Pakistan’s Sectarian Threat

January 22, 2013

Protest after anti-Shia bombing in Quetta

Tahir-ul-Qadri’s demonstration in Islamabad dominated headlines last week, but it was another set of protests that are more likely to shape Pakistan’s future. While thousands rallied in support of election reforms, thousands of other Pakistanis were demanding basic security for themselves and their families.

Following a terrorist attack that killed almost 100 Shia, families refused to bury their dead, instead taking them into the streets of Quetta and refusing to leave until the Army was directed to take over security in the region.

The sit-in was about more than the devastating attack that preceded it, though. It was an outcry from a community that has been attacked mercilessly for years. In fact, more Pakistanis are being killed in sectarian attacks than in drone strikes. According to data compiled by the New America Foundation, between 218 and 343 Pakistanis died in drone strikes last year. But by September of the same year, at least 320 Shia were killed in sectarian attacks according to Human Rights Watch – and this was before attacks that killed dozens more during Muharram. The attack in Quetta last week alone killed almost double the number of people as drones in 2013, setting a very worrying start to a new year.

Most of the anti-Shia attacks, including last week’s, are being carried out by the militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) led by a man named Malik Ishaq. What’s troubling, though, is that Malik Ishaq is not hiding in a cave somewhere. He not only operates very openly, but with at least tacit support from very powerful institutions in Pakistan.

Tahir Ashrafi with Malik Ishaq After spending several years in jail on dozens of terrorism charges, Malik Ishaq was freed by the Lahore High Court due to lack of evidence in the summer of 2011. On hand at his release were a number of influential religious figures including the head of the Pakistan Ulema Council, Tahir Ashrafi, who was photographed riding next to a garlanded Ishaq as he drove away. The Express Tribune, an English-language daily in Pakistan, reported that Ashrafi said he believes “Ishaq should be integrated in mainstream religious parties claiming he has now been deradicalised.” Shortly thereafter, Ishaq began organizing anti-Shia rallies across Pakistan.

But it’s not just Tahir Ashrafi who has supported Malik Ishaq since his release. Last year, Malik Ishaq appeared on stage at a Difa-e-Pakistan (DPC) rally in Multan alongside Tahir Ashrafi, Sheikh Rashid, Hafiz Saeed, Hamid Gul and a number of other prominent religious and political actors.

Even while he was in prison, Ishaq was receiving support through some official channels. In 2011, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah confirmed that he LeJ leader’s family had been receiving monthly payments from the provincial government since the PML-N took power there in 2008. In 2012, the PML-N enjoyed election support from the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) after Malik Ishaq was given the position of Vice President. And earlier this month the PML-N and ASWJ held a joint press conference to denounce Tahir-ul-Qadri as pursuing a foreign agenda.

As if on cue, Tahir Ashrafi is now threatening legal action against a group of Pakistani bloggers who write about sectarian attacks in Pakistan, claiming that they are “Irani[an] loyalists [who] have been directed to spread lies to incite conflict in Pakistan.” Given his connections to Malik Ishaq, it will be hard for Pakistan’s Shia not to hear sectarian tones in Ashrafi’s allegation that Shia-majority Iran is attempting to “incite conflict in Pakistan” by raising awareness of anti-Shia violence.

TIME’s Omar Waraich warns that anti-Shia violence in Pakistan could ignite regional conflict with Iran “have grave consequences not just for the country but also the wider region”, and it is certainly true that tension with a third neighbor is the last thing that Pakistan needs right now. Of greater concern, however, is, as Waraich observes, the internal threat of destabilization that anti-Shia violence presents. Politicians from across the political spectrum were quick to condemn last week’s bombing in Quetta. But as Pakistan’s Shia lose their patience – and their lives – a more tangible solution to the crisis is needed soon.

Did Tahir-ul-Qadri Make Imran Khan Irrelevant?

January 18, 2013

Tahir-ul-Qadri's supporters in Lahore

The Tahir-ul-Qadri show appears to have ended as quickly as it began. After brief talks with the government, a five-point agreement was signed and both sides declared victory. In fact, in many ways it seems that almost everyone came out a winner – Dr. Qadri got the government to agree to give him some input in who will serve as caretake Prime Minister; the PPP-coalition government skillfully defused a potentially messy situation not through force, but through compromise; and the PML-N did not hijack the demonstration or exploit it for short-term gain, but emphasized the importance of following the Constitution and the democratic process. The only group that really gained nothing was Imran Khan. The question is, did the events of the past week actually render him irrelevant?

Over the past few years, Imran Khan has spent significant time and money trying to transform his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), from a one-man show to a national political player. His mammoth rallies in 2011 promised to do just that. But even at the time, Michael Kugelman saw this as potentially peaking too soon.

Kugelman had an important point. Elections were not expected for almost two years, and there’s a chasm of difference between building excitement about a candidate and actually forcing early elections. And as every political professional knows too well, time management is essential to a successful campaign – with too little time you can’t effectively engage voters; with too much you run the risk of losing their interest.

By coming out so strong so early, Imran Khan took a big gamble. True, he needed the time to not only gather support but to demonstrate that he was a legitimate contender. Politicians at the level of Javed Hashmi and Shah Mehmood Qureshi weren’t going to join PTI unless they had significant reason to believe that it had a chance in national elections. But with so much time before the current administration’s term comes to an end, there was a real risk that something could go wrong or that people would lose interest.

A few months ago, Michael Kugelman revisited his 2011 thesis, suggesting that Imran Khan was “taking some time out to rethink his problematic political strategy and platform.” While Khan was thinking, though, Tahir-ul-Qadri was preparing to act. The Canadian cleric arrived in Pakistan not years, but months before elections were expected. His timing was impeccable.

While Qadri was leading his supporters on a march to Islamabad, Imran Khan was forced to decide if he was going to join Qadri’s march – as a supporting actor. In the end, Khan chose to try to support Qadri’s agenda without actually joining his action.

 

Khan’s Tweet betrays him, though. Qadri’s agenda was about who had a say in choosing the caretaker government. If that was Imran Khan’s agenda, as he claimed, the march would have to come before the formation of the caretaker government otherwise their demands would be moot.

From the sidelines, Khan held a press conference and issued demands of his own – including that President Zardari resign immediately; that the Election Commission of Pakistan take notice of “pre-poll rigging” in the form of “distributing laptops and through the Benazir Income Support Programme”; and that the sitting Prime Minister be arrested. But by this point, hardly anyone was paying attention to Imran Khan. Tahir-ul-Qadri was the man of the hour.

Two days later, Tahir-ul-Qadri achieved what Imran Khan couldn’t achieve in two years – he got to government to agree to a specific timeline and set of reforms that would help shape the coming elections. Most importantly, Tahir-ul-Qadri – whose Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) party has exactly zero elected seats in parliament – managed to get the extraordinary concession of a seat at the table in the discussion of who will lead the caretaker setup.

Today, Reuters reported that PAT is considering contesting elections after sitting them out in 2008. Despite turning out an estimated 50,000 people to his protest, however, it is unlikely that Qadri has the electoral support to present much of a threat to the PPP or PML-N’s entrenched vote bases. But Qadri may be able to present a significant threat to PTI by splitting the protest vote.

In politics, nothing succeeds like success, and after the events of the past week, some of Imran Khan’s supporters may see in Tahir-ul-Qadri a more viable vehicle for their reformist agenda. That Qadri’s Minhaj-ul-Quran is aligned with a moderate, sufi-informed school of Islam also gives the PAT leader religious credentials without the accusations of being a Taliban sympathizer.

Whether or not Tahir-ul-Qadri does decide to contest the elections, however, it remains to be seen if Imran Khan can recover from a week in which he was relegated to the sidelines during an event that capitalized on what were supposed to be his two major strengths – the ability to mobilize a large number of people, and public desire for a new choice in politics. Tahir-ul-Qadri may have come to Islamabad looking to end the political careers of Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, but as the dust begins to settle, it looks like Imran Khan may be the one who stands to lose.

Text of the ‘Islamabad Long March Declaration’

January 17, 2013

Following decisions were unanimously arrived at; having been taken today, 17 January 2013, in the meeting which was participated by coalition parties delegation led by Chaudry Shujaat Hussain including:

1) Makdoom Amin Fahim, PPP

2) Syed Khursheed Shah, PPPP

3) Qamar ur Zama Qaira, PPPP

4) Farooq H Naik, PPPP

5) Mushahid Hussain, PML-Q

6) Dr Farooq Sattar, MQM

7) Babar Ghauri, MQM

8) Afrasiab Khattak, ANP

9) Senator Abbas Afridi, FATA

With the founding leader of Minhaj-ul-Quran International (MQI) and chairman Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri.

The Decisions

1) The National Assembly shall be dissolved at any time before March 16, 2013, (due date), so that the elections may take place within the 90 days. One month will be given for scrutiny of nomination paper for the purpose of pre-clearance of the candidates under article 62 and 63 of the constitution so that the eligibility of the candidates is determined by the Elections Commission of Pakistan. No candidate would be allowed to start the election campaign until pre-clearance on his/her eligibility is given by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

2) The treasury benches in complete consensus with Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) will propose names of two honest and impartial persons for appointment as Caretaker Prime Minister.

3) Issue of composition of the Election Commission of Pakistan will be discussed at the next meeting on Sunday, January 27, 2013, 12 noon at the Minhaj-ul-Quran Secretariat. Subsequent meetings if any in this regard will also be held at the central secretariat of Minhaj-ul-Quran in Lahore. In pursuance to todays’ decision, the Law Minister will convene a meeting of the following lawyers: S. M. Zafar, Waseem Sajjad, Aitizaz Ahsan, Farough Naseem, Latif Afridi, Dr Khalid Ranja and Hamayoun Ahsan, to discuss these issues. Prior to the meeting of January 27, the Law Minister, Mr Farooq H Naek, will report the results of this legal consultation to the January 27 meeting.

4) Electoral Reforms: It was agreed upon that the focus will be on the enforcement of electoral reforms prior to the polls on:

A. Article 62, 63 and 218 (3) of the constitution

B. Section 77 to 82 of the Representation of Peoples’ Act 1976 and other relevant provisions relating to conducting free, fair, just and honest elections guarded against all corrupt practices.

C. The Supreme Court Judgement of June 8, 2012 on constitutional petition of 2011 must be implemented in Toto and in true letter and spirit.

5) With the end of the long march and sit-in, all cases registered against each other shall be withdrawn immediately and there will be no acts of victimisation and vendetta against either party or the participants of the march.

This declaration has been entered into in a cordial atmosphere and reconciliatory spirit.

Signatories of the declaration

Prime Minister of Pakistan Chairman Pakistan Awami Tehreek

Raja Pervez Ashraf Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri

Leader of the delegation and former Prime Minister Law Minister
Chaudry Shujaat Hussain Farooq H Naek

Makdoom Amin Fahim, PPP

Syed Khursheed Shah, PPPP

Qamar ur Zama Qaira, PPPP

Farooq H Naik, PPPP

Mushahid Hussain, PML-Q

Dr Farooq Sattar, MQM

Babar Ghauri, MQM

Afrasiab Khattak, ANP

Senator Abbas Afridi, FATA

 

Open Letter From Concerned Pakistani-Americans On Anti-Shia Violence

January 14, 2013

The following is an open letter received from Pakistani-Americans expressing condemnation of the ongoing threat to Pakistan’s Shia community from militant groups including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and calling for “a concerted, nationwide campaign to investigate, arrest, and prosecute those responsible for anti-Shia violence.” While Americans for Democracy & Justice in Pakistan supports the rights of all religious communities to live in peace and security, the letter reflects a personal statement by the signatories and is made available here for informational purposes only.  For more information or to be added as a signatory, please email warishusaindawn@gmail.com.

To Whom It May Concern:

We would like to express our strong condemnation of the brutal killing of over eighty innocent civilians in the January 10, 2013 terrorist attacks in Quetta, Pakistan, conducted by the Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ) organization. We call on the federal and provincial governments of Pakistan to bring to justice the perpetrators of these and other terrorist attacks against Pakistan’s Shia Muslims.

The attacks this Friday are the latest in what is a persistent and murderous campaign against Shia Muslims across Pakistan waged by the LeJ and its partners. Approximately 400 Shia Muslims were killed by the LeJ and its allies in 2012, according to Human Rights Watch. The anti-Shia violence in Pakistan has not been restricted to a single ethnic group or region. In recent years, it has included:

  • the siege and killings of Shia Muslims in the Kurram Agency;

  • the targeted killings of Shia Muslim professionals in Karachi as well as Hazara and non-Hazara Shia Muslims in Quetta;

  • the mass murder of Shia Muslim pilgrims in Balochistan and Gilgit; and

  • large terrorist attacks against Shia Muslim processions in Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, Rawalpindi.

According to international conventions and customary international law, these constitute genocidal acts perpetrated by terrorist groups like the LeJ.

With Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf’s visit to Quetta and the imposition of governor’s rule in Balochistan, there are indications that the Government of Pakistan (GoP) is attempting to take action to protect the area’s Shia Muslim community. But an all-of-government and all-of-Pakistan approach is necessary to stem the tide of anti-Shia violence, which has hit every corner of the country.

A concerted, nationwide campaign to investigate, arrest, and prosecute those responsible for anti-Shia violence is necessary. Such a campaign must be conducted under civilian command by the GoP, provincial governments in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh, and authorities in Gilgit-Baltistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, with the full support of the army, intelligence agencies, judiciary, and police. It must coincide with a broader effort to improve the prosecution of alleged terrorists, including the institution of witness protection programs.

Inaction by the federal and provincial governments and other arms of the state has enabled the LeJ threat to metastasize. The GoP must reverse course and fulfill its responsibility to protect its citizenry. Similarly, Pakistani journalists, military officials, politicians, religious leaders who have either supported anti-Shia organizations or have shied away from explicitly condemning them, must recognize the collective costs of complicity or silence and reverse course.

We are encouraged by the peaceful sit-ins that have taken place in cities such as Quetta, Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore, where thousands of Pakistanis have braved the cold to protest against the murderous campaign against Shia Muslims. We are heartened to see support from a broad segment of Pakistanis, transcending ethnic, regional, and religious boundaries. And we hope that the civic unity displayed by Pakistan’s Shia and Sunni Muslims, Christians, and others serves as permanent bridges that lead to a more peaceful and progressive Pakistan.

But a strong civil society cannot make up for weak government resolve in combating the rising tide of terror. The GoP must take decisive action to stop the genocidal campaign against Pakistan’s Shia Muslims. The LeJ, which has allied with al-Qaeda and the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, is not only an existential threat to the country’s Shia Muslims, but to all Pakistanis.

 We close with the words of German pastor Martin Niemöller, who warned of his countrymen’s indifference to the Nazi threat:

“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

 

Sincerely,

 

Concerned Pakistani Americans

 

Waris Husain, Writer/ Attorney

Manzur Ejaz, Writer/Economist

Mohammad Taqi, Writer/Academic Physician

Arif Rafiq, Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute

Omar Ali, MD, Writer/Academic Physician

Beena Sawar, Journalist/Documentary Filmmaker

Ayaz Muhammad Khan, Virginia

Zaid Jlani, Journalist/Activist

Raakin Iqbal, Architect/Producer

Tahir-ul-Qadri’s Record Does Not Portend Liberalized Politics

January 10, 2013

Tahir-ul-Qadri

It’s not often that ISPR and the US Embassy in Islamabad both issue statements denying support for the same group, but that is exactly how 2013 started when both institutions felt compelled to clarify that they are not supporting Tahir-ul-Qadri, the latest Pakistani politician threatening a “long march” to upend the political order. The cleric’s recent return to Pakistan’s political scene has unleashed an entirely new set of questions in an already confusing political scene. The Atlantic asked this week if “this Islamic cleric [can] liberalize Pakistan’s politics.” Based on his political record, there is good reason to believe that he whether or not he can, he has no intention of doing nso.

Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri’s major demand – that a caretaker government be chosen with the oversight of the military and judiciary – is actually nothing new. In fact, Qadri’s 2013 platform sounds very similar to his demand in 2001:

He proposed that elections should be held under the judicial control of the Election Commission and administrative control of the army.

Tahir-ul-Qadri claims that by giving the military a role in appointing a caretaker government he’s looking for nothing more than “consensus,” but his demand suffers from a fatal flaw – it’s patently unconstitutional. Article 224 of Pakistan’s Constitution spells out exactly how a caretaker government is to be appointed, and there is no mention of the military or the judiciary.

Additionally, Tahir-ul-Qadri’s past political efforts suggest that he’s a little more sympathetic to authoritarianism than the political liberalization The Atlantic may hope for. Tahir-ul-Qadri launched his political party, the Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) in 1989 in opposition to then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government. PAT participated in elections the following year but made no inroads, and continued as a minor opposition party following the 1990 elections that elevated Nawaz Sharif to Prime Minister.

It wasn’t until 1999, however, that Tahir-ul-Qadri started to really gain traction in Pakistani politics when he chose to support Gen Musharraf’s coup against Nawaz Sharif’s democratically-elected government. In 2002, PAT reportedly praised Musharraf’s dictatorship as “far better than that of the preceding democratic governments.”

Tahir-ul-Qadri’s support for the military establishment in the early 2000s did not translate into much tangible political power, however. Despite being part of a pro-Musharraf coalition in 2002, Qadri’s party actually garnered less electoral support than Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), a paltry 0.7%.

Tahir-ul-Qadri was elected to the National Assembly from southern Lahore (NA-127) that year, defeating PML-Q candidate Abdul Aleem Khan by just over 4,000 votes, but this was to be the only PAT seat in parliament. Two years later, Qadri’s son, Hassan Mohiuddin Qadri, ran for National Assembly in a by-election from a Lahore district (NA-89) and came in second place with about 30 percent of valid votes cast. Shortly thereafter, Qadri resigned from the National Assembly saying that, though he had supported Musharraf’s coup, he was unhappy with the way the General treated parliament as a “rubber stamp.”

PAT boycotted the 2008 elections and Tahir-ul-Qadri moved to Canada where he lived until his recent return to Pakistan – one that has raised questions about how the relatively minor political player has managed to organize and finance his current political campaign and sparked the rumors which compelled denials of support from both ISPR and the US Embassy.

Today, Pakistani analysts remain divided about what role Tahir-ul-Qadri will actually play in the coming elections. But whether Tahir-ul-Qadri is Pakistan’s new populist hero or “the establishment ineffectually lashing out at its own lack of influence,” his record suggests liberalizing Pakistan’s politics is not part of his agenda.

Pakistan’s YouTube Ban About More Than An Offensive Video

January 4, 2013

Media censorship in PakistanPakistan’s decision to block access to YouTube was bound to fail. The US is never going to require a publisher to suppress content at the request of a foreign government. Neither will the US reverse course on free speech jurisprudence and enforce a blanket heckler’s veto on behalf of an insulted party. Given this reality, Pakistani policy makers should ask whether censorship is an effectively public policy, or whether such policies threaten to undermine the very democracy they have sacrificed so much to obtain.

Ironically, the infamous YouTube clip that sparked riots across the world itself was virtually unknown until it was pulled from obscurity and heavily publicized by a right-wing Egyptian TV host. After groups like Jamaat-e-Islami and the Difa-e-Pakistan Council organized protests against the film, Prime Minister Ashraf ordered access to the video sharing site blocked in Pakistan.

The government of Pakistan continues to insist that the ban is a temporary measure while a new “firewall” is built to block access to objectionable content not only on YouTube, but across the Internet. This actually makes slightly more sense, from a policy perspective, as restricting access to YouTube doesn’t restrict access to the offensive video which is available on other popular video and file sharing sites not blocked in Pakistan. Nor does the YouTube ban capture the countless other Internet Websites that contain content that could offend someone.

The only way to truly restrict access to objectionable material on the Internet, of course, is to completely disconnect from the Internet. Any society that chooses to connect to the Internet will have to find a way to live with offensive material.

Iran has been working on launching a separate “halal” Internet – one that conforms to “Islamic principles.” Of course, the “Islamic principles” of Iran’s Ayatollahs are not the same “Islamic principles” of Pakistan’s Sunni hardliners, raising the question of who decides what is objectionable.

In Pakistan, this is the real issue – who determines which ideas are and are not objectionable. As democracy replaces authoritarianism in Pakistan, some on the far-right are continuing to advocate for restrictions on access to information in effort to maintain some control over society – and it’s not limited to “blasphemous” content.

Pakistan’s cable operators blocked access to BBC World News in response to a documentary that some felt presented the military in an unfavorable light.

The operators called on the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) “to revoke the landing rights of foreign channels” if they were found to be “propagating” information harmful to the country.

Pakistan’s judiciary has blocked critical TV programs through court orders as well as threatening criminal charges against journalists who criticize the judiciary or the military.

Geo TV’s Ansar Abbasi, who reportedly told US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale that “we hate all Americans,” recently wrote that he is at war with Indian and Western culture, and complained that “vulgarity, obscenity, and the spreading of Indian culture in Pakistan is no big deal” for Pakistan’s liberals and intellectuals. And it was Ansar Abbasi and Geo TV that reminded Pakistanis about the forgotten video just as the government of Pakistan prepared to restore access to YouTube, causing the government to do an about face and reinstitute the ban on YouTube only hours after lifting it.

The Express Tribune, an English-language daily, noted the danger such a policy presents to civil liberties.

The fight against the YouTube ban is important to cause the government to think twice before it embarks on another round of censorship. The proposal to build a firewall like China, where the internet would essentially be controlled by the government, is extremely worrying. We need to make it clear that we do not wish to regress to a dark age when a centralised authority controlled all access to information. Retreating to such an era would essentially mean that we were longer living in a democracy.

As Pakistani officials contemplate how to protect both the right of free speech and public order, they should also consider whether the policies they are pursuing and the precedents they are setting are effectively serving the public interest, or whether anti-democratic forces are using these debates as a means to roll back democratic reforms obtained during the past few years.