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Ultraconservative Triumph Puts Pakistan at Risk of Islamic Violence and Terror

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avatar by James M. Dorsey


Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi gestures as he speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) office in Islamabad, Pakistan March 1, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Saiyna Bashir

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan may have temporarily averted further violence by caving in to the demands of a militant, supremacist religious group. But in doing so, Khan is allowing radical ultra-conservatism to fester, undermining social cohesion, threatening economic development, and giving militants a say in foreign policy.

The government’s surrender to Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan or ‘I am Present Pakistan ‘(TLP), an outlawed far-right group, comes at a moment that Khan has taken several steps towards ‘Islamicizing’ Pakistani society.

It also comes on the heels of ultra-conservatives in Pakistan feeling emboldened by the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. The cave-in will also do little to support Pakistan’s efforts to be removed from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog.

In separate talks, Khan’s government has been negotiating a ceasefire with Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — the Pakistani Taliban. The talks were mediated by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Afghan Taliban interior minister, who heads the notorious Haqqani network, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States (the FBI has declared Haqqani one of its most-wanted people).

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The ceasefire would halt the TTP’s 14-year insurgency, aimed at forcing the government to introduce Islamic law in Pakistani tribal areas. Thousands have been killed in TTP attacks and clashes with security forces.

For its part, the TLP has made blasphemy its signature issue. It has repeatedly leveraged its self-declared position as a defender of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed to pressure the government to meet its demands. The group uses mass protests that besiege Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, as its battering ram.

Four people were killed and some 250 injured last week in a clash with security forces during the latest confrontation between the government and the group. The TLP demanded the lifting of the ban imposed on it in April; the release from prison of its activists and leader, Saad Rizvi; the unfreezing of its bank accounts; and the expulsion of the French ambassador.

The TLP is a political expression of the Barelvi strand of Sunni Islam that has long been viewed as more moderate than Deobandism, the other major wing of the faith in Pakistan.

Recent Barelvi militancy speaks to the deep roots that ultra-conservatism has struck in Pakistan. Decades of varying government policies that contributed to Islamization coupled with past massive public and private Saudi funding for militant religious seminaries and militant groups have helped weave ultra-conservatism into the fabric of Pakistani society.

Syed Badiuddin Soharwardy, a 66-year-old Canadian-Pakistani imam watched how Saudi-funded religious ultra-conservatism was instrumentalized by the Pakistani armed forces in its dispute with India over Kashmir. He also registered how ultra-conservatism changed the demography of the military.

The son of a prayer leader and teacher, Soharwardy recalls accompanying his father to mosques on military bases to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday, a ritual frowned upon by ultra-conservatives. “My father would participate in the celebration and the kids would sing rhymes praising the Prophet,” Soharwardy said.

Sohawardy witnessed a sharp change between mosques that adhered to the Barelvi strand in the late 1970s, which then became dominated by those adhering to Deobandism.

And Barelvis were not immune to the spreading tentacles of ultra-conservatism. The Khatm-e-Nubawwat Lawyers Forum, a network of 800 lawyers with close ties to the police forces, have driven a recent spike in blasphemy prosecutions. Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan.

“Whoever does this [blasphemy], the punishment is only death. There is no alternative,” said the forum’s head, Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry.

Khan’s critics charge that the government’s deal with the TLP has undermined its authority, and constitutes one more step towards affirming a greater role for religion in the country’s life. Khan’s government has sought to ‘Islamicize’ Pakistani education with the development of a new national curriculum and mandatory religion classes as part of university education. He has also recently established a body to monitor school curricula, syllabi, and social media for “blasphemous” content.

The writ of the state has yet again crumbled in the face of violent extremism,” said columnist Zahid Hussain.

Saad Hafiz, another columnist, argued that the appeasement of militant religious groups like the TLP explains Pakistan’s welcoming of the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  He warned that the radicals’ influence was shaping Pakistani foreign policy, and curtailing the South Asian nation’s ability to achieve its geopolitical goals.

“The collective triumphalism in Pakistan on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has not gone down well in Washington,” Hafiz said. “The street power of radical Islam has constrained international options. These factors have caused disarray and drifts in foreign policy that the country can ill afford. The net result is fewer allies, limited diplomatic space, and strategic mobility.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.

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