x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Machinations and murder link Karachi to 'Londonistan'

With terrorism, disaster, crime and corruption dominating the headlines, humour, however tasteless, has become a coping mechanism.

'Double-decker buses set ablaze on Trafalgar square… Aerial firing causes shops on Oxford street to shut down as MQM workers stage protests outside 10 Downing street against the target killing of Dr Imran Farooq." That was the text message that woke me on the morning of September 17, just a few hours after Dr Farooq, a leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) , was stabbed to death in the north London neighbourhood of Edgeware. It was, of course, a farce, but it reflected the shock waves the shadowy murder conspiracy has had on Pakistani politics.

The dark-humoured SMS is a staple of Pakistani life. With terrorism, disaster, crime and corruption dominating the headlines, humour, however tasteless, has become a coping mechanism. And with more than 100 million mobile phone users countrywide, there must have been more than a few morbid chuckles that Friday morning. But in MQM-dominated Karachi, no one was laughing. Just a few months before, the assassination of another MQM leader sent the city into a spiral of violence that killed more than 75 people.

But this time, Pakistan's largest city remained largely peaceful. The MQM issued an appeal for calm during the 10-day mourning period, while also canceling plans to celebrate the birthday of its leader, Altaf Hussain. The lack of serious violence may be explained by the circumstances of the killing, which precluded blame being placed on the usual suspects. Also, Dr Farooq had largely been absent from day-to-day party affairs, although he was still widely respected. Considered by many to be the intellectual driving force behind the MQM, Dr Farooq was one of the founders of the party, which despite attempts at re-branding still relies on Pakistan's Muhajir population for the bulk of its support.

Following an attack on him, Altaf Hussain left Pakistan for Saudi Arabia on Jan 1, 1991, landing up in London a few months later. The launch of a military operation against the MQM in 1992 saw him apply for political asylum, a request the British government granted. The same operation also forced Dr. Farooq into hiding. Like his leader he also emerged in London some years later. By this time the British capital had emerged as the centre of the MQM's exiled leadership.

Defying predictions that the MQM would crumble without its charismatic leader, the party went from strength to strength, despite being run by remote control. No Pakistani government official worth his salt can visit London without an audience with the MQM's supreme leader, who holds the power to shake governments with a single phone call. The United Kingdom holds a special place in the hearts of Pakistan's elite. It was in the London jet set that cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan found his bride. Bilawal Bhutto, the heir apparent to the throne of the ruling Pakistan People's Party recently graduated from Oxford University, as did his mother Benazir Bhutto and his illustrious grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Nawaz Sharif and his brother own several properties in London in the same city where their bitter opponent, former Pervez Musharraf, now holds court and plans his political comeback.

In a further twist to the tale, it turns out that Dr Farooq and Mr Musharraf may have shared more than simply living in the same city. According to an article in the UK daily The Guardian, Dr Farooq may have been planning to join the new political party that Mr Musharraf intends to launch. If true, the defection of an age-old MQM stalwart, whatever his current status in the party, would not have gone down well.

Even more curious is Mr Hussain's recent tirade against a supposed "international conspiracy" aimed at his own death. The MQM leader has also addressed mass rallies condemning the 86-year sentence handed down by a US court to Dr Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist allegedly linked to al Qa'eda - not the kind of cause that the MQM usually involves itself in. Given public opinion in Pakistan, it may simply be populist politics, but if The Guardian report has any merit, then it may also be a pre-emptive strike.

Railing against the United States over the Siddiqui case may be part of the vague conspiracy theory that Mr Hussain has hatched. And where America steps, can Britain be far behind? A murder in London takes on a different complexion. The British press is now asking if Dr Farooq's killing marks the end of "Londonistan" as a safe refuge from the "gangster politics" of the subcontinent. Truth be told, "Londonskva" may be just as apt a title, given the amount of Russian exiles that call London home. The poisoning of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko show that community hasn't been exactly violence free.

The UK has willingly played host to many who were wanted on criminal charges in their own homelands. While some cases are politically motivated, there are also suspicions that the British welcome exiles because of their value as intelligence assets. Imran Khan, a vocal opponent of the MQM, has complained that Scotland Yard has not taken action against Mr Hussain despite evidence incriminating him. Mr Khan accused the British government of double standards, saying it claims to fight a global "war on terror", but shelters the man he calls Pakistan's "number one terrorist".

As for the murder itself, if it was not just a bungled mugging, Dr Farooq has joined thousands of victims of Karachi's bloody politics. But unlike the killers who still walk Karachi's streets free of fear of prosecution, his murderers may find they no longer have any place to run. Zarrar Khuhro is a TV journalist and writer based in Karachi