The South Asia Channel

Pakistan's Islamists take center-stage

Nearly a month and a half after he gunned down two Pakistani men in Lahore, the public rancor about CIA contractor Raymond Davis is finally starting to subside. But during that period the Davis incident brought Pakistan's Islamist parties back into the street, at a time when they slowly been slinking away from the public sphere. For nearly a month Hardly a day passed without Islamists holding demonstrations in several big Pakistani cities. They made it clear that nothing short of hanging Raymond Davis would satisfy them, and hanged him and burnt him in effigy over and over again in cities across the country. Yet while the protests have died down, the eruption back into public life of Pakistan's Islamist parties tells us much about their tactics, goals, and how they manipulate public events to suit their desired outcomes.

The radical Islamist groups Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan and their affiliates - Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith, and Tehreek-e-Insaf Pakistan -- led these demonstrations, and all demanded Davis' death. Markazi Jamiat Ahl-e Hadith's leader Sajid Mir equated the killings with American terrorism and described it as the "first drone attack" in Punjab.

These demonstrations were used to spread hatred against America and destabilize the ruling coalition, led by President Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which is portrayed as fighting the America's war on terror in Pakistan. In one of these rallies, Jamaat-e-Islami leader Munawar Hassan accused Interior Minister Rehman Malik of defending American mercenaries instead of protecting his own countrymen. Jamat-e-Islami also immediately formed a panel of lawyers to give free legal aid to the families of the victims.

At a rally on February 5, Jamaat-ud-Dawa leader Amir Hamza asked the Punjab police to torture Raymond Davis the way the U.S. government allegedly tortured Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, whose mysterious disappearance and subsequent conviction for wounding an American soldier in Afghanistan has made her a cause célèbre in Pakistan. "Give him electric shocks so that he confesses all the blasts that he has carried out in Peshawar and Lahore," Hamza said. "If you can't torture him then hand him over to me and I will make him confess everything."

The families of the two men also joined the fray by first taking part in a small demonstration in Lahore, and later by appearing on several TV talk shows along with Islamist leaders. They put the body of Faizan, one of the men Davis killed, on the Ravi Road, which links Lahore to the Western and Northern Pakistan, blocking it for hours. Waseem Shamshad, the brother of one of the men killed in the shootout, admitted in an interview with a local newspaper that their families were under significant pressure from the Islamist parties -- namely Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamaat-ud Dawa, and Tehreek-e-Insaf -- to not accept any offer to settle the dispute from the Americans.

Although Pakistan's federal government appears to believe that Raymond Davis enjoys diplomatic immunity, it has not been able to say so openly as it was overwhelmed by the sudden nationwide backlash to the incident. That said, the situation would have been quite different if this had happened in any other province. Punjab is the epicenter of Islamic radicalism in Pakistan, and nowhere else in the country have Islamist and jihadist parties enjoyed so much freedom to operate in the last few years.

From the very beginning, the Punjab government showed its reluctance to consider Davis' diplomatic immunity. Punjab's Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif declared that the law would take its course and his government would not bow under any pressure. Echoing his boss, Punjab's Deputy Prosecutor General Rana Bakhtiar told Dawn newspaper that Raymond Davis "committed the crime in his individual capacity" and did not enjoy diplomatic immunity.

The protest campaign made it clear that the Islamist parties would not be satisfied unless Davis is hanged, if possible even without a trial. When families of Davis' two victims  and some politicians suggested to the Dawn newspaper that Pakistan should exchange Raymond Davis with Dr. Siddiqui,  Jamat-e-Islami leader Mohammad Hussain Mehnati said that his party would not accept such a deal because, as he argued, Dr. Siddiqui was innocent, while Raymond Davis was a murderer. Siddiqui's family, very much a part of the Pakistan's Islamist movement, also rejected the exchange.

Even the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) joined the calls for a hanging. TTP spokesman Maulana Azam Tariq asked the Pakistani government to hang Davis or hand him over to the TTP to do the job. He then threatened that the TTP would kill all those people who help Davis or try to set him free. Later, another TTP leader, Maulana Abdul Khaliq Haqqani, described Davis as the "killer of Pakistanis and tribal people" and threatened to kill PPP leaders one by one at all levels of government if he was released; the recent killing of federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti shows all too well how capable groups like the TTP are of making good on such a threat.

Rather than being a new phenomenon, however, this recent show of force from Pakistan's hardline Islamist parties was the culmination of the parties' increasing assertiveness since the 2008 restoration of democracy in Pakistan. In this environment, it would be very difficult for Pakistan's central government to free Raymond Davis and risk public protest or even violent backlash. Islamists are keeping their pressure on the police and the judiciary as well. No judge would find it easy to decide this case neutrally, and the Lahore High Court has repeatedly stalled a decision on Davis' status. The Pakistani government thus remains in a bind, one that will ultimately force them to choose between an angry United States and even angrier Pakistani Islamist groups, backed up by the country's media.

Arif Jamal is the author of "Shadow War -- The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir".

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

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