The liberals in Pakistan, who Prime Minister Imran Khan had described as ‘blood-thirsty western liberals’, must be in a state of shock after seeing their government acquiesce to the demands of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan or the TLP, a militant group that was recently banned and is responsible for taking law and order into their hands, mainly in Lahore and Punjab. Pakistan’sInterior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed announced that the government would release the TLP members and present a resolution in parliament to expel the French ambassador. The confused signaling by the government of claims that it will take action against those who have broken the law but then agreeing to discuss the matter in parliament has added to the crisis. The TLP’s agitation isn’t a civil war or a threat to the State yet, but Pakistan is losing the battle in the face of religious conservatism. Pakistan can control it for now, but its harm will be more long-term and felt gradually.
The political uniformity
The likelihood of the French ambassador being expelled is very high, especially if the matter goes to parliament. He can be saved only by some miracle if political parties get together and formulate a plan to save the country’s bilateral relationship and reputation, or the country’s powerful military decides to withdraw its support to the TLP. Given that the issue pertains to the honour of the Prophet and the TLP and other religious groups will be watching the debate with eagle eyes, no member in Pakistan parliament can afford to oppose the resolution. The last politician to have questioned the blasphemy law, which is directly linked with the issue of the Prophet’s honor and him being the last prophet, was Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who spoke against the unjust application of this law, and was assassinated in 2011 by his bodyguard. His own party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), had found it difficult to get its members to attend Taseer’s funeral. Even now, the head of the Sufi shrine in Sindh, the pir of Qambar that the party leadership holds in respect, is a propagator of the draconian blasphemy laws and was considered close to Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the now dead fiery leader of the Barelvi religious organisation, the TLP.
Other political parties, including Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), are not likely to take a different position on the issue either. In fact, a PML-N member of the National Assembly, Syed Imran Shah, spoke in favour of the TLP on the floor of parliament.
The Opposition sees this as an opportunity to push back PM Khan. In any case, members of all parties had joined in to say a prayer for the TLP protesters who died during the scuffle with police. But no such prayer was held for the four policemen who died controlling the TLP violence. And not a word of sympathy for the 800 policemen injured during the pitched battle with the TLP, or the dozens kidnapped and tortured by the outfit.
Imran not the first to surrender before the Right
The Imran Khan government’s seeming surrender should come as no surprise because Pakistan’s parliamentary forces have done the same in the past. The country’s first popularly elected Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, had lost to the religious Right in 1977. Every time there is a scuffle between the political parties and the religious Right, the battle is won by the latter,not just because of lack of clarity of by the former on religious matters but also due to the help rendered to the non-elected forces by the deep State. It seems that the Pakistan Army and its leadership did not support the government ban on the Barelvi group.
Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa certainly cannot support a ban on the TLP, considering his alleged links with the Ahmadiyya sect, a group that was declared as non-Muslim in 1974. Later, in the 1980s, General Zia-ul-Haq instituted blasphemy laws that were mainly aimed at punishing the Ahmediyas for, what is viewed as, challenging the finality of the Prophet, hence, an act of disrespect. Bajwa getting directly involved in the matter will be bad or his reputation among his own men that are also predominantly Barelvi Muslims. Clearly, the army chief has limited powers to fulfill, as some sources suggest, the vague promise he made of ensuring that the French ambassador will not be expelled, because this would mean making the TLP back off. This in itself should create doubt in the minds of those leaders and diplomats Bajwa is talking and making promises around the world. The question that India, for instance, could ask — can he keep other more potent militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) under control?
Where are the TLPs of Pakistan rooted in?
Indubitably, the TLP is not a comparable threat to the above-mentioned militant groups. It’s certainly not autonomous in its violence like the other groups. The TLP’s nuisance value, in any case, is dependent on the army and its intelligence agencies. The group’s founder Khadim Rizvi shot to prominence in 2017 due to his ability to arm twist the Nawaz Sharif government on the shoulders of Lt General Faiz Hameed. The group is certainly no comparison to the Deobandi JeM or the Ahl-Hadith LeT. These two groups were raised and trained for war-fighting. The TLP can only create chaos. Even in 2017, when the group killed a couple of policemen, the serious violence was not carried out by its members but by the reinforcements from Rawalpindi. Recently, the former head of the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), Absar Alam, tweeted about the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) arm-twisting him on media management of the last crisis. A source in the Pakistan media said: “It is doubtful if the TLP gained so much strength and capacity at violence in two years”.
Most likely, the TLP has been used yet again for some political purpose. The crisis smells of confusion at the top. It raises questions about the health of the hybrid system or tension within the power corridors inside the GHQ. Tragically, the opacity around this matter will provoke all players in Pakistan to milk the crisis to their advantage. The Opposition will accuse the PM of both mishandling and compromising on Islamic principles. Within the military, Khan’s weakness will be used by different power centers to push each other around.
Impacting Pakistan’s socio-politics
The TLP crisis will most certainly contribute to a medium-to-long term impact on socio-politics of Pakistan. For one, the continued use of religious militants does not bode well for the health of the State. According to econometricians Douglass C.North, Barry R. Weingast and John Joseph Wallis, in countries with closed economic systems and weak democracies, which they call limited access orders, violence is part of the social norm to negotiate relative strength. I would add that in Pakistan, like the rest of South Asia, religion and violence are used frequently to negotiate power. This formula is deadly.
Furthermore, such socio-political atmosphere will minimise space for any non-Islamist discourse and enhance the overall power of religious groups and parties across the spectrum. From religious parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (Fazal-ur-Rehman), to JEM and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), all have joined in either supporting the TLP or backing its key agenda of ensuring State’s commitment to the blasphemy issue. Just a few months ago, the JeM, which was not known for speaking on the blasphemy issue and concentrated on jihad in Kashmir or Afghanistan, published fiery articles against France and in support of the killer of the French teacher Samuel Paty. These groups observed that blasphemy as an issue was less divisive in society and will help with continued legitimacy that is essential to their survival. Anti-blasphemy or honour of the Prophet is certainly a critical issue for their survival until they can gain strength by the return of the Taliban next door.
The militants are not alone in using this principle to gain legitimacy. It’s also essential, as Khan indicated in his address to the nation on 19 April, for the political players and the State institutions. The difference lies only in tactics.
Interestingly, those in control of governance have historically presented such brazen use of religion as pragmatism. The popular excuse is that the people will not buy an alternative to the religious narrative so everyone uses it to their advantage. The man on the street is relatively sympathetic to the TLP, though not necessarily their violence, and upset with France, watching the government take a strong position. The behaviour of the masses is equally driven by their understanding of the nature of the State being both unaccountable and ideological. The masses may not understand PM Khan’s logic of countering France diplomatically because they have never felt ownership and, in turn, responsible for the State.
Pakistanis like to say that their country along with Israel are the only two States created in the name of religion. The one difference is that while Israel does not defend Jews around the world, Pakistan feels responsible for both Muslims of the world and Islam. In the words of an Ahl-Hadith British-Pakistani that I spoke with: “Pakistan (and North India) is where a religion born in Arabia was guarded and nurtured”.
What’s for sure is that between the Islamists of all kinds and the non-Islamist pragmatic ‘users’ of religion, the shades of Islam have become deeper. It’s time to see the writing on the wall — Pakistan is also a hybrid theocracy from where it can only go forward and not backwards. Also that PM Khan’s speech, though logical, may just be a few decades too late.
Ayesha Siddiqa is research associate at SOAS, London and author of Military Inc; Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets @iamthe drifter. Views are personal.