Battle of narratives - Aamir Zia - 18th November 2013

When Syed Munawar Hasan, the Jamaat-e-Islami ameer, declared one of Pakistan’s most wanted terrorist kingpin a martyr and raised doubts about the sacrifices of our soldiers fighting such elements, he articulated what many radical Islamists had wanted to hear from a mainstream religious party leader for a long, long time.

The statement should be seen in the context of the centuries-old debate among Islamic scholars on whether fighting seemingly unjust and tyrannical Muslim rulers is justified. These theological differences are confined not just between Sunni-Shia scholars, but also among various Sunni schools of thought.

The bitter division over this issue, indeed, defines today’s conflict within many Muslim societies. In fact, these differences have become more explosive in Pakistan due to its proximity with war-ravaged Afghanistan, and the state’s past policy of arming and patronising various shades of Islamic militants as its proxies in the region. This policy backfired as many militants began to follow the Al-Qaeda-inspired pan-Islamist agenda and turned the guns on their former handlers when the state tried to set a new policy direction following the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist strikes on the United States.

Pakistan’s efforts to stop the use of its territory for fomenting terrorism around the world resulted in a civil-war like situation, which has consumed thousands of lives since early 2002 and transformed this nuclear-armed Muslim nation as one of the most dangerous and unstable countries of the world.

With successive governments giving confused signals in this conflict – sometimes trying to wage a selective fight and at others to strike deals with militants – it should not come as a surprise that the extremists and militants have acquired an upper hand in dictating the narrative and setting the rules of engagement.

There are passionate arguments based on Islamic theology to justify jihad (holy war) by individuals or groups of individuals (read non-state actors) if rulers fail to act when Muslim territories or population get attacked by ‘infidel forces’. The entire narrative of Al-Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups is based on this hypothesis.

The proponents of this stance believe that those Muslim rulers – in our case they allege it’s the Pakistani state – who facilitate the invading forces remain a just target. This narrative also calls for fighting those Muslim rulers who do not adhere to Islamic teachings, and justifies the use of force for enforcement of Shariah.

The other set of Islamic scholars advocate moderation and oppose any action that brings anarchy and civil war in a Muslim state. They advocate tolerating even a tyrannical ruler to prevent discord among Muslims and aim to Islamise society through painstaking preaching and reforms. They consider it the government’s prerogative to declare holy war in a Muslim state like Pakistan. These scholars forbid attacking Pakistani security forces and killing civilians – be they Muslim or non-Muslim. They also consider acts of terrorism, including suicide bombings, against the spirit of jihad.

Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that the Jamaat-e-Islami ameer’s statement triggered such a heated debate and sharpened polarisation on the issue of religiously-motivated militancy in the country. And it is not just liberal parties, the government and the country’s mighty military establishment that have slammed the Jamaat leader. Many major religious groups also see Hasan’s statement, supporting the Al-Qaeda-linked militants, as highly offensive and against Islamic teachings.

But Hasan has many supporters as well. Foremost among them are the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and similar militant and hard-line groups, which appear more effective in dictating narrative because of their single-minded efforts and uncompromising attitude. The Jamaat-e-Islami also appears to stand solidly behind its leader, underlining the fact that the ameer’s statement should neither be considered a slip of tongue nor mere rhetoric. It is a well thought-out position, though made public in such a blunt manner for the first time only now.

However, the Jamaat-e-Islami and its rank and file have been practically committed to this stance since Pakistan officially abandoned support to the Afghan Taliban in late 2001 and joined the US-led war against terrorism.

If the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders consistently opposed Pakistani security forces’ efforts against Al-Qaeda and its inspired local militants all these years, many members of this religio-political party sheltered foreign militants in their individual capacity. Several disgruntled former members of the Jamaat-e-Islami and its affiliate students’ wing, Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, even indulged in high-profile terrorist attacks.

From the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – one of the masterminds of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the US – at the house of a leading Jamaat-e-Islami’s women-wing member in March 2003 in Rawalpindi to those Al-Qaeda members apprehended in Karachi hiding at the residences of two other women members of this party, there is a long list of senior JI workers who facilitated and protected foreign militants across Pakistan.

Similarly, several former Jamaat-e-Islami members joined various extremist groups or formed their own for terrorism. One of the most prominent among them was Jandullah, which attacked the motorcade of Corps Commander Karachi in 2004. Its founder Atta-ur Rehman was a former member of the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, while two other prominent members – Dr Arshad Wahed and Dr Akmal Waheed – were leading figures of the Jamaat-e-Islami’s affiliated doctors’ association.

On acquittal in this case, Arshad shifted to Wana where he was killed in a US drone attack in March 2008. His brother Akmal, who also was acquitted, was rearrested, but this time in Abu Dhabi for his alleged Al-Qaeda connections.

All these cases and many others like them have been widely reported in the press and documented in several books focusing on Al-Qaeda-linked militancy in Pakistan.

The radicalisation of many of its young members and their drift towards unbridled militancy pose a big ideological challenge for the Jamaat-e-Islami leadership, which despite opposing successive governments on the issue of their support to the US-led war on terror, has worked within the framework of the Pakistan constitution and by-and-large opted for a democratic course to advance its political agenda.

However, for a party that remained the ideological bulwark of Islamic forces in the region and served as a fighting arm of the military establishment for decades – be it in the former East Pakistan, Indian-occupied Kashmir or Afghanistan – keeping such internal strains, contradictions and ideological questions in check is easier said than done.

The Jamaat-e-Islami’s continued history of poor performance in electoral politics and the emergence of more radicalised, aggressive and militant Islamic groups on the scene have created an internal dilemma for the party, which considers itself the original face of modern-day political Islam and jihad.

Today, the choice for the Jamaat-e-Islami and all the other mainstream religious parties is either to stick to their old paradigm of constitutional politics or tread the path on which the more radicalised, pan-Islamist militant groups are trying to pull the overall movement for Islamic renaissance and revival.

This internal contradiction is a fundamental one within Islamists. How will the leadership of the mainstream religious parties, including the Jamaat, handle this question? Will the main body of constitutionalist Islamists drift toward militancy or succeed in pacifying the hothead radicals by finding a middle path? Will they be able to keep themselves relevant in the coming days if they continue to stick to the legal and constitutional methods of politics or become irrelevant, with hard-liners taking the charge of the movement?

These are grave and make-or-break choices for the Jamaat leadership. Syed Munawar Hasan has succeeded in igniting an intense debate, but will he be able to take it to his desired end?

It is also a moment of reckoning for the Pakistani establishment. How will it deal with its former allies and estranged friends? How will it resolve the internal contradictions of the state and restore normality and rule of law in a country caught in the vortex of lawlessness and religiously-motivated violence and terrorism. At the moment, all the major players appear devoid of solutions to these mega challenges