by Zia Ur Rehman
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
For the past 20 years Younas Sohan, a Christian by faith, has been associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), an ‘Islamic’ political movement whose most members are Muslims by default.
“I joined the Jamaat for bridging the differences between different faiths, especially Islam and Christianity,” said Sohan, who heads the JI Karachi’s minority wing and has served as a district councillor in the Karachi City District Government twice.
His decision to join an Islamic party had brought upon him severe criticism from within his community. “Some people did not even refrain from taunting that I had embraced Islam,” he said. “But I joined the Jamat for practical reasons. In return, the party has treated me with a lot of respect.”
Non-Muslim members of Islamic parties give sound reasons for joining parties based on Islamic ideology and known to work for brethren in faith.
For Sohan, he found the Jamaat to be the best place to narrow the divisions between Muslims and other non-Muslim faiths.
“We, from the platform of the Jamaat, not only solve the basic civic issues of non-Muslim neighbourhoods but also resolve a number of disputes which could result in violence, also those involving blasphemy. With this, the members of other faiths find both protection and respect.”
According to Sohan, there were more than 2,500 non-Muslim members of the Jamaat. He said most of them were from the Christian community but several were also from Hindu community could also be found.
“So far, we don’t have a Sikh member because the community itself is very small in size,” he said. Another religious party to have a thriving minority wing it the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F).
Asiya Nasir, a Christian woman from Balochistan, is associated with the JUI-F and is currently serving as an MNA on its ticket. She entered the limelight with her harsh speech in the National Assembly after the assassination of federal minorities minister in March 2011.
Qari Muhamamd Usman, JUI-F’s deputy head in Sindh, said the party had more than 300 non-Muslim members in the city. “We are regularly consulted on matters pertaining to us and other key issues,” he said while talking to The News.
A new trend
Interviews with activists and non-Muslim community leaders suggest the affiliation of non-Muslims with Islamic parties was a relatively new phenomenon.
One of the key reasons was to hold weight in the local bodies election system introduced by former president General Pervez Musharraf in 2001.
According to Zahid Farooq, the joint director of Urban Resource Centre, the affiliation of members of other faiths with Islamic parties can be traced back to the time when the local bodies system by Musharraf was introduced.
“There are more than 225 seats reserved for non-Muslims at the union council, town and city council level,” he said. “The JI benefitted the most from the boycott of Muttahida Qaumi Movement in the 2001 local bodies’ polls and required a number of non-Muslim members to fill the reserved seats.”
At present, he said, the JI and JUI-F were the only two religious parties with thriving minority wings and representation in the parliament.
Michael Javed, a Christian leader who was elected as a parliamentarian thrice, also concurs with Farooq’s assessment. “After abolishment of the separate electorate system, many non-Muslim individuals joined the Islamic parties only to get tickets to reserved seats, be it for local bodies or general elections,” he said.
As religious parties continue to support the controversial blasphemy laws, which are at times used as a justification for violence against religious minorities in Pakistan, they also present themselves as champions of minority rights and court non-Muslims’ voters across the country, activists remarked while talking to The News.
Erum Javed, a researcher associated with the Aurat Foundation, said religious parties, especially the JI, had resisted the removal of hateful material against minorities from text books being used to teach children in government schools of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
She said religious parties mainly recruited members from the Christian community, particularly in Karachi and Punjab.
On the other hand, a section of activists believe that a sense of insecurity among non-Muslims was prompting them to join Islamic parties, in a bid to try and stop the attitude of violence against them.
They also remarked that Islamic parties had recently started concentrating on recruiting non-Muslims because their votes proved to be a crucial to swing the demographic in their favour in a number of constituencies.
Recently, the JI has also started to consider the expansion of its cadre among non-Muslims and in the first time of the party’s history in November last year, members of other faiths were invited to attend its annual three-day congregation (ijtima) in Lahore. Sohan was the one who led a delegation of non-Muslims from Karachi to attend the congregation in Lahore.
There are more than 150 National Assembly’s constituencies in the country where the votes of non-Muslims play a key role in deciding which party’s candidate emerges victorious.
Erum said it was likely that the increase in number of seats was the reason religious parties had begun to eye communities of other faiths.