Gabriel accused political parties of aligning with radical Islamic groups to get votes, campaigning with well-known militants which he says emboldens radicals among Pakistan’s Sunni majority to carry out attacks against minorities with impunity. Minority religious groups fear extremists will piggyback on the backs of mainstream political parties to a position of political power. They most often point to Nawaz Sharif, the head of the Pakistan Muslim League.
In an interview with the AP, Sharif’s spokesman Siddiq-ul-Farooqi flatly rejected any links to extremist groups.
‘‘We are a moderate party and have no relationship with extremists,’’ Farooqi said.
Members of the party, however, have been seen on the campaign trail with members of extremist parties like the Ahle Sunat Wal Jamaat, a new name for the outlawed Sunni militant group Sipah-e-Sahabah Pakistan, or SSP. Minority leaders and election monitoring groups say Sharif’s party is withdrawing candidates in certain electoral constituencies to give radical religious candidates an unchallenged run for election.
Farooqi denied any accommodation with extremist groups.
But Pakistani politics is rarely straightforward. Sharif’s party has fielded several Shiite candidates, even as it rubbed shoulders with militant Islamists who publicly call Shiites apostates deserving of death.
Most of the deadly attacks targeting Shiites in Pakistan have been carried out by a group affiliated with the SSP. Yet the renamed SSP is fighting elections as part of a coalition of six radical religious parties. Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, the leader of the SSP and a candidate, said the coalition has 300 candidates running for election. His party placards often hurl abuses at Shiites, calling them kafirs, or non-believers.
The non-believer epitaph is also widely used in reference to Ahmedis, who consider themselves Muslims but have been explicitly declared non-Muslims in Pakistan’s constitution. As well as violent attacks on its members, Ahmedi leaders told the AP they have been singled out with a separate electoral roll that identifies them as Ahmedis. The separate list also gives their addresses, making them easy targets. Security was tightened after a brutal attack in 2010 when militants simultaneously hit two Ahmedi mosques in Lahore killing more than 100 people and wounding scores more.
Ahmedis rarely vote in elections because to do so they have to declare they are non-Muslims, says Shahid Ataullah, a spokesman for the Ahmedi community in Lahore.
So virulent is the abhorrence of Ahmedis by Pakistan’s religious right-wing parties that many candidates in Saturday’s elections have found it necessary to openly declare their view that Ahmedis are non-Muslims.
The country’s controversial blasphemy laws are often used to jail Ahmedis for crimes as simple as saying Assalam-o-Allaikum, a traditional greeting among Muslims and often used by non-Muslims living in predominately Muslim countries. It means ‘‘May the peace of God be upon you.’’
Kathy Gannon is AP special regional correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan and can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon