Imran Khan went into hiding when then-president Gen. Pervez Musharraf imposed a state of emergency, in November 2007, and his regime started rounding up politicians, lawyers, and judges. Khan decided to grandly present himself for arrest at Lahore’s University of the Punjab—stronghold of Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing, Islami Jamiat Tulaba. But the students were ungracious hosts. Instead of thwarting the former cricket hero’s arrest, Jamaat activists dragged him by the hair and shoved him into a waiting police van.
Qazi Hussain Ahmed was disappointed with the students. He condemned Khan’s manhandling, setting the trend—since grown strong—of distancing the Jamaat from the wilder forays of its student union. Ahmed went further. He took the inner circle of his party to Khan’s house in Lahore making his dissociation from the act of violence real by apologizing to him in person. Khan was touched. Ahmed had a way of being persuasive with sincere understatement. When Khan’s father died the following March, it was Ahmed who led the funeral prayer at Zaman Park. The relationship between Jamaat and Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf continued after Ahmed’s retirement as party chief.
Ahmed died of cardiac arrest on Jan. 6. He was 74.
He had already had two bypasses, the result of helming a religious party for four stormy tenures, from 1987 to 2009, during which he removed the hard edges of the party’s ideology—personally growing into the high status of a wise man wedded to the Islamic principles of seeking the middle path and concession, which he kept articulating in his last days. He had to take the party away from the anathema of being host to early Al Qaeda terrorists and being counted among the “nonstate actors” of Pakistan that the world abominated.
He may have succumbed finally to the stress he endured on Nov. 19 during an attempt on his life in the Mohmand tribal agency by a woman suicide-bomber dispatched by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Hakimullah Mehsud through warlord Omar Afridi.
Ahmed was to be punished for his remark last April that “the Afghan Taliban’s resistance against U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan is true jihad, but that of the Pakistani Taliban in Pakistan is un-Islamic.” A video message released by Mehsud had him saying that Ahmed was “a traitor to the cause of jihad and a secret member of the Jewish Lobby because he favors democracy.” What he said next gave a measure of how much Ahmed had grown out of the mould of a traditional religious leader: “There was a time when educated people, students, religious scholars and others used to respect you a lot. But I can no longer trust you, Qazi sahib. Why are you calling our battle ‘disorder’ instead of jihad?”
He was a personable man of piety who forswore the status of a preaching mullah.
Ahmed’s moderation came from the process of adjustment to the political kaleidoscope, taking his party from a jihad-oriented religious organization in the 1980s to a more democratic identity in the 1990s—in other words, from a covert war led by Jamaat to a covert war led by the Deobandi consensus in the tutelage of Al Qaeda. His personality helped the Jamaat in making the transition from jihad to politics-as-usual under democracy. His rare mix of tough posture and tolerance for divergent views is a hard act to follow for his successor, Syed Munawar Hasan, whom some observers see as a bit of an ineffectual stormy petrel trying to radicalize the party in step with the Taliban. (Another Jamaat moderate, Prof. Ghafoor Ahmad, died on Dec. 26, at 85.)Born in 1938 in a village near Nowshera in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Ahmed was the youngest of 10 siblings. He never really took seriously his father’s naming him after Hussain Ahmad Madni, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind leader. (Madni had had an argument with Allama Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet, over the nature of the modern state; and Ahmed never tired of quoting Iqbal’s Urdu and Persian verse.) Given his family’s religious backdrop Ahmed could not have become a secular-liberal as some of the Pakhtun youths had chosen to under the influence of the Congress Party, but he never aspired to the status of a cleric—and was not scared of admitting it as emir of the Jamaat. He became active in the Jamiat, the student wing of Abul Ala Maududi’s party, until he reached its highest rung.
As if in preparation for the role set for him, Ahmed had stayed away from the madrassah, completing his M.Sc. degree in geography from the University of Peshawar, getting busy with his family business, and joining the Jamaat only in 1970 to soon climb to the top of the party hierarchy in his province. In 1978 he had become secretary-general of the party, just in time for the mounting of the first Afghan jihad in our times.
The Jamaat became Pakistan’s major pawn in the U.S.-Saudi-supported deniable war in Afghanistan. Being a Pakhtun was important in those days of radical activism. Ahmed was an ideal leader, and a favorite of the student wing. The strategists of Pakistan perhaps had a hand in getting Ahmed to head the Lahore-based party whose Punjabi chief was not known to be too bright politically. Ahmed succeeded him in 1987 even as the covert jihad in Afghanistan was winding down and resurfacing in India-administered Kashmir.
Ahmed, charismatic albeit deceptively stern of visage, had become acquainted with the leaders of the Afghan militias while they bided their time in Peshawar under the auspices of the Pakistan Army. One relationship that he cemented was with Hizb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and it proved to be empowering because Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency leaned in favor of the Afghan leader for funds and weapons.
Most people thought the friendship with Hekmatyar was based on identity of views. More correctly, it was based on Hekmatyar’s deep reverence for Ahmed, unfortunately offset by the former’s pathologically suspicious and stubborn nature. Ahmed never encouraged his friend to fight with other mujahideen commanders as he disliked the Pakhtun-Northern Alliance split on the eve of victory against the Soviets. A Pakistani journalist visiting Iran in 2001 together with Ahmed observed: “Qazi sahib met Hekmatyar, who had sought sanctuary in Tehran, and criticized him for not making an effort to reach out to the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, commander of the Jamiat-i-Islami militia. He saw no merit in the infighting of the mujahideen. Hekmatyar defended himself while showing utmost deference to Qazi sahib.”
Days before his death, Ahmed’s advice to Pakistan’s Army was: “Stay out of Afghanistan and let the Afghans sort it out among themselves. Don’t fear India’s presence in Afghanistan because the Afghans will never allow Indians to dictate to them. Afghanistan must be a state in which the Pakhtuns of the south live as brothers to the non-Pakhtuns of the north.”The mellowing of Qazi Hussain Ahmed was a gradual process and it was good for the Jamaat as it suffered the spectacle of other schools of thought—the Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith—monopolizing the arena of jihad in Afghanistan and India. But the early days were Ahmed’s radical phase. In 1990, he turned his attention inward and sought to revolutionize Pakistani society through “social justice” and “equality” enforced by his newly-founded youth outfit Pasban. The slogan was: “If we don’t succeed in bringing about equitable redistribution of wealth, we’ll equitably redistribute hunger and poverty.” Ahmed himself came out at the head of aggressive processions with the slogan: “Zalimo!Qazi araha hai!” (“Oppressors! Qazi is coming!”) Ahmed was big on dharnas or sit-ins with which he demonstrated party muscle to subdue the government and attract the middle class to his alternative power.
Perhaps Ahmed learned his most useful lesson handling Pasban, which, he soon discovered, had been infiltrated by intelligence agents. It may also be the only blot on his career. In 1994, tired of the threat of violence Pasban was using, he decided to disband it. He formed Shabab-e-Milli, which he controlled more effectively but the response to which was lukewarm by activated youths. The spark ignited by Pasban was gone. Shabab got busy as a youthful ancillary helping organize Jamaat’s campaigns. Meanwhile, other rising stars of jihad, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, took up troubleshooting activities, even charging fees for helping citizens obtain informal justice.
Ahmed was a personable man of piety who forswore the status of a preaching mullah. He was loyal to the inspiration and lessons of the founder of the Jamaat, Maududi, and maintained his contacts with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose founder Hasan al Banna was celebrated in Jamaat publications. Muslim Brotherhood intellectual Syed Qutb had accepted Maududi as his inspiration for the establishment of an Islamic state. Ahmed must have later grasped the irony of choice on the part of Al Qaeda, which adopted the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba in lieu of the Jamaat, when the Pakistani state controlling the jihad took the baton away from him. Al Qaeda today boasts Syed Qutb as its preceptor.
There were other ways in which Ahmed paid homage to Maududi. He kept away from the Sunni-Shia rift among the religious parties and tried his best to keep Pakistan out of the sectarian war developing in the Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iran. (Pakistan’s then-ruler Gen. Zia-ul-Haq was attracted to the side of Sunni states for confessional as well as economic reasons.) On one occasion when fanatics were ransacking the Iranian cultural center on the Mall in Lahore, he surprised everyone by appearing on the scene to talk sense to the mob.
Disenchantment, too, taught some lessons. Riaz Mohammad Khan, a former foreign secretary of Pakistan, in his 2011 book Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism, and Resistance to Modernity tells the story of the so-called Peshawar Accord among the mujahideen in 1992: “It was arranged for Qazi Hussain Ahmed to meet the two leaders on the afternoon of April 20 in Peshawar, where he was to join Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to meet the Tanzeemat leadership. After meeting for several hours with rival leaders … Qazi Hussain Ahmed came to the Governor’s House for the prime minister’s meeting frothing at the mouth, exceedingly upset with [Massoud] and [Hekmatyar]. When asked about his discussions, he remarked: ‘There was a time when these people had turned up at my doorstep in tatters. Today they refuse to listen to me.’ Throughout the evening’s meeting, which lasted for nearly five hours until well past midnight, Qazi Hussain Ahmed sat stone-faced without making a single intervention.”
(The Jamaat website says Ahmed successfully brokered peace between Sudan’s Islamist leader Hassan Tarabi and the country’s strongman Omar Hassan al- Bashir. He also tried to smooth over differences among Kashmiri militant groups.)
There was an episode in the life of the Jamaat that Ahmed wanted desperately to live down: taking part in the 2002 general elections in which General Musharraf—allowed by the Supreme Court to be Army chief and president with powers to selectively amend the Constitution—helped religious parties win in the North West Frontier Province and Balochistan with a little support from the ISI. Ahmed took over as president of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the unlikely electoral alliance of religious parties of all stripes that the Shia had also joined in hopes of sitting among their killers for security.
In 2003, after scores of Shia had been massacred during a religious procession, the imam of the Hazara Imambargah at Quetta told reporters that the attack was carried out by Sipah-e-Sahaba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Ahmed, who was present on the occasion, was asked by the imam to intercede with others in the MMA to stop the bloodbath. Ahmed replied in his familiar honest style: “The government is responsible for the killings, and since MMA is in the government it is equally to blame.”
The MMA phase was not Ahmed’s finest hour for it saw the Jamaat decline in influence in the face of the rising power of the Taliban and their Deobandi backers; and its luster was greatly damaged after the burden of provincial governance proved too unmanageable for the unwieldy and fractious coalition it was part of. (A nadir was reached in 2009, after the MMA was long gone, when Sufi Muhammad of Swat denounced democracy and the Constitution of Pakistan as un-Islamic, and denigrated religious leaders like Ahmed as ideological deviants.)
After the fracturing of the MMA—which had imposed the draconian Hasba Bill on the NWFP envisioning the creation of a morality police similar to what existed in Afghanistan under the Taliban; and which allowed Swat to fall under the guns of the Taliban—Ahmed put together a milder Milli Yakjehti (National Solidarity) Council to tamp down sectarian strife, this time based on a peaceful articulation of principles. The wages of ignoring Ahmed’s moderate voice is that today the state watches as the Hazara Shia of Quetta silently fall to the firing squads of jihadi outfits backed by Pakistan’s madrassah network. Out of 600,000 Hazara in Quetta, some 800 have been killed in the recent past.Ahmed was saint-like to people who met him. The secret of this disarmament of fear was his nonthreatening personality, unlike your regular cleric who warns you of the punishment in the Hereafter and challenges neighboring states here on Earth with pious terror. As a Pakhtun he was a violation of the archetype. He was flexible in the treatment of enemies. He had the gift of compassion and called on his enemies as well as friends in times of their duress. His slogan was embedded in the politics of “confluence of the politically unlike.”
“He had a rebellious streak in him,” says Maulana Tahir Ashrafi of the All Pakistan Ulema Council. “He often went against Jamaat ideology, and Jamaat members will concede this. During his years as chief, he raised the party’s national stature but failed to make it into a popular mainstream party.” (Jamaat says Ahmed’s efforts over the years helped enlist some 4.5 million new members.) Ashrafi says Ahmed was stubborn but also open-minded, and liberals and the religious-minded listened to him with equal attentiveness. “He was also always very excited about Muslims abroad and their success stories,” recalls Ashrafi. “Pakistan needs men like him.”
“Jamaat-e-Islami is part of the Muslim Brotherhood parties across the Islamic world,” says Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid. “All these have become more conscious of things like political democracy, women’s rights, more aware of modernity. Jamaat is still stuck in a reactionary mode.” He blames Ahmed for the Jamaat’s “backwardness”: “He formed the Jamaat into a party of the elite. Compared to today’s leadership, he may have been a moderate but compared to Muslim Brotherhood parties around the world and for what he could have done, no. [Jamaat leaders have] done little to push forward the idea of a modern Islamic democracy. It has not done much to educate their younger members, to modernize them.”
Qazi Hussain Ahmed’s ability to occupy several worlds all at once was evident in the Pakistani Taliban’s choosing to attempt to assassinate him.
Qazi Hussain Ahmed left his imprint on the Jamaat-e-Islami, the fact that he remained unchallenged within the party for so long attests to that, but he also reshaped the religious politics of the country through hard lessons learned.
He was disappointed by the infighting among the mujahideen and among the religious parties, he felt let down by not having delivered the elusive Islamic Walden he felt he could have in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa when the MMA had its shot, and he was frustrated by the excesses of the youths who served as foot soldiers of parties like his and who were raised on heated jihadist rhetoric. Ahmed, a former senator and member of the National Assembly, was mainstream and fringe both at the same time. His ability to occupy several worlds all at once was evident in the Pakistani Taliban’s choosing to attempt to assassinate him. But instead of confronting the Taliban directly, Ahmed blamed the November attempt on his life on the so-called anti-Pakistan nexus of the U.S., India, and Israel.
It would be wrong on the part of liberals to claim Ahmed as their own by ignoring his quintessentially religious character. It was expected of him, even as a moderate, to challenge television programming in Pakistan as vulgarity under law. But Ahmed was devoid of the schadenfreude that allows some to feel joy over the misfortune of rivals. Amazingly, the nation felt unanimous warmth toward someone with whom they did not always agree. Rightwing Urdu columnists indulged in an apotheosis no one actually disagreed with, and that is saying a lot for Ahmed the man. Najam Sethi, TV anchor and publisher of the liberal weekly The Friday Times, remembered him fondly after his death: “When I was being hounded by Saif-ur-Rehman [the accountability attack dog of the Nawaz Sharif government] and TFT was banished from its printing press, it was Qazi sahib who came to the rescue. The magazine was actually printed at the Jamaat-e-Islami press! I will never forget that.”
With Adnan Siddiqi. From our Jan. 25, 2013, issue.