Coddling Pakistan’s Islamists

Pakistan’s government appears keen these days to coddle its Islamist allies. A little over a week ago, Interior Minister Rehman Malik kissed and made up with Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the conservative Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F). The JUI-F had threatened to walk out of the weak coalition government unless its demands were promptly met. And ...

FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan's government appears keen these days to coddle its Islamist allies. A little over a week ago, Interior Minister Rehman Malik kissed and made up with Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the conservative Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F). The JUI-F had threatened to walk out of the weak coalition government unless its demands were promptly met.

And what a list of demands. Chief among its priorities was the release of more than 300 JUI-F prisoners picked up from various parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for their alleged support or active involvement with the Taliban. The government rapidly folded, agreeing to free the terror suspects, most of whom have reportedly not been tried yet in a court of law.

Pakistan’s government appears keen these days to coddle its Islamist allies. A little over a week ago, Interior Minister Rehman Malik kissed and made up with Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the conservative Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F). The JUI-F had threatened to walk out of the weak coalition government unless its demands were promptly met.

And what a list of demands. Chief among its priorities was the release of more than 300 JUI-F prisoners picked up from various parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for their alleged support or active involvement with the Taliban. The government rapidly folded, agreeing to free the terror suspects, most of whom have reportedly not been tried yet in a court of law.

But that’s not all. The government also agreed to appoint one of Rehman’s men to head the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), a constitutional body that advises parliament and the government on Shari’a law. A conservative JUI-F cleric from Baluchistan, Mohammad Khan Sheerani will chair the body after its current chief, the charismatic, moderate Mohammad Khalid Masood, steps down in the next few days.

Pakistan’s rights community was quick to criticize the move. In a scathing statement  released earlier this week, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said it was "seriously concerned that such nominations would strengthen forces of obscurantism and strongly suggests that CII positions should not be given away as a reward for political services of dubious value." The appointment is "too heavy a price to pay for the passage of the federal budget, or even the survival of the federal government," it said.

Members of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), a non-governmental organization which has in the past brought public attention to examples of Islamist extremism against women, also expressed "serious reservations" over the expected appointment of the JUI-F cleric, claiming that his membership in a political party disqualified him from what is considered a non-political scholarly post. Mullahs and ministers don’t mix, the NGO said in statements published in the Pakistani press, highlighting the historic example of former leader General Zia al-Haq, who Islamized Pakistani society back in the 1980s at the expense of women and minorities. 

Their fears may not be displaced. The JUI-F, after all, is the same organization that turned on former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after he described members of a persecuted sect, the Ahmadis, as "our brethren and an asset of the country."

More than 90 Ahmadis were killed and scores wounded in two well-coordinated attacks on Ahmadi mosques in the Punjabi capital, Lahore, late last month. The Ahmadis are considered non-Muslims by Pakistani law because they do not accept that the Prophet Muhammad was the last of God’s messengers. They also worship their 19th century founder, Mirza Ghulum Ahmad. It’s illegal for an Ahmadi to "directly or indirectly" pose as a Muslim or act "in any manner whatsoever (that) outrages the religious feelings of Muslims."

Despite Sharif’s best efforts to backpeddle, the JUI-F and other religious groups quickly pounced, claiming his comments were potentially blasphemous and definitely unconstitutional (The second amendment of the Pakistani constitution declares Ahmadis non-Muslim).

JUI-F leader Fazlur Rehman, Rehman Malik’s strange new political pal, is also using his new-found leverage to try to revive the Islamist alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a six-member coalition of religious parties that disintegrated in 2007 following bitter policy rifts. Rehman, a burly cleric with a snow-white beard and distinctive orange turban, is effectively trying to be in the opposition and the government at the same time.

The question now is will the JUI-F chief, Rehman, revive the MMA, and if so will he push the government more toward the opposition’s anti-American views? Perhaps, but it seems not everyone is prepared to coddle him. Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) senior leader Siraj-ul-Haq, a former member of the MMA, called Rehman out on Wednesday. "The JUI-F will have to quit the government if it is interested in reviving the MMA," he said at a press conference. Maybe it’s true; you can’t have your halwa and eat it too, not even if you’re Fazlur Rehman.

Rania Abouzeid is an independent journalist based in Islamabad.

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