(Reuters) - Pakistan's religious parties are growing stronger, riding a tide of growing anti-Americanism and outrage over blasphemy cases that has led to the assassination of two government officials.
Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer and Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti were both killed this year for their support for changing Pakistan's harsh anti-blasphemy law, a move opposed by Pakistan's religious parties.
These parties in Pakistan are beginning to set aside sectarian differences that have divided them for years to coalesce around an explicitly anti-American agenda, creating a political bloc that could challenge the ruling parties and ultimately weaken Pakistan's alliance with the United States.
Groups such as Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) are forming a new coalition of about 18 parties and groups that are anticipating early elections against the governing Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
Here are some facts on some of the more important religious parties and groups:
Jamaat-e-Islami seeks to impose Islamic law in Pakistan through elections. It is largely comprised of urban, middle-class citizens across Pakistan. The party was a strong opponent of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf and supports the Pakistan-supported "jihad" in Indian Kashmir. It is linked to the Hizbul Mujahideen, which appears on the U.S. State Department's list of "other groups of concern." Its current leader, Syed Munawar Hasan, praised the killing of Salman Taseer and said Bhatti's killing was "the work of CIA to hush up the court trial of Raymond Davis in the media."
Led by Ahmed Ludhianvi, Milliat-e-Islami is the political wing of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a banned militant organization that considers Shi'ites as non-Muslims. Repeatedly banned, the group has reinvented itself several times under different names.
The group has its roots in the Markaz ad-Dawat wal-Irshad (MDI), an organization created in the mid-1980s to support the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and to provide Islamic charity and spiritual guidance. The organization then split into two wings:
* Lashkar-e-Taiba is its military wing. Founded in 1990, it began operations in Indian Kashmir in 1993.
* Jamaat ud-Dawa is its humanitarian wing. It provides extensive education, healthcare and disaster relief.
While its military focus has been on Kashmir, its ideology is pan-Islamic. The group is based in Punjab province and in Pakistani Kashmir. JuD runs a large educational complex at Muridke near Lahore. The MDI's founder, Hafez Saeed, is a former professor.
JuD does not believe in electoral politics or democracy, but is supporting the new alliance.
Drawing much of its support from Pakistan's network of religious schools, called madrassas, Fazl-ur-Rehman's Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam is a pro-Taliban party dedicated to imposing Islamic law in Pakistan. It has a rigid interpretation of Islam. Rehman is a native of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and served as leader of the opposition in the Senate from 2004-2007. He is considered a political pragmatist, despite pulling out of the governing coalition in December 2010 over a dispute over ministerial posts. The JUI-F draws its electoral support mainly from Pakistan's two western provinces, including in the cities of Peshawar and Quetta.
Led by former cricketer Imran Khan, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is the only non-Islamist party in the cluster of anti-American parties. It is staunchly opposed to involvement by the United States in Pakistan's affairs and supports Islamic democracy. The party has called for the U.S. to pull out of Afghanistan and end drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal region, and for the relationship between Pakistan and the United State to come to an end. In a poll examining political allegiance in September 2010, 28 percent of respondents polled in Pakistan's deeply religious tribal areas expressed support for the party.
(Additional reporting by Rebecca Conway, Myra MacDonald; Additional material from Congressional Research Service; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)
For more Reuters coverage of Pakistan, see: here