A vendor arranges election party symbols, including lions for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of Shahbaz Sharif, head of the PML-N, and cricket bats for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by former cricketer Imran Khan, at a stall in Rawalpindi on July 2. Pakistan will hold a general election on July 25. (Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP)
As Pakistan prepares for a national election at the end of July, several political parties with a religious bias are using their extremist agendas to pull in more voters.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an Islamist party, said in its manifesto that it will establish a new ministry if elected to support its religious beliefs.
"A ministry called the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice will be set up … to make Islamic dress compulsory for women, ban coeducation and push for a segregated educational system," it stated in its manifesto.
"The media will be obliged to present solutions to problems pertaining to Muslims, religion and the nation in general, as well as [support the] ideological, educational and moral training of the public," it added.
The party, which adheres to the Barelvi sect of Islam, was formed by clerics who opposed the execution in 2016 of Mumtaz Qadri, a police commando who assassinated liberal Punjab governor Salman Taseer for his stance on the country's blasphemy laws.
Since November the group has conducted two anti-government sit-ins in Lahore and Islamabad, disrupting daily life in both the provincial and federal capitals.
A number of TLP candidates carry an image of Qadri on their electoral campaign banners, which promise to bring "the religion of the Prophet Muhammad" to the nation.
Hard-line Islamist activists are promoting the party's campaign bid by playing religious anthems at their Friday sermons.
Meanwhile, it is canvassing support from madrassas (Islamic seminaries) by sending them notices asking them to back the party and uploading these on its official Facebook page.
Stench of misogyny
TLP chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who seeks Sharia in Pakistan and believes all those found guilty of blasphemy should be put to death, has vowed to launch a so-called Amma Aisha Movement.
But some critics have expressed deep concern about what would happen to the country, especially young women, if his party were voted into power.
"All girls will be married at the age of six in line with the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad [known as hadith] and Islamic jurisprudence [fiqh]," Rizvi said at a recent rally held in the port city of Karachi.
Using a derogatory word for Christian sanitation workers, he said: "Churha will also be made to recite the Islamic proclamation of faith [kalma]."
In another sign of how women are still struggling for equal rights in patriarchal Pakistan, one candidate from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) said it is forbidden (haram) for Muslims to vote for a female candidate in the upcoming poll.
"I will work under the command of Allah and His messenger, the Prophet Muhammad," Haroon Sultan said while addressing a corner meeting in his constituency in Muzaffargarh district.
A number of panchayat, or local village councils, bar women from casting their vote across the country. Typical punishments include social and religious boycotts.
Naumana Suleman, a human rights activist and co-founder of the Punjab-based Centre for Social Justice, said she rejected such anti-women campaigns as being discriminatory and unacceptable.
"The framework for both human rights and democracy advocates equality for all sects and religions," she said.
"Women already have fewer opportunities in our patriarchal society, but sanity must prevail. We desperately need logical religious interpretations," added the Christian researcher.
She is conducting a series of awareness seminars on national elections and the protection of minorities' rights in 17 of Pakistan's more than 150 districts.
"Community leaders are being trained to deliver short speeches while meeting the visiting candidates in their respective constituencies," she said.
"We demand proper implementation of the five percent job quota reserved for religious minorities, the formation of an independent National Commission for Minorities' Rights, and a revised curriculum and education policy free of discrimination on the basis of religion," she added.
Battle lines drawn
Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a radical Sunni group, is taking no prisoners as it continues to provoke Shia Muslims, a minority group in Pakistan.
All factions of the ASWJ are reportedly inciting violent attacks on Shia and have outlawed the casting of ballots in favor of one of its rival parties, the PML-N.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif stepped down as president of the PML-N earlier this year and was handed a 10-year prison sentence in absentia on July 6 by an Islamabad court on corruption charges tied to properties his family owns in central London.
The party has come under repeated attack this year despite reversing an amendment to a clause in the Election Act regarding belief in the finality of prophethood at the end of 2017.
Religious parties claimed the constitutional amendment would have allowed members of the Ahmadi sect to vote freely as Muslims. The sect has been accused by mainstream Muslims of not recognizing Muhammad as the ultimate prophet.
The TLP has accused the PML-N of attacking the dignity of the prophet. Under the nation's controversial blasphemy laws, anyone accused of insulting God, Islam or the Prophet Muhammad can be sentenced to death.
Liberal Pakistanis have also expressed their disappointment with Imran Khan, a former star cricketer turned politician, who has defended the blasphemy laws in the run-up to the general election.
His critics say such tactics will cause more violence, citing PML-N ministers who were attacked in the wake of emotionally charged sermons and protests.
On July 4, an anti-terrorism court indicted the prime suspects in the shooting of former interior minister Ahsan Iqbal., who survived after being shot twice in the arm during a corner meeting of the party in Narowal district.
Police said in an interrogation report that the arrested gunman was a youth leader of the Islamist TLP party.
Earlier in March, a man was arrested after he threw ink at Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif during the minister's speech at a PML-N workers convention in Sialkot city of Punjab province. The accused, who had no political background, said he was reacting to an attempt made by the former ruling party to amend the clause regarding the Prophet Muhammad.
One day later, two men threw shoes at Sharif while he was about to address an event at a seminary in Lahore. In Arabic culture, hitting a person with your shoe is considered among the highest forms of insult. The three shoe throwers were also religious activists.
Independent candidates and those affiliated with religious parties are both playing the religious card in the run up to the poll, said Amir Mehmood, who handles communications for the Ahmadi sect, an Islamic religious movement based on the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908).
"The recent attacks on veteran politicians have proved that such tactics only encourage more violence," he said.
"The establishment is trying to mainstream banned extremist groups by bringing them into the political fold. Only law-abiding citizens should be permitted to contest the upcoming poll.
"Some 167,505 Ahmadi voters are being denied the right to vote, but that's not the point. We want to cast our votes as ordinary Pakistani citizens. We reject all discrimination and injustice."
Ahmadis have refused to sign a registration form which states that if a voter claims to be a Muslim, they must not be associated with the Qadiani or Lahori group nor claim to be an Ahmadi.
In fact, Ahmadis have disassociated themselves from participating in all elections since 2002 when a separate category was created for them through an executive order.
They have disassociated themselves from participating in all elections since 2002 when former ruler Pervez Musharraf created a separate category for them (amid a series of anti-Ahmadi protests) despite restoring a joint electorate for selecting members of the National Assembly and provincial assemblies.
Under the joint electorate system, 3.63 million voters belonging to religious minorities elect local representatives in the national and provincial assemblies. Muslim parties then select minority MPs through a proportional representation system.
Meanwhile, the Election Act 2017 retained a supplemental voting sheet that compels Muslim voters to sign a declaration rejecting the founder of the Ahmadi community as a false prophet.
If anyone objects to a particular voter who identifies as being non-Muslim, the election commission has the power to summon that person and ask that they declare whether or not they are Ahmadi. If they are, their name will be put on a supplementary "special voter" list.
Ever since they were declared "non-Muslims" through a constitutional amendment in 1974, Ahmadis have become the most persecuted minority in Pakistan. Some 260 have been killed in hate crimes since 1984.
The International Human Rights Committee (IHRC), a London-based organization, has called on Pakistan's government to do away with these discriminatory provisions, which effectively deny the Ahmadis the right to vote due to their religious beliefs.
"The upcoming elections in Pakistan present an opportunity to correct this injustice and ensure all citizens have the right to vote irrespective of one's faith or religion," the IHRC said in a statement released on July 4.
"There should only be one list for all voters which should not be referenced to faith or religions," it added.