Something old, something new

Pakistan’s oldest religious party aims to harness rationalism and democracy in the creation of an Islamic state, hears Randeep Ramesh


In a poorer, shabbier suburb of Lahore, Pakistan’s second biggest city, far from the smooth motorways and glitzy restaurants is the sparse environment of the headquarters of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s oldest religious party.

While outside lies the chaos of modern-day south Asia, with bullock carts jostling for space with buses whose horns blare aggressively, inside Mansoora all is calm. Women covered in burkas stroll with their children; the azan, or Muslim call to prayer, sees men gather in the mosque.

Mansoora was built and is run by Jamaat, a party that openly seeks a moral and social “Islamic” transformation of Pakistan. The radical scholar Maulana abu Ala Maududi, who can accurately be described as one of revivalist Islam’s most influential thinkers, founded the party in 1941.

Maulana Maududi died almost four decades later with his dream of an Islamic state in Pakistan unfulfilled. Yet Jamaat transformed the country. Its student wing has made inroads into universities, its mosques have mushroomed across Pakistan and the party runs more than 500 madrasas.

The party’s appeal, apart from muscle power that has been used to intimidate secular voices, lies in Maulana Maududi’s vision of Islamic modernity. Jamaat emphasises rejecting western culture and intellectual domination by appropriating modern ideas of rational progress.

Economics, history and politics are all part of the syllabus for Jamaat’s students. Although the party attracts a certain amount of lumpen cadre, its leadership is scholarly.

Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the emir or prince of Jamaat, is a small man with a neat beard. Over cups of tea and sweet biscuits, he affably discusses the place of Islam and his own organisation within, and without, Pakistan.

Although Jamaat has ties to parts of the army, the emir says that the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a military coup seven years ago, is a “dictator”. Jamaat does contest elections – with limited parliamentary success. Its main demand at present is that General Musharraf should hang up the khaki if he wants to participate in next year’s polls.

Given that the president is considered a liberal, the media is unshackled and political parties are free to organise and criticise in Pakistan, is this verdict not a bit harsh?

No, replies Jamaat’s leader. Gen Musharraf is running a “total dictatorship” where people are locked up without charge.

“It is not Jamaat people, but we know people who have been targeted,” he says. “We are mobilising people against the military dictatorship because in a democracy nobody can do these things. We have seen this happen in the alleged plot [to blow up US-bound flights from the UK].”

Qazi Hussain Ahmad has serious doubts about the claims of a terrorist plot with roots in Pakistan. “We believe that this was a well-orchestrated ploy to divert the attention from the massacre of innocents of Lebanon by Israel.”

These arguments appear invidious, but they are easily made in Pakistan, where there seems to be a large audience ready to believe them. Scepticism of the western world can be traced to the misadventures in Iraq, the apparent knee-jerk backing for Israel, the human rights abuses in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

The message from the emir is that perception quickly becomes reality in Pakistan. So Jamaat has honed its public relations skills and now boasts an impressive set of rapid rebuttals to the “western view” of recent events.

In the party’s eyes, Hizbullah’s war with Israel shows that “resistance movements which are inspired by higher objectives cannot be defeated”. That even if Osama bin Laden “is killed or martyred he will be more dangerous than [if he were] alive. Al-Qaida is not an organisation but a phenomena.” That the Americans will learn that “the Afghan people cannot be enslaved”.

American officials have taken such trenchant criticism in their stride, but other powers have been less inclined to give Jamaat the benefit of the doubt. Russia has labelled it as a “terrorist” organisation, one which “not only blasts, kills and hatches terror acts, it launders money and pumps it through official financial structures”.

The emir says Russia’s actions are the baggage of history, “because of two past events. One is that we opposed them in Afghanistan and Chechnya. We believe the Chechen people must be given their rights and the problem must be solved through dialogue. In Afghanistan, we gave humanitarian support [to the mujahideen] when the Soviets invaded.”

Jamaat is not an “armed group”, he says. “We are working peacefully within the Pakistani constitutional system.”

It is worth keeping in mind Jamaat understands that politics cannot be debated for long with bullets. Hence the need to distance Jamaat from the notion that it is armed and dangerous. What it is attempting to do is simply say there is more than one version of modernity available in the global market of ideas.

George Bush pithily described his enemies as “Islamic fascists”. One would expect such groups to denounce democracy, capitalism and ideas of secular progress, preferring perhaps spiritual missions to “liberate people”. That might be another way of talking about jihad.

But although Jamaat’s strand of thinking is a reaction to western modernity, it is rooted in assumptions familiar to us all. Hence the emir argues his case on the basis of democracy and human rights.

Qazi Hussain Ahmad likens Gen Musharraf to other “rulers and kings in the Islamic world” who are afraid of democracy. He says that “whenever there are free elections, the Muslim Brotherhood will come to power in the Arab world”. The reference is instructive given that Jamaat’s ideology fathered the Egyptian-based radical group.

“The people are tired of the regimes which have made them subservient to foreign missions,” he says. “You see, [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad made a very good speech where he said that a new Middle East is being created, but it is not one the Americans want. It is one of resistance.”

Jamaat has been able to take the tools of rationality and employ them in the service of the party’s agenda. Its cadre is not seized by the conviction that rational thought and science will unlock the ordering of the world. Jamaat’s followers believe in the power of Islam, which they believe will see off the dry mastery of reason. If in the process they end up laying claim to modern ideas, they reason, so be it.

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