Voting for violence

On Sunday, Italy voted ‘No’ in a referendum on whether or not the country should change its Constitution. The proposed amendment, which was turned down by almost 60% of the voters in a turnout of over 70%, would have reformed the 1948 Constitution, creating room for more centralisation.

While the Constitutional amendment was being dubbed ‘governance friendly’, the referendum itself was as much about the law in Italy as it was about the impact of rightwing populism against the establishment. The resignation of the center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi highlights why the ‘No’ vote in Italy is being peddled as the third successful leg of a rightwing surge over the West, following Brexit and Donald Trump’s election in the US.

As everyone else, especially the Muslim World, looks on anxiously towards the domino surge – even if it might have hit a stumbling block in Austria – one can’t help but wonder how similar referenda would pan out in our neck of the woods.

How many Pakistanis, for instance, would vote ‘Yes’ in a referendum on whether or not the 2nd Constitutional Amendment, which allowed the state to ‘officially’ declare Ahmadis non-Muslims, should be reversed?

Or if one were to pay heed to the Council of Islamic Ideology’s deliberations last year, how many Pakistanis would vote ‘Yes’ in dubbing Ahmadis murtideen (apostates) – and hence, wajib-ul-qatal (liable for death)?

And what about actual ‘apostates’ who differ in their theological belief from conservative Islamist interpretations, or those rejecting them altogether?

Would Pakistan vote ‘Yes’ for genocide against people over theological beliefs – or lack thereof?

While they might not be billed as conspicuously, but most elections in Jhang are a question over the mass violence – or even an envisioned ethnic cleansing – of the Shia community. This is true despite the fact that many of the 48,563 voters, who endorsed Masroor Jhangvi in Thursday’s PP-78 by-election, might not personally desire Shia massacre.

Jhang has always been perceived as a mini island of success for anti-Shia groups, who have failed to transfer violent bigotry against the Shia into electoral successes elsewhere. Azam Tariq, the leader of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), was thrice elected to the National Assembly from Jhang – once while he was under arrest on terrorism charges in 2002.

Sipah-e-Sahaba was founded upon Tariq’s ideological alliance with Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the father of Masroor Jhangvi. It was Haq Nawaz Jhangvi who launched the Sipah Sahaba’s political and militant stranglehold in Jhang in the late 80s, bagging almost 40,000 votes in NA-89 elections in 1988. Before Azam Tariq’s successes in 1993, SSP affiliated Isarul Qasmi had won both NA-89 and PP-77 seats in 1990.

While SSP, or its reincarnation Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), might not have enjoyed definitive electoral victories outside Jhang, they have been instrumental in helping out mainstream parties triumphing in areas where anti-Shia groups have influence. Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah Khan helped PML-N gain the decisive support of ASWJ’s Ahmed Ludhianvi in Khanewal, Muzzafargarh, Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar, and other districts of Punjab, in 2013.

ASWJ affiliated Pakistan Rah-e-Haq Party (PRHP) has won thousands of votes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by-elections. PRHP founder and former Sipah-e-Sahaba leader Hakeem Muhammad Ibrahim Qasmi was himself a member of the then NWFP Assembly after winning the election in 2002. This is in addition to the votes that the Muttahida Deeni Mahaz (MDM) – an Islamist coalition spearheaded by ASWJ and Sami-ul-Haq’s JUI-S – mustered nationwide in the 2013 elections.

Sami-ul-Haq is fondly known as the ‘Godfather of the Taliban’, owing to his influence over the many jihadist factions. It was Sami-ul-Haq’s madrassa Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania that was given a PKR 300 million grant by the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) led Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government in June this year. And it was Sami-ul-Haq who, along with Ahmed Ludhianvi, was being wooed by the Federal Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan in the lead up to the PTI’s proposed lockdown of Islamabad, at a time when ASWJ affiliated goons were chanting jingles of Shia apostasy across the capital.

Considering the fact that evidence against the likes of Masroor Jhangvi or Ahmed Ludhianvi instigating anti-Shia vioelnce is a Google, or YouTube, search away, the protocol enjoyed by these Sunni supremacist groups, among both the ruling and opposition parties, underscores their clout.

Of course, this influence isn’t solely founded upon bloodthirstiness against a religious community. Sipah-e-Sahaba’s stranglehold over Jhang is also based on successfully addressing the material needs of the average resident of the district, who may be willing to overlook ethnic cleansing of a community they do not belong to, as long as they get the desired services that representatives of other parties might not be offering.

This governance vacuum, and abandonment of the working class, meticulously overlaps with bigotry to result in a chain reaction that is stampeding over liberal democracies in the West right now. However, in Pakistan where religious bigotry is the mainstream belief system, it’s not the material negligence that should be upheld as the principal culprit. This is especially true when you’re voting for second generation of self-confessed murderers, and not a recent populist phenomenon.

While Jhangvi or Ludhianvi contesting elections alone is a damning verdict on our state institutions – from the Election Commission, to the elected government, to law enforcement agencies, to courts at all tiers, and most resoundingly on the much publicised National Action Plan – these vendors of anti-Shia hatred aren’t the core of the problem.

When the ruling party, which has a comfortable majority in the National Assembly and has established hegemony over Punjab, still believes it needs to ally itself with groups openly calling for the extermination of a religious community, to consolidate its authority or as a safety measure against opposition rallies, the rot evidently has crept deep into our political ethos.

All local political parties, from the wide gamut of ideological spectra, are relying on an ‘understanding’ with banned groups or their affiliates, to either help form the government, or pave the way towards significant representation in the national or provincial assemblies.

And so, you don’t really have to vote for Jhangvi or Ludhianvi to vote for Shia killings in Pakistan. The state’s capitulation, and the political parties’ lust for power, has made the voting inevitable.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a former member of staffHe can be reached at Follow him on Twitter

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