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How new religious parties are breaking into the electoral battle

Updated Jul 25, 2018 09:59am
A gathering of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent group of the Milli Muslim League party | Arif Ali, White Star
A gathering of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent group of the Milli Muslim League party | Arif Ali, White Star

The by-election in Lahore last year was historic for many reasons. A former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, accused of corruption and money laundering, was making a renewed bid for power in his home constituency through his wife Kulsoom Nawaz. The leader of the main opposition party, Imran Khan, who had been pushing and pedalling an anti-corruption agenda at rallies and sit-ins for years, was finally expecting to win in Sharif’s home constituency — or at least give him a real electoral scare.

The National Assembly constituency, NA-120, where the by-poll was held in September last year, has been a stronghold of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) for more than two decades. Now mostly included in a new constituency, NA-125, it encompasses Anarkali, Mozang, Data Darbar, most of the neighbourhoods along The Mall and commercial and residential parts of Hall Road, Beadon Road and McLeod Road, alongside the old localities of Krishan Nagar and Sanda — essentially the heart of Lahore.

Many important government offices – including the provincial civil secretariat – are located here, as is the Lahore High Court. There is an old world feel to these areas even though dilapidated houses are giving way to shiny new buildings and plazas every day. In the end, the PMLN’s Kulsoom Nawaz won the election and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) came second.

Two other parties won far fewer votes but received as much attention as the winner and the runner-up: indeed, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and the Milli Muslim League had been formed merely 20 days before the by-election and yet their candidates came third and fourth, respectively — much ahead of the nominee of one of the oldest political organisations in the country, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

Sohail Faraz, a shopkeeper in Sanda, remembers the election campaigns of both the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and the Milli Muslim League as an “immense effort”. Their door to door canvassing was far stronger than that of the PMLN and PTI, he says. They had many volunteers at the polling station where he cast his vote and were far more active in facilitating voters than other parties had been, he adds.

This high visibility suggests that the two parties had well-oiled electoral machines in the constituency — something they could not have managed to put in place in less than a month. And indeed, they did not.

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan is a successor to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah that has been organising public meetings and holding rallies for years in favour of Mumtaz Qadri, a police guard for Punjab governor Salman Taseer whom he assassinated in January 2011, purportedly over blasphemy.

The Milli Muslim League has emerged out of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a religious organisation founded and headed by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, also the founding head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a banned militant entity. Images of Saeed appeared on all the election propaganda material that the Milli Muslim League used in the by-election.

The two parties have also taken part in other by-elections held more recently and performed somewhat similarly to how they had in Lahore. An independent candidate supported by the Milli Muslim League secured 3,789 votes in a by-election held in Peshawar in October 2017. In a bypoll in Lodhran in February 2018, an independent candidate backed by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan polled 11,494 votes, securing third position.

It is a Friday morning and day five of a sit-in protest just outside Lahore’s Data Darbar. A small crowd is lazing around under a large tent. Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who heads the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, has just issued an ultimatum to the provincial government of Punjab that it release all the members of his party arrested across the province. He also wants the authorities to drop all 27 criminal cases registered against him and 480 of his associates over violence, disruption of law and order and damage to private and public property, among other offences. If these demands are not met, he warns, there will be more agitations all over Punjab.

The provincial government budges a week later, on April 14, 2018, after he threatens to block road traffic to and from Lahore. The authorities agree to release his arrested associates and rescind many of the cases against them. He responds by announcing an end to the sit-in at Data Darbar. Two days later, a court indefinitely defers the hearing of a terrorism case against him.

The venue of the sit-in is important. It is right opposite the shrine of Data Gunj Bukhsh Ali Hajveri, one of the most revered Muslim saints in Pakistan. The people visiting the shrine in thousands every day come from the Barelvi-Sunni sections of society — the community that the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan is trying to attract into its fold.

The venue is also within a kilometre of a mosque where Rizvi started his career as a Friday preacher employed by the Punjab Auqaf Department. For more than two decades, he worked there as a little known neighbourhood mullah with no mass following.

That changed when he started mobilising support for the release of Mumtaz Qadri. Rizvi portrayed the assassin of Punjab’s governor as a devout Muslim, motivated by his love for the Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him). He averred that Qadri should be treated as a national hero rather than a murderer on trial. He also led, along with other religious personalities, a massive public funeral in Rawalpindi for Qadri after he was hanged in February 2016.

At 52, and despite being bound to a wheelchair because of an accident, Rizvi exhibits a youthful energy and excitement when it comes to protecting the honour of the Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him). It was for this cause that he led protests at the Faizabad Interchange last year, blocking road traffic linking the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad for more than two weeks. The agitation was triggered by government-backed changes in election nomination forms. These changes were seen as a dilution of the political and legal constraints on Ahmadis who, under the law, are heretics because they do not regard the Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him) as the final messenger of God. “All we want is to unveil the lobby behind the amendments,” says Sheikh Azhar Hussain, a 40-year-old businessman, who was the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan nominee for the Lahore bypoll.

The protest ended only after a series of clashes with law enforcement personnel and a traffic shutdown across central Punjab for a whole day.

Rizvi always occupies a central place in public events held by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. What makes him even more prominent is his trademark black turban and crude language. He delivers his invective-laden speeches predominantly in Punjabi to keep them accessible to an audience driven more by passion than logic.

The protest at Data Darbar is a follow-up of sorts to the sit-in at Faizabad. Rizvi and his associates are demanding, among other things, that the government publicise a report prepared by a parliamentary commission tasked with ascertaining who proposed and drafted the controversial changes in election nomination forms.

As the time for Friday prayer approaches, some people join the protest, though most of the pilgrims coming to the shrine ignore it. Beggars roam around as they would on any ordinary day, throwing flower garlands around your neck when you are not paying attention and then demanding money. Women zigzag through the protesters to make their way past the sit-in tent. Some have their heads covered, others not.

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan did not allow women to take part in its public meeting at Minar-e-Pakistan earlier the same month. Now it seems considerably more relaxed about their presence, though the protesters are still refusing to allow them to sit inside the tent. The party has nominated a few women as its candidates for the 2018 polls because, as one of its male candidates says, it is mandatory under the election law. A poster can be seen of a woman nominee in NA-125 in Lahore with her silhouette, and not any part of her face, appearing on it.

A woman candidate on the poster of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan
A woman candidate on the poster of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan

Barring women from public spaces is not peculiar to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Many religious parties have a similar attitude towards them.

The only major outlier is the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, a political party set up and headed by a Lahore-based religious scholar, Dr Tahirul Qadri. It has always had women participating in its public activities in large numbers. Its sit-in protests in 2013 and 2014 in Islamabad had hundreds of women participants, if not more. Yet there is a strong link between the Pakistan Awami Tehreek and the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Both draw their leadership and supporters from among the Barelvi population.

The conservatism of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan may have something to do with what an academic calls “competition in piety”. The party is trying to convey to its potential supporters that it is as puritanical (if not more) as other religious organisations in the country. There is a bit of history behind this competition.

Deobandis have been more prominent and organised in the political sense than Barelvis have been throughout the first four decades since the independence of Pakistan. Dr Tahir Kamran, a teacher in the history department of Lahore’s Government College University, has quantified their comparative institutional strength in a recent research paper. There were 1,840 registered Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan in 1988 while there were only 717 registered Barelvi madrasas in the country in the same year, he states.

Many graduates of these Deobandi madrasas got jobs under the military dictatorships of Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq in government-run mosques and madrasas as well as other public entities such as the Council of Islamic Ideology and national and provincial textbook boards. Even schools and colleges hired teachers of Arabic and Islamic studies from among the graduates of Deobandi madrasas. Some Deobandi groups came even closer to the state during the 1980s when security and intelligence agencies employed their cadres in jihadi activities in Afghanistan and later in Kashmir.

All these factors combined gave them a big edge in social, religious and political competition with Shias and Barelvis, leading to a sectarian scramble for social and political space. This scramble, in time, manifested itself in deadly sectarian violence that beset Punjab during the 1980s.

Barelvis felt left out throughout this period. Their oldest political organisation, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, set up in 1948, was unable to make its mark on national politics as vigorously as the Deobandi-dominated Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. It did win a few legislative seats in the general elections of 1970 and 1977, mostly from Karachi, Hyderabad and Mianwali, but it failed to develop support in other parts of the country. By 1990, the party started to factionalise. Its Punjab-based leaders – particularly Abdul Sattar Niazi – joined hands with the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, a mainly right-wing alliance led by Nawaz Sharif, while its Karachi-based founder, Shah Ahmed Noorani, continued to fight the election from his party’s own platform. The Punjab faction disappeared after Niazi’s death in 2001. The other faction, too, has fared poorly in recent elections even though it still exists nominally.

Some new Barelvi organisations emerged almost simultaneously with the demise of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan. The first was Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek. When it was launched in Lahore in the early 1990s, many public personalities including actors, sportsmen and former government officials joined it in droves, but it never took off electorally. The only time it reached Parliament was in the 2002 election, when Tahirul Qadri won its lone National Assembly seat. He resigned from Parliament in 2005, with the proclamation that he would not take part in electoral politics again.

Though Tahirul Qadri has a large-scale following in central Punjab and his party is quite well-organised – as was evident in its two prolonged sit-ins in Islamabad in 2013 and 2014 – he has failed to convert these strengths into political and electoral gains. Rather, he has discredited himself with his opportunistic support for the military establishment, his frequent and long disappearances from the country and his inconsistent stance on many social, religious and political questions.

The other Barelvi organisation that emerged in the 1990s was the Sunni Tehreek. Soon after its advent, it acquired a violent reputation and engaged in pitched battles with various Deobandi organisations, especially the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, for the control of mosques in Karachi and Hyderabad. At one point in the mid-2000s, it became so powerful that it started challenging the political hegemony of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in these two cities.

Its frequent clashes with other religious and political organisations soon started taking a toll and many of its frontline leaders, including its founder Saleem Qadri, were killed in targeted attacks. The biggest blow to the Sunni Tehreek came in 2006 when its entire leadership was assassinated in an explosion during one of its public meetings in Karachi’s Nishtar Park.

Barelvi politics received a shot in the arm in the 2000s when the military government of Pervez Musharraf and its foreign backers saw it as a possible substitute to the often violent Deobandi politicking. Many Deobandi organisations had joined hands with anti-state groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan besides having sent their militant cadres to fight international forces stationed in Afghanistan. A religious solution was urgently required within Pakistan to stem the tide of violent extremism.

The Musharraf administration and its Western allies, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, thought that a Barelvi Islam, centred on shrines and love for the Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him), could offer a benign, moderate and non-violent counterpoint to Deobandi Islam. Foreign dignitaries visited Barelvi madrasas and provided funds for their expansion and modernisation of infrastructure, and attended graduation ceremonies and other religious events there.

In 2006, Musharraf also formed the National Council for the Promotion of Sufism. It did not have any clerics or religious leaders, but aimed to propagate the same Sufi beliefs and practices that most Barelvis swear by. Many small Barelvi organisations coalesced to form the Sunni Ittehad Council around the same time. It received 36,607 US dollars from the United States in 2009 to hold anti-Taliban rallies. The council was also instrumental in putting together a fatwa that declared that the suicide bombings and jihadi activities being carried out by non-state actors were un-Islamic.

This bonhomie did not last long. It was, in fact, doomed even before it began.

Various Barelvi organisations led violent protests across Pakistan in 2006 against the publication of caricatures in a Scandinavian newspaper. They found the caricatures offensive and blasphemous.

Salman Taseer’s murder in 2011 also brought Barelvi organisation to the forefront of mass agitations for the release of his assassin. One of the largest Barelvi groups at the time, Jamaat Ahl-e-Sunnat Pakistan, released a statement signed by 500 Barelvi clerics. It asked people not to attend the funeral prayers for Taseer or feel any sympathy for him.

Protests over the release of an anti-Islam film in America were, similarly, led by Barelvi clerics. They erupted across Pakistan in September 2012 and immediately degenerated into mob violence.

The clarion call at these agitations, gustakh-e-rasul ki aik saza, sar tan sey juda (there is only one punishment for the blasphemer, beheading), was made popular by none other than Rizvi and his Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah. They first raised it to justify Taseer’s murder.

Ali Hajevri Data Gunj Bukhsh, the saint buried at Lahore’s Data Darbar, appeared in the dream of Abid Hussain, a young villager in central Punjab’s Narowal district. By the dreamer’s own account, the saint asked him to avenge the damage done to the finality of the Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him) through changes in the election nomination forms. Many other prominent saints, he later said, exhorted him in his dreams to do the same.

A resident of Verum village near Narowal city, Abid Hussain has been a frequent visitor to a Barelvi madrasa, Darul Uloom Ghausia Rizvia, located in a nearby village. A religious speaker associated with the madrasa, Shahid Rafiq Madni, was renowned in the area for delivering sermons on the finality of the prophethood.

In late 2017, Madni toured villages and asked people to join the Rizvi-led sit-in at Faizabad. Inspired by his sermons, Abid Hussain travelled all the way to Islamabad to participate in the protest. It was there that he decided to “send to hell” those who, in his opinion, had harmed the honour of the Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him) through changes in the election nomination forms. Ahsan Iqbal, interior minister at the time and a member of the National Assembly from Narowal district, became one of his targets.

On May 6 this year, Iqbal addressed a public meeting in Verum. As he was leaving after the address, Abid Hussain shot at him with a pistol from 15 yards away. Multiple bullets hit Iqbal but he survived the attack.

The assailant was arrested immediately. He acknowledged his association with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and admitted to being inspired by Madni’s speeches. He also told investigators that he maintained a personal journal about his plan to kill someone (anyone) responsible for the changes in nomination forms and had left that journal at Darul Uloom Ghausia Rizvia before shooting Iqbal. The police soon took Madni into custody as well.

The madrasa is located in a simple building. Its rooms are painted bright green and walls adorned with religious motifs. A lone poster in one of the rooms announces a public event by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan.

Qari Fayaz Muneer, a 20-something man who runs the place, confirms that Abid Hussain was inspired by Madni’s speeches but categorically denies the allegation that the madrasa or Madni helped him to plot and carry out the attack on Iqbal. “I have read his journal. There is no mention of a plot in it. He did not even name who he wanted to kill.”

Muneer, though, avoids condemning the attack as a criminal act and instead claims that Iqbal had been saying hurtful things about the leadership of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan while the sit-in at Faizabad was going on. He also believes changes in nomination forms have made Iqbal lose public support in Narowal that, according to Muneer, is predominantly Barelvi.

Perhaps banking on this last fact, Madni announced early this year that he would contest the 2018 election from a provincial assembly constituency where his madrasa is located. His arrest has upended his plan.

Another recent incident not very far from Verum similarly shows the reputation of instant public mobilisation and destruction that the leaders and activists of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan have acquired.

According to eyewitness accounts, a mob gathered on the evening of May 23, 2018 in a Sialkot neighbourhood inhabited by a tiny Ahmadi community. A few municipal officials had arrived there a little earlier in order to demolish a building. A demolition video shows scores of excited young men vigorously wielding different tools as the slogans of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan are heard in the background.

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadi faith, had once stayed in the building during his visit to Sialkot in the early 20th century. The place was originally owned by Hakeem Hissamuddin, a paternal cousin of Allama Iqbal’s teacher, Maulvi Mir Hassan. Over a year ago, the local Ahmadi Jamaat took it over from its owners and decided to turn it into a museum. “We wanted to conserve the structure, which was falling apart,” says Ijaz Ahmad, a member of the Ahmadi community in Sialkot.

The conservation project had to stop midway. A local citizen, who also happened to be a member of the Barelvi organisation Sunni Tehreek, moved police to take action against what he called illegal construction activity. On May 12, the police sealed the building, pending an official investigation into its legal status.

The sealing did not stop municipal authorities from approving its demolition. The mob and the officials, says Ijaz Ahmad, came right after night prayers and remained at work till early dawn. “They came back after morning prayers to resume the demolition.”

By the time the mob left, the building had been stripped of its windows and doors and its newly laid wooden staircase was smashed to bits — all this while the police seal on its entrance remained intact. Parts of a nearby building, an Ahmadi prayer hall, were also reduced to rubble.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik protesters at the sit in at Faizabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White star
Tehreek-e-Labbaik protesters at the sit in at Faizabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White star

Paglon Ki Basti, or a settlement of the crazy, sounds like an apt name for a volatile place. A Facebook group in Shahdara, a big town just north of Lahore, perhaps had this in mind about its own neighbourhood when it gave itself the moniker. The group had both Christian and Muslim members. They were mostly poor young men with nominal education.

On January 15 this year, Patras Masih, a 22-year-old Christian member of the group who worked as a janitor at a local bank, is reported to have shared online an image that showed the imprint of a foot on the Mausoleum of the Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him). Muslims in the group were infuriated.

Local activists of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah soon started making online demands from the government to put Patras to death. This was followed by posters appearing in many Shahdara neighbourhoods, including Dhair village where Patras lived, calling for his immediate arrest, trial and conviction. Fearing violence, he and his family fled to an unknown place for safety.

Their escape did not lessen the anger provoked by the sharing of the image. Religious activists reminded local authorities on a daily basis that they were failing to do their duty. The public was also routinely mobilised to agitate on the issue.

When all this did not produce tangible results, members of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah put together a large procession on February 19 and marched through Dhair. They wanted the local administration to move urgently to arrest and punish Patras and warned of serious consequences if their demand was not met. The threat of a mob attack on Christian houses in Dhair loomed large.

The administration complied and registered a first information report (FIR) against Patras under sections 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code — the latter section providing for the death penalty for blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him). The FIR was registered on the complaint of one Hafiz Muhammad Owais, who happened to be associated with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah.

The FIR, however, failed to quell the disquiet in the area.

Sensing imminent threats to their safety, some Christian elders decided to talk to religious activists for a negotiated settlement. The talks resulted in binding the Christian community to produce Patras before the authorities. In return, they got guarantees that they would not be subjected to harassment and mob violence.

The cyber wing of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) subsequently took Patras into custody for investigation. He reportedly named his cousin, Sajid Masih, 24, a janitor at a college in Shahdara, as the original sender of the offensive image. Sajid was also taken into custody on February 23.

What followed is narrated differently by different parties involved.

The FIA officials say Sajid jumped out of a fourth floor window at their office on Lahore’s Temple Road in order to avoid interrogation. Sajid told his family that he was forced to perform oral sex on his cousin and, to escape the shameful act, he dashed to the window and jumped out.

Sajid sustained severe injuries to his neck and other parts of his body and spent many weeks in hospital before he could get back on his feet. Hearings in the case against Patras have gone on in the meanwhile. There is little likelihood that he will escape punishment.

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan was similarly instrumental in the registration of another blasphemy case in Faisalabad around the same time. And just like in Shahdara, there is more than one version of what transpired.

One version says the case was triggered by religious graffiti written by a small Christian community in Ilahi Abad neighbourhood on the wall of a shop in front of a church. “Every year the Christians write Merry Christmas or Happy Easter on our wall,” says Munawar Shehzad, the complainant in the case and the Muslim co-owner of the shop along with his brother.

Activists of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan painted their own slogans over the graffiti on February 23. Shehzad also started playing religious hymns in praise of the Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him) in his shop. A few young Christians, infuriated and armed, barged into his shop, threw things and told him – in what he reports to be blasphemous words – to stop playing the hymns. They also fired at him and his brother.

An elderly Christian man living in Ilahi Abad offers an alternative account. He claims that the attack on the shop had nothing to do with religion. It was carried out by drug dealers, four of them Christians, and its origin lay in a dispute over kite flying between the attackers and the shop owners, he says.

A day after the attack, more than 2,000 members of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan held a public demonstration on Satiana Road that passes by Ilahi Abad and links some of Faisalabad’s main residential areas with nearby villages. They blocked traffic for hours to press their demand of registering a blasphemy and terrorism case against those involved in the attack. The local police registered the case the same day.

A banner hangs at the entrance to Ilahi Abad on a recent day in March. It reads: “Protection of minorities is their constitutional right and our duty but if anyone tries to blaspheme against the Holy Prophet, we will make an example out of them.” Four policemen lounge under the banner.

The two cases in Shahdara and Faisalabad bring into sharp relief the people involved. The alleged blasphemers were poor, young non-Muslims; the protesters were of the same demographic and economic origin but they were all Muslims.

Religious protesters in Karachi's Korangi area show support for the Tehreek-e-Labbaik's sit-in  at Faizabad | White Star
Religious protesters in Karachi's Korangi area show support for the Tehreek-e-Labbaik's sit-in at Faizabad | White Star

The two incidents also took place in slums on urban fringes usually inhabited by unskilled labourers and lower middle-class professionals who have recently migrated from villages to big cities. The psychological, social and economic anxieties caused by their precarious urban living often lead them to take solace in something bigger than themselves and their immediate families. Religious groups are often the sole source of that solace in Pakistani cities. These are the people who form the backbone of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan’s public support.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst who also writes frequently about the link between religion and politics, believes the party’s supporters can be split into two groups. “One consists of illiterate types,” she says. The other, according to her, is an educated lower middle class. This second group consists of people who are “extremely unhappy about the fact that the older Barelvi leadership is not doing anything to push back against Deobandi and Ahle Hadis groups.”

Matthew J Nelson, a professor at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) whose work focuses on religion and politics in Pakistan, points to another factor. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, he says, has simply channelled a special love [among Barelvis] for the Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him) in a way that rallies people around an anti-blasphemy (and often anti-Ahmadi) agenda. “Barelvi commentators like Amir Liaquat have also helped to whip up this dangerous pattern.”

But this, according to Nelson, is not something new. “Pakistan has been wrestling with this trend for many years.”

He calls the trend a “worrying spiral” that has its origin in what he terms a “competitive piety” race among the members of different religious and sectarian groups. Barelvis, according to his analysis, are just trying to prove that they are better placed to protect, preserve and promote religious values in society than Deobandis. “It may be just a matter of time before some other groups try to carve out their own ‘competitive’ space.”

Hafiz Muhammad Saeed comes from a Gujjar family in Sargodha. He is said to have travelled to Saudi Arabia to receive education in the 1980s. There he became influenced by Wahabi Islam, practiced and promoted by the Saudi kingdom officially. After his return to Pakistan, he started teaching Islamic studies at the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore

In 1986, Saeed set up the Markaz Dawat-wal-Irshad in Muridke town, a few kilometres to the north of Lahore. His partners in the project were a university colleague, Zafar Iqbal, and Sheikh Yusuf Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian Islamist ideologue who at the time was teaching at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. The Markaz, as its name suggests, was meant to call people to religion and provide moral guidance. By 1993, it was running several educational institutions.

The graduates of these institutions were recruited to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), also founded by Saeed, to help Afghans fighting the Soviet occupation of their homeland. When the Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the LeT sent its fighters to Kashmir, reportedly with covert support from the Pakistan Army.

Saeed ran the LeT for over a decade. After the 9/11 terrorists attacks in the United States, Pakistan came under intense American and European pressure to ban religious and militant groups directly or indirectly associated with Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and various militant groups operating in Afghanistan. The pressure increased after the LeT reportedly carried out a daring attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, bringing Pakistan and India to the verge of war.

Saeed was arrested and spent most of 2002 either in jail or under house arrest. He was released later that year on the orders of the Lahore High Court. The government also banned the Markaz Daawat-wal-Irshad and the LeT from functioning inside Pakistan. Saeed, however, managed to bypass these restrictions by renaming the Markaz Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and separating its organisation from that of the LeT that, he claimed, was to operate from then onwards only in and from Kashmir under its own command and control structure.

Saeed was placed under house arrest once again in 2006 for the same reason: his reported links to militancy in Kashmir and his role in instigating and facilitating acts of terrorism in India. The ostensible charges brought against him to justify his detention, however, included making speeches that incited violence, collecting donations for his various organisations and attending public activities without legal permission.

His 2006 arrest came after an improvement in relations between New Delhi and Islamabad in the wake of a South Asian summit in Islamabad in January 2004 and amid reports that the two sides were reaching some kind of agreement to resolve the long-standing Kashmir issue. Like in the past, however, the Lahore High Court declared his detention illegal and ordered his release in October that year.

Saeed was arrested for the third time in 2008 after a series of terrorist attacks in India’s financial capital of Mumbai killed more than 150 people. These attacks are alleged to have been carried out by Pakistani militants trained, dispatched and directed by the LeT. One of the attackers, Ajmal Kasab, was arrested and later hanged in an Indian jail after trial. A Pakistani court, too, has been hearing an antiterrorism case for close to a decade now against various LeT operatives, including its chief, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, for facilitating the Mumbai attacks. But so far no decision has been made.

This time around, too, the Lahore High Court ordered Saeed’s detention illegal, but the government, unwilling to release him due to international pressure, appealed against the decision at the Supreme Court. It lost the appeal.

His latest detention came in 2017 and met the same fate. After the Lahore High Court ordered his release in November last year, he came out of detention amid a shower of rose petals from his followers.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa activists in Quetta protest their leader Hafiz Saeed's latest arrest in 2017| PPI
Jamaat-ud-Dawa activists in Quetta protest their leader Hafiz Saeed's latest arrest in 2017| PPI

The Muridke Markaz consists of many buildings and open spaces inside a vast walled compound. It has recently put up a shiny new board at its entrance that reads: “Government of Sheikupura, Educational and Medical Complex.”

The complex is not open to visitors. On a recent day in June 2018, its entrance remains closed, manned by an armed guard wearing a faded green shalwar kameez with JuDP written on it.

The government has taken over the Markaz in order to avoid the international sanctions being threatened by the Financial Action Task Force, a global watchdog for money laundering. After a meeting earlier this year, the task force put Pakistan on a grey list, warning that it could be put on a black list if it did not take sufficient measures to curb money laundering and terror-financing. If put on the blacklist, Pakistan’s banks and financial institutions will face massive difficulties in handling foreign transactions including those involving foreign trade.

Faced with this dire situation, the government has taken a number of steps to stop the flow of money to the JuD and LeT — both of them listed as terrorist organisations by the United Nations.

The government has also stopped the charitable activities of the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation – closely associated with the JuD – and taken over many schools, healthcare facilities, rescue services and madrasas it ran in various parts of the country.

These restrictions led senior members of the JuD to launch the Milli Muslim League in August last year. The attempt was nipped in the bud. The Election Commission of Pakistan refused, in October 2017, to register the Milli Muslim League as a political party eligible to take part in elections. The application for registration was rejected on the ground that the federal interior ministry had not given the new organisation a mandatory security clearance.

The Milli Muslim League moved the Islamabad High Court to have the decision reversed. During one of the hearings in the case, the interior ministry presented a report that stated that the Milli Muslim League was closely associated with the LeT and JuD. The report also said the party “would breed violence and extremism in politics…”

This assessment could be based on the fact that some members of the Milli Muslim League have known links with terrorism. Qari Muhammad Yaqoob Sheikh, popularly known as Sheikh Yaqoob, who was the party’s candidate in the Lahore by-election, was designated a “global terrorist” by the United States treasury in August 2012.

Hearings in the case over the registration of the Milli Muslim League went on for a few months. In the end, the high court decided on March 8, 2018 that the grounds for refusing the registration were not sufficient. The Election Commission of Pakistan was, therefore, ordered to reconsider the application. Three months later, a renewed bid for registration was also turned down.

There is nothing that distinguishes the Milli Muslim League’s ideology from that of many new political parties. It has a message of change and it promises to rid people of corrupt politicians and corrupt parties. “We believe that the games political parties have been playing for the past 70 years cannot continue,” says Tabish Qayyum, spokesperson of the Milli Muslim League.

His party sees the answer to Pakistan’s political problems in returning to what he calls the country’s foundational ideology. “We will go back to the roots. The country was formed to protect the Muslims of South Asia and the minorities who live with them,” says Qayyum. This and the Kashmir issue, according to him, are the most important pillars of his party’s agenda.

He insists the Milli Muslim League has no affiliation with Saeed and various organisations linked to him: “Its founding leader is not Hafiz Saeed but Saifullah Khalid who is no longer associated with the JuD.” This, according to Qayyum, should have earned his party the registration.

But Khalid was once a part of the JuD. Qayyum acknowledges this but adds that Khalid was among a group of people within the JuD who always believed in democratic politics. “Political parties are not formed all of a sudden. This is something we have been discussing for a while,” he says.

There is a problem here: even if the Milli Muslim League is not part of the JuD in an institutional sense, it cannot make its electoral presence felt strictly on its own. Those who are likely to vote for it will be doing so because they are familiar with either the JuD or the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation or both — as Qayyum admits. The fact that Saeed’s image appears on campaign material used by candidates supported by the Milli Muslim League only makes this connection obvious.

The Saeed factor also strengthens the suspicion that the Milli Muslim League is nothing more than another attempt by the JuD – and by extension the LeT – to be able to operate legally within Pakistan.

Ayesha Siddiqa believes this to be the case: the Milli Muslim League is a bid to provide a legitimate cover to the JuD, she says. “The world is breathing down Pakistan’s neck and Pakistan has to do something, so it makes [the JUD members] political actors,” she adds. “The world is not buying into this.”

Sheikh Azhar Hussain is confident that the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan will win public support all over Pakistan in the coming general election. In a measured, deliberate tone, he says: “We do not think politics and religion are separate.”

His party was registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan in the wake of last year’s by-election in Lahore that he contested, and has now nominated around 150 candidates for the National Assembly all across the country. Some of them are entirely new entrants to politics. Many others were once associated with older Barelvi political organisations.

He also does not rule out electoral cooperation with other political entities. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, he says, will be open to collaboration with any political party that helps it achieve its objective of protecting the honour of the Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him).

The Milli Muslim League, too, is adamant about staying in the electoral field even if it does not have legal permission to field its own candidates. It has pitched 80 candidates for the National Assembly and 185 for the provincial assemblies, including a son and son-in-law of Saeed, under the banner of the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek. This little known party is headed by a doctor, Mian Ihsan Bari, who is based in the town of Haroonabad in south Punjab’s Bahawalnagar district. As is obvious from its name, the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek has a religious agenda that includes putting an end to co-education.

The staying power the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and the Milli Muslim League are exhibiting makes many analysts suggest that they have been launched to play the role of a spoiler in the coming election. Siddiqa does not mince her words when she says that a major objective of their entry into electoral politics is to siphon away religious voters from the PMLN and hinder it from winning the 2018 elections. She also claims the two parties enjoy the patronage of the all-powerful security and intelligence agencies – collectively called the military establishment – in achieving this objective.

Matthew J Nelson of SOAS also says the votes the two parties have won in various by-elections may not be as important as the military establishment’s support for them. He agrees with Siddiqa that the establishment would like the Milli Muslim League and the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan – as well as some other religious groups – to take votes away from the PMLN. “The by-election in Lahore indicated that this could actually happen,” he says.

The suggestion that the establishment could be behind the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan was reinforced during the protests at Faizabad, partly because Rizvi and his associates insisted that they would negotiate only with the military leadership to end their agitation. Video footage that emerged later showed a senior army officer, Director General Rangers Punjab Major General Azhar Naveed, distributing money among the protesters after they agreed to vacate the roads they had been blocking. “The nation wants to know why money was distributed among the protesters of the religious party,” Nawaz Sharif said later.

His statement can be seen as a backhanded acknowledgement of the political and electoral damage that his party may suffer at the hands of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan whose core supporters, Barelvis, constitute around half, if not more, of Pakistan’s overwhelmingly Sunni population. They have already shown their street power in recent years in multiple protests and rallies held across Pakistan and through various acts of violence on blasphemy-related issues.

That the PMLN may lose some support among its religious voters also seems plausible when viewed in the context of some recent political developments. A couple of dissenters who once belonged to the inner coterie of the party’s senior leadership – former Punjab ministers Chaudhry Abdul Ghafoor Mayo and Zaeem Qadri – have both criticised the PMLN for ignoring popular sentiments on changes to the election nomination forms as well as on improvement in relations with India. The two issues, respectively, form the core of electoral messages by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and Milli Muslim League.

Data obtained from the Election Commission of Pakistan also confirms that there are pockets of religious voters that the two parties may attract. The votes that the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan obtained in the Lahore by-election, for instance, were mostly scattered across the entire constituency but were heavily condensed in a few neighbourhoods. The concentration was the strongest in Sanda, on the eastern edge of the constituency.

The fact that the Milli Muslim League also won a high number of votes in Sanda further substantiates the presence of religious voters in certain parts of perhaps every constituency in the country. The support for the two parties overlapped so much that they often got their higher vote tallies at the same polling stations.

Religious protesters clash with law enforcement personnel at Faizabad | TANVEER SHAHZAD, WHITE STAR
Religious protesters clash with law enforcement personnel at Faizabad | TANVEER SHAHZAD, WHITE STAR

This could be because Sanda’s transition from a pre-independence village to a purely urban neighbourhood has been neither smooth nor yet complete. The locality remains largely poor and conservative. Old ties of religion, sect, clan and caste are still more salient here than they are in some richer and more solidly urban parts of Lahore.

Yet a walk through Sanda does not reveal any major signs of support for the two parties. Even Sufi shrines and mosques in the area – where religious voters are more likely to be found than on the streets – do not have any public markers of political association with either the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan or the Milli Muslim League. Indeed, plaques and posters showing the names of local PMLN leaders can be found both outside and inside these places. Most prayer leaders and custodians of shrines also exhibit staunch support for the PMLN.

Muhammad Afzal, a diehard PMLN voter in the constituency, scoffs at the idea that the two parties may pose a serious electoral threat to his party in the coming election. The fact that they together polled only 12,952 votes in a constituency where the winner alone took around five times as many votes shows the lack of support for them, he says. Many other voters in Lahore are similarly dismissive about the electoral significance of the two parties.

Nelson also cautions that their ability to take away religious votes from the PMLN “is probably overstated” — especially that of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. The reason for overstating its electoral significance, according to him, lies in the failure of traditional Barelvi parties like the faction-ridden Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan and Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek. They have failed in elections so spectacularly that even the “ripples” being created by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan can be construed as a “wave of sorts”, he says.

In Nelson’s opinion, the significance of the two parties does not exactly lie in how many votes they may obtain but in the fact that they are trying to do something that has not been attempted by the larger and older religious parties in the past. “The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan wants to bolster its position as a legitimate political actor by mobilising Pakistani ‘religious’ opinion in a Barelvi doctrinal direction. The Milli Muslim League wants to bolster its position as a legitimate political actor by mobilising Pakistani ‘religious’ opinion in a very different – Salafi – doctrinal direction,” he argues.

This is different from what the older religious parties – the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – have tried to do: consolidate religious voters irrespective of doctrinal differences. This explains why they have often willingly formed broad alliances, such as the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, with other religious parties, including the Shia and Barelvi ones.

Nelson, therefore, warns against looking at the two new parties in the same way that the older religious parties are looked at. “Many analysts will probably continue to ignore these doctrinal differences and clump all of these groups together as Islamists [working] with the military establishment’s support.”

Come polling day, that perspective may not be entirely helpful.


The writer is a staffer at the Herald.

Additional Reporting by Sher Ali Khan


This story was originally published in the July 2018 issue under the headline "A vote for the hereafter". To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.