The Jamaat Islami’s first Ijtima-i-Aam under its new Amir, Sirajul Haq, opens in Lahore today, due to continue over the weekend, just a week after the Tablighi Jamaat ended its own ijtima in nearby Raiwind. The two reflect the Pakistani public’s wish for a return to Islam, but there are other echoes. The first is that the Jamaat once again has an Amir from Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. The previous one, the first from KP, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, was also the first to hold the Ijtima-i-Aam at the Minar-i-Pakistan. Under its founding Amir, Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, the Jamaat had opposed the creation of Pakistan, though paradoxically it claimed the patriotic label later. Iqbal has also become popular with the Jamaat, particularly its student wing, the Islami Jamiat Tulaba (IJT), which has been bigger among students than its parent party among the populace.

Siraj is a former IJT head. So was his predecessor Munawar Hasan. Qazi Hussain was not just the first Amir from KP, but also the first to have been an IJT member. Not only is Siraj ex-IJT, but so is his Secretary General, Liaquat Baloch. That indicates the strength of the student wing, unique among the political parties. The difference is perhaps because the leading lights of other political parties have wandered in from IJT. Indeed the IJT itself gave the PML(N) Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal and the PTI its former President Javed Hashmi. That they were presidents of the students unions of Engineering University Lahore and Punjab University indicates why the IJT was involved in the first internal rebellion over policy, when its first head, Dr Israr Ahmad left the Jamaat along with Maulana Ameen Ehsan Islahi, when they argued against the Jamaat taking part in politics.

Maulana Maududi did take part, but was never very successful. True, at the time of Qazi’s first ijtima-i-am, the Jamaat was about to enter the IJI coalition and get a ministry in the Punjab, much as it is now in coalition in KP with the PTI. There is a big difference, though. Siraj was himself a coalition minister before becoming Amir.

The KP connection is significant because the Jamaat was very active in the Afghan jihad, an activism which spilled over into the current resistance to US occupation. Qazi Husain rose during the first Afghan jihad, Siraj during the current one.

During the Afghan Jihad, the Jamaat completed the process started under Yahya Khan, when the Jamaat first tried cooperation with the military, after the estrangement that followed the 1953 anti-Qadiani movement that ended with the death sentence being passed on Maulana Maududi, and the Jamaat being treated for years after like the Communists. However, the Jamaat tried to undo this in East Pakistan by making its cadres man Al-Badar and Al-Shams, the ‘crime’ for which Jamaat leaders are these days being sentenced to in Bangladesh. It is interesting that the Jamaat Bangladesh has done better than the Jamaat Pakistan, and has held many more seats and ministries, in alliance with the Bangladesh National Party, than it has ever done in Pakistan.

The Jamaat is useful these days to the establishment, for it has joined the democratic consensus, and thus provides a party which confirms the feeling amongst the people, that the solution to their problems lies in Islam. This feeling is not so much a desire for Islam, as a recognition that neither democracy nor dictatorship produces solutions which solves problems such as energy shortages, inflation or lawlessness. However, the Jamaat might be too closely aligned with both democracy and military dictators to provide solutions, and may be identified too closely with the forces of conservatism.

This brings one to the central problem that the Jamaat faces. It might not be a dynastic party as none of the Amirs have got relations holding high position within the party (Indeed, PTI Punjab chief Ijaz Chaudhry is a son-in-law of former Amir Mian Tufail). However, it is also centred on a personality: Maulana Maududi. While he was a considerable scholar, he was strictly limited to his time and place. No replacement as an ideologue has come forward. Even now, there is no renewal of his work by succeeding scholars. This has inevitably led to the calcification of the Jamaat.

One source of ideological inspiration has been the PTI, with which it has been in alliance. The Jamaat finds itself as one of many rightist parties, a territory it had once occupied alone. It would be a conservative party, but it is now committed to ‘change’. That was a slogan it had associated itself with, but it has found that in alliance with Imran, it cannot bring about the change that Maulana Maududi wanted. The Jamaat is a party that would like to piggyback into office on the back of another party, one which might get votes. There was a section of the party, mostly those who were too young to experience the bitterness of the 1970 election, who would have liked an alliance with the PPP. Now, there is the PTI, which appeals to the same voter as went for the PPP in 1970, and stayed there.

Sirajul Haq has got a tough task ahead: that of reviving a party which was never a ruling party in the first place. He is 52, which makes him older than Qazi Hussain when he became Amir, but younger than any other of his predecessors, and thus is likelier to have a longer tenure than his predecessor, Syed Munawar Hasan. It will take him the rest of his life to position the Jamaat for the 21st century.

The Tableeghi Jamaat needs the same treatment. It too is a 20th century grouping needing to find its way into this century, but has gained particular relevance as a Deobandi group which eschews politics, preferring to concentrate on personal reform and acts of worship. It is also relevant to Sirajul Haq because of its strength in his home province, though it has not translated this into any sort of political clout. As the Jamaat Islami and the Tablighi Jamaat both represent two aspects of the same phenomenon, a more rigorous approach to Islam, their relevance cannot be ignored at a time when a third aspect, the ISIL, is gaining traction. Sirajul Haq was seen gaining space for the Jamaat by his negotiations with the government over the PTI sit-in. This Ijtima-i-aam marks the first shot of the election campaign he obviously expects.

n    The writer is a veteran journalist

    and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.