Hafiz Saeed, leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Photo: AFP

A number of Islamist groups contesting Pakistan’s general elections on July 25 are hoping to play a decisive role in the nation’s next government. The caretaker government has allowed many of the formerly banned parties to take part in the elections.

Among those being allowed to participate in the election is Ahmed Ludhianvi, whose name was removed from the terror watch-list. The government recently lifted the ban on the Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) organization that Ludhianvi heads, releasing its assets including back accounts. ASWJ is a militant sectarian group, an offshoot of the Sipah-e-Sahaba, an anti-Shia terrorist organization banned in Pakistan.

Others participating in the polls are the son and son-in-law of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) founder and chief Hafiz Saeed, who was designated a terrorist by Pakistan following the February passing of the Anti-Terrorism Ordinance.

Saeed’s son Hafiz Talha is eyeing the NA-91 contest and his son-in-law Khalid Waleed contesting the PP-167 election. Both Talha and Waleed are using the platform of Allah O Akbar Tehreek for the elections, after the LeT and JuD-backed Milli Muslim League (MML) were denied an election symbol.

Shaikh Yaqoob, who will also be contesting the election under the Allah O Akbar Tehreek banner in Lahore, says the group is confident of doing well in Punjab and playing a part in forming the next government. “We’re opening offices, there are door to door campaigns, our message is being spread far and wide,” he told Asia Times. Yaqoob, who is close to Hafiz Saeed, said he met the JuD chief recently, whom he says ‘completely has his back.’

The MML candidate also maintained that Islamist groups are finding common political ground and believes many could unite after the elections.

Multiple sources within the army and government have confirmed that allowing the formerly banned outfits to contest elections is a military-led ‘mainstreaming’ process, designed not only to ‘readjust’ former militant assets, but also to keep a check on the civilian leadership.

Among the Islamist groups accused of doing the army’s job are the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of five Islamist parties, spearheaded by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), originally formed in 2002 under General Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship. MMA and JI senior leader Ameer-ul-Azeem believes it will be ‘impossible’ to form the next government without the Islamist coalition.

“Our strength will be such in Parliament that no legislation will be able to pass without the MMA’s support being taken on board,” he told Asia Times.

Azeem said the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) are the two main contenders in the upcoming elections, and that the MMA would be willing to enter alliances with either depending on the election results. However, with parties uniting against the PML-N in a move believed to be backed by the military establishment, the MMA is also likely to find itself in the same camp.

Even so, Azeem denies that the MMA’s strings are being pulled by the military establishment. “The army’s backing is for the PTI, that’s what everyone is saying. People say the Jamaat-e-Islami is the B Team of the army, (but) let me tell you this is only limited to a militant capacity, when Pakistan’s geographical integrity is under attack (such as in) Dhaka or Kashmir.”

Meanwhile, regarding allegations that Islamist parties have links to the army leadership, Sheikh Yaqoob said his party is, in fact, ‘proud’ of it. “We are proud to have relations with the Pakistani army, instead of being linked to the Indian army,” he said.

While the MMA, JI and JuD are considered old allies of the military establishment, the latest radical Islamist group to emerge is the Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) that kept the national capital Islamabad hostage in November last year over changes in the original Electoral Reforms Bill, 2017.

Safeguarding Khatm-e-Nabuwwat and the ‘honor of Prophet Muhammad’ has become the rallying cry for TLP and its firebrand chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi. Party banners depict an image of Mumtaz Qadri as its spiritual guide. Qadri was executed by the state in February 2016 for murdering former governor Salmaan Taseer over his criticism of the blasphemy law.

In May, the outgoing Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal survived a shooting by a TLP worker over changes in the original draft of the Elections Reforms Bill. Even though the party distanced itself from the attack, it has refused to denounce the use of violence ‘in the way of Islam.’ “Our main goal is the imposition of Islam in the country. And the way to do that has been clearly written in the Quran and Hadith. If any of our actions contradict the Quran and Hadith, please point them out,” TLP spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Asia Times.

Earlier this month TLP Khadim Rizvi chief remarked in a press conference that he would “drop the atom bomb on Holland, if he had it,” following reports that the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders had announced a competition to draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

“It’s a matter of faith. No Muslim can sit quietly if our prophet, peace be upon him, is insulted. We don’t take up arms for any personal reasons, but when it comes to Islam and the honor of our prophet, peace be upon him, it’s mandatory for us. If we can’t avenge insults against him, it’s better that we die,” Ejaz Asharafi said.

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