Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf is a controversial Afghan politician, a former member of parliament, and now a presidential hopeful for the country's 2014 election. To his supporters, he is a leader who took on the Soviets and played a key role in the jihad against the Afghan communists. To his critics, he is a warlord who led bloody battles on the streets of Kabul, killing thousands of Shiites and Hazaras during the 1990s. To Westerners, he's an extremist with links to al-Qaeda-minded people, whose name alone has inspired other Islamist groups as far away as the Philippines. And now, for the Taliban in Afghanistan, he has become "Public Enemy No.1," someone they have already declared a dead man.
Sayyaf, which means "the swordsman" in Arabic, does not venture out of his sprawling residence west of Kabul very often, and he has kept a relatively low profile in the parliament over the last decade. But his role in the violent and often unpredictable Afghan political world extends beyond the country's "House of People." He is known to have played a key role in the appointments of governors and district governors across the country. He runs his own university and TV station in Kabul. He is wealthy, media-shy, and a shrewd behind-the-scenes political operator. But over the past few years, he's taken on a subject that is critical for the survival of the Taliban and other violent extremists -- their own religious narrative to inspire, recruit, and justify violence in the name of God -- making him their new arch nemesis.
It began during a speech in September 2012 to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, President Hamid Karzai's chief peacemaker who was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber posing as a peace envoy, when Sayyaf publically warned Taliban suicide bombers about their fate in the afterlife. Quoting Islamic texts extensively, Sayyaf said he wanted to send a message to the militants that on Judgment Day, they would show up with "flags planted in their buttocks from the back," marking them "unforgivable" in the court of God. He continued by declaring: "You are not fighting against foreigners, but against Islam and Muslims." Sayyaf then told the crowd: "They [Taliban] are enemies of God and his Messenger (Prophet Muhammad). Quran says kill them well. Kill them with torture. Do you know what it means to kill them well? With Zajir (torment or torture). Hang them! Let people see them hanged for a month. Cut their right hands and left feet. And do your best to eliminate them [Taliban] from the face of the earth."
Then last week, during an Afghan government-sponsored International Islamic Scholars conference in Kabul, Sayyaf again spoke against the Taliban, this time targeting the militants' financial backers in Middle Eastern countries. This is because the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, their chief ally, are known to do fundraising in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf Arab states. Sayyaf knows this well because he himself used to travel to Arab countries in the 1980s, using his oratory skills and knowledge of Arabic, to raise funds for mujahideen fighting the former Soviet Union.
Speaking in fluent Arabic, Sayyaf addressed the approximately 200 international Muslim scholars about the alleged support Muslim countries provide to the Taliban. "I ask you, and for the sake of God tell me, those [Taliban] who are fighting now, their war is not against foreigners," Sayyaf declared. He also asked the international Muslim scholars to explain why some Muslims countries did not oppose the intervention by the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan when the United Nations vote came up in 2001. "Did any of the Islamic countries at the United Nations oppose the arrival of foreigners in Afghanistan? All of the Islamic countries voted in favor for the arrival of them in Afghanistan," Sayyaf remarked. He also questioned the religious credentials of the Taliban by telling the scholars: "Those who are killing innocent Afghans, they don't know anything about Islam."
The Taliban and their violent extremist allies responded immediately to Sayyaf's remarks. In one article titled "What does this old Dajjal (anti-Christ) say?," they attacked Sayyaf, calling him a "manifestation of Satan," and used Quranic texts in an attempt to counter his remarks. Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, also tweeted articles, social media posts, and reports from the militant group's own gathering of "1600 undisputed Islamic scholars" and their fatwa to discredit Sayyaf and the government-sponsored Islamic Scholars conference.
The primary reason that the Taliban militants view Sayyaf's remarks, and condemnations by the international Islamic scholars, as an existential threat to their survival is simple. For almost a decade, the Taliban have relied on skewing the interpretation of Islam's religious texts to justify their violence, especially the use of suicide bombing, which had no precedence in Afghanistan until the mid-2000s. But while Afghans abhor the use of suicide bombings, despite extensive propaganda campaigns by the Taliban to justify it on religious grounds, Afghanistan's religious scholars have yet to strongly and consistently counter the militant group's religious justifications for violence -- until now. Since Sayyaf's "challenge" to the Taliban's religious narrative, the militant group appears to have found itself outgunned in the battle for ideology, something which is far more important to them than winning a military campaign. This is because Sayyaf has established religious credentials from Sunni Islam's most prestigious school, the Cairo-based Al-Azhar University, which allows him to speak with authority on religious issues. He is also a charismatic and gifted orator, which brings him coverage in the local media, and he maintains political influence through his traditional networks in some key northern provinces of Afghanistan, as well as in some of the former Taliban heartlands in the south, which adds to his leverage. Because of this, the Taliban want Sayyaf dead -- in fact, Afghanistan's intelligence agency recently announced that it had foiled a Taliban plot to assassinate Sayyaf only days after his speech in early September of this year.
Sayyaf is not a saint to Afghans. Nor is he considered a moderate Islamist. His involvement in human rights abuses, especially during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, is well documented by Human Rights Watch. Yet his current stance, effectively challenging the Taliban on their own ideological and religious turf, is something significant for both the international stakeholders who are attempting to end the war in Afghanistan, and for regional Islamic countries that are searching for ways to rescue the peaceful message of Islam from the dark interpretation espoused by violent extremists. After all, the Taliban and other militant groups are expected to step up their terror campaign inside Afghanistan after the withdrawal of international troops at the end of 2014. To do so, they need their religious narrative to hold, enabling them to bring in new recruits to maintain their ranks and sustain their violence. Sayyaf, despite his own violent past and infamy, appears to be taking the lead in challenging this narrative, making him "Public Enemy No.1" to the Taliban and other extremists in Afghanistan and beyond.
Ahmad Shafi is an Afghan journalist and a former NPR producer in Afghanistan.
The frenzied phase of registration for the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan ended Sunday with more names on the roster than expected, more last-minute horse-trading than anticipated, and more questions than answers about what is already shaping up to be a hectic but vibrant process leading up to the critical ballot next April.
Nominee registration began as a trickle and ended as a deluge of presidential hopefuls submitting their paperwork. Finally, 26 men and one woman -- some known political figures, others untested -- presented their running mates (consisting of 45 men and 9 women), and took advantage of the media glare to present their core campaign slogans to millions of enthused, but bewildered Afghans on live television.
Of the 27 candidates, it is expected that some aspirants will be disqualified by mid-November for failing to meet eligibility conditions -- which include putting down a hefty registration deposit and submitting 100,000 eligible voter endorsement cards -- most probably resulting in a shortlist of no more than half a dozen serious tickets.
The biggest challenge in an overcrowded field will be to engage in another cycle of coalition building during or after elections to strengthen team-building and to realign agendas and policies that are not fundamentally contradictory or contrary.
The Karzai factor
Most contenders tried until the last minute to form multi-ethnic tickets, at times breaking up their own fragile alliances, to garner support from perceived owners of both small and large "voter banks." Some seem to have succeeded, others seemingly not, and the rest had to contend with leftover constituencies that might not tilt the balance in their favor after all.
However, after months of political wrangling and chai-sipping, what is certain is that while the Afghan political arena may look dynamic and lively on the surface, in essence it is more fragmented and mismatched than at any other time in the past decade.
Part of the reason lies with President Hamid Karzai who has ruled the country for the past twelve years, and the inner clique he has relied upon to do his bidding. Karzai, masterful at domestic political intrigue and maneuvering, and consumed by his own future political leverage, legacy, and place in history, is eager to be the ultimate kingmaker in next year's presidential vote.
More importantly, although Karzai believes he has transcended ethnic and factional lines, he has publicly shown disdain for organized political movements and resisted any attempt to promote and nurture democratic party-based politics over the years. With encouragement from his loyalists and key members of his family, he has applied clan-style politics at the national level, relying largely on tribal and local power-brokers with monetary and factional influence.
Although this approach appears to have served him well, it has increasingly undermined the professionalization of politics, where a constitutional order underpinned by platform-based political activity could flourish.
Additionally, there are indications that Karzai may have overplayed his hand with regard to the 2014 elections, and inadvertently facilitated the formation of a muddled setting that may undermine his own legitimate aspirations. There are real fears among Afghan political elites that Karzai could be urged by his cronies to attempt at influencing the election process, in less obvious and more subtle ways than the 2009 presidential election debacle, should the outcome of the vote not tilt in their favor.
Although the president once again reiterated on Monday that he will remain impartial and will not allow government interference in electoral matters, Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh province, alleged later that same day that the president's camp had a few days back offered him a "blank check," along with the top vice presidential position, to secure his support for Karzai's candidate of choice.
Karzai now has to make do with a fragmented polity and too many horses in the running, most of whom may engage in destructive mud-slinging. More significantly, in the event that no winner emerges with the 50%+1 requirement in the first round of voting, Karzai can stealthily orchestrate a major showdown during the second round by forcing re-alignments, perhaps even tapping into Taliban and external pools of support.
This calculation might explain not only his fixation on courting the Taliban, but also his reluctance to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States, even though most Afghans are in favor of seeing the document finalized.
While Karzai has always raised the specter of foreign meddling in the elections, it is, in fact, the domestic wheeling and dealing and infringement mechanisms on the election, through election commissioners he recently appointed and ballot box handlers, that Afghans dread the most.
Frantic realignment and mismatched tickets
However, Karzai is not the only reason for the initial disarray of the nomination process. The other major factor is the flimsiness of ideological and conceptual politics, where the nexus of collaboration lies less with shared ideas, values and policies, and more with interest-driven horse-trading and deal-making at the expense of marginalizing the Afghan people.
This may seem natural in the Afghan context, but when coupled with the insurgency that rankles from one side, and public disenchantment caused by widespread corruption and ineptness on the other, the many candidate choices -- not too dissimilar in terms of their views and past records in most cases - may cause some Afghans to stay away from casting a vote. All key contenders must therefore take voters apathy seriously into account and regain the electorate's trust by engaging in a healthy race.
The dissolution of a number of so-called political alliances at the 11th hour on Sunday also demonstrates the fragility of coalition-building and the weakness of political groupings to gel and offer a common policy platform.
At the end of the day, harsh political realities meant that ethnic voter banks were more valuable than ideological and policy commonalities.
The frantic realignment of political figures over the last few days has in some cases led to the creation of mismatched tickets, where not only old foes joined hands but even decentralization advocates coalesced with backers of a strong central government. It will require a great deal of work for several contenders and their running mates to tie together their visions that are largely incompatible, solidify new alignments, form platforms, and eventually manage a campaign, all in short order.
And, while there is a greater possibility of some fragmentation of voter banks along different ethnic and factional lines, the biggest challenge for vote bank owners will be to maintain the integrity of their followers' vote and ultimately avoid a backlash from their constituents.
Opportunities and prospects
Amid the ongoing mud-slinging, there is an opportunity before and during the campaign season for eligible and visionary candidates to develop their programs and agendas, build up electoral charisma, connect to the electorate, and offer the public real choices and solutions.
These presidential hopefuls need to realize that it is not enough to sign-up, spend money, make backdoor deals, and run in a less-than-transparent election to hold office.
The best choice for Karzai is to not tarnish his legacy, to truly remain impartial and prevent any official intrusion or the use of state resources in the elections.
The political class, especially the current leadership, has had a dismal record for listening to the people's voice. Now is the time to change the stale manner in which politics has been practiced by warlords, technocrats or amateur politicians, engage the electorate, and focus the debate on priority challenges facing the country during and after 2014.
The Afghan people, including the younger generation, expect more from their leaders.
As international security and development commitments diminish, and Afghanistan becomes more self-reliant, elections offer a unique opportunity for Afghans to elect a unifying and competent team that can offer better security prospects, more predictability in the social and economic spheres, more jobs and productivity, better governance, a believable justice system, and stable relations with Afghanistan's friends and allies.
There is no greater calling for contenders and voters than ensuring that the political transition and peaceful transfer of power take place on time, and be inclusive, acceptable and credible. Then it will be time to rise above politics and take the best interests of the country into account by accepting the results, work together and steer the country away from danger.
Omar Samad is a Senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation, and a former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada.
Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views reflected here are his own.
In an historic moment this weekend, Pakistan's two-term army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani announced that he would retire at the end of November after six years at the helm. An official later stated that Kayani would not seek any other job after retirement, putting an end to speculation in Pakistan that Kayani may stay on in another perhaps more powerful role. This marks a necessary transition in the slow return to the supremacy of the elected civilian government over the military that has dominated decision making in Pakistan for the past 13 plus years, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's first government was overthrown by a coup on behalf of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. But the road ahead for Pakistan's political evolution remains difficult, as stunted civilian institutions struggle to assert themselves in the face not only of lingering military power, but also a massive internal militancy and potentially hot borders on both Pakistan's East (with India) and West (with Afghanistan). While this is a start, a number of other transitions are needed for Pakistan to regain its stability. Kayani may be gone, but military influence in the country remains powerful. His successor as army chief would do well to keep it on a downward trajectory.
Kayani, a graduate of the command and staff college at Fort Leavenworth, was the first head of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate to become army chief. He is also the last army chief to have fought in a full-fledged war, with perennial rival India in 1971. His U.S. training often led U.S. leaders to mistakenly assume that he was "pro-American," most notably former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who made 26 visits to Pakistan to with meet Kayani during his tenure as chairman. Mullen also penned an over-the-top paen to Kayani for TIME magazine's "100 Most Influential People" issue in 2009, calling Kayani "a man with a plan." However, Mullen ended that relationship in 2011 on Capitol Hill with a scathing attack that described the anti-U.S. and pro-Taliban Haqqani Network as a "veritable arm of the ISI." Mullen, like others, had made the mistake of assuming that Kayani would bury his strong nationalism in favor of meeting U.S. goals in the region, even after Kayani had made it clear that he did not think the United States had a clearly defined strategy for Afghanistan or the region and hedged his bets accordingly.
At home, Kayani tried to act as a political umpire between often-warring political parties, resisting the temptation to intercede or take over when they got into seemingly intractable feuds. In 2009, for instance, he prevented a major crisis during the Pakistan Peoples Party government of then-President Asif Ali Zardari when then-opposition leader Sharif led a "long march" into Islamabad to restore the ousted chief justice, admitting to a visitor: "I could have taken over then but did not." Kayani stayed his hand for six years, but some powerful negatives have also marked his two-term stint.
Within the army itself, Kayani fostered unhappiness, especially among the younger officers, when he accepted a second three-year term from Zardari in 2010. The gap between him and his senior officers also widened. His newestcorps commanders are some 17 courses junior to him at the Pakistan Military Academy, a veritable lifetime in military circles. And the disastrous 2011 killing of two Pakistani civilians by Raymond Davis in Lahore, followed by the U.S. raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, the attack on the Pakistani border post at Salala, and the subsequent closing of the ground line of communications for the coalition in Afghanistan tarnished Kayani's tenure. He had to face angry young officers at the National Defence University after the Abbottabad raid, and some senior officers were critical of his management style, saying that he reflected a paradoxical desire to be close but to retain a cool aloofness. As a result, Kayani kept his cards very close to his chest and relied on a handful of key colleagues to keep him informed of developments inside the army.
During this time, the ISI also came under severe criticism with accusations that it had overstepped legal boundaries in its pursuit of critics, including journalist Saleem Shahzad who was killed after publishing critical articles of the military's dealings with militants. Separately, Kayani announced an inquiry, but did not share the results of the investigation, into the videotaped killings of unarmed, bound, and blindfolded captives during the counter militancy campaign in Swat.
But for all of the criticism, the ISI appeared to gain greater strength during Kayani's term as army chief. Instead of becoming a policy-neutral intelligence agency, it came to be more of a policymaking body. If the post-Kayani transition is to take hold, the role of the ISI will need to be re-examined and reduced, and its relationship as a multi-service institution (rather than as a fief of the army alone) should be reshaped with civilian authorities. Sharif must take the lead in selecting the head of the ISI and also demand regular intelligence briefings, while resisting the urge to ask for policy advice or implementation. He must also regain control of a Defence Ministry that is heavily dominated by retired military officers. The challenge for Sharif will be to find capable civilians, starting with a full-time Defence Minister, who can make defense-related decisions, rather than trying to manage the ministry himself.
Kayani made history by averting a coup and supporting the return of civilian rule. Sharif could make history by regaining control of the country's polity. He must begin by exercising his constitutional prerogative to select the next Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and the head of Pakistan's army. He has a choice among capable three-stars, one of whom will have to provide strong and inspiring leadership for an army that has suffered the ravages of continuous insurgency and militancy for over a decade.Shuja Nawaz is the Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., and is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within
This project was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Name: Wakil Abdul Rahim
The mountainsides that surround Kabul are covered with squatter houses, the homes of people have claimed the land by building on it. They're undeterred by the steep grade; from below, many homes appear to be affixed to nearly vertical mountain faces. Many of the highest houses are inaccessible by car, but to get close you take narrow roads quickly, speeding so you don't stall or lose traction. The steeper and wilder the terrain, the faster you go.
We arrive at the home of Wakil Abdul Rahim and find him welcoming, but formal and severe. He quickly reveals himself to be the most pessimistic person I've spoken to about the withdrawal of U.S. and international forces, though he is also animated by a hatred for the people in power. It's as if he lives up here simply because it's as far away from them as he can get. He ushers us into a living room, serves us juice and cookies, and begins to explain what the international presence has looked like from all the way up here.
The following are the words of Wakil Abdul Rahim, as told to Jeffrey E. Stern and translated by Farima Abrar.
The government hasn't done anything for us up here on the mountains.
I moved up here forty years ago, and back then, there were only four or five houses here. From the bottom of the mountain to up here, there were no houses. But after we were here for a while, slowly people started building more and more.
I could buy a house anywhere in Kabul, but I liked the view up here. But not all people who are living on the mountain are rich people, they're poor people who cannot afford houses down in Kabul. People who are living here on the hills are those who fled the rural areas, places like Panjsher, because those areas were hit by violence, in fighting between the Soviet troops and mujaheddin.
People came to Kabul and left everything behind, so they couldn't afford living in flat areas. They started building huts on the mountains. At night they would build, but during the day, the huts were destroyed by the government because building houses in that area was illegal. So they would put their women and children inside the house so that the government wouldn't destroy them. And sometimes they would build and work on their houses during the day, and then at night, they would sit on top of the roof so that no one else would come and take the land, or destroy the house. They would sit all night on the construction.
I didn't buy this land, but I became the owner because whoever builds a house owns the land. All the mountains are the same that way. Now our government does not have the power to come and tell us anything. Why would they? They themselves came and took so much land! They're all corrupt, so what could they say to us when the government are the worst land grabbers of all?
It's different here than in the U.S. or in Germany, because there, the houses up high are more expensive than the houses down below. But here, most people do not really want to live on the mountains. The facilities on the mountains are very little. It's far from the city, and we have nothing, we didn't even have water. Whatever we need, we have to walk all the way down. Everyone used to go to collect water from the bottom of the mountain, carrying the water on sticks with buckets on each side. And our women -- you would see 50 or 60 women walking up the mountain carrying water on their heads.
Now at least we have water, but not because of the government; the government did not do anything. There is a company that came and collected from each house 20,000 Afghani (approximately $360) and then they put pipes in. But they made so much money off of us, because now there are so many houses up here, and the company took money from each of us before they brought us water. And recently we got electricity. Not all the time, but sometimes we have it.
I used to have cows and sheep and horses up here too. Only recently I sent them back to Panjshir. We used to get grass and feed for them from down below. But now it's costly to get grass and feed for them, so I was not able to keep them here. Four or five years ago, it was cheap. But because of insecurity -- Talibs are attacking on one side, the government itself is like a robber on one side, and the conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan is on one side -- it became more expensive. Before Karzai came, things were cheaper.
Our government is weak; these problems have nothing to do with Americans. Americans helped us, Germans also helped us, but all the benefits went to Karzai. It's not your problem as Americans, or Germans, or everyone else, it's our own government's problems. If you travel to Shamali in the evening, there will be robbers and people who attack you, it's not secure at all.
I don't see any change, the international presence didn't impact our lives, their money went to the pockets of the thieves like Ustad Sayyaf, Vice President Khalili, General Fahim.
Any high-rise building you see down there, it belongs to those corrupt people. Even the changes that you see up here on the hills, they are just for individuals who are linked with someone in the government. The people who go at 9am to their office and by 1pm they will be in their house relaxing, they do nothing for the country. These people don't work for the betterment of our country, they just work for themselves.
I challenge you that the next time you come to Afghanistan, see what the situation will be. It will not be the same. The situation will be bad, and once the international forces leave, it will be just like it was in the past. Next year, I'm thinking of leaving Afghanistan. In one year, Afghanistan will be like the 1990s.
I think Karzai himself is like Taliban. I think he is supporting them. After the international community leaves Afghanistan, I think Karzai will give our country to Taliban people. He will divide our country into two parts, Pashtuns and Tajiks, and everyone else. The places where Pashtuns live, those areas will be Talib area.
One hundred percent I'm sure that in our future, the situation will be worse than what we had in the past. The suicide bombers, every day we can see the explosions. These things make us think that our life in the future won't be better than the past. Because the government can't do anything. And the only reason now we have a better life is because international forces are here. At least our government during Russian times, and Taliban times, was stronger. In these periods of conflict, the thing that worried me was a lot of people escaping to other countries, or other parts of this country. That's how you know how tense people are: people moving because they think the situation will get worse. And I'm seeing people leaving again.
Edited by Jeffrey E. Stern.
Jeffrey E. Stern -- www.JeffreyEstern.com -- is a writer and development worker whose reporting from Afghanistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere has appeared in Esquire, Time, newsweek.com/The Daily Beast, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Irfan Ali, a tireless campaigner for the rights of minority Shiites in his native Pakistan, volunteered to collect scattered limbs after an explosion tore through the billiard hall of his hometown Quetta in January 2013. The 33-year-old tweeted from the scene. "Was on the way to home nearly escaped bomb blast," he wrote in English. As he helped the injured to ambulances, he wrote in another tweet: "Sad day for diversity." Moments later, a second explosion ripped through the carnage, killing Ali on the spot. Sunni militants Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) claimed responsibility for the twin attacks, which killed at least 80, kick-starting another bloody year for Pakistani Shiites, who bear the brunt of their country's increasing sectarian violence.
Between January 2012 and June 2013, 77 attacks were launched against Shiites in Pakistan, killing 635. At least 120 more have been killed since July and the bloodletting shows no signs of abating. The widespread violence against Shiites, estimated to make up to 20 percent of Pakistan's population of 180 million, is unprecedented. Entire Shiite communities feel under siege, and many blame the government for failing to protect them. Human Rights Watch went so far as to say the government's seeming indifference in hunting down perpetrators could be seen as masking covert backing.
Out of this tense arena of escalating hatred, a small Pakistani Shiite political party rose out of obscurity to victory in May's general elections.
Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM), which roughly translates from Urdu as the Assembly of the Unification of Muslims, became the first Shiite party to ever win a seat. Fiercely nationalist, MWM believes sharia law should be implemented across Pakistan and wants to eradicate sectarian violence by providing free education.
Party leaders say its success comes from unlikely advocates: women.
I met Ali's mother, Saida, several months after her son was killed. She was in a group of mourning mothers at a martyrs' conference in Rawalpindi, an energetic sprawl of a city adjacent to the capital Islamabad. The women, including a 15-year-old girl who lost her entire family to attacks on Shiites, were being feted by MWM in a large, dimly lit hall decorated with black and green lines from the Koran. Hundreds of men and women sat divided on either side of the hall, sobbing quietly. Some held plates of pungent rose petals on their laps.
Cloaked in black, her eyes creased and dampened with tears, Saida leaned towards me: "I'm a proud mother and have no regrets my son was sacrificed." Like the others, she clutched a framed picture of her slain son. Smiling, he was waving a placard that read ‘Peace we Love.' "We're being victimized for following Hussein," she said, referring to the son of Ali, Mohammad's son-in-law, whom Shiites say is his rightful successor, a belief at the core of the Sunni-Shiite split.
Since that conference in late March, MWM has organized 15 such events across the country, each honoring mothers of the "martyred." In the lead up to the May 11 elections, the party organized scores of protests against what it says is genocide. Women were the "protest pioneers," said MWM's deputy leader Amin Shahidi. As the government failed to make arrests for Shiite attacks, mothers launched street protests - first in Quetta, where most Shiites come from the ethnic Hazara minority, and later across the country. "Women have this ability to transfer the feelings of struggle, of sacrifice, to their communities," Shahidi told me at his cliff-top home near Islamabad. Crowned by a white turban and elegantly dressed in a diaphanous brown gown over linen, Shahidi charted MWM's mercurial rise from its creation in 2008 to the present day, where it can command tens of thousands of supporters at rallies. "And it is the women who are getting this many people," he said, almost in surprise at his own statement.
Female branches of MWM were first set up in 2010 to double the party's impact. "Once we involved women, our messages and goals spread very quickly," said Zahra Najafi, who runs the women's wing in Karachi, nestled in a concrete Shiite neighborhood covered in MWM graffiti. Her tiny frame engulfed in a black chador, she said 750 women in Sindh province, which includes Karachi, now report to her. Most are involved in door-to-door campaigning and frequently organize sit-ins, demanding justice for Shiite attacks.
This kind of activism among Pakistani Shiites is not new. For many, it begins with the Imamia Students Organization, which was founded in 1972 to prevent encroaching socialism. Another Shiite political party, Islami Tehrik Pakistan, has existed since 1979 but merged with the Pakistan People's Party for the recent elections.
But not all Shiites agree with MWM's vociferous approach. "We're more under attack as a result of these protests," deputy speaker of the Sindh assembly, Shehla Raza, told me in her Karachi home where armed policemen keep 24-hour watch, reflecting increasing fear after eight of her relatives were killed in bomb attacks and targeted shootings.
MWM's win, however, carried weight. Its candidate Syed Mohammed Raza won a seat - one of 65 - in Baluchistan's provincial assembly in Quetta. Though numerically tiny - each of Pakistan's four provinces has its own parliament, in addition to contributing members to the national assembly - "we now have a firm foot in the ground," said Sandleen Rizvi, head of MWM's Rawalpindi women's wing.
Though no official gender data exists for individual party votes, Rizvi, whose husband Saeed ran for office in Rawalpindi, believes women made up at least 60 percent of MWM's vote across the country - at least 15 percent more than the national average. Ejaz Hussain Bahishti, a cleric on MWM's Islamabad ticket, reckoned women made up to 70 percent of the vote. "They came as a duty to the martyred," he told me.
Despite former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto serving in the position twice, women have played a relatively marginal role in Pakistani politics. But female voter participation is increasing, and women made up 44 percent of the country's overall vote in May.
Pudgy-cheeked and bubbling with enthusiasm, 37-year-old Rizvi has been hard at work since she organized the martyrs' conference I attended, setting up MWM units around Rawalpindi where women are taught about campaigning. "We are afraid that a Syria-style situation will arise here with the Shiites," she tells me over ice cream in her home, where miniature replicas of Ali's sword, the Zulfiqar, hang on her walls. Rizvi's 10-year-old son and three teenage daughters, their heads wrapped in bright headscarves, surround their mother to listen eagerly. "We must convince all Shiites to unite," she says.
As such, the focus of MWM's protests has expanded to include "the oppressed" around the world, in a display of solidarity with Shiites in Syria and Egypt. Accusations are rife that Shiite groups such as MWM receive funding from Iran as part of its wider proxy war with Saudi Arabia, which the State Department says supports Sunni extremists. When asked if MWM received financial support from Tehran, Shahidi smiled and pointed to a bowl of pistachios on the table between us. "The only things here from Iran are those nuts!"
Such suspicion, however, is likely to continue as MWM broadens its influence and cements its position as a political platform for Shiites across the country. Earlier this month the party took aim at the central government by calling for anti-American demonstrations, exposing an agenda largely hidden from its election campaign. Its leaders are becoming more brazen, delivering confidence-packed speeches that demand the government do more to protect Shiites. As such, what began as a measured reaction to a minority under siege could become the latest fault line in Pakistan's identity crisis.
Amie Ferris-Rotman, a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University, was formerly Reuters' senior correspondent in Kabul.