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Pakistan's Hard-Line Islamists Emboldened By Afghan Taliban's Victory

Supporters of the banned Islamist political party Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan demand the release of their leader and the expulsion of the French ambassador over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in Karachi on October 24.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has increased the threat posed by Islamist forces in neighboring Pakistan, experts say.

The Afghan militants' victory has not only bolstered Pakistani Islamist insurgents but also strengthened religious political parties that share the Taliban’s extremist views.

Analysts say the rising popularity of some Islamist parties could even pose an electoral threat to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ruling Tehrik-e Insaf in the 2023 general elections.

“There is no doubt that with the Taliban in power in Afghanistan, support for the religious parties will increase in Pakistan,” Islamabad-based political analyst Nazr-ul Islam told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. (file photo)
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. (file photo)

Electoral support for Islamist hard-liners remains relatively limited in Pakistan, a predominately Islamic country of some 220 million. But the power base of Islamist parties -- which can mobilize mass street protests and control Pakistan’s vast network of madrasahs, or religious seminaries -- is growing.

Violent Street Protests

In November, Khan’s government released the jailed leader of the extremist Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan (TLP) and lifted a ban on the party under a deal to end weeks of violent clashes between security forces and TLP supporters.

More than 2,000 jailed TLP activists were freed, and the group was allowed to contest elections again.

In exchange, the TLP promised to renounce violence and drop its longstanding demand for the expulsion of France’s ambassador over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that were published by a French satirical magazine.

The TLP continues to oppose any change to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws --particularly reforms that would eliminate the death penalty in blasphemy cases.

It also continues to demand that, like in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Shari’a law be implemented across Pakistan.

Husain Haqqani, a South and Central Asia expert at the Hudson Institute who previously served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, recently told the Financial Times of London that “Taliban beliefs and ideas” spill over to Pakistan every time the Taliban is in power in Afghanistan.

Rising Political Clout

The Afghan Taliban’s victory has unleashed a surge of support for other hard-line political forces in Pakistan.

The Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI-F) party won a major victory in local elections held in December in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which borders Afghanistan.

Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam party. (file photo)
Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam party. (file photo)

The JUI-F won more than half of the available seats, including the mayor’s office in the provincial capital, Peshawar.

Islam, the Pakistani analyst, says part of that election victory can be attributed to the fact that JUI-F leader Maulana Fazlur Rahman is an outspoken supporter of the Afghan Taliban. Rehman is also a vocal member of an opposition coalition against the prime minister.

Khan blamed his party’s poor showing on bad candidate selection. But observers say the JUI-F’s victory suggests the possibility of a more sustained political challenge in the months and years ahead from Islamist parties.

“We cannot ignore the fact that the change in neighboring Afghanistan has definitely had effects on the politics here,” Islam told RFE/RL.

Hafiz Hamdullah, a JUI-F leader from the southwestern province of Balochistan, says his party demands the Pakistani government and the international community recognize the Taliban-led government in Kabul. No country has yet done so.

For his part, the Pakistani prime minister welcomed the Taliban’s military victory in Afghanistan in August and has lobbied for more international assistance to the Taliban-led government. But his government also has said Islamabad should not damage its international relations by recognizing the Taliban before the United States and the European Union.

Hamdullah told RFE/RL that the United States “should accept the Taliban as a just government and help them to bring stability and ensure peace and security in the region.”

Police officers walk past a burning van set on fire by angry supporters of Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan during a clash in Rawalpindi in April 2021.
Police officers walk past a burning van set on fire by angry supporters of Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan during a clash in Rawalpindi in April 2021.

Shamim Shahid, a political analyst in the northwestern city of Peshawar, says many Pakistanis sympathize with that view -- particularly in the provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

He says that has helped the JUI-F benefit the most so far in terms of the growing support of Pakistani voters for Islamist parties.

“The JUI-F is cashing in on the situation and will have an increase in its support,” Shahid says.

By comparison, Shahid says, the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam faction of the late cleric Sami-ul Haq (JUI-S) has yet to capitalize on the growing support for Islamist parties in Pakistan.

Like the JUI-F, the JUI-S has demanded that Pakistan preserve the death penalty in blasphemy cases, establish Shari’a law in Pakistan, and recognize the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan.

The JUI-S does not have any representatives in Pakistan’s parliament. But analysts are closely monitoring popular support for the party.

That is because the JUI-S runs the Darul Uloom Haqqania religious seminary, located in the northwestern town of Akora Khattak, which has earned a reputation as Pakistan's so-called “university of jihad.”

The seminary is known for preaching a fundamentalist brand of Islam and schooling a generation of fighters for both the Afghan Taliban and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan militant group.

Written by Ron Synovitz with reporting by Radio Mashaal’s Daud Khattak