Religious Intolerance Grows as Pakistan Heads for Parliamentary Elections

BY AYESHA ISHTIAQ

Ahsan Iqbal, 59, was made interior minister last year (Caren Firouz/Reuters)

As the Pakistani government stands on its toes in the face of the parliamentary elections of July 2018, campaigning and conspiracies by various politically motivated actors have risen in number. It is no secret that the country has seen dramatic turnovers and intense tragedies within its systems. In the past five years, under ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the country sunk deeply into internal turmoil stemming from massive protest movements, public backlash against government policies, political scandals, and the rise of a powerful political opposition against the incumbent ruling party in the national assembly. The most recent and alarming event – possibly fueled by extremist political and religious sentiments – occurred on Sunday, May 6 when the Interior Minister of Pakistan Ahsan Iqbal became a victim of an assassination attempt. Iqbal was appointed the Minister of Interior and the Regional Head of Planning and Development under the current Prime Minister Khaqan Abbasi’s cabinet, following the Panama Scandal that saw the disqualification of PM Nawaz Sharif in July 2017.

To understand the motive behind this assassination attempt, analysts have examined the term of the current ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), in the last five years. In 2013, the governor of the province of Punjab – Salman Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri. Taseer was a vocal liberal and proponent of relaxing Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. According to the current Pakistani constitution, blasphemy is a crime that  is punishable by death in some circumstances. Although no one on death row has actually been executed under this law in many years, blasphemy in Pakistan remains a highly sensitive issue, often leading to violence. After the arrest of Qadri and his subsequent execution for murder, two massive opposing point of views emerged in the country between the far right wing supporters and liberals in favor of a more considerate approach. This clash of ideology has been the source of violent turmoil that eventually triggered the massive protest movement in 2017 that saw a violent and right wing extremist mob out in the streets engaging in protests against the government. During these protests, many renowned Pakistani government officials, including Iqbal, were accused of committing blasphemy and were called out to resign from service. This extremist ideology has begun to play a major role in causing large sections of the population to become religiously intolerant. These groups, under their shared ideology, have come together in support to form an extreme right wing political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP). TLP blocked a major highway entrance to the country’s capital for three weeks in November 2017, eventually ending the sit down only after military involvement and the resignation of the law minister as per the TLP terms. Since then, TLP has been increasingly expanding as a political group and it seems to be growing more violent. While TLP has no known affiliations with Islamic militants including the Pakistani Taliban, Iqbal’s would-be assassin has confessed to belonging with TLP. The party is to compete in the upcoming elections alongisde other political parties including PML-N. The treaty brokered by the military last year between the government and TLP was warned by many political analysts to have set a risky precedence for the future, allowing fringe groups a way to win large concessions through violence. The shooting of the Interior Minister seems to be a beginning of another form of boosting popularity in the July elections by various parties holding vested interests in the political game.

After the 2017 protests and the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, political animosity is at an all time high in the secretariat. Violence such as this is not new within the Pakistani election atmosphere, which has seen the likes of the assassinations of Benazir Bhutto and Salman Taseer. Iqbal, a stalwart member of PML-N, is another steadfast supporter of Pakistan’s religious minorities who has been working to encourage religious minorities of the country to vote during the 2018 election. Iqbal has been vocal in preserving the rights of religious minorities, a right acknowledged by the constitution of Pakistan but repeatedly violated by far right groups with support from sections of the population. He has on many occasions, condemned hate speech especially against groups such as the Ahmadis, an Islamic sect heavily persecuted within sections of the country. His social media posts have more than often been littered by religiously diverse images that had caused mixed emotions of angst and praise from the population. In fact, he was shot after having just attending a consulate of Christian minorities. The man responsible for this shooting, a 22-year-old from the village of Narowal-Abid Hussain, confessed to the attempt and has been linked to TLP.  This assassination attempt has brought the violent undertones of political extremist groups to the front. While Iqbal is out of immediate danger, this event has raised voices for security concerns about the members of PML-N for whom this incident is seen to be a move to topple the powerful Sharif family.

While, representatives from TLP have denied any connections to the shooting, this is a move that is common in all politically motivated violent attacks in the country’s history and is visibly contradictory to the TLP’s ideology. Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP leader has been calling for the strict implementation of the death penalty for any blasphemous activities and so his current claims stand in stark contrast with the party’s inherently violent ideology. Prime Minister Khaqan Abbasi has condemned this incident, acknowledging its severity and assured that necessary steps will be taken to investigate it in its entirety. Khadim Hussain Rizvi is currently under investigation given to the shooter’s confessions of belonging to TLP.  

It is common for a political party in Middle Eastern and South Asian politics to be strongly affiliated with a family, as shown in the likes of the House of Saud or the Assad family. Much like these, Pakistan too has been plagued by familial dynamics and politics intermittent with the parliament. From the Bhutto family to the Sharif’s, political leadership has been handed down in inheritance like family heirlooms. These political parties have been focused on maintaining their family legacies to extents where they have begun to ignore problems as that of the rising religious intolerance and basic constitutional rights of Pakistani citizens. These internal turmoils have only helped in the growth of far right groups and allowed democracy to be heavily tampered by governmental coercion as corruption seeps into every corner with the growing cult of personalities surrounding the political families. The status quo of this system has been such for many years and the elections of 2018 once again share similarities to that of all previous ones. However, the thought that extremist views tend to rise in the face of a threat to their ideology can offer some solace, alongside the hope brought by the undeniable zeal gripping the youth of Pakistan that are ready for change in the decades-long crumbling structures.

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