Strange days for Qazi’s Jamaat

Published in The Express Tribune 

Whether informed by curiosity or kindness, Qazi Hussain Ahmad once sent a naib-amir knocking at Ardeshir Cowasjee’s door. The great man wanted to meet, and Mr. Cowasjee accepted. What followed was recorded forever in one of the late legend’s columns.

It was cosmic conspiracy that these two found themselves in the same room together, absolutes on either side: Qazi versus Cowasjee, Islamism Internationale and cosmopolitan kindness. The two poles, literalism and liberalism, had nothing in common save that both were men of letters (itself uncommon), and that the passing away of both sent those bitter foes – the religious right and the English press – reeling, as they reel even today under dumber, drabber management.

Qazi approached columnist looking ‘for a fight. He announced that he (read what I wrote and) did not agree with any of it. As our conversation went along, he conceded he agreed with certain points. By the end of the evening, he admitted that he agreed with the larger part of what I wrote.’

But when Mr. Cowasjee explained how the Zoroastrians escaped Iran, fleeing their Arab conquerors, Qazi Hussain ‘banged his fists on the table, told me I was wrong, and that Mussalmans never committed zulm’. At one point, the Qazi picked up a table knife and asked his guest, ‘were someone to hold this to your throat and have you recite the Kalma, would you?’

The late Cowasjee sahib gently asked the late Qazi sahib to put the knife back down, and ‘recited the Kalma for him, explaining that I was not willing to die for my religion and certainly did not wish to die for his. Thereafter he adjudged me to be a reasonable man, and we parted as friends.’

While we’re well-familiar with the wit of one, the essence of the other is evident. Having mastered the righteousness of the right, this was vintage Qazi: severe and austere, white-bearded and black-browed, with a closet tolerance shining underneath. In short, whatever the critics say, a good man in an arena starved of good men.

Yes, even with Qazi as boss, the JI had long been evicted from Karachi by the MQM, and was outplayed by Fazl in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Its Jamiat wing remained a bunch of roughnecks set on making college campuses into private playgrounds. His own attempt at making the JI a modern machine, on the lines of Egypt’s Brotherhood, never quite grasped the Brothers’ Pan-Islamic take on governance, or pretended not to.

But Qazi’s success lay less in winning votes than lending the right some desperately needed dignity. His was the healing touch, standing against sectarianism as it exploded in the ‘90s, while raging over the infighting that wrecked the Afghan endgame abroad. ‘There was a time when (Massoud and Hekmatyar) turned up at my doorstep in tatters,’ he said during the Peshawar Accord, brokenhearted, ‘Now they refuse to listen to me.’

While the right went militant, Qazi grew into clear-eyed old age. ‘Stay out of Afghanistan and let the Afghans sort it out among themselves,’ he warned the army, according to an excellent profile by Khaled Ahmed. He also distinguished between the resistance to occupiers in Afghanistan, and the militant threat to Pakistan. But by then, it was all too late.

Pakistan was too far gone, and the man that quoted Iqbal on the role of women – mumtaz (sublime)was attacked by a lady suicide bomber in November last year.

He escaped, but not a year to his death, and the JI is back to its bad old ways; an ugliness to the left and an irrelevancy to the right. It’s fallen out of step with an army that had already gone from patronizing it to petting it on the head. And it’s being nudged out of whatever space it had by men that offer their enemies’ blood to their followers, not weighing scales.

Unelected and unloved, the JI’s gross shots at relevance mean trying to carve out a hard-right niche that doesn’t exist. This will backfire: being more Catholic than the Pope, i.e. trying to outright the right in Pakistan, means tripping into the abyss unfamiliar to the Jamaat’s urban softies. And Munawar Hasan has tripped hard.

We’re all familiar with Mr. Hasan, a cardboard cutout of an amir, saying that the shuhada of the Pakistan Army just aren’t shuhada. Mr. Hasan also had the good sense to say that anyone and everyone felled by the US counted as Shaheed, and the opposite was true for anyone pushing the American agenda.

Let’s follow this logic a while. That means Mr. Hasan takes exception to Brezhnev’s boys, the godless Soviets that spent nine years raping and killing Muslims in Afghanistan (Mr. Hasan’s been infamously vague on rapists’ rights). The reds now count as Shaheed, their deaths bankrolled by Ronnie and Charlie, Stinger missiles thrown in. And since no one advancing American interests merits shahadat, the Afghan resistance falls short. They stand stripped of ‘Shaheed’.

The animals Milosevic unleashed on Bosnia, bombed back by Bill Clinton while all of Europe hemmed and hawed? They make it.

To take this to its absurd conclusions: the Free Syrian Army? Not Shaheed. Pro-Assad psychos? Shaheed.

The Iraqis that fell in the Iran-Iraq war? Not Shaheed. The Iraqis that fell in the Gulf War a year later? Shaheed; Poppy Bush had dumped Saddam by then.

The Indian Muslims that fought in the world wars? Not Shaheed. Dead Nazis? Shaheed.

And were his would-be killers successful, Qazi Hussain Ahmed? Not Shaheed.

Welcome to the Jamaat post-Qazi. But as Bangladesh burns between the JI’s sins of the past and the miserable Sheikh Hasina, it’s time Mr. Hasan understands engaging with the centre. Today’s Erdoğans became conservative heroes by fixing sewage and traffic and economics, not setting satellite dishes alight. The JI will never become Turkey’s AKP. One only asks that it save itself from becoming Bangladesh’s.

In the autumn of his life, the late Qazi Hussain knew moderation to be the only way forward. It’s time Mr. Hasan caught on. If for party’s sake.