‘Mainstreaming’ extremism in Pakistani politics.
By: Rabia Mehmood, Waqar Gillani
The emergence of two hardliner Islamic groups – Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan and Milli Muslim League – during the NA-120 bye-election surprised the pundits. These groups gained the third and fourth positions respectively in the contest for the constituency considered a stronghold of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz.
In sectarian terms both these newly formed political parties – backed by extremist organisations- are on different ends of the ideological spectrum. Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) adheres to the Barelvi sect while Milli Muslim League (MML) is closer to Ahl-e-Hadith sect. These denominations of Islamic faith in South Asia consider each others’ interpretation of Islam as incorrect. Both groups secured 11 percent of the total ballot-count. Mrs. Kalsoom Nawaz, wife of the ousted PM Nawaz Sharif, managed to reach National Assembly at a low margin defeating her main opponent, Dr Yasmeen Rashid of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.
TLP is the political face of the Sunni-Barelvi Labbaik-Ya-Rasool-Allah movement, created after the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a police commando who assassinated the then governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer on January 4, 2011 due to Taseer’s support of a Christian woman arrested for alleged blasphemy. TLP has its roots in Ghazi Rehai Tehreek, or Free Qadri Movement, which after Qadri’s execution began campaigning against the PMLN as the party was held responsible for Qadri’s death by the extremists. On its official website TLP is described as an “Islamist political party”. The movement’s candidate Sheikh Azhar Hussain Rizvi secured 7,130 votes.
Labbaik movement is led by an extremist Brelvi cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, known for his fiery speeches and extreme views on supremacy of Sunni Islam. TLP’s candidate Rizvi, 40, runs a small-scale wood-polish business in the old part of Lahore. “We got less votes than expected due to the lack of media coverage and funds,” he told Naya Daur, “in 2016, we had announced to contest next general elections.” Rizvi added “we, are now registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan.” Blasphemy is TLP’s selling point, Rizvi said, “we want Islamic system of Prophet Muhammad in the country and we will not make any compromise on religious issues, particularly the blasphemy issue.”
Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his party members have also been running campaigns against Ahmadis, a beleaguered religious minority, and incited violence against minority individuals by demanding blasphemy cases to be filed against them. They campaigned against the community before and after the Chakwal attacks on the Ahmadi mosque in December 2016. Rizvi believes former PM Sharif deserves hanging or at least 40 lashes through Islamic court for declaring Ahmadis as friends. “Sharif and his government are following international and western agenda to change the oath regarding finality of Prophet Muhammad PBUH,” he said, adding, “ we are noticing how the world is supporting that Christian woman Asia Bibi by nominating her for international awards while she is sentenced to death in Pakistan for committing blasphemy. We want a peaceful Islamic Pakistan where Islamic laws will be enforced.” Rizvi’s says their other political objective is to make Pakistan corruption free and hold politicians accountable before courts and public.
Milli Muslim League, political face of the controversial Jamaat-ud-Dawa, led by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed is on the interior ministry’s watch list. An independent candidate backed by MML stood fourth in NA-120 with nearly six thousand votes. JuD openly supports Jihad in the Indian administered Jammu & Kashmir and is allegedly accused of cross-border Jihadi infiltration by India. Its political party was launched only this August. MML’s application to get registered as a political party was rejected by the Election Commission of Pakistan. ECP asked MML to first get clarity from the interior ministry which had earlier asked ECP to ban the MML. JuD is also known for its relief group Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF) currently also on the interior ministry’s watch list. The party’s website lists seven officials as their core team.
“Public response is encouraging for us and we will create a serious impact in next general elections,” Sheikh Yaqoob, candidate of MML told Naya Daur. “We believe that Pakistan’s survival is dependent on following true ideology of Pakistan, which includes, making it and Islamic welfare state and enforce Shariah – welfare of the under privileged and resolving their issues is our top priority.” Yaqoob said he contested independently with full support of the MML. Yaqoob, a local business man, has a long association with the JuD and Hafiz Saeed, whom he admires as his leader. On October 26, another independent candidate Liaqat Ali Khan is contesting the NA-4 bye-election in Peshawar on Milli Muslim League’s behalf.
The appearance of more sectarian parties on the political canvas is beyond alarming. If these small groups keep getting momentum in any capacity and manage a sizeable rightwing vote-bank, which they vow to get, they can play a decisive role in national politics where mainstream parties’ candidates are winning with comparatively lower margin. Another example of an extremist Islamist group in mainstream Pakistani politics is the Sipah Sahaba Pakistan, primarily, a sectarian and anti-Shiite political party, called the Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamat. While ASWJ is banned by the government. It has, for many years, influenced contestants of other parties to compromise on their political agenda to reach the parliament. SSP or ASWJ backed independent candidates have also run for elections multiple times. TLP plans to contest elections from across the country once the general elections take place. MML wants to focus on selective constituencies.
Analysts hold the military establishment responsible for this “mainstreaming” of the religious extremists through politics. It is worth noting that while JuD has always had a strong alleged relationship with the military, Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his followers – read cronies – on the surface have no similar interests with the said establishment. However, during the past year and a half, in addition to re-branding themselves from being mere supporters of Mumtaz Qadri, Labbaik Ya Rasool proved themselves very useful when the four bloggers went missing in January 2017. During that time, online propaganda against the missing bloggers (who suffered enforced disappearances and torture), was led by Rizvi’s supporters. The anti-bloggers campaign on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube was also supported by pro military propagandists.
On the digital front, JuD’s “cyber force” has also been organising, and it has trained groups of social media users across Punjab to counter Indian narrative on Kashmir. Both parties’s websites list focus on Kashmir as part of their mandate. In terms of agenda, it is painfully obvious that MML’s electoral narrative was and will be centred around India.
The Pakistani state is not exactly new to this policy of mainstreaming the extremists, not so long ago Malik Ishaq, co-founder of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi a sectarian terrorist outfit, also the militant extension of the banned SSP was released from jail after 14 years despite being charged for multiple Shia killings. When Ishaq was released in 2011, he was allowed to address public gatherings and be a part of ASWJ and Defence Pakistan Council. However, he could not help himself and carried on inciting hatred and influencing violence against the Shia Muslims. His ‘mainstreaming’ proved to be a wasted and lethal effort. Eventually he was killed in a police encounter with his close aides and son.
The reactions of the progressives to allowing integration of fascists into the political process are not exaggerated. In fact this process needs to be resisted. The kind of legitimacy being accorded to these two groups who are associated with support of sectarian and nationalist violence in different contexts, i.e. persecution of minorities, support of blasphemy law and continuation of hostility towards India, would almost be comical if it were not so dangerous for Pakistan’s future.
This is a worrying message for elements of civil society who have been striving for a tolerant and pluralistic society. For the last one decade, Pakistan’s political parties, with active support and pressure from civil society have made constitutional and legal advances. But such distortion of politics through legitimising hardliners will reverse the gains made earlier.
In fact Pakistan’s authorities might be creating our own versions of RSS and Shiv Sena that we always cite as examples of extremism in India.
Ironic. To say the least.