The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Fingers crossed over growth of the beard

Islamabad, March 7: When the clean-shaven Akram Khan Durrani emerged as the front-runner for the chief ministership of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), he had to grow a beard first. But that was not enough. The beard had to be displayed to the executive committee of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) which approved it after due inspection. Only then did Akram Khan Durrani become the chief minister.

This is but one example of what the MMA is capable of. Having preferred limiting the Mullahs to the mosques in the past, today the Pakistani people are in two minds about their political rise. They are debating whether this is good or bad for their country.

Some believe that the MMA’s entry into legislative politics might have a moderating influence on it. Others think that its electoral success is indicative of the growing religious extremism in the country. The terms of the political discourse have already shifted in favour of the religious parties, they claim. Their fear is that the MMA will now consolidate its political gains and seek to expand its influence.

Lt Gen. (Retd.) Asad Durrani, a former chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Pakistan’s one-time ambassador to Germany and Saudi Arabia, looks at the MMA’s entry into politics as a good development. “Once such groups are confronted with the reality of politics, they either become pragmatic or they are swept away. Also because they are corrupt they have lost the moral edge to take on the established parties,” he claimed.

Durrani felt that the fear of Islamisation of Pakistan was perhaps overstated. “The experience that makes us nervous sometimes is that of the Taliban. I have not seen the MMA pushing that kind of agenda. The MMA does have some cosmetic demands. But if they go against the people, they will be discarded,” he argued.

In the NWFP, the MMA has already closed down cinema halls, threatened professional singers and other cultural artistes from performing in public, attacked shops selling music CDs and videos, banned playing of recorded music on state transport and expressed its displeasure with co-educational institutes. It has set up Nizam-e-Salat committees to implement the Sharia.

M.P. Bhandara, a member of the National Assembly, felt that there was a need to distinguish between the two important constituents of the MMA (it is a coalition of six parties) — the Jamat-e-Islami (JEI) and Jamiat-ul-Ulema-Islam (JUI). “The JEI has more sense than the JUI. There is a certain amount of Taliban nihilism in the JUI. They want Pakistan to be the seventh-century state of their imagination. But much will depend on how the social classes — especially the middle classes — react to Mullah-ism,” he said. But there are those who believe that it is middle classes which have sent the MMA to parliament.

Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi of Pakistan Peoples Party felt that the MMA was seen as an attractive alternative by the middle and the lower-middle classes. They reacted against the overwhelming representation of the landed and the rich in politics, he thought.

Qureshi argued: “The growth of the MMA is an expression of the rise of extremism and fundamentalism in Pakistan. Earlier a minuscule minority voted for the religious parties out of conviction but knowing fully well that they were not voting for policy change. That psychological barrier has now been broken. The MMA is also the only untried political force. So people are giving them a chance,” he claimed.

Mubashir Hasan of the PPP (Shaheed Bhutto) felt that “the strength of the MMA depends on the growing unpopularity of the Americans. They got the popular anti-American vote and the alliance itself came into being because of an anti-US sentiment.” That is why, many believe, that the MMA has a future only in the NWFP and Baluchistan — provinces bordering Afghanistan where anti-American sentiment is high. “In Punjab it is unlikely to find any takers. But if they have to expand, they have to concentrate on Punjab where most of the parliamentary seats are,” a senior journalist said.

The coming days will also test the ability of the MMA to stay together as an alliance. Already the Shias feel marginalised within the MMA. Their leader, Allama Sajid Naqvi, was forced to withdraw from the Senate race in Peshawar at the last minute in favour of Sunni candidates. Of the six parties that form the MMA, the leaders of the Shia grouping, Tehrik-e-Jafaria, do not occupy any significant position in the National Assembly or the Senate.

“The MMA is also fractious. It has not, for example, been able to decide who its parliamentary leader will be. There is talk of a cold war between Qazi Hussain Ahmad of the JEI and Maulana Fazlur Rahman of the JUI. Their image as principled leaders is gone,” said senior journalist Hamid Mir.

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