Our interview with the new Jamaat-e-Islami chief.
On March 30, Siraj ul Haq was elected emir of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami party. The 51-year-old defeated the fire-breathing incumbent, Syed Munawar Hasan, and Liaqat Baloch to win the five-year term. Previously, Haq served as Jamaat’s vice president under Hasan, and headed the party’s student wing from 1988 to 1991. In the 1980s, Haq fought alongside the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets. According to the Jamaat’s website, Haq is “known for his simplicity and restless spirit for the spread of the message [of Islam]” and “has traveled extensively in the Middle East.” Born in Upper Dir, Haq also speaks Persian and Arabic. He has been a vocal critic of U.S. drone strikes, a position that forced him to resign from the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. We spoke with Haq recently about his new post, his party, and more. Excerpts:
Syed Munawar Hasan lost the election for Jamaat-e-Islami chief to you. In 2009, he had secured the position by winning 70 percent of the vote. Why has his popularity taken a hit within the party?
I don’t agree with the way people view elections. Syed Munawar Hasan has neither lost nor have I won. Jamaat-e-Islami does not have this concept of one winning at the expense of the other; there are no losers in our party. Leadership is a responsibility. It was earlier with Hasan and now it has been entrusted to me. But Hasan will continue to lead us. He was and is my senior. I will seek his guidance whenever needed. Our party workers are free to express themselves and to choose. They made a choice.
Last year, Hasan dubbed Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban chief, a martyr and denied this honorific to Pakistan Army soldiers dying to protect our lives. Do you agree with him?
That is in the past, it is out of date. We don’t need to discuss this anymore, especially right now when there are a number of other issues troubling our country. That [statement] is not important. Even if you ask me this a hundred times, my answer will remain the same.
Your party refers to you as the ‘True Mujahid.’ What does that mean?
Every Muslim is a warrior. It is our collective responsibility to wage a holy war; a holy war against illiteracy, inflation, poverty, power outages. Pakistanis should struggle against the evil which causes losses to us. That is primarily what we call jihad in this life, for the Hereafter.
What about those who call for a holy war in India-administered Kashmir?
That is a struggle by the people of Kashmir for Kashmir. It is not by us. Let’s worry about our own country for now.
You’re also the finance minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, where your party and Imran Khan’s govern jointly. Why did you choose this portfolio?
Prophet [Joseph] had prayed to be put in charge of the land’s treasure. He had the qualities to guard it with sincerity and to carry out the required duties. I am grateful to the former provincial government of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal [coalition] and the current one. They placed their faith in me for this key portfolio. I am answerable for each and every penny of this province. During MMA’s rule, the federal government as well as the Election Commission of Pakistan was amazed at how well the ministry was being run. I aim, even today, to create a model for other provinces to emulate.
Does this mean you’ll hold on to your ministry?
Let’s see. I am still consulting with my party.
Jamaat-e-Islami didn’t poll well in the 2013 elections nationally. How do you intend to change things in preparation for the 2018 elections?
For the next elections, our leaders need to be more effective in the way they reach out to people. In order to be accepted, we should use vernacular that is understood and is appealing to the common man. We were not successful in the last elections because we failed to convince the masses of our sincerity. This needs to change and now. I am talking about the poor, the marginalized, those deprived of their rights, those who spend their nights out on the sidewalk, who do not have money for medicine or an education. These are the people whose support the Jamaat needs. Some 95 percent of the people of Pakistan are toiling away. Only 5 percent get to rule. We will become the voice of that 95 percent.
You recently suggested that the provincial assemblies of Pakistan should be split so that segregation can be enforced. Why is keeping male and female lawmakers separate really necessary?
This is my personal view; it is not party policy. Female parliamentarians routinely complain of being ignored, even sidelined. They don’t get the opportunity to speak up and raise points. The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assembly has 124 elected members, of which only 24 seats are reserved for women. You hardly get to hear from them. Not only that, they don’t even get funds for their development projects. In our country, 52 percent of the population is female. But they only have 24 seats in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. This number should be increased. Now, if women had a separate assembly, and their own speaker, it would be easier for them to openly talk about issues they may not feel comfortable discussing otherwise. That is all I am saying. When I raised the motion, I received overwhelming support from the female lawmakers and the opposition.
Islami Jamiat Tulaba, your party’s student wing, has a reputation for pugilism and violence. How do you plan to change this perception?
Over the years, schooling has become very expensive in Pakistan. Not everyone can afford it. Here is my take: Pakistan should have a uniform curriculum. All the provinces should move forward collectively. The 18th Amendment [to the Constitution] has delegated education to the provinces, but this has further compounded the crises. Today, children don’t even know about their leaders, Quaid-e-Azam and Allama Iqbal. It is shocking, really. Education should be handed back to the center. Maybe the provincial government can be in charge of the syllabus. As far as IJT is concerned, our student wing is a force. It is everywhere—on the streets, in schools and colleges from Karachi to Chitral. They have many grievances that need to be addressed. But let’s just say this: when I headed the IJT, for several years, not once were we involved in any skirmishes. Even today, I work very closely with our student organizations. Do you know that the majority of students who excel in college are from the IJT? They are shining examples. I hope one day every child in Pakistan becomes A. Q. Khan.
PPP’s patron-in-chief, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has shown Pakistan’s politicians the immense power of social media. You’re also on Twitter. How important is social media to the goals you’re pursuing?
Honestly, I barely ever get the time to run my Twitter account. Everything has its pro and cons. I agree [social media] is relevant today, but then a bee will always fly to a flower but a housefly will always be attracted to garbage. A politician’s job is to work for his people, among his people, to stay in their gaze all day long. Take the Holy Prophet’s example; that is precisely why people remember him today. [People like Zardari] try to shine from afar … listen, all that glitters is not gold. To sit at a distance and tweet messages is the sign of an incomplete leader.
There are pictures of you and the militant Maulvi Faqir Mohammed circulating on the Internet. How do you know him?
Faqir is a resident of Bajaur. A few years ago he was just an ordinary man; he worked and studied in the area. But I don’t know him personally. Well, actually, I think we were both present at one funeral a few years ago. A few children were killed by a drone strike. I was leading the prayer. There must have been about 15,000 people there that day. He may have been one of them.
Why do you believe the federal government should hold the next round of peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban in Islamabad?
Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, one of the main interlocutors, is almost 80. It can’t be easy for him to continuously move between Waziristan and Islamabad. These talks are crucial. Our country is at a turning point, so why not make the process easier? Let’s be serious about this, let’s not waste time. If not Islamabad, then we can make arrangements for the two sides to meet in Peshawar. It really doesn’t make a difference: Miranshah, Islamabad, and Peshawar are all part of Pakistan. We are ready to do anything for the talks if the federal government asks us. I am earnestly praying for the government to succeed. Fortunately, in my opinion, the Army and civilians are on the same page.
It has been reported that Khalid Khorasani, chief of the Taliban in Mohmand agency, recently wrote to you.
The letter has not been brought to my notice. I have not received it nor have I read it.
From our April 12-19, 2014, issue.