Ambitious cleric spotlights Pakistan sectarian

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The hardline Sunni Muslim cleric may have been defeated at polls five years ago, but he’s confident of winning a seat in Pakistan’s election on Saturday, furthering his bid to oppress Shiites.

A terrorist to his enemies, a man of peace to his supporters, Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi heads the country’s largest anti-Shiite group, which has been described as the political wing of terror group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

He is part of a coalition led by cleric Sami ul-Haq, nicknamed Father of the Taliban, having been dumped by the election frontrunners Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) in favor of his arch rivals, the local feudal Akram family.

Sheikh Waqas Akram narrowly defeated Ludhianvi in 2008, but after being exposed for faking his degree, his father is standing in what will be a tight race between the old power of the feudals and the rising threat of sectarianism.

“At the moment I can raise a voice for my anti-Shiite mission only at a local level and from my local mosque. But when I get the microphone in the assembly, the whole nation and the whole world will listen,” Ludhianvi told AFP.

His Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) movement denies any link to violence, despite being known as the political arm of LeJ, one of the most active terror groups in Pakistan, bent on exterminating its 20 percent Shiite minority.

LeJ claimed responsibility for the two worst bomb attacks so far this year, killing 182 in Shiite areas of southwestern city Quetta. It is also linked to Al-Qaeda. Rights groups say attacks on Shiites hit a record high in 2012.

Jhang, one of the most important towns in central Punjab province, elects four seats to the national assembly and is the birthplace of sectarian terror.

LeJ precursors, extremist group Sipah-e-Sahab (SSP), was founded here in 1985 and the head of ASWJ always lives in Jhang. Ludhianvi was formerly a SSP leader.

PML-N, the biggest party in the province, has long been accused of aligning with hardliners as a way of cementing their power.

But tipped to win Saturday’s elections and form a national government, Ludhianvi says they have cut him off and backed Akram’s father, Sheikh Muhammad Akram.

“Ahle Sunnat Wal Jammat has never been our ally. We never wanted to give them tickets. It is all propaganda that they are our allies,” PML-N senator Mushahidullah Khan told AFP.

The narrow streets outside Ludhianvi’s home are filled with posters and graffiti supporting him, exhorting strict Muslim laws and denouncing Shiites.

Long bearded and soft spoken, Ludhianvi goes nowhere without gun-toting bodyguards clad in black shalwar kamizes.

He calls on religious groups to unite to “save” Pakistan as an Islamic (Sunni) republic. His supporters liken their struggle to that against Ahmadis, a minority community in 1974 declared non-Muslim and stripped of other rights.

The Akrams, who made their vast wealth in transportation, talk of a progressive, tolerant Pakistan, of the economy not sectarian hatred.

Although Maulana Azam Tariq, the then-head of SSP, won the seat in 2002 from jail, when he was assassinated a year later Sheikh Waqas Akram won the by-election.

Waqas, 39, won again in 2008. But both victories were narrow and the constituency remains hotly contested. Waqas claims to have survived 12 assassination attempts in the last 10 years, including four suicide attacks.

He is accompanied everywhere with four to five gunmen.

“There are only two types of votes in Jhang: Sipah-e-Sahaba and anti Sipah-e-Sahaba,” Waqas told AFP at his fortress-style home.

“I still remember in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when they were the biggest dons of this area. They used to kill people and string up their bodies on the road to give message to others. They used to extort money from everybody.

“The only way to put an end to extremism in Pakistan is to exclude these elements from the mainstream politics and political influences.”

But the competition is tough and analysts say it will be a close race.

Zargham Abbas, 35, a former local councillor, said “most sensible” people support the Akram family because of their moderate view.

“There has been peace in this town for the last 10 years,” he said. “People want a balanced society and to get rid of fanaticism”.

But grocer Muhammad Nadeem Qasmi, 43, is a die-hard Ludhianvi supporter.

“The agenda of the ASWJ to bring Islamic legislation to defend the dignity of Islamic figures is quite justified. We are hoping for victory,” he said.

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