Protest Over Dutch Mohammed Contest to Test Pakistan’s New Leader
(Bloomberg) -- A hard line Islamist group that made surprise gains at last month’s elections in Pakistan plans to protest a Dutch politician critical of the Prophet Mohammed, testing how new Prime Minister Imran Khan handles religious organizations that helped him take power.
The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which finished sixth in the election with 2.2 million votes, said it will march from Lahore to Islamabad on Wednesday to protest Dutch nationalist politician Geert Wilders’ plans to hold a caricature competition of the Prophet Mohammed. Known as the TLP, the group said it will “stay on the streets” until Khan cuts ties with the Netherlands.
The TLP, which advocates implementation of strict Islamic law, aided Khan’s election win last month by attacking his main rival, ex-premier Nawaz Sharif, for kowtowing to the West. The group’s rise has fueled concerns that Khan may pander to Islamist groups to secure his position in a country where no prime minister has ever completed a five-year term.
“Having this group in the mainstream has had -- and now more so will have -- significant repercussions,” said Madiha Afzal, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington. “In Pakistan, the political pressure is always to give in to Islamists,” she said. How Khan “deals with them early on will be a real test and will set the tone going forward.”
Gains made by right-wing religious parties have raised concerns over whether Pakistan will heed calls from the U.S. to stop alleged support for militant proxies that have little tolerance for religious minorities. The army was accused in the run-up to the July 25 vote of pushing terrorist organisations into politics to lend them legitimacy.
One of those parties backed by Hafiz Saeed, the suspected planner of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, took over 170,000 votes. The military has repeatedly denied the allegations.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry strongly protested the Dutch competition, and Khan said on Monday he would take up the issue with the United Nations. He didn’t address the TLP or its march directly.
“I know the western mind,” Khan said. “They won’t step back from their freedom of expression notion because the majority don’t understand our love, affection for the prophet.”
While Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte distanced his government from the contest, he said Wilders “is a politician who provokes and he is free to do that.”
The TLP came to prominence after it led protests which shut down streets in Islamabad in November over a change in a lawmaker oath seen as more accommodating the Ahmaddiyya, a persecuted sect that believes in another prophet after Mohammed. The group clashed with police and the military refused to remove the protesters. Pakistan’s law minister at the time resigned to placate their demands.
While the TLP won only two provincial seats in Karachi, Khan courted fringe Islamists during his campaign. He hasn’t yet commented on the TLP’s rise, and in televised speeches since his July 25 election victory he hasn’t touched on religious extremism.
Jeelan Shah, a senior TLP official, said his party is tolerant of minorities and other faiths.
“The media projects that radicalism and fanaticism,” Shah said in an interview. However, if Ahmeddis “step out of line and they go out and pose as Muslims, that is not allowable and that is not allowable in the constitution.”
Followers of the group like Wali Muhammad want Khan to take heed of the TLP’s rise and push back against the West.
The shopkeeper in Karachi hangs a banner depicting firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi. It denounces Sharif as an appeaser of “Jews and Christians” and an opponent of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which mandates the death sentence for offences against Islam.
“Americans are not our friends as they always seek to enslave us,” said Muhammad, 56, who sells paan, a chewy combination of tobacco, betel leaf and areca nut, near Karachi’s port. “The TLP and Imran Khan are not going to fall into this slavery trap.”
The party has inspired fanaticism in its name. In May, a man who allied himself to the TLP shot then Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal of the PML-N. Iqbal survived the attack and the TLP party denied the gunman was affiliated to them.
Shah denied allegations that the military favored the TLP to draw votes away from Sharif’s party. The armed force’s media department didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“They have been used for short term political gain, but they are going to have long-term repercussions,” said Uzma Noorani, the co-chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, referring to the TLP’s alleged military backing. “They are just going to become more powerful.”
Bolstered by their gains, TLP member Shabbir Hussain, who works at an upmarket supermarket in Karachi, said he would continue to protest and fight against Pakistan’s political elite.
“Our manifesto is to clamp down on their luxuries, the booze, drugs and dance clubs operating in the posh areas,” said the 29-year-old. If any attempt is made by Khan to question the finality of Mohammed’s prophet-hood, “I can sacrifice my life for this cause.”
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