In Pakistan, tackling extremism is a political minefield

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Source: Associated Press

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Tackling extremism is a political minefield in Pakistan, where politicians openly consort with leaders of banned militant groups and sympathy exists within the security forces and civil administration for perpetrators of crimes committed in the name of religion. As a result, many remain skeptical of the state’s ability to put an end to the militant violence that kills hundreds of Pakistani civilians each year.

A suicide bombing in a park in Lahore that killed 72 people, many of them Christians celebrating Easter Sunday, brought renewed international attention to Pakistan’s extremism problem. In the aftermath, security forces arrested hundreds of suspected militants.

At the same time, however, demonstrators calling for the implementation of Islamic law and expressing their support for the man who murdered an anti-blasphemy campaigner were allowed to congregate freely in the capital. On social media, pictures circulated showing senior members of Pakistan’s elite police forces praying at the grave of Mumtaz Qadri, the policeman charged with killing the secular, left-leaning politician Salman Tanseer because he defended a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. When Qadri was hanged for the murder in February, tens of thousands of Pakistanis rallied in his support.

The sincerity of authorities’ efforts to tackle extremism was further called into question when Rana Sanaullah, the law minister for Punjab province — of which Lahore is the capital — issued statements denying that militant groups operated in the area.

Yet outlawed and violent Sunni Muslim militant groups are widely known to be headquartered in Punjab province, though many hide behind different names, according to Zahid Hussein, an expert on militancy in Pakistan.

Among them is Jaish-e-Mohammed, which operates under several banners according to Hussein, and has been implicated in a number of bombings. Its leader, Masood Azhar, was freed from an Indian jail — where he was being held for attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir — in exchange for the release of passengers aboard the 1999 hijacked Indian Airlines plane.

The U.S.-declared terrorist group Lashkar e-Taiba also operates in the province, under the name Jamaat-ud Dawah. It was banned in Pakistan in 2015, but its leader Hafiz Saeed travels freely around the country and gives speeches inciting people to attack western and Indian interests. Punjab is also the headquarters of Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), whose military arm is responsible for scores of attacks on Pakistan’s minority Shiite Muslims, according to Hussein.

Law Minister Sanaullah might be expected to know that SSP operates in Punjab. He openly campaigned with the SSP leader during provincial elections, although the group is officially outlawed.

Pakistan is regularly witness to deadly militant attacks — on schools and universities, buses, parks, churches, temples and Imam Bargahs, Shiite places of worship. According to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 4,612 people were killed in bombings and other violence in the country in 2015.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, the group that claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday bombing, has roots in the tribal region and has declared its sympathy with the Islamic State group. According to Michael Kugelman, Senior Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, it shares many views in common with the scores of other militant groups operating in Pakistan.

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