In a league of their own

New Islamist parties open debate about who can contest elections

In a league of their own
On September 20, the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) decided it would contest next year’s general elections. The decision came three days after the NA-120 by-election, which saw two new Islamist parties, Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah and the Milli Muslim League, bag over a tenth of the votes cast.

However, PUC chairman Tahir Ashrafi denies any direct correlation. “We’re registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan, and hence have a right to contest the elections,” he says.

But while TLY (Barelvi) and MML (Ahl-e-Hadees) have clear ideological demarcations, and cater to their vote banks accordingly, the PUC has long taken a stand against sectarianism. “Islam doesn’t support sectarianism anyway,” maintains Ashrafi. “The aim of the PUC is to maintain Muslim harmony, establish Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s vision in accordance with the Holy Quran and Sunnah and hold mainstream parties accountable.”

The MML claims to have a similar vision. “What we’re seeing in Kashmir is a betrayal of Islam and Quaid-e-Azam’s ideology of Pakistan,” says Saifullah Khalid, the president of the MML, that has evolved from the proscribed Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity that is believed to be a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba. LeT has been accused of launching cross-border attacks in India and the disputed Kashmiri territory.

But while claiming to be adherents of state law, the MML maintains that their party leader is ‘Mohsin-e-Kashmir’ Hafiz Saeed, the JuD leader who has been under house arrest since January.

It is the share of TLY’s Sheikh Azhar Hussain (7,130) and MML’s Sheikh Yaqoob’s (5,822) votes that combined to form over 10% of the total count in the NA-120 polling, that is being cited as the reason that the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) margin of victory was reduced from around 40,000 votes to 14,000 in four years.

“The votes won by these parties is actually the difference between PML-N in 2013 and this year,” says Punjab Law Minister and PML-N leader Rana Sanaullah, calling out ‘forces’ behind mainstreaming these groups.

PML-N’s MPA in Punjab and party spokesperson Zaim Qadri was more forthright. “While no one can, or should, stop religious parties from contesting any elections, these are banned militant outfits that should never be allowed to. They wouldn’t have done it without the backing of the establishment,” he says.

The accusation that the powerful establishment is behind the rise of these parties is something that the leaders of the PML-N have regularly reiterated. It was the disagreement over these very groups that formed the basis of last year’s DawnLeaks – a civil-military confrontation based on a leaked report over disagreements over militant leaders, including Hafiz Saeed.

Meanwhile, the TLY was formed as a protest movement against the verdict against Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer over a blasphemy accusation. It evolved into a political entity after Qadri was hanged on February 29, 2016, with its first move being to issue a set of 10 demands to the federal government amid protests that followed Qadri’s execution.

The demands included the immediate implementation of Sharia law, expulsion of Ahmadis from Pakistan and the execution of Asia Bibi, the Christian women accused of blasphemy who was defended by Taseer. “The government has backed out on the word they gave us of implementing Sharia law and safeguarding the blasphemy law,” says TLY President Ashraf Asif Jalali. He accused the government of what he said was taking un-Islamic actions. “Our party’s quest is to ensure that the supremacy of Islam is restored.”

Reports of TLY evolving into a formal militant outfit have surfaced. A senior security official on duty during the NA-120 by-poll confirmed that the name of Mumtaz Qadri was being used to incite violence under the pretext of blasphemy during the campaign. “There is no question that those affiliated with TLY are not only endorsing violence, but include active militants as well,” he says. “It is likely that the group, like so many others, now has a functional militant wing, while the political front eyes the 2018 elections.”

Tahir Ashrafi believes any group wanting start a movement for their interpretation of Sharia law should keep within the boundaries set by the Pakistani law and Constitution. “There is nothing wrong with demanding implementation of Islamic law, but any rallies need to be conducted within the boundaries of the law, without inciting any violence,” he says. “In any case sovereignty already belongs to the Holy Quran and Sunnah as per the Constitution of Pakistan.”

Echoing the claims of the PML-N, retired Lieutenant-General Amjad Shuaib recently told Reuters that the idea to mainstream these religious groups is backed by the army. “We have to separate those elements who are peaceful from the elements who are picking up weapons,” he said in the interview.

While suggesting that there is no clear evidence for the Army backing these groups, security analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi, the author of ‘Military, State and Society in Pakistan’, says there is no evidence that the ruling party wants these groups out either. “The PML-N is a party with right-wing Islamic orientation that has long relied on the support of these very groups that have now emerged as its political rivals,” he says.