populist approach has important implications for Islamic parties in other parts of the world. As long as the Jama’at remained an ideological party and observed strict rules for membership, it found little support among the masses; once it transformed itself into a mass-based party, its electoral fortunes changed. These factors may yield lessons for Muslims elsewhere. They also expose the pitfalls of operating in a secular system.

The Jama’at is no longer the party its founder, the late Maulana Maudoodi, established on August 26, 1941. Then, it was purely an ideological party whose programme was not confined to any specific territory, because Islam as a universal deen is applicable to all places at all times. The Maulana also challenged the credentials of the secular leadership of the All-India Muslim League to lead the movement for the creation of an Islamic state to be called Pakistan. Maulana Maudoodi argued that only people with taqwa could establish an Islamic state, not those beholden to the British raj. He also rejected the concept of the nation-state, even if it were called a Muslim nation-state, because it is a negation of the Qur’anic concept of the Ummah. Although Maulana Maudoodi had accurately diagnosed the situation during the days of the British raj, as soon as Pakistan came into existence the Jama’at changed its position and most of its leaders, including Maulana Maudoodi, relocated to the nation-state of Pakistan, where the party set itself the task of ensuring that the new state conformed to the principles of Islam. Nor was this the only somersault the Jama’at made in its history.

Between 1941 and 1957, the Jama’at confined itself to propagating the message of Islam and training the manpower that was expected to transform the nation-state of Pakistan into an Islamic state. Maulana Maudoodi was adamant that the masses had no role in electing the leader of the Islamic state; this task was the exclusive preserve of the ahl al-hal wal-’aqd (the enlightened elite). This concept was formulated in classical Islamic political theory, but its application in the contemporary nation-state of Pakistan was problematic. Even so, by 1957 the Jama’at had modified its policies and decided to participate in elections under the secular system, throwing itself on the mercy of the same "ignorant" masses whom it had hitherto despised. This led to the resignation of a number of its leading figures, who felt that the change was an abandonment of the original principles on which the Jama’at had been founded.

The Jama’at’s first electoral contest was fought in an alliance of several political parties under the umbrella of the Combined Opposition Parties (COP), to try to remove a military dictator, the self-styled field marshal Ayub Khan, in 1964. The COP’s candidate for president was Miss Fatima Jinnah, sister of the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, whom Maulana Maudoodi had described as a secular man; Fatima Jinnah was no less secular but, in a political alliance with secular parties, the Jama’at was helpless. How it was forced into these painful compromises exposes the dilemma that confronts Islamic parties when they operate in a secular system. The COP failed to dislodge Ayub Khan in the 1964 elections, but he was forced to resign in March 1969 when he was weakened physically by a stroke and politically wounded as a result of the disastrous war with India (1965).

The Jama’at’s next experience at elections organized by another military dictator, general Yahya Khan, in October 1970 ended in disaster for both the party and the country. Just before the elections, Maulana Maudoodi claimed that the Jama’at would sweep the polls, and secular as well as regional/irredentist parties (meaning the Awami League, which was demanding "autonomy" for East Pakistan) would be banished. When the results came, it was the irredentist and secular parties that had swept the polls, not the Jama’at, for which the election results were an unmitigated disaster: it won only four of the 300 national assembly seats, and one seat each in the provincial assemblies. Even the sectarian parties (the Jami’atul Ulama-e Islam and the Jami’atul Ulama-e Pakistan) had out-performed the Jama’at for the Islamic vote.

After the break-up of Pakistan (East Pakistan became Bangladesh after the war of December 1971) the former West Pakistan was renamed Pakistan. Since 1970, the Jama’at has contested only one election on its own: in 1993, when it formed a new group called the Pakistan Islamic Front (PIF) and fielded 103 candidates for the 217-member national assembly. Operating under the new label, it also freed itself from the strict membership rules that applied to the Jama’at, and resorted to the kind of gimmicks, such as songs, noisy rallies and other activities, that have traditionally been denounced by the Jama’at as unbecoming an Islamic party.

Despite abandoning some of its principles, the Jama’at won only three seats in the national assembly; before the elections there had been much media hype that it would emerge as a major force. This was a deliberate ploy by the Pakistani establishment to keep the Jama’at from forming an alliance with the Muslim League. Nawaz Sharif, amir of the Muslim League, as prime minister had been involved in a bitter power struggle with the president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Both were forced to resign under pressure from the army. Before 1993, the Jama’at had been an electoral ally of the Muslim League. In fact, since the 1977 elections the Jama’at had been part of the anti-Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) alliance (elections were held in 1985 [partyless], 1988, 1990, 1993 and 1997). The establishment’s ploy to deprive Nawaz Sharif of victory in 1993 worked, enabling the PPP to win. While not making any headway itself, the Jama’at deprived the Muslim League of power because in many constituencies the two appealed to the same voters, thereby dividing their vote.

Perhaps it was in the bitter experience of 1993 that the Jama’at leaders realized that alliances with secular parties were not in its interests. Similarly, the Jama’at old guard was unhappy about loosening party membership rules, even if it was done under the label of another front or alliance. There was heated debate within the Jama’at’s majlis-e shura (its main decision-making body), leading to the resignation of Qazi Husain Ahmed as amir (leader) of the party. New elections were held for party leadership but Qazi Sahib emerged with an equally strong mandate. Whatever one’s opinion of the Jama’at, two things about it are admirable. First, it is a non-sectarian party and its policies are formulated by consultation. Second, nobody imposes himself as leader; nor is the leadership considered a family fiefdom, as happens in most parties in Pakistan. Candidates for the leadership are proposed by the majlis-e shura and put to a vote by the membership.

Stung by its experiences in 1993, the Jama’at decided to boycott the elections in February 1997, because it felt that both the electoral process and the socio-economic conditions in Pakistan prevented honest individuals from being elected to the assembly. The feudal-based society wherein feudal lords treat their workers as slaves, and vast sums of money are needed for election campaigns, prevent parties like the Jama’at from competing on an equal footing. Only those with enormous wealth (mostly the feudal lords and industrial barons, who use every kind of fraud to amass their ill-gotten gains) can run well-financed election-campaigns in which people are bribed and votes are purchased.

The Jama’at also argued, quite correctly, that articles 62 and 63 of the constitution, which call for persons of upright moral character only be permitted to contest elections, have never been implemented. Were these rules strictly enforced, the vast majority of those who have dominated the political landscape in Pakistan would be disqualified. Therein lies the dilemma of the Jama’at and all ideological parties in the Muslim world; the secular establishment has formulated rules but does not implement them because these would disqualify the secularists. In the unlikely event that an Islamic party wins an election (as happened in Algeria in December 1991 and January 1992) the army is unleashed and the will of the people is frustrated. The Jama’at experience, however, is much closer to that of the Refah Party or the Justice and Development Party in Turkey (the latter won a landslide in the recent elections) and the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen in Egypt. While these Islamic parties are willing to work within the secular framework, their room for manoeuvre is severely restricted. Even while agreeing to work within the secular agenda, they are not allowed to operate freely because the ruling elites will not give up power voluntarily.

Islamic parties are trapped in a dilemma of their own creation. Having committed themselves to the electoral process, they cannot think of alternatives to the system. Again, the Jama’at experience is instructive. In last month’s elections in Pakistan, although it formed an alliance with religious parties and secured a significant number of national assembly seats, the divergent outlook of the various component parties leaves them open to exploitation by the establishment. Electoral defeat may create temporary despondency, but then soul-searching begins that ensures the same mistakes are not repeated in the future. Electoral victory, however, brings pressures of a different kind: to keep electoral promises made to the electorate. This can only be done if one has power and authority. Without the resources of a state at their disposal, supporters of Islamic parties become disappointed. Power is only available at the pleasure of the establishment, in Pakistan’s case the military-bureaucratic-feudal alliance, which in turn must please the US.

In reviewing the Jama’at experience, we find that it has been forced repeatedly to make compromises without any concomitant improvement in its electoral fortunes. The reason is simple: the system is held hostage by vested interests; to hope for any real breakthrough in such an environment is a grand delusion. Some will argue that it has done well in recent elections: true, but one must understand the circumstances in which this materialized. The MMA, of which the Jama’at is a member, rode the anti-American wave in the two crucial provinces bordering Afghanistan; no other party or alliance dared broach this subject, for fear of antagonizing the military regime. But, given the reality of the military presence in Pakistan and its subservience to US interests, neither the Jama’at nor any other Islamic-based party will be allowed anywhere near the levers of power, nor be permitted to fulfill their pledges to banish American forces from Pakistan, no matter how strong the anti-American feeling of the people (for details, see Crescent International November 1-15, 2002).

In Pakistan as well as in other Muslim countries, the only way to bring about meaningful change is to demolish the existing secular order in the manner of the Islamic revolution in Iran. Even there, despite the revolution, some remnants of the old system, such as the bureaucracy, were left largely undisturbed. It has since played havoc with the revolution, causing much grief. Participating in the electoral process under a secular order leads to painful compromises but does not bring about any significant change in society that will truly serve the interests of the people. This lesson appears to be lost on those who have committed themselves to the electoral route, and who continue to delude themselves that they can usher in an Islamic order of justice and fairness while operating in a corrupt, oppressive system.

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