Pakistan is making concessions to religious extremists. What is the cost?


ISLAMABAD – In the last 10 days, two dramatic events – the capitulation of the government to a violent protest by radical Muslims and the release of the house arrest of a leader of the anti-Indian militia – have crystallized the dominance of that line Hard Muslim groups are increasingly detained in Pakistan, a state with nuclear weapons whose military leaders claim to be fighting extremist violence.

The release of Hafiz Saeed, an Islamist cleric accused of planning a deadly attack in Mumbai nine years ago, was not a surprise. Although he was denounced as a terrorist by the United Nations and the United States, Saeed enjoys a large following in Pakistan as a fierce defender of Muslim rights in Kashmir, the disputed border region with India. He has been repeatedly detained and released by the courts, a sign of Pakistan's often contradictory efforts to ensure the internal loyalty of Muslims and international support.

Conversely, the chaotic scenes in late November of angry Muslim protesters throwing stones at police near the capital, which then rose across the country to protest a minor change in an election law, shocked the nation and caused the specter of mbad religious unrest, a permanent concern in an impoverished nation of 207 million, 95 percent of whom are Muslims. from the same Sunni branch as the protesters.

But the quick resolution of the problem also raised worrisome questions about the long-term capacity of the Pakistani government, a fragile democracy whose prime minister was recently overthrown, to push back religious extremism and the risks of bringing the powerful military to resolve civil disputes.

[Pakistan caves to protest demands by forcing out law minister]

After weeks of demonstrations, Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan called out of the protests. The government complied with the demands of the group. (Reuters)

Saeed was released on November 24 after a provincial court found "insufficient evidence" to link him to the four-day terror wave in Mumbai in 2008 that killed 164 people. This time, the legal action came amid intense pressure from the Trump administration on Pakistan to prove that it does not host the Islamist militias. He also met with particularly acute denunciations of India, an arch-rival whose Indian nationalist prime minister developed a warm relationship with the new administration in Washington.

US officials demanded that Saeed, arrested in January under pressure from the United States. UU., Be arrested again. The US embbady expressed "serious concerns" about his release and denounced that his now-dissolved militia, Lashkar-e-Taiba, was responsible for the deaths of "hundreds of innocent civilians" in numerous terrorist attacks. Six victims in the bombing and gunfire attack in Mumbai, which Indian and US officials believe were carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba commandos, were US citizens.

In Pakistan, however, Saeed remains a force to be reckoned with and a surviving politician who has continually reinvented his movement, changing his name and founding a charitable branch that helps people in emergency situations. In October, after years of denouncing electoral politics, he also formed a political party, and his candidate performed better than expected in a race for parliament. After being released, he triumphantly returned to his pulpit Friday in Lahore and demanded that his name be removed from the list of sanctions in the United States.

[Once-fringe Islamist radicals are making their way into Pakistani politics]

While supporters of Saeed celebrated their return to the public arena, a tense drama was unfolding in the capital between another religious group and government security forces. The confrontation that broke out early on November 25 quickly became an increase in national protest and ended 24 hours later in victory for the protesters and shame for the government, which accepted virtually all of their demands.

Unlike Saeed, a well Established as a controversial leader in Pakistan, recent protests pushed a little known and enthusiastic cleric to the news. Within 48 hours, Khadim Hussain Rizvi had exhorted his supporters to violence, sparked mini-protests across the country, looked at civil servants, negotiated hard with the army and became a household name.

Unlike Saeed, Rizvi is not badociated with armed militant groups. His movement is based on reverence and love for Muhammad as the last prophet of Islam. On Friday night, barely a week after the angry protests ceased, Pakistani Muslims around the world jubilantly celebrated Muhammad's birthday, filled with dazzling lights and gathering around tents where devotees recited songs that glorified him. .

Hafiz Saeed was released from house arrest in November. He has been linked to the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008. (K.M. Chaudary / AP)

But the Rizvi movement is also harsh and extreme in its views. He has built a cult around a man who murdered a provincial governor for religious reasons, believes that blasphemers should be executed and crossed against Ahmedis, a small religious minority that follows a later prophet. The protests were raised against a change in the electoral laws that softened the requirements for candidates to admit Muhammad as the last prophet, a move that the Rizvi group suspected was aimed at increasing Ahmedis's political participation.

[ Protesters see a dark conspiracy going on in a & # 39; clerical error & # 39; about the Muslim prophet]

The price of pacifying Rizvi and his followers, said many Pakistani leaders and commentators, may be the emboldening of other fanatical Muslim groups, a further weakening of civil authority, a greater potential for that the military intervene, and an increase in both the sectarian hatred and the conflict between the rival Sunni schools. Some warn that the foundations of Pakistan's fragile democracy have been shaken.

"This is a steep descent into a bottomless pit for state and society," said Faratullah Babar, a liberal senator. "It is the abject surrender of constitutional government to a mafia without law" whose leaders seek to gain power through the "facade of religion".

Others suggest that the episode means a growing confluence of interests between hardline religious groups and the military, whose leaders have vowed to stay out of politics, but are known to be unhappy with the ruling party and its main rival electoral, the movement led by cricket legend Imran Khan.

Imtiaz Alam, who wrote in The News International newspaper on Thursday, said the state, which once encouraged militant groups such as Saeed to fight in India and Afghanistan, has now instigated the domestic agenda of a fanatical current within the great Sunni group of Pakistan. , the Barelvis. "The law of the jungle must prevail," he warned. "The state has left its citizens … at the mercy of the demons."

Much of this drama will unfold in the province of Punjab, the most populous and wealthy region of the country, and its capital, Lahore. Punjab is the base of the ruling Muslim League of Pakistan, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The party has been divided by divisions and disorder since Sharif was overthrown by the Supreme Court in July and will fight for his political life next year.

The Lahore area is also the headquarters of Saeed's operations, as well as the Movement in service to Rizvi's smallest Messenger of God. The provincial government and courts have long been criticized for coddling Islamic extremists, allowing Saeed to preach freely, radical Islamic students intimidating university campuses and hard-line sectarian groups to operate. Recently, authorities agreed to allow the Rizvi group to influence school curricula and blasphemy cases.

But that policy of appeasement may have failed. Both Saeed and Rizvi presented candidates in the October race to occupy Sharif's seat in parliament, and both won many more votes than expected. Now, the successful protests have put the Rizvi group in a position to challenge the Sharifs in their own territory and play a central role in next year's elections.

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