When religious political parties become mainstream

PAKRivzi18LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistani voters might put the terrorist-supported candidates into parliament later this month, underlining how radical forces are near the center of power in the Central Asian country.

Several ultra-right religious groups have fielded candidates for the July 25 ballot, when voters will choose a new National Assembly who will in turn elect a prime minister.

Around 200 candidates are running from new parties that previously were considered on the fringe of Pakistani politics.

The leader of the biggest party, Tehrik-e-Labbaik, is firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who has led an aggressive campaign that has been garnering the most attention among far-right groups.

“If I’m given the atom bomb, I would wipe Holland off from the face of the earth before they can hold a competition of caricatures,” he told journalists recently at the Karachi Press Club, referring to a Dutch competition of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad.

The mainstreaming of the militants was the brainchild of the all-powerful Pakistan army, which floated the plan last year. At the time, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rejected the idea, but he lost his job a year ago because a court convicted him on corruption charges stemming from not disclosing payments from his son.

On July 13, police arrested Sharif when he returned to Pakistan to face other corruption charges related to owning a London apartment that he should be able to afford based on his public salary.

On the same day, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 128 people at a campaign rally in the country’s north.

Political observers criticized the army’s plan, saying military leaders were seeking to empower militants who might support their belligerent policies towards India and operations on the Afghan border.

“We are not disarming the radicals. We are not teaching them how to become good citizens and respect the true words of Islam,” said Ahmed Rashid, a Lahore-based author of books on extremism in South Asia. “We are taking them lock stock and barrel and inserting them with all their vices into the main political stream. This is no way to educate the people or to take the nation forward.”

Rizvi shot to fame last year when he staged blockades and other protests that brought the country’s capital to a halt over demands that lawmakers change in the parliamentary oath which he considered blasphemous. The action forced a government minister to resign, giving him legitimacy among religious voters.

Analysts didn’t foresee him winning enough of the parliament to join the government, but he would still be influential.

“Rizvi’s Labbaik won’t make any major dents in terms of getting seats but it will become a pressure group that can in the future hold sway,” said Sohail Waraich, a political analyst based in Lahore.

The leader of Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek is Hafiz Saeed, a mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks in India that killed 160 people. He is a designated global terrorist. The US has offered a $10 million bounty for information that leads to his capture.

On the election trail in the Iqbal Town district of Lahore, Saeed ridiculed the United States and Indian governments who opposed his entry into Pakistani politics.

“The world powers like India and US created obstacles for us but today we have won the first round against them,” he said. “We are now on the ballot.”
Pakistani officials un-froze cleric Ahmed Ludhianvi, a critic of Shiite Islam, and lifted a ban on his sectarian outfit, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, which is also running candidates.

The mainstreaming of the religious parties comes as the Financial Action Task Force, a Group of Seven initiative to combat money laundering, reportedly announced late last month that Pakistan would be kept on the task force’s “grey list” – a sign that it had not been diligent enough in cracking down on terror financial networks.

To avoid placement on the “black list,” or the worse ranking for offenders, Pakistani officials have agreed to a plan to choke off financing for the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and others.

Pakistani voters who supported the extremist religious groups saw those moves as a sign of how foreign institutions were biased against Islam and Pakistan.

“Every citizen of Pakistan has a right to contest the election,” said Mohammad Masood, a voter at the Lahore event. “Why should religious parties be denied that fundamental right? Hafiz Saeed has done great service for his people and that is why he’s been declared a terrorist by our enemies.”

Photo: Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of the biggest party, Tehrik-e-Labbaik, has led an aggressive campaign that has been garnering the most attention among far-right groups.
Credit: Courtesy of Khadim Hussain Rizvi's official YouTube channel. (08/29/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/17/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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