Qazi Hussain Ahmad is flying high these days. The Pakistan Islamic Front (PIF), which is the more ambitious, modern face of the Jamaat i Islami, is continuing to capture headlines. By words and by deeds, Qazi Sahib has put to shame both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. How is that?
Qazi Sahib is an astute politician whose policies are beginning to yield dividends. He has transformed the Jamaat i Islami from an ideological, exclusivist and fringe Islamic group relatively disinterested in capturing votes to a populist contender for state power through the “democratic” route. Gone are the Shariah-shrieking days of the Jamaat i Islami. Qazi Sahib is now thundering about things that really matter to the angry middle-classes of today: inflation, jobs, police brutality, political corruption, accountability, good government. He is also seeking to exploit middle-class nationalist sentiment against the “immoral and imperialistic policies of the United States of America”. This is a proven formula for winning hearts and minds.
The Jamaat’s tactical alliance with the PML, from 1988 to 1992, was a good one. A Shariah bill was clinched, Jamaat MNAs acquired high public profiles, Afghan policy was suitably influenced, tens of crores of secret government funds meant for the Kashmir Jehad were hogged and arms were cached for a rainy day. Having squeezed the IJI dry, Qazi Sahib has now chalked out a plan to outflank it in the next elections.
Radical Islamicists everywhere have seen the writing on the wall. In many Muslim Third World countries, ruling secular elites have become notoriously corrupt, uncaring and inefficient. The plight of the growing hoardes of the uneducated, unemployed and unattended, meanwhile, has worsened. The contrast between the haves and the have-nots strikes a bitter chord.
The return to the faith is, in part, a natural consequence of the bankruptcy of secular ideologies and an anguished cry against the Third World gentry’s reckless monopolisation of economic and political power. The fact that Western regimes have helped prop up such rotten ruling classes is an added outrage.
The explanation for the rise of radical Islamic parties is also linked to the coming of age of the post colonial urban Muslim middle-classes. Armed with secondary or tertiary education — hence intellectually all too aware of its strengths — this middle class lacks any sense of intellectual tradition or financial security. Frustration, feelings of injustice, a sense of inferiority, anger and fear — all these emotions fuel its search for radical alternatives. In consequence, some groups have already retreated into ethnicity and biradaris, while others are leaping out to clutch at faith.
Qazi Hussain Ahmad recognises the potential of tapping this growing source of power. Sadly, Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto do not. That is why the PPP and PML governments did little to alleviate the rising economic and cultural impoverishment of the middle-classes. Even now their class base is remarkably similar: over 86 per cent of the candidates of the PPP and about 90 per cent of those of the PML(N) are feudals, landlords, businessmen or tribal chiefs, most of whom have already been discredited as corrupt “lotas”. In contrast, the PIF is fielding middle-class intellectuals, professionals, small traders or religious leaders. Considering that the urban areas will account for 50 million Pakistanis by the end of the century, this failure by the mainstream parties to address the problems of the middle-classes is sure to have profound implications for the future.
One frequently mooted scenario goes like this: the PIF will gobble up Mr Sharif and take over his vote-bank after the PML(N) has lost the elections. Then the secular forces of Benazir Bhutto will be confronted by the Islamic forces of the PIF. Since Ms Bhutto is doomed to fail, the PIF will be primed to capture power after her government has been successfully overthrown. Then there will be no turning back of the clock.
This is a frightening prospect. The Jamaat i Islami sees no contradiction between exploiting the virtues of democracy when it is out of office and abusing them once it is in power. More significantly, as events in post-revolution Iran have demonstrated, there is nothing inherent in radical Islam to suggest that it is capable of changing the conditions of which it is a product. While movements such as the PIF are capable of inflicting vast damage on civil society, they show no intrinsic ability to create anew.
Unfortunately, though, it seems that both the PPP and the PML(N) are clueless about the state of the Republic. Although both are promising the moon to their voters, neither has any concrete or workable ideas about “good government” or social action to satisfy the middle-classes. In fact, both are threatening to “review” the profound and imperative reforms undertaken by Mr Moeen Qureshi recently.
It is time, therefore, that the two mainstream political parties realised the gravity of the economic and political crisis which confronts the state. The ruling gentries, in particular, should part with a sizeable chunk of their ill-gotten gains and accommodate the aspirations of the volatile have-nots before it is too late.
God help us if Qazi Hussain Ahmad should end up reaping the harvest of their failures.