Pakistan’s counter-extremism narrative called into question – Farooq Yousaf

Originally Published at East Asia Forum

At the conclusion of the recent BRICS summit, observers were surprised to see the BRICS nations issue a unanimous declaration indirectly chiding Pakistan and asking Islamabad to take concerted action against militant and extremist groups.

This move came as a surprise following the recent alignment of China and Russia with Pakistan on domestic and international issues. Even though China was quick in dismissing any ill-will towards Pakistan regarding the joint declaration, there was still a hidden message for Islamabad — Pakistan has to ‘do more’ to sell its counter-terrorism narrative abroad and to convince the international community of its efforts.

The ruling elite in Islamabad has time and again tried to convince the international community not only that has it done enough to curb terrorism and extremism but also that it has suffered great loss, including more than 60,000 lives and over US$100 billion financially.

Yet recently concluded by-elections in Lahore present a different picture and somewhat contradict Pakistan’s narrative of going all-out against terrorism and extremist groups.

The by-elections in Lahore’s NA-120 constituency saw Kulsoom Nawaz — the wife of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif — claim victory over her main rival with 61,000 votes to 47,000 votes respectively. With the focus on these two major party candidates, what went unnoticed was independent candidate Azhar Hussain Rizvi from the ultra-right Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party finishing third with 7130 votes, while Hafiz Saeed-backed Sheikh Yaqub came fourth with 5822 votes. The TLP and Yaqub combined secured almost 13,000 votes from an urban constituency, which presents a worrying challenge for next year’s general elections.

Pakistan’s National Action Plan (NAP) — formulated after the Peshawar school attack in December 2014 — called for a ban on groups spreading hate speech and not allowing banned outfits to operate under different names. The rise of TLP and MML poses a challenge to the NAP objectives.

The TLP is headed by Khadim Hussian Rizvi, a firebrand cleric and orator who is also an active supporter of Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri was a security guard who was hanged after murdering the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer for alleged blasphemy — Taseer called the Blasphemy law a ‘black law’ arguing that it had nothing to do with Islam. Rizvi belongs to the Barelvi sect of Islam and has openly called for the execution of all blasphemers. Much of the TLP’s campaign revolved around an ‘Islamic form of governance’ and Mumtaz Qadri’s sacrifice. The number of votes bagged by its candidate has consequently raised many eyebrows in the country. The TLP now gears for the 2018 general elections and plans to field candidates throughout the country.

On the other hand, Hafiz Saeed — head of the notorious terrorist organisation Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD) (also known as Lashkar-e-Taiba) — fielded a candidate of his own in the by-elections. Saeed, who has been sanctioned by the UN for his involvement with terrorist groups and activities, had announced the establishment of the MML in August this year, inviting critique from both home and abroad. Despite the Election Commission of Pakistan refusing to register his Milli Muslim League (MML) party, Saeed fielded Sheik Yaqub as a quasi-independent candidate endorsed by the MML.

Saeed’s entry into the political mainstream presents larger challenges for the civil–military establishment and ruling elite in the country. He has remained one of the major points of contention in attempts to revive India–Pakistan ties, with New Delhi always demanding the trial of Saeed and the bringing of him to justice. India alleges Saeed is responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks along with militant and terror activities in Indian Kashmir.

Much of Saeed’s narrative is based on the ‘freedom’ of Kashmir and support of its indigenous movement against the Indian armed forces. Election campaign videos of the MML used India as an electioneering tool, calling on constituents to be loyal to Pakistan and become enemies of Modi. In another video, an MML/JuD member is seen asking people to vote for ‘Saeed and his mission’.

Ironically, Saeed’s candidate Yaqub was invited on mainstream news networks and given airtime to tell his side of the story in post-election analyses. Yaqub refused to admit that he was an MML candidate and stated he was only previously affiliated with the JuD, clearly seeking to maintain his ‘independent’ status. Little action has been brought against Yaqub and the political activities of MML, again placing question marks over Pakistan’s commitment to countering extremism.

The JuD has enjoyed a positive image among the poor rural class, especially in Punjab, mainly due its social work and charity conducted through Falah e Insaniat Foundation (FIF). The FIF is known for its prompt relief responses in remote areas that the civil administration find difficult to reach, along with collecting donations for charity. But allegations have surfaced these charity appeals are also being used to fund ‘Jihad in Kashmir’.

Saeed has also been previously accused of promoting extremism in poor rural pockets by opening religious seminaries, though he has rejected such allegations. For many in Pakistan, Saeed is a ‘messiah’ or the ‘only saviour’ for the Indian Kashmiris and their ‘struggle for freedom’.

Pakistan’s foreign minister Khwaja Asif recently argued that ‘Saeed was now a liability’, suggesting that in the past, Saeed and his LeT/JuD have enjoyed state and military support. Due to these facets of Saeed’s image and public life, successive governments in power have found it difficult to either arrest or convict Saeed in any of the alleged cases taken up by India or the United States.

Active political campaigning from the MML, JuD and TLP raises major question marks over Pakistan’s seriousness in countering extremism and implementing its much-hyped National Action Plan. If the likes of Saeed are allowed to operate in the country and carry out socio-political activities — even when the state claims to have him under house arrest — it surely weakens Pakistan’s counter-terror case in the global arena.

Farooq Yousaf is a doctoral candidate at the University of Newcastle.

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