The passage of the Election Reform Act 2017 was most prominently criticised for allowing Mian Nawaz Sharif to be re-elected as President of the PML(N), a position he had had to vacate after he was disqualified from membership of the National Assembly, something which cost him the Prime Ministership. However, what seems to have drawn more attention was the new draft of the nomination form, where the candidate for membership of an assembly was no longer required to declare that Qadianis or Ahmaddis were non-Muslims, but merely express belief.

The resulting agitation led federal Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal to say that only the state could declare jihad, and that fatwas were not meant to be issued over the Internet. Not only is he Interior Minister, but as a former member of the Jamaat Islami’s student wing, the Islami Jamiat Tulaba, he has a better grounding in Islamic matters than many, but his statement seems to have not addressed certain other questions which would naturally arise.

The first is obviously the nature of the state that is to do the declaring. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, some scholars took the view that the British constituted the ulil amr (those who have the ruling), because they allowed the prayer, and thus were to be obeyed. This must be seen within the context of the British seeking to prevent jihad. The British disliked jihad for two reasons: first, because it was used by the 1957 mutineers to justify support of the Mughal dynasty, and second, because it was used in the NWFP and Tribal Areas, not to mention Afghanistan, where the Second Afghan War had come to an end. It is possible that this made the Raj welcome the finding by Qadiani founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmed that jihad against the British was forbidden.

If the state is not ruled according to Islam, how can it conduct jihad, which includes declaring it? This is one of the fundamental problems faced by the jihadi movements, when they are asked to declare who declared the jihad? Jihad is a duty for the believer, but he must conduct it against only those against whom it has been declared. There is a prescribed sequence of priority by which the believer must be ready to conduct jihad. If there is an immediate attack in the neighbourhood, only then is the believer supposed to conduct resistance without waiting for a legally constituted authority to declare jihad.

It thus comes down to the nature of the state. Whether or not it is Islamic depends on whether it rules in accordance with Islam. Colonial states, by which most of the Islamic world was ruled until after World War II, ruled according to their own law, though they administered the personal law according to Islam. After independence, the colonial laws, and thus the legal systems, continued in force. Pakistan was no exception.

Is the state Islamic? According to the orthodox scholars, it is not. There is the reference to ulil amr, to the belief that it is their problem whoever they are, and all the believer owes them is obedience. However, if the believer questions this, he is on a slippery slope, for he makes obedience conditional upon his own judgement. For example, if the Chinese government discourages fasting during Ramazan in Xinjiang, it cannot be obeyed. And if it is disobeyed in this, can it be obeyed in other matters? Is the believer not obliged to change the government? How is he supposed to change the government? By armed struggle? Or by contesting elections? And if the latter, does that not mean accepting the rules of the game, which were drafted elsewhere? It should not be forgotten that the further right one goes, the less one finds acceptance of democracy.

This is particularly for the wing of the PML (N) Ahsan Iqbal belongs to. If the PML(N) includes a large number of opportunists, who fell into the party’s lap in 1985, it also includes the religious right, who are viscerally opposed to the PPP, and now the PTI. This segment of the party is not in the majority, but is very important. This vote is in danger of deserting, as was seen in the NA 120 by-election, where religious parties, the Tehrik Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah and the Milli Muslim League, got a total of 12,900 votes, with their candidates both running as independents.

One of the advantages that the PML(N) has had is that , while supporting a religious party has meant supporting a particular sect, the PML(N) is above sect, and it is possible to support someone of a different sect, even a candidate belonging a sect diametrically opposed to one’s own. If the religious vote breaks up on sectarian lines, not only will PML(N) majorities be threatened, as well as the party’s ability to deliver votes, but it might find itself obliged to adopt a sectarian identity.

This cross-sectarian appeal of the PML(N) indicates two things. First, the differences between the various sects are so narrow that they can easily be bridged. For example, the divide between Deobandi and Barelvi is within the same Hanafi school, itself part of the same Sunni sect. While the Barelvis had a candidate in the shape of the Tehrik-backed independent, the Ahle Hadith, which is the ‘fifth Sunni school’ had put one in the shape of the MML-backed independent.

Secondly, that the sects can abandon their differences and unify if they feel that there is a common opponent. This is particularly relevant when one keeps in mind that in the present case, the common opponent is the Ahmadi community. The anti-Ahmadi movement dates back to the 1953 riots, which saw Martial Law imposed in Lahore, in what with hindsight was seen as a dress rehearsal for the 1958 Martial Law. However, it was not until the Bhutto era that Ahmedis were declared non-Muslims according to the Constitution. While there are Sunni theologians who will argue that Shias are Muslims, there are no non-Ahmedi scholars to argue that they are Muslims. The sects are united on this.

However, whatever Ahsan Iqbal’s personal beliefs, as Interior Minister, he would see the whole form issue as a potential law-and-order one. It should not be forgotten that the 1974 constitutional amendment was because of an Anti-Ahmedi riot. The 1953 riots were behind the martial law. Obviously, the form was potentially emotive, and easily handled. It was a no-brainer.

However, there are wheels within wheels. For example, the person responsible for the bill would obviously be the Law Minister, Zahid Hamid. He has links to the military, being the son of Brigadier Hamid Nawaz, and if he can be caught carrying the can for this particular can of worms, it would be an indirect criticism of the military. It can also not be ignored that he sits for a Sialkot constituency. Qadian is in Gurdaspur district. Gurdaspur lost Shakargarh tehsil to Sialkot as a result of Partition. Ahsan Iqbal also belongs to the same area, and the whole affair assumes an in-house aspect.

Apparently a storm in a teacup, the form affair turns out to be something that exposes the fissures in the government’s support base, and takes the government in a direction where it might not want to go: measuring its performance by Islamic standards.