*First published on Borderline Green.
With the arrival of 2013 and fast-approaching elections scheduled for the year, the political environment in Pakistan is heating up. Recently, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which is in government presently, announced an alliance with the Sunni Ittehad Council.
In view of the political season, this would be seen as a conventional electoral alliance, except that it isn’t.
In early January 2011, Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer, who belonged to Pakistan People’s Party himself, was gunned down in broad daylight by his guard Malik Mumtaz Qadri due to his vehement opposition to the country’s controversial Blasphemy Laws. An incident which intensely polarized the Pakistani society, leaving its fault lines exposed; with the people divided over antipathy to the killing and shockingly, raising justifications for it on religious grounds.
A product of this polarization, the Sunni Ittehad Council, amongst the other hordes, thronged to the court where Qadri was later presented to hail, cheer and garland him. Later, they held rallies in his support.
Despite being small, like all religious parties in Pakistan, the Sunni Ittehad Council has great street power stemming from the country being deeply religious (over 95% in Pakistan are Muslims) and have considerable organizational capacity and ability. Although, for reasons otherwise, this power of the religious parties does not translate into a significant percentage of votes at elections.
In 2001, the Sunni Ittehad Council(SIC) launched a *’Difa-e-Pakistan’ (Defense of Pakistan) campaign that was aimed at creating public awareness against NATO attacks on Pakistan’s border military posts in Mohmand Agency. Also involving participation in a ‘Condemn America Day’.
Despite this, it was revealed after SIC’s support for Qadri that the U.S government had given aid to them in 2009 to plan and organize nationwide rallies, demonstrations and protests against militants, suicide-bombings and terrorist attacks.
‘A US diplomat said that the embassy had given money to the group to organise the rallies, but that it had since changed direction and leadership. He said it was a one-off grant, and wouldn’t be repeated.
The Ittehad council was formed in 2009 to counter extremism. It groups politicians and clerics from Pakistan’s traditionalist Barelvi Muslim movement, often referred to as theological moderates in the Pakistani context.
Taseer’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, is a Barelvi. He claimed he acted to defend the honour of Prophet Mohammed.
At its rallies, the group (Sunni Ittehad Council) maintains its criticism of the Taliban even as it supports Qadri — a seemingly contradictory stance that suggests its leaders may be more interested in harnessing the political support and street power of Barelvis than in genuinely countering militancy.’
For many, this indicated that Sunni Ittehad Council’s ardent antagonism towards militancy was somewhat, a dollar-fueled programme or play that they merely executed and orchestrated.
In response to the revelation, the head of the council Sahibzada Fazal Karim said:
“This propaganda is being unleashed against us because we are strongly opposed to Western democracy and American policies in the region and in the world.. we are against extremism, but we support Qadri because he did a right thing,”
The Sunni Ittehad Council also strongly denounced any move to grant India the status of Most Favored Nation by Pakistan as means of liberalizing trade between the countries which it is firmly against.
Scholars and clerics from the SIC were part of the Islamic clerics in Pakistan which publicly denounced and even issued a fatwa against the Taliban’s attempt to kill Malala Yousafzai. Many people and skeptics see these occasional stances of theirs as a smokescreen to appear religiously moderate and politically progressive.
What makes this alliance stand out is the popular perception, at home and especially abroad, of the Pakistan People’s Party as a liberal or a relatively liberal party in Pakistan: one that has suffered the losses of many of its members and leaders to the rage of extremism, including its chairperson and the Muslim world‘s first female prime minister, the iconic Benazir Bhutto, due to its liberal and staunchly anti-extremist stances. But the PPP has continually belied this image with its decisions and reactions to events in this tenure, that astoundingly go uncritically unquestioned by Pakistan’s otherwise vocal intellectuals.
It is not just the PPP which has formed such an alliance, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz or PML-N is also widely known to be on cordial terms with and to have reached a political consensus over seat adjustments for the upcoming general elections with the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. The SSP, which resurged by changing its name to ‘Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat’ in order to display organizational differentiation – from the SSP which was banned under Musharraf’s rule – is an extremist and terrorist organization. Ineffectively banned by the state, it is primarily concerned with thwarting Shia influence in Pakistan. It is the ideological father of the terrorist militant organization, Lashkar-e-Jhangivi which has been responsible for the slaughter of countless Shias in Pakistan.
These are not isolated events of the electoral season.The formation of these reprehensible alliances by two of Pakistan’s largest and most prominent political parties which have enjoyed stints in power are but a microcosm of politics in this South Asian country:
Playing to the gallery of the religious right, exploiting religion, allying with extremist factions for political gain which inevitably leads to appeasing and patronizing them thus, augmenting their growth and emboldening them.
These instances of indulgence in political expediency, which reign supreme, have been a potent factor in abetting extremism in Pakistan.
As Pakistan finds itself at a crucial juncture, it is a demand of time that all segments of the state unite to devote themselves, with absolute sincerity, to the battle against extremism and terrorism that has already spilled the blood of over 40,000 innocent Pakistanis and cast the state as a virtual international outcast.
It is mutually exclusive for a party or government which blatantly collaborates and partners with organizations, that are established on the idea of hate and radicalism and promote bigotry, to ever fully commit itself to the war against terrorism and extremism in Pakistan. And that is the last that the country needs today.
*Not to be confused with ’Difa-e-Pakistan Council’ (Council for the Defense of Pakistan) which is an umbrella coalition of more than 40 Pakistani quasi-political religious parties that advocates closing NATO supply routes to Afghanistan and rejects the Pakistani government decision to grant India most-favored nation status.
~ Hafsa Khawaja