Radicals find place in 'mainstream' | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 23, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 23, 2018

Radicals find place in 'mainstream'

Pakistani cleric Hafiz Saeed is one of the United States' most-wanted terrorist suspects, accused over the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. At home, his charities are banned, as is a new Islamist political party launched by his followers.

None of that has stopped Saeed from hitting the campaign trail for Pakistan's July 25 general election, denouncing the outgoing government as "traitors" and whipping up support for the more than 200 candidates he backs.

"The politics of the American servants is coming to an end!" Saeed thundered at a rally this month in the eastern city of Lahore, where supporters showered him with rose petals.

The main race in Wednesday's vote is between the party of now-jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the party of former cricket star Imran Khan, perceived as the favourite of the powerful military.

But a bumper crop of ultra-Islamist groups are also contesting the poll, with the potential to reshape the political landscape of the nuclear-armed Muslim country of 208 million people with anti-Western rhetoric and calls for ever-stricter interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law.

The proliferation of religious parties appears to be a fulfilment of a proposal made by Pakistan's military to "mainstream" armed Islamists and other extremists into politics, though the parties and the army deny any links.

"The ostensible attempt to mainstream the religious right-wing is not making these parties take relatively moderate positions," said Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch. "But rather, it's radicalising the mainstream."

Religious parties - some new, others established - are fielding more than 1,500 candidates for national and provincial assemblies, compared with a few hundred in 2013.

While Pakistan has always had Islamist parties, the new entries are notable for their alleged links to militants and their rhetorical attacks on mainstream politicians' piety or patriotism. Pakistan's three main parties all stress devotion to Islam, but the new religious parties portray them – especially the PML-N - as leading Pakistan down a Western-inspired path away from the country's Islamic values.

One new party, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, campaigns under the rallying cry "death to blasphemers" and is fielding 566 candidates. In May, a man police identified as a Labaik supporter shot and wounded then-Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal as he left a meeting. He told interrogators Iqbal had to die because he was a blasphemer.

While Tehreek-e-Labaik is a legally registered party, other movements fielding candidates are officially banned in Pakistan but have bypassed the legal restrictions.

Pakistan's Election Commission this year rejected Saeed's Islamic charity's application to register a political party, the Milli Muslim League, but the group later registered candidates under the name of an existing party, Allahu Akbar Tehreek, which now campaigns with Saeed's image on its posters.

Another party, the Sunni extremist Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), is also fielding dozens of candidates under a different name, even though it is banned as the political wing of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which has killed hundreds of minority Shia Muslims. The party denies links with LeJ.

A military spokesman declined to comment on religious parties. The army denies interfering in politics.

However, the military did propose "mainstreaming" militant-linked groups into politics in a 2016 National Security meeting, military and government sources have told Reuters. The plan was pitched as a way to reduce violence and extremism.

Analysts say even with the increase in candidates, Islamists are unlikely to win more than a dozen or so seats in parliament.

But that might not be the point. Pakistani author and analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, a longtime critic of the military, believes the army, tired of civilian governments challenging its grip on foreign policy and large chunks of the economy, is seeking to weaken mainstream parties.

“The military wants to alter, engineer the national discourse," Siddiqa said. "They want to build a new nationalism. They want a new identity, and that is Islamic identity."

Stay updated on the go with The Daily Star Android & iOS News App. Click here to download it for your device.

Grameenphone:
Type START <space> BR and send SMS it to 22222

Robi:
Type START <space> BR and send SMS it to 2222


Banglalink:
Type START <space> BR and send SMS it to 2225

Leave your comments

Top News

Top News

Top