Election Shows Why Pakistan Gets Mainstreaming Wrong

Supporters of the Sunni Muslim religious party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) ride on bikes with election posters displaying party head Khadim Rizvi during an election campaign rally in Karachi. (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistan’s recently-held general election has, for the first time, ushered into power a party known for its commitment to an anti-corruption agenda, a firm stance against the West, and a strong dedication to strengthening state institutions. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or Pakistan Party of Justice, is led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan who is hailed for not only leading Pakistan to a 1992 cricket World Cup victory, but also for establishing Pakistan’s largest free-of-cost cancer hospital. Beyond the debate over Imran Khan’s credentials, this election will be remembered for something far more worrisome: the emergence of extremist parties in the political sphere and its implications for Pakistan’s approach to mainstreaming.

While Pakistan’s political landscape has always included religious parties, they have never been able to win a national majority. This year has been exceptional for the fact that certain extremist, and at times violent, parties have come to the fore. These groups have filled the vacuum left by the dismantling of a key political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). These newer religious parties are more extreme and divisive, less tolerant, and more obscurantist than their mainstream counterparts.

The main extremist group was the radical Barelvi party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), led by firebrand cleric Khadim Rizvi. TLP is a single-issue party that campaigned primarily on supporting the blasphemy law, which prescribes the death penalty for anyone found guilty of insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Rizvi, a previously unknown cleric, rose to prominence after leading supporters to blockade portions of Islamabad for two weeks in November 2017 over an amendment to the Finality of the Prophethood clause in the 2017 Elections Act. The group only dispersed after the army brokered an agreement, the state capitulated to Rizvi’s demands, and the law minister resigned.

Perhaps in an attempt to stay politically relevant and to demonstrate its ability to command influential street power, the TLP embarked upon a “decisive march” towards Pakistan’s capital last week to protest against a cartoon competition depicting the Prophet Muhammad held by far-right Dutch opposition leader Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. Caricatures of the Prophet are deemed blasphemous and play to the center of TLP’s singular mission: to defend Pakistan’s blasphemy law. With hundreds of supporters marching on the streets, TLP demanded that Pakistan sever diplomatic relations with the Netherlands. Though Wilders eventually called off the competition claiming death threats, the TLP secured a much-needed organic opportunity to flex its strength and revitalize its defense of the blasphemy law post-election.

It also presented an important litmus test for how the PTI government that absorbed much of TLP’s blasphemy related extremist narrative would respond to protests like these now that it is in power. While Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has pledged to bring up the issue at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly, it is likely that the PTI government will engage with the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) instead where it may gain some traction. Ultimately, there is little tolerance for grievances related to blasphemy at the UN where the charter upholds and values freedom of speech as one of its central tenets.

Other groups also came to the fore during the election, such as the anti-Shia Ahle-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), believed to be a political front for the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a deadly militant group with ties to al-Qaeda. While ASWJ is a banned organization in Pakistan, its leader was removed from the ban just months before the presidential election, and ironically just after Pakistan was added to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) “monitored jurisdictions” for not doing enough to end terrorist financing. Many of ASWJ’s candidates ran from the Pakistan Rah-e-Haq Party (PRHP) founded in 2012 by a leader of the banned sectarian group Sipah-e-Sahabba Pakistan (SSP) but oddly registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

Joining the mix was also the Milli Muslim League (MML), which is regarded as the political front for the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the terrorist group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attack. MML is headed by Hafiz Saeed, who along with LeT itself is included in the UN Security Council’s al-Qaeda and ISIS Sanctions List. Though none of the 260 MML candidates backed by LeT had any success this year, the TLP did remarkably well in urban centers like Karachi and Lahore, even when facing long-established mainstream political parties, and was able to secure two provincial seats. In the end, TLP won the support of 4.8 percent of voters and is now the fifth largest national party in Pakistan. All this for a party that is only eight months old.

Why are all these developments worrying? While these parties were not able to secure significant electoral victories, the social impact they have and will have, particularly on young voters, is cause for concern. In Pakistan, especially with regards to religious parties, electoral success is not a clear reflection of the party’s actual strength.

One indication of the social impact is the influence of extremist content on politics in general and its connection to acts of violence. The rise of extremist rhetoric brings peripheral and controversial topics, such as the protection of blasphemy laws, to the fore and feeds on vulnerable minds, of which there are many in Pakistan. For example, the TLP was born out of the 2011 assassination of the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer by his bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Qadri, who killed Taseer because of his “campaign to amend the blasphemy laws.” Since then a number of incidents have followed, including the 2017 lynching of a student who allegedly posted blasphemous content online. According to an Al-Jazeera tally, 74 people have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990.

Equally worrisome is the argument that extreme groups should be “politically mainstreamed,” i.e., participate in the electoral process, with the purpose of bringing them into the fold so that the state can monitor them and the actors themselves can have non-nefarious outlets. While the “mainstreaming” argument has merits, the approach to it in Pakistan needs to change.

Firstly, political mainstreaming in Pakistan is happening prematurely. In general, mainstreaming is a later stage of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) strategies. DDR is usually practiced after violent conflicts and requires concerted effort on behalf of the state and buy-in from civil society, civilian leaders (e.g., Parliament), the military, among others. Any mainstreaming is thus a far later stage of this process and is usually extended to those who have undergone psycho-social assistance, have participated in de-radicalization programming and have outwardly, consciously, and completely renounced violence, including those with jihadist and sectarian underpinnings. Those who go through this process usually complete probationary periods that involve community service, and are evaluated so that they demonstrate they can be responsible and productive members of a community and abide by the constitution of the state.

None of this rings true for those who have allegedly been mainstreamed into the national politics of Pakistan in 2018. Take Hafiz Saeed of the LeT for instance. Saeed, though still on both the Security Council sanctions list and US Terrorist Watch List, and with a $10 million bounty on his head by the US, was removed from house arrest by Pakistani authorities in November 2017. Saeed continues to issue Friday sermons inciting sectarian hatred, anti-India sentiment, and violence against the West. These actions are not in line with the generally accepted approach to mainstreaming outlined above.

Secondly, mainstreaming is generally conducted by a state that is able to monitor and, more importantly, control the access and influence of actors. The state and its institutions must be strong and responsive enough to conduct this work as seamlessly as possible. Additionally, mainstreaming involves participants adhering to the state’s political ambitions, not challenging it. In Pakistan, the functioning of the state and its institutions is not at this level. It is also unclear, and perhaps unlikely, that the groups mentioned above have renounced attempts to transform Pakistan’s political and religious systems as enshrined in the constitution thereby making it difficult to bring them into the fold.

Third, and most positively in the case of Pakistan, for mainstreaming to be safe, effective, and successful, it is imperative that the state have a sustainable political strategy and institutions that can support a medium-term political process. While DDR policies usually struggle in fragile post-conflict zones, Pakistan has a robust civilian structure with relatively strong, and more importantly, functioning state institutions. Pakistan is not a fragile state in the conventional sense.

Without an adjustment in approach to mainstreaming and a clear renunciation of violence on the part of the state, extremist ideology will likely further permeate Pakistan’s political and social fabric. The ramifications of this could be grave, both from a rule of law standpoint and longer term on the state of the democratic process itself.

Aayla Jawaid is a New York based political risk analyst, focusing on issues of terrorism and extremism.