Secularising Islamists – Ayesha Siddiqa

Anchor, columnist, blogger Raza Rumi recently survived a terrorist attack (had he been of a particular sect the Punjab police would have happily called it a sectarian attack and not terrorism).

Many people wondered what caused the attack since Rumi was generally very cautious in discussing certain matters than some others. But the attack and its aftermath are instructive in terms of newer strategies adopted by militant-religious outfits. Not only have they mastered the tools of mass media but also learnt how to communicate and exercise intellectual control.

This is not to suggest that all religious and militant groups have centralised planning but each is viewing the gains that may be made in expanding control mainly due to the weakness or relative absence of the state. There are times when Pakistan appears pre-modern – almost a cross between Nigeria and Sudan. Although a lot remains to be sorted out amongst the various ideological schools of thought, they are confident that the future belongs to them since the only legitimate playing field accepted by the state is religion.

Notwithstanding the differences amongst various segments of the religious right, they all have a sense of the gains that are to be made, and that each one stands to gain from the strength of the other – though indirectly. While embedded scholars read the presence of separate political and military wings as an acceptance of secular principles such as democracy, the fact is that social, political and militant presence is strategically integrated. Nor are organisational components seemingly dedicated to preaching and conversion separated from militant and political organisational setup as many post-modernist scholars outside and inside the country would like us to believe.

The process of organisational and ideological expansion mixed with greater control of the society is based on creating illusions at various levels and of different degrees. To begin with, violence is critical to subdue opposition. Given that even the most cooperative individuals are targeted sends a wave of fear that discourages all forms of debate. We already know how religious scholars presenting alternative perspectives like Fazlur Rehman and Javed Ghamidi were hounded out of the country.

Second, if the first approach fails to impress then create an impression as though there is a divide between those that are violent and others that are ready to talk. So, the fact that some militant organisations and their heads were some of the first to sympathise with Raza Rumi and provide a word of support is meant to impress and prove that there are deep internal chasms.

This is not to argue that things are seamless. However, it is important to understand the nature of differences. For example, while Malik Ishaq is known to be more militant and aggressive in pursuing the sectarian ideology of the LeJ, Maulana Ludhianvi is considered as purely political and keen to talk.

Such debate hides the fact that both wings of the LeJ have patched up and the differences are merely tactical and pertaining to control of the organisation and its resources. Moreover, there is no difference between the ideological beliefs of both leaders of the LeJ. Similarly, treating organisations that preach and convert as totally benign is a fallacy.

The benefit of these illusions is that while we may get confused about who exactly tried to target Rumi, we lose sight of the fact that those sympathising with him hold the same views on critical issues like blasphemy or treatment of the Ahmadiyya community and sectarian differences as the assassins. Sadly, little space is left for others to argue the case which is generally popularly discarded on the basis that it is an ‘ugly liberal’ point of view. It is indeed the success of the religious right en-bloc that today liberalism has become a baggage that can cost you dearly – even your life.

The other big and related illusion pertains to the carefully constructed narrative that religious organisations are better than any non-religious or secular parties/outfits (this notwithstanding the fact that there are no secular parties in Pakistan). They are deemed to be more democratic and politically progressive.

The manner in which the recent intra-party elections within the Jamaat-e-Islami were successfully conducted is a case in point. Little is said about the fact that these elections present an illusion of democracy and nothing more. The JI’s electoral college is about 31,000 people out of which 25,000 used their right to vote. One has to go through the rigorous process of becoming a JI member and getting the right to vote.

Furthermore, the election of Sirajul Haq versus Munawar Hassan has to be examined within the JI’s historical political context. The party, which represented a certain ideology and was open to ideological debate, discussion and argument under Maulana Maudoodi was made relatively populist under Qazi Hussain Ahmed. Munawar Hassan’s hard-line stance aimed at restoring the traditional JI but would have cost the party tremendously in terms of political gains.

Sirajul Haq was more suited to the needs of pragmatic politics and to resurrect a party that was losing blood very fast to other elements like JuD and PTI. Nevertheless, this survival politics does not mean that the party and its leadership lost sight of other critical roles it could play by consolidating its position. The fact that Sirajul Haq belongs to Dir, where the JI made maximum gains during the 2013 elections, has to be interpreted along with other realities. For example Dir has become a critical recruiting ground for militant organisations for deployment in Afghanistan.

In any case, Sirajul Haq has good links with the heads of many militant outfits. This means the organisation could make gains in its relationship with the military establishment and possibly replay a bigger role in the region as it had done in the past. Seen closely, the elections may be more than just greater democratisation within the JI cadres.

The ultimate message that seems to come from across the religious divide is that argument, debate and discussion is not permitted. This is not about respecting faith but someone’s ability to manipulate religion compounded with the capacity to carry out violence that will dominate both state and society.