US aid to Sunni Ittehad Council backfired

Money received for anti-Taliban rally but group later led pro-Mumtaz Qadri demo.

Huma Imtiaz January 12, 2012


The United States gave money to the Sunni Ittehad Council to organise anti-Taliban rallies in 2009; however, the council later led demonstrations in support of Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed killer of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, in an apparent boomerang of US policy to support religious moderation in Pakistan.

US government website shows that the Sunni Ittehad Council received $36,607 from Washington in 2009 under the State Department’s Public Diplomacy Programmes for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The purpose of the grant was to help the Sunni Ittehad Council organise a National Flag March on August 14, 2009. The rally, held on August 14, is believed to have been a rally by the religious organisation to protest against the Taliban.

But it seems as though the religious organisation switched course after the killing of Salmaan Taseer as it held mass rallies in 2011 to protest against the arrest of Mumtaz Qadri. Last week, religious organisations even announced an Rs100 million reward for Mumtaz Qadri’s gun.

However, following the reports, the US State Department has said that the US government no longer provides support to the group in any capacity.

Laura D Lucas, a spokesperson for the State Department told The Express Tribune, “This particular grant supported a successful rally in 2009 at which Pakistanis spoke out against the Taliban, violent extremism, and suicide bombings. This grant is consistent with our continuing efforts, in Pakistan and around the world, to amplify local voices on issues of common concern, such as counter-terrorism.”

The State Department was approached by the Sunni Ittehad Council with a request for funding for the rally, said an official speaking to The Express Tribune, requesting anonymity.

The Sunni Ittehad Council was originally an umbrella group, consisting of several organisations coming together as a bulwark against terrorism and a voice against suicide bombings, said the State Department spokesperson. She added that the group’s leadership and direction have changed since the grant was given by the State Department in 2009, adding that the US government no longer provides support to the group and that according to their understanding, a number of its Pakistani partners have also severed ties with the group.

In response to a question on whether the US was allowed to fund religious groups, the State Department spokesperson said that the US government is allowed to give grants to religious groups for non-religious activities, adding that the US Embassy in Islamabad closely monitored the grant.

“The United States continues to recognise the many sacrifices that the Pakistani people and security forces have made in the war against violent extremists, and we remain committed to working together on our shared goals of a stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan in a stable, secure, and prosperous region,” the spokesperson added.

Two leading members of the council, who have been with the group from the beginning of its existence, denied receiving any American funds. The apparent discrepancy could be explained by lack of transparency within the organisation, The Associated Press reported.

“This propaganda is being unleashed against us because we are strongly opposed to Western democracy and American policies in the region and in the world,” said Sahibzada Fazal Karim, the head of the council, before reiterating the group’s support for Qadri.

“We are against extremism, but we support Qadri because he did a right thing,” he said.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 12th, 2012.

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