Lashkar E Jhangvi (LeJ) is one of the most violent Deobandi terrorist organizations that still operate in Pakistan. The group has claimed responsibility for several heinous crimes against humanity in the past and continues to advocate for Shi’a Muslims to be legally declared non-Muslims. What are described as off-shoots and allies of the LeJ, continue to wield considerable political power in the country۔ Through forming unofficial alliances with public office holders and other political leaders they have been able to freely organize and campaign for their cause. In the past decade, they have also been allowed to contest elections, gaining a considerable amount of public support, often coming second to one of the three biggest political parties in the country in some constituencies. Reports published in the international media have been pointing out clear links between Islamic State (Daesh/ISIS) and LeJ. It would be fair to assume that the Lashkar e Jhangvi and Daesh are natural allies, due to their shared hatred for, and history of violence against the Shia community. Civil rights groups have often blamed state institutions in charge of national security as well as the federal government for being unable to prevent violent attacks from taking place, and for their willingness to allow the groups allies to contest elections and participate in mainstream politics.
The name Lashkar e Jhangvi is derived from the name of a popular Sunni fundamentalist cleric Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, who spearheaded a highly politicized campaign against the Shia community after the Iranian Revolution. Haq Nawaz Jhangvi was one of the founders of the Sipah e Sahaba (SSP), which was formed in the mid-1980s. Initially, the group operated mainly from and within Jhang [the capital of the Jhang District in Punjab, Situated on the east bank of the Chenab River, around 84 Km from Faisalabad]. LeJ is said to have been formed out of a splinter group that emerged from SSP in 1996. After SSP was banned the group rebranded itself as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and continues to operate in Pakistan under this name. The ASWJ is now led by Ahmad Ludhianvi and to a large extent Aurangzeb Farooqi, since the death of the group’s former leader Azam Tariq.
Since its creation, LeJ has been fueling sectarian violence in Pakistan. Their ultimate goal as defined by themselves is to rid the nation of the influence of and the presence of members of the Shia-Muslim community. The group ever since its inception has tried to further its fascist agenda through violent means including suicide bombings, assassination attempts, armed assaults, and kidnappings.
Some of the group’s most notorious attacks include the killing of 26 Shia pilgrims on 20th September 2011 in Mastung while they were on their way to Iran. Lashkar e Jhangvi claimed responsibility for the series of explosions that occurred in January 2013 in Quetta. Among the series of attacks, the deadliest one is often referred to as the ‘Quetta Snooker Hall Bombing of 2013’. Two explosions took place, the second of which occurred after the media, the police and other first responders had gathered near the site of the first explosion. Around 130 innocent civilians were killed and another 300 were injured. In the same year, a month after the previous bombings, a bomb planted inside a water tank exploded in Hazara Town Quetta, killing around 81 civilians. In June, the same year as the previous two major attacks, Lashkar e Jhangvi attacked a bus carrying students from Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University, killing 14 women and injuring 19 others. Soon after the attack militants briefly took over parts of the Bolan Medical Complex where victims of the attack were taken for treatment. A shootout with security forces led to the deaths of four nurses, four members of the armed forces, and four militants. Lashkar e Jhangvi in 2014 took responsibility for the failed attack on a school where nearly 2,000 students were studying. Major loss of life was prevented by a young student, Atizaz Hasan, who managed to intercept the insurgent sent to carry out the attack. He died when the insurgent detonated his explosive vest. Atizaz was 16 when he was killed, would have been 22 years old now, if he had survived.
Before the 2018 General Elections were held in Pakistan, the founder of the ASWJ, Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, was removed from the Pakistan National Counter Terrorism Authority’s (NACTA) terror watch list. The ASWJ contested elections under the name ‘Rah-e-Haq Party’. They officially filed 23 candidates for the National Assembly and 57 candidates for the Provincial Assembly. Moavia Azam Tariq, son of one the previous leaders of ASWJ Azam Tariq, and Masroor Nawaz Jahngvi, son of the founder of SSP Haq Nawaz Jhangvi both have been members of the Punjab Assembly. Masroor Nawaz won in Jhang (PP 78) during a by-election in December 2016 and remained in office till 2018, while Moavia Azam Tariq won in Jahng (PP-126) in 2018 and remains a member of the provincial assembly to this day. The three mainstream political parties that have been in power for the past 12 years have all at one point endorsed or participated in election campaigns alongside members of the ASWJ. In the most recent national elections in 2018, the AWSJ claimed that it has supported members from Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI), Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and to some extent the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). ASWJ leaders have claimed to have met with and endorsed several politicians before the 2018 elections, the endorsements include but aren’t limited to: Current Prime Minister Imran Khan, current Minister of Interior Sheikh Rashid Ahmed (AML), current Defense Minister of Pakistan Pervaiz Khattak (PTI), current Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan Ali Amin Gundapur (PTI), current Federal Minister for Energy Umar Ayub Khan (PTI), current Minister for Aviation Ghulam Sarwar Khan (PTI), current federal minister for Water Resources Faisal Vawda (PTI), Aleem Khan (PTI), Nisar Ahmad Jutt (PTI), Najeeb Haroon (PTI), former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (PML-N), Chaudhry Iftikhar Nazir (PML-N), Sardar Muhammad Yousuf (PML-N) and others. The Rah-e-Haq Party announced its support for PPP candidates in constituencies which largely covered neighbourhoods of Orangi Town and claimed to have been endorsed by both PTI and PMLN in NA 238 Karachi where Aurangzeb Farooqi came second with over 19,000 votes. After the results of the 2018 elections contrary to what they had claimed earlier, ASWJ announced that they did not support PML-N in any constituency and had instead enthusiastically campaigned for the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PT). PTI described ASWJs support as ‘voluntary’ and claimed to have no formal alliance with them.
Historically the PML-N and ASWJ have been allies in Punjab. Former Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah (PML-N) for instance, openly participated in election campaigns for PML-N candidates alongside Ahmed Ludhianvi. PML-N has been repeatedly accused of having strong ties to banned sectarian outfits in Punjab prior to the 2018 elections.
The current leadership of the ASWJ claims to have no formal ties with the violent attacks perpetrated by Lashkar e Jhangvi. The ASWJ did, however, play a major role in organizing the anti-Shia rally in September 2020, during which tens of thousands of people could be heard chanting slogans of hatred against the Shia community, as well as inciting violence against them. The group’s current chief Ahmad Ludhianvi was one of the speakers at the rally.
Most mainstream political parties seem to be reluctant when it comes to condemning campaigns that promote sectarian hatred. Over the past decade, they have shown no interest or willingness to take any legal action against far-right Islamo-fascist political entities. In light of this shameful disregard for the well-being of the Shia community, the need to consider political alternatives becomes stronger than ever before. Perhaps concerned citizens should back their well-intentioned yet purely symbolic messages of solidarity with forming and supporting groups that aren’t afraid to condemn and organize against fascist groups. Despite the rise of the ‘new left’ in the mainland of Pakistan, the left is arguably relatively far more scattered and unorganized compared to right-wing groups.
If we do not normalize naming and recognizing the groups that the government seems too afraid to even talk about let alone condemn, how can we ever dream of a safer Pakistan for our fellow Muslims, let alone other religious minorities? If we do indeed desire to make the country safer for all citizens, we need to do more than expressing condolences. We need to continue to speak up and we need to organize. The task at hand is monumental and undoubtedly deserves immediate attention. A unified and democratic alliance of progressive political entities and community leaders, with meaningful representation from oppressed religious and ethnic minorities, would be a good place to start. Academics, political activists and students across the political spectrum must break their silence on the issue of the continued presence of sectarian militant groups and their allies inside Pakistan.