LAHORE - Role of security establishment, sectarian intolerance, failure to take up public issues, periodic alliances with secular parties and lack of resources are main reasons behind the growing unpopularity of the religious parties in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, according to the leaders of five key rightwing parties.

Talking to The Nation they however expressed the hope that they can still win popular support with unity among their ranks and continuity of struggle.

Pakistan has followers of Brelvi, Deobandi, Ahlehadith and Shia schools of thought and many parties claim to be the main representative of each sect.

More than 10 parties registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan claim backing of popular Brelvi (Sunni) voters. Almost as many parties claim to represent Deobandi branch of Sunnis. There are more than five organisations each that belong to Ahlehadith/Wahabi/Salafi and Shia schools of thought.

Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) does not represent any sect and is said to be an advocate of Pan-Islamism, a political movement started worldwide in early nineteenth century advocating unity of Muslims under Islamic state.

This correspondent talked to the leaders of JI, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Jamiat Ahlehadith and Islami Tehreek to get their opinion on why the religious parties are losing ground with the passage of time and what kind of future they foresee.

The leaders’ opinions were sought at a time when a strong move has been started to form an alliance of religious parties or revive the Muthida Majlise Amal, a coalition that has been dormant for past many years.

The MMA was a conglomerate of six rightwing parties formed in Parvez Musharraf tenure. The alliance formed government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan after general elections of 2002.

This happened for the first time in country’s history that religious groups exclusively formed their government, as in the past they would only join coalition governments led by non-religious parties.

But the MMA was dissolved after five years, in 2007. Many believe the powerful security establishment backed the alliance, an argument rebuffed by the religious leaders.

Dr Farid Paracha of Jamaat Islami said constituency politics was behind the unpopularity of religious parties in Pakistan.

“People in villages vote according to the caste system, and it is very hard to break the tradition although Jamaat is struggling against the evil,” he said.

“[Also] you cannot discount the money factor in the election. Every political party spends billions of rupees in their campaign and Election Commission had badly failed to check it,” he said, questioning how the religious parties’ candidates could compete in this with industrialists, business tycoons and land lords who contest election on the tickets of secular parties.

When asked if sectarianism had any role in undercutting the collective political power of the rightwing players, he said, “Yes, sectarian intolerance is a key reason behind lack of popularity of religious parties but even non-sectarian parties like JI have lost ground in recent years.”

Again emphasising the funds factor, he said “the JI does not have the resources to compete against the moneyed political parties”.

He however said the unity among the religious organisations could lead us to realise the goal of making Pakistan an Islamic welfare state. The JI, he said, was therefore making efforts to unite the parties.

JUP-Imam Norani president Pir Ijaz Hashmi said, “Although religious parties were not as popular as they should be before General Zia’s period but they witnessed a continuous decline after the 80s, mainly due to interference of security establishment which weakened the basic structure of the religious parties.”

He claimed the JUP (a representative of Brelvis) was a popular party before Zia’s regime but it broke into different factions because of interference of “powers that be”.

When asked why security establishment was interested in splitting the religious parties, Hashmi said it was done to appease the western and secular powers that did not want to see Islamic parties become popular in Pakistan.

Citing example of MMA’s success, he further claimed the secular lobby in Pakistan and abroad never wanted unity among religious parties because they witnessed the success of their unity. So, he said, whenever a move was started in religious groups for unity, secular lobby became active against it.

Late Shah Ahmad Noorani’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan broke into JUP and JUP-Niazi faction in his lifetime when his colleague Maulana Abdul Sattar Khan Niazi parted ways with him.

The party further split into JUP-Imam Noorani led by Pir Ijaz Hashmi, JUP-Noorani led by Sahibzada Abual Kher Zubair and another lesser known faction. Recently a new faction JUP led by Qari Zawwar Bahadar has also emerged. Zawwar was a key person behind the making of MMA.

Hashmi minced no words in blaming the powerful institution [of ISI] being behind the fragmentation of their party.

JUI-S general secretary Maulana Abdur Rauf Farooqi said personal interests of religious parties’ leaders always overshadow their collective goal of establishing an Islamic society.

“Religious parties started indulging in sectarian issues soon after independence and failed to set a collective goal,” he said.

The other reason behind the lack of public support of religious parties, he said, was that they never raise social issues. “Religious parties never raised voice against loadshedding, unavailability of clean water and other public issues like abduction and harassment of women in Pakistan.”

JUI-S is one of the popular Deobandi/Hanfi parties. Its head Maulana Samiul Haq is a well-known religious scholar in KP, Fata and Balochistan. He made his own faction of Jamiat after differences with Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the chief of JUI-F, the country’s major party of Deobandis.

Jamiat Ahlehadith chief Allama Ibtisam Elahi Zaheer said the alliances of religious parties with secular parties time and again was the main reason that people did not trust them anymore.

“When a religious party makes alliance with PML-N, PTI or PPP people think why they should not vote directly to such parties instead of religious parties.”

He said religious parties failed to train the people on the basics of Islamic ideology and as a result majority of them believe that enforcement of Shariah meant dislodging their personal freedoms. So, he said, fearing suppression and usurpation of their rights in the name of religion they do not vote for religious parties.

Ibtisam stressed the need for collective efforts on the part of religious parties to teach the people and make them understand that Islam does not bar personal freedoms; rather it provides a framework which brings a discipline in their individual and collective existence.

Late Allama Zaheer, the father of Ibtisam, formed Jamiat Ahlehadith but it was divided into different factions after his death. Now Professor Sajid Mir leads Markazi Jamiat Ahlehadith, Abdul Qadeer Khamosh leads another Jamiat Ahlehadith faction.

Milli Muslim League – the political front for banned Jamaatud Dawa of Hafiz Saeed – also claims backing of Ahlehadth/Wahabi/Salfi Muslims.

Professor Zulfiqar Haidri, the main leader of Allama Sajid Naqvi’s Islami Tehreek and a spokesperson of Shia Ulema Council, believes that sectarian intolerance is the main reason behind the unpopularity of religious parties. He also said leaders of religious parties rarely speak on public issues, which is another reason for their limited popularity.