Pakistani hardliner positioned to win seat
Concern that Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi was allowed run for election despite terrorist allegations
Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi’s critics say the police, the courts and the election authorities are too scared to touch him. Photograph: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Throwing money around in mosques is not usually the done thing at Friday prayers, Islam’s weekly holy day.
But when Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi exhorts the 1,500 followers who cram into the mosque that towers over the back alleys of Jhang city in Pakistan to put their hands in their pockets to help his election campaign, the faithful immediately begin tossing crumpled banknotes in the direction of their leader.
“Do you truly love the caliphs of Islam?” he shouts at the crowd. “Stand up and sacrifice your money like showers of rain!”
There are strict rules banning all campaigning in mosques, but it is doubtful there will be consequences. Mr Ludhianvi’s critics say he is getting away with far worse because the police, the courts and the election authorities are too scared to touch him.
Many are troubled that a man who has been in and out of prison on suspicion of terrorism and inciting hatred against Pakistan’s minority Shias should be allowed to run at all.
Mr Ludhianvi is one of dozens of hardline Islamist candidates running in today’s elections whose names have been lodged under a clause in the country’s anti-terrorism law that allows police to keep close tabs on anyone suspected of involvement in terrorism and sectarian violence.
In theory Mr Ludhianvi is meant to report to a police station each day, but he never does, he says.
“He’s a proclaimed offender, he should be arrested rather than allowed to contest elections,” said Waqas Akram, the former Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) occupant of the Jhang seat who is masterminding the extremely close-fought campaign for another candidate, his father.
Mr Akram said Mr Ludhianvi could have been banned from standing on other grounds, including failure to declare a number of court cases pending against him. “He didn’t mention a single case against him but none of the courts will hear our petition,” he said.
Mr Ludhianvi was one of the leaders of the banned Sunni sectarian group called Sipah-e-Sabah Pakistan (SSP) that has been linked to hundreds of murders of Shias, a minority sect of Islam in Pakistan. In recent years gunmen have hauled Shias off buses on remote mountain roads and suicide bombers have brought carnage to major cities.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a spin-off organisation from SSP, is one of Pakistan’s most deadly terrorist organisations. Although SSP was banned more than a decade ago, the organisation simply changed its name to Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ), which Mr Ludhianvi heads. ASWJ says it is fielding more candidates for the national and provincial assemblies than at any time previously.
The prospect of Mr Ludhianvi winning a place in parliament will be taken as a sign that Pakistan is failing to tackle one of its most serious security threats.
Mr Ludhianvi, who came second in 2008, looks well placed to win the seat he is contesting in Jhang city, a ramshackle town that was the source of violent sectarianism in the 1980s.
Activists claim the anti-Shia sentiment arose in response to economic hardships among rural workers who revolted against their Shia landlords. However, there are plenty of Sunni landlords in Jhang, a vast area comprising several national assembly seats.
Mr Ludhianvi’s followers have been going door to door in an impressive effort to get out the vote. Speaking after prayers in the bedroom of the mosque’s guesthouse, Mr Ludhianvi said there should be no bar to him standing, saying he had never been convicted.
“It is against the most basic fundamental rights to have to go to a police station each day, to be put in a cell without a trial,” he said.
Indeed, a common complaint of Pakistan’s approach to extremists is that while they get arrested from time to time, they are eventually released when the controversy has blown over.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a security analyst, said candidates like Mr Ludhianvi were also being protected by the political clout they demonstrated at election time. “These groups are using democracy to assure their survival,” he said. “They are creating the space that enables them to go around and pursue their extremist agendas and resort to violence. The government then finds it very difficult to control them.”
For weeks Mr Ludhianvi has been cruising around his constituency in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, holding stump speeches and generally presenting himself as a regular politician.
“I have no anti-Shia agenda, I want to bring peace,” he has said. “We just demand that Sharia law is fully implemented.”
He said his main effort if he gets into parliament would be to sponsor a Bill that would further tighten the country’s much-criticised blasphemy laws and introduce sanctions such as hand amputations for thieves.
But his followers freely speak of their revulsion towards Shias. Mohammad Anwar Saeed, a Ludhianvi aide, said other clauses of the hoped-for Bill would include a ban on Shias conducting any religious events outside their own places of worship.
Another worker, when asked why the party does not canvas among the town’s Shias, laughed at the idea. “The Shias are like dogs, we cannot ask them to vote for us,” he said. – (Guardian service)