The traditional religious groups faced a setback in recent elections from a new breed of militant clerics who espouse a different future for Pakistan.
“You have to promise me by raising your hands that you will not vote for Nawaz Sharif,” said Maulana Nazir Ahmed, an imam in Pakistan's Faisalabad city, as he delivered a politically charged Friday sermon a few days ahead of the July elections.
“You know, his (Sharif's) government was trying to change the law which binds our parliamentarians to say on oath that Muhammad is the last and ultimate prophet,” he said, invoking a very sensitive subject in Pakistan to whip up the crowd with religious fervour.
Some men in the crowd, wearing skull-caps and the country’s national dress salwar kameez, seemed hesitant to raise their hands, but they eventually did out of the fear of being counted among the unfaithful.
Many religious leaders in Pakistan have long used the pulpit to influence people’s political aspirations. But the rise of new religious parties in recent years has taken the faith-based rhetoric to a whole new level.
Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a little-known cleric, rose to prominence after gathering large crowds to protest the arrest of Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a police commando who murdered Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer in January 2011 for speaking critically of the blasphemy laws in the country.
In February 2016, when the government executed Qadri, Rizvi gathered several thousand people for Qadri's funeral, where he glorified both the crime and the criminal.
“It was the day when I decided to form a political party that will strive to impose the sharia law in the country,” Rizvi told TRT World.
A month later, Rizvi used Qadri’s 40th-day memorial service, a religious rite observed by most Muslims in South Asia, to urge his followers to march to the parliament in Islamabad and protest against the hanging.
A wheelchair-bound man who wears a big black turban, Rizvi was able to gather hundreds of thousands of people, blocking main roads leading up to key government-run institutions. From that moment, holding large rallies became a potent tool for Rizvi, and he used it very well to ascend as a politician.
When the July election was around the corner, his party, Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), nearly brought the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad to a standstill in yet another protest. This time the group rallied to protect a law that commands leaders and politicians to acknowledge that Muhammad was the last prophet while they take their oaths as elected parliamentarians.
The previous government headed by Nawaz Sharif couldn’t take the pressure and the end-of-prophecy clause was restored in its original form in the Election Act 2017. To pacify Rizvi's supporters, Sharif also sacked the law minister Zahid Hamid.
The 2018 elections saw many hardline religious figures such as Rizvi break away from the traditional religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazal group, which have represented the country's conservative voters in successive elections.
In the recent election, Rizvi's TLP managed to win only two seats of the provincial assembly of southern Sindh province, but at the same time it secured at least 2.2 million votes at polling booths across Pakistan. Rizvi's electoral gains stunned many political experts since his party came close to traditional and well established religious parties, which could only win about 2.6 million votes.
“In fact, the TLP is revival of Barevli politics and the group successfully did it by exploiting the issue of blasphemy,” Zia ur Rehman, a political analyst based in Karachi told TRT World.
He said that other religious parties rose as they capitalised on popular anger against the United States and the devastation caused by the war in Afghanistan. But they haven’t been able to take on other issues which have become more pressing for the people.
“On the other hand, the TLP which emerged relatively recently after the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri successfully exploited the sentiments around the issue of anti-blasphemy among the Barevlis in Punjab and some parts of Sindh, including Karachi, and emerged as a key religious party”.
“The TLP's aggressive stance on blasphemy issues attracted a significant number of like-minded young men to the group. They are ditching the tag of spiritualism and Sufism. If not kept in check, they could emerge as a lethal and violent militant outfit,” Zia ur Rehman said.
Senior politician Mian Muhammad Aslam who contested election for two seats of the National Assembly from Islamabad does not see rise of TLP as a setback to other religious groups.
“Did you observe the way TLP campaigns? They played with the sentiments of the people using religion but failed to get even a single seat in the parliament,” Aslam said.
But the religiosity - or maybe a brash display of of it - played out differently on the streets. Imran Khan’s rhetoric against corruption and economic mismanagement resonated with a common voter more than Rizvi's religious calls.
“I always vote for religious parties but in the recent elections, I was very confused as some religious parties were saying that you’ll have to answer to God t on the Day of Judgment if you don’t vote for us,” said Bashir Alam, who works as a mechanic in Lahore.
Some analysts say that the country’s powerful military, unhappy with Sharif’s PML-N, backed hardline religious groups such as the MML, TLP and the TLI to divide the religious voters and steer them away from the influence of the PML-N.
Throughout the election season, the mainstream Pakistani media described the TLP, MML and TLI as ‘spoilers’.
“It is true that we failed to win several constituencies in Punjab province against the rival PTI because TLP candidates succeeds to spoil our votes,” said a senior PML-N Leader and former minister for commerce Muhammad Pervaiz Malik.
In fact, a Gallup Pakistan survey conducted in 127 constituencies and answered by 4,000 voters as they exited polling stations, claimed that “46 percent of TLP voters stated that they had voted for PML-N in 2013," confirming that a significant number of the PML-N voters had voted for the TLP.
“We have always supported the PML-N but this time we decided to form our own party after Nawaz Sharif changed his stance on the issue Kashmir and Pakistan's relations with India,” said Hafiz Talha Saeed, the son of controversial religious cleric Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who also heads the banned Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD).
Hafiz Talha was among the 241 candidates who were contesting elections from the platform of Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek (AAT) after the election commission refused to register the MML as a political party, citing its links to Hafiz Saeed and his JuD.
JuD has been under the surveillance of the Ministry of Interior since January 27, 2017.
Though Talha failed to win in his native constituency in Sargodha, the votes he obtained were able the narrow the victory margin. A PML-N candidate Zulfiqar Ali Bhatti won against the PTI candidate Chudhary Amir Sultan Cheema with just 279 votes.
Security Analyst Muhammad Amir Rana said that Pakistan does not have any official policy to bring the religious fanatics and militant groups into the mainstream political discourse. The Pakistan army is running a few rehabilitation centers for the imprisoned militants, but they aren't enough to deradicalise a large proportion of the youth.
Rana argued that the rise of Rizvi's TLP poses a security threat to Pakistan since it's "rapidly encroaching the political spaces in the country.”
"The state’s soft handling of such groups will increase the risk of sectarian divide in the society and enhance support base of the violent racial groups in the country,” Rana said.