By Zahid Hussain
The attempt on the life of Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal is a grim reminder of how the growing menace of religious extremism threatens Pakistan’s fragile democratic political process. The country’s top internal-security official was shot at by a lone assailant, believed to be a member of a radical religious group, while the minister was addressing a public rally in his home constituency in central Punjab.
The incident, a month before the general election, raises questions about the failure of the state to contain violent extremism. More troubling still, the flames of bigotry are sweeping across the country, creating a dangerous confluence of religion and politics. Iqbal was targeted to send a message to other political leaders, and the incident will certainly have an adverse effect on the election campaign. It will be especially tough for the leaders of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party. It might also affect former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s plans to address public rallies in an attempt to mobilize public support in Punjab.
It remains to be seen how quickly the party can recover from its shock and whether it is able to successfully address the differences within its ranks. A major worry for the party leadership is that its support among Barelvi voters might split, undermining its election prospects.
Although no group has claimed responsibility for the attack on Iqbal it was not the action of a lone wolf. The 22-year-old assailant is said to be a follower of a recently formed, radical Barelvi sectarian organization known as Tehreek-e-Labaik. Its members spearheaded a three-week-long siege of the capital, Islamabad, few months ago. Led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a cleric notorious for his vitriolic tongue and named on extremist watch lists, it virtually brought the Pakistani state to its knees. A highly controversial deal brokered by the military brought an end to the siege, with many describing it as abject surrender to the zealots. The government conceded to all the demands of the cleric, including the removal of a federal law minister accused of committing blasphemy. The administration even agreed to compensate militants who were involved in attacks on law-enforcement agencies and destroyed public property.
There has not been any instance in the country’s history of such a humiliating capitulation by the state. The abject submission to the lawbreakers and non-state actors undermined the legitimacy of the civil administration and raised questions about the country’s battle against violent religious extremism. The whole episode has further empowered radical Islamist and sectarian groups. The Islamabad siege also exposed various fault lines that are worsening the existential crisis facing the state. While a weak and bitterly divided civilian government is mainly responsible for the mess, the civil-military conflict and various centers of power working against each other compounded the crisis. The sense of victory has given further stridency to a rising Barelvi militancy. Rizvi, who is in his late 60s and uses a wheelchair, is a prayer leader at a Lahore mosque who gained notoriety in 2011 when he publicly defended the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, who was killed by his official security guard for defending a Christian woman charged with blasphemy. Rizvi and other hard-line clerics hailed the assassin as a “soldier of Islam.” A court sentenced the guard, Mumtaz Qadri, to death. Rizvi represents the rise of a new and more radical Barelvi sectarian movement. The majority of Pakistani Muslims belong to this sect, which had generally been considered “moderate” compared with those belonging to the hard-line Deobandi school of Islam. But radical clerics such as Rizvi have turned to militancy, publicly espousing violence in the name of their narrow view of religion.
The movement has drawn huge support from among the less-educated population, such as the attacker who targeted Iqbal. The filthy language used by these clerics and the open incitement to violence not only threatens the lives of members of minority religious communities, but also leaves moderate Muslims more vulnerable to mob violence. As such, the attack on Iqbal did not come as surprise.
The impunity radical clerics such as Rizvi enjoy has further reinforced the perception of Pakistan as becoming a hostage to violent extremists. The inaction of the state might encourage other extremist groups to put the government under pressure. If the parliament is rendered irrelevant and democratic forces are divided, this could provide greater space and influence for non-elected groups and other institutions of the state. The use of religion as a policy tool by the state, and its confluence with politics, has divided the nation along sectarian lines and fueled bigotry.
(Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC.Twitter: @hidhussain)