Radical Pakistani cleric tries his hand at politics, striking fear in Shi’ites

April 22, 2013

(Radical Sunni cleric Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi (C) greets supporters during his election campaign in Jhang, Punjab province April 16, 2013. Picture taken April 16, 2013. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra)

When Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi greets supporters on the Pakistan election trail, he opens his pitch with the kind of promises to the poor that any other politician might make.

But behind the reassuring rhetoric lies what his opponents believe is a dangerous agenda – to gain a foothold in parliament and further his designs to oppress Pakistan’s Shi’ite minority.

Ludhianvi, a radical Sunni cleric, is a hate figure for Shi’ites who accuse him of devoting his decades-long career to fomenting an escalating campaign of gun attacks and suicide bombings targeting their community.

The prospect that he might win a place in the political mainstream at the May 11 vote horrifies Shi’ites who fear his presence in parliament will give him a much stronger platform to strike out at the sect.

And it looks like Ludhianvi may have a better shot than at the last election in 2008 when he came second. His main rival has been barred from the race and a Reuters visit to his constituency of Jhang, in the heart of populous Punjab province, found no shortage of supporters.

“I cannot bring any change if I am sitting as a layman outside parliament,” Ludhianvi, flanked by bodyguards, said in an interview. “If I get into parliament, everyone will be listening to what we want.”

Any triumph by Ludhianvi at the polls could be read as a sign that sectarianism – now seen as a top security threat – has made a troubling new in-road into the political sphere, which could further polarise the nuclear-armed country.

Ludhianvi was a leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a sectarian Sunni group which emerged in Jhang in the mid-1980s with the support of Pakistani intelligence and which has since been linked to hundreds of killings of Shi’ites.

The group’s offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), evolved into one of Pakistan’s most feared militant groups and has claimed responsibility for many attacks on Shi’ites, including a series of bombings that killed almost 200 people in the southwestern city of Quetta this year.

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