Can A Change Of Guard At JI Fortify Political Islam In Pakistan?

Though more of a populist, Hafiz Naeem has to face the biggest challenge not only from the external front but also from within the organization

Can A Change Of Guard At JI Fortify Political Islam In Pakistan?

The outcome of the 8 February 2024 general elections in Pakistan painted a stark portrayal of the state of parliamentary Islamic political parties in Pakistan, prompting significant shifts in leadership dynamics within the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). This pivotal moment saw the transition from Sirajul Haq to Hafiz Naeemur Rehman, signifying a noteworthy transformation within the party's leadership landscape.

Coming from vastly different geographical backgrounds and social milieus, both Sirajul Haq and Hafiz Naeem ascended to leadership roles within Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) through their involvement in its student wing, Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT). While Sirajul Haq pursued a general education (MA in education), Naeem holds a degree in civil engineering. Notably, Naeem chooses not to append the title "Engineer" to his name, in contrast to many within the JI ranks, a departure reminiscent of former Jihadi Afghan leader Gul Badin Hekmatyar's approach.

Sirajul Haq couldn’t cultivate any significant political impressions once his party decided to part ways with the Imran Khan-led PTI government in 2018. His party's choice to opt for a 'Solo Flight' strategy—avoiding election coalitions—and contesting the election solely on its symbol proved costly. This approach hardly yielded any tangible results, as some predicted.

The most significant setback for Sirajul Haq during his tenure as Amir of the JI was the flight of electables from Dir, as witnessed elsewhere, who, along many diehard members, joined the populist Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Sirajul Haq tried to widen the class base and support for JI by portraying himself as a pious layman with little property. Even as provincial finance minister, he adopted austerity measures by not using air-conditioned facilities or indulging in official luxuries available to ministries. On each Labour Day, 1 May, he spent the whole day with the labourer classes, sometimes harvesting crops with farm workers, on other occasions wearing a red Quli (porter) uniform at the railway station. However, as a leader, he failed to challenge the ruling elites. Under his leadership, JI showed confusion on the war on terror and put up resistance to it, costing JI a lot.

This occurrence gave the impression that what was once considered the vanguard of the Islamic revolution was now left with little public support after Qazi Hussain Ahmed, with only individuals driven by vested interests remaining within the party, most notably those affiliated with charity organisations run under the umbrella of JI.

This prompted Karachiite Hafiz Naeemur Rehman to resort to populism. From the very start, he involved himself and his party in the overbilling of K-Electric, the private electricity distribution company, ignoring the issue of privatisation of electricity and even advocating for giving opportunities to other companies to compete with K-Electric in electricity provision. This was akin to fighting symptoms while leaving the disease intact. He also took up the issue of Bahria Town affectees, as people in protest occupied offices of the biggest housing scheme of the country and took to the streets to protest against alleged fraud in plot allotments. Though he successfully solved problems for some real estate brokers, his campaign produced no results and was doomed to fail when he attempted to entertain the real estate tycoon Malik Riaz of Bahria Town at the office of JI in Karachi. Despite his tireless efforts, he made little impact in a city dominated by PTI and PPP. 

When he assumed the charge of city Amir, a former activist of JI told me that Hafiz Naeem was “a sort of NGOtic person.” To attract youth, he started IT courses in Jamat centres. However, this made little impact and almost yielded no results in terms of recruiting or votes. In the process, he portrayed himself as the saviour of the city on one hand, from the provincial government of the PPP, and on the other hand, from MQM and PTI. It was an uphill task and remained unfulfilled, though he gave it linguistic twists and turns and ethnic colouring to safeguard the urbanite Muhajirs and Pashtuns against the onslaught of rural Sindhis, backed by the PPP provincial government of Sindh. He portrayed himself as the mayor of the city even before the start of the local bodies’ elections 2023. Unfortunately, he was not in the good books of the Establishment like Naimat Ullah Khan and Abdul Sattar Afghani before him. Circumstances forced him to align himself with the imprisoned Imran Khan’s PTI. However, despite considerable backing from council members, he was barred – by one way or another – from becoming the mayor of the biggest metropolis of the country. However, his investment of money during both local bodies’ and general elections to promote his political personality made him popular in the JI circles as compared to others, and helped him earn the slot of chief of JI.

Depoliticisation of students has had a big impact on JI cadre-building. Apart from middle-ranking state officials, at present most cadres have a background in small and medium-sized businesses

It would indeed be a gross mistake to consider him representing more radical elements within JI. On the contrary, as the newly elected Amir, chosen by pious and righteous members of the JI, Hafiz Naeem may surpass older leaders like Liaquat Baloch, but not radical leaders like former Senator Mushtaq Ahmed and Maulana Hidayat Rahman. The passiveness of the cadre of JI can be judged from the very fact that Syed Munawar Hassan, who tried to take a radical stance on the war on terror and put up resistance to it, was sidelined. Though the Jamat’s Shura or central body has to present a list of three names, the party cadres can elect any member they wish to choose, including those who are not included in the list. This time both the Shura and cadre give preference to Hafiz Naeem over former senator Mushtaq Ahmed, who was very vocal both in the Senate and outside the forum as he supported every movement for rights and from below. 

Though more of a demagogue, Hafiz Naeem has to face the biggest challenge not only from the external front but also from within the organisation, where Maulana Hidayat Rahman from Balochistan and Mushtaq Ahmed from KP are contenders for leadership, and each has the support of local mass movements.

JI has always had a narrow class base. Founded nearer to the partition of India by Maududi, a religious scholar, JI is typical of an organisation of middle-class intelligentsia or professional classes in earlier stages, consisting mostly of adherents to literary circles and later on middle-ranked officers in state-run institutions. Based on the Islamic ideology best known as political Islam, they organise akin to Lenin’s Bolsheviks (Communist Party), emphasising vanguardism and an organisation of committed cadres. JI's most important leadership used to come from the state-run education system. The advent of neoliberalism and the war on terror had an impact on JI. 

Today, the student wing IJT, while retaining presence in public educational institutions, has almost no political presence in private education institutions. Depoliticisation of students has had a big impact on JI cadre building. Apart from middle-ranking officials, at present, most cadres have a background in small and medium-sized businesses, mostly engaged in running private schools, clinics, small hospitals, pharmaceutical businesses, and real estate and housing schemes.

Sirajul Haq couldn’t bridge the present with the recent past—neither in terms of Dawah nor in the field of parliamentary politics—nor make any impression as a challenger to repressive regimes. Though more energetic and populist compared to his predecessor, Hafiz Naeem, using more radical language, still he has neither the background of a radical leader nor the support of such elements. 

However, under the leadership of Hafiz Naeemur Rehman, the new Amir of JI, it all depends on the situation on the ground and the social background of the committed cadre, the so-called ‘Arakeen,' to take JI to the pinnacles of influence that were once considered the hallmark of political Islam.