Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F) is an organic party and is considered pragmatic as it believes in electoral politics and electoral institutions for gaining power and instrumental sing religion for the purpose. Since many believe that democracy is a liberal and secular project but parties like JUI-F have toned down this idea by inculcating religo-cultural ethos in their governance formula for self-legitimisation and broader acceptance to an international audience. The party says that Islam is not compatible with secular and liberal democracy but does not shy away from becoming a part of any liberal government. JUI-F believes in enforcing religious laws and practices through state apparatus and considers that the state must have a pedagogical role. Although party draws support with anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist and anti-American slogans, it nonetheless cooperates and engages with these forces and their affiliates whenever needed.
Very few people have noticed how this party is reinventing itself in contemporary political landscape of Pakistan. Let’s find out what it is doing so.
JUI-F had recently celebrated 100 years of its establishment. Its centennial celebrations revolved around slogans like ending extremism and terrorism. The party chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, considered to be a cunning and opportunist politician, talked of ideological diversity and said that the party’s doors were open for all — Shiites, Christians or other Sunni sects. A clear departure from the party’s earlier position. Although this will not mean that the party cedes or alters its ideological foundation. It would certainly give out an impression of inclusion and lend to a moderate Islamic portrayal of the party.
Although the party rallies support through slogans against imperialism, Zionism and the US — nonetheless it keeps engaging with these forces and their affiliates whenever needed
Normally when Pakistani political leadership finds itself in crises and needs legitimisation it calls upon the Imam-i-Kaaba or other important religious leaders from Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Muslim world. JUI-F also invited Imam-i-Kaaba and Saudi religious affairs minister on its centennial celebrations. This was partly because many hardliner Islamic groups have turned against the JUI-F and to give out an impression to the party membership that the leadership enjoyed close ties with religious clergy that runs Holy sites.
Many jihadists who had been member of JUI-F or studied at its madaris turned against it because JUI-F is considered a party that supports democracy and system that supports US-led war against terrorism. There have been many targeted killings and terrorist and suicide attacks on the party leadership since 2011. But there is still an impression that the party has sympathies with terrorists.
So JUI-F which has been silent and not been tough in castigating terrorist organisations is considered a beneficiary of the existing the political system. Meanwhile, western governments view the party suspiciously because it does not slam terrorism openly. So countries like US and UK often do not issue visas to its leadership considering them a risk. So party is in between a rock and a hard place. Recent attack on Senator Ghafoor Haideri, the Senate deputy speaker, was claimed by the Islamic State, whose network in Balochistan has reportedly been destroyed recently by the Army. But at home JUI-F is making inroads in the political landscape. It is getting influential in interior Sindh because of the spread of its madrasah network and of the poor performance of the Pakistan Peoples Party. The increasing footprint of JUI-F in Sindh has alarmed many since the province is known for its huge number of Sufi shrines and orders. Meanwhile, JUI F is already very influential in Balochistan.
In this day and age, the party still does not have a website or social media pages which can give official version of the party on matters. It does not have an official spokesperson either. This gives an impression that the party wants to rely on traditional means of communication but still its network base is increasing although it has to face huge propaganda from its opponents. The question remains: why JUI F does not believe it can enhance its support base with massive use of social media? The party understands that since its ideology is conservative and it’s not the right time to propagate conservative ideology because Islamic parties are not appreciated in main stream discourse. Meanwhile, the party’s main rival Imran Khan has a state-of-the-art social media team so JUI-F may not be able to compete. At the same time, the party also does not want the madrassah students who are living in controlled environment to be open to uncontrolled ideas on social media. One can see the party’s attitude towards women who are not allowed to engage in active politics or to come to political gatherings. Thus, the party likes controlled environments and dislikes freedom of expression.
JUI-F is going through slow transformation with huge challenges facing form terrorist organisations who do not consider it their sympathiser. Party wants to engage its supporters and voters but its arguments needs to be convincing.
The write is a strategic analyst. He teaches International Politics in NUML Islamabad and is working on Phd Dissertation on confessional parties. He tweets at @Qamarcheema