First published at IDSA website, here
On December 18, more than 40 religious organizations gathered at Minto Park in Lahore for a jalsa organized by the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (Defence of Pakistan Council). Prominent amongst those present were Maulvi Sami-ul Haq (the head ofJamiat Ulema-I Islam – Sami and a prominent Deobandi scholar with close links to the Taliban), Liaqat Baloch of the Jamat-i-Islami, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed theAmeer of the JuD (Jamaat ud Dawa), Mohammed Ahmed Ludhianvi (Sipah-e SahabaPakistan, now renamed as Ahl-e-Sunnat wal Jamaat), Ibtisam Elahi Zaheer (leader of Jamiat Ahl-e Hadith) and Hamid Gul, former DG ISI. Fazlur Rehman, the head of JUI-F (the other faction of the JUI) was conspicuous by his absence.
However, out of all the groups present, the most visible presence was that of the Jamaat-ud Dawa. In fact, this was the first time that Hafiz Mohammed Saeed addressed such a large multi-group congregation. JuD key role in this rally can be gauged from the fact that its flags were visible across the large ground, and some newspapers like Nawa-i-Waqt estimated that attendance at the rally far exceeded Imran Khan’s rally earlier on October 31. The rally focused on Pakistan’s relations with the United States and advised the political leadership to abandon all cooperation with America. Organized at a time when Pakistan-US relations are at their lowest, the primary intent of this gathering seems to have been the consolidation of religious groups to reassert their position in Pakistani politics.
Primarily, the congregation sought to reinforce Pakistan’s Islamic nationalism. The main banner on the podium was inscribed with the famous slogan of the partition years: Pakistan ka matlab kya? La allah ill allah (What is the meaning of Pakistan? The answer is: “There is no God but Allah”). Below it, the main heading proclaimed that Difa-e Pakistan jihad fi sabil allah se hoga (The defence of Pakistan lies in jihad in the path of Allah). A picture of the Pakistani flag adorned one side of the banner; while the other side carried the words ‘Allah hu Akbar’ (God is Great). Images of weapons of war were also prominently displayed on the banner.
The conference thus fused Pakistani nationalism with Islam and conflated Pakistan’s defence with jihad against external powers. Ibtisam Elahi Zaheer was particularly vociferous in his speech and declared that if America decides to attack Pakistan the whole country will participate in defence of the nation. And he added that the defence of the nation was also the defence of Islam.
Such a stand benefits both the mullahs and the military. Recent incidents like the NATO air strikes have clearly aroused nationalistic sentiments in the country. Hence, a public display of patriotism by religious parties clearly increases their popularity with the public. On the other hand, the military had clearly lost popular confidence as the defender of Pakistan especially after the Bin Laden fiasco and the NATO air strikes. Thus, the backing of the mullahs to take on the US gives the military a much needed character certificate.
The show of strength at Lahore indicates that there is some kind of a consensus between the military and the religious parties. At a moment when Pakistan is reeling under a political crisis (thanks to memogate and NATO attacks) such a public spectacle had to have the blessings of the agencies. By allowing such a public outburst by Islamic parties, the military might have killed two birds with one stone: obtain the support of religious organizations on the one hand and reaching out to the jihadi militants on the other, as a promoter of militant Islamic nationalism.
Winning the confidence of the mullahs also serves another, more immediate purpose for the military. As it has become clear that the Establishment has reinitiated negotiations with the TTP (Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan), the support of the SIC (Sunni Ittehad Council) could be helpful in persuading the TTP to take a more flexible stand vis-à-vis the establishment. This could occur in two ways. Either the SIC will try to co-opt the Taliban and persuade it not to work against the military, or the military’s cooption of the SIC would isolate, corner and thereby force the TTP to come to the negotiating table. Many leaders of the Difa-e Pakistan movement like Sami-ul Haq and Hafiz Mohammed Saeed are known to have close contacts with the Taliban. These links will certainly play a major role in any future dialogue.
The second possibility is that the Difa congregation was a political move by the military to put pressure on the civilian government and the opposition parties. Although religious parties in Pakistan have never enjoyed significant electoral support, they enjoy political power through indirect means. Firstly, it is entirely possible that the army is trying to put its political eggs in many baskets. Although not all religious organizations participating in the rally are involved in mainstream politics, they do have an indirect influence. By whipping up religious passions against countries like USA, India and Israel, these groups can ensure that mainstream parties do not stray too much from the military’s line on these countries. This was evident from the numerous allusions to the civilian government’s decision to give India MFN status.
Lastly, by staging such a massive gathering in Lahore, it appears that the military is trying to bring JuD into mainstream politics, which is clearly an ominous sign of the times to come. Co-opting such groups could give an impetus and also a sanction for extremist politics in Pakistan in the future. As they get further entrenched in Pakistan’s polity, civilian governments will find it more difficult to contain them. All these factors could further destabilize and possibly reverse the process of the restoration of democracy in Pakistan.