Will Pakistan Stop Appeasing the Religious Right?
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Abdul Basit

Will Pakistan Stop Appeasing the Religious Right?

Nov. 22, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Following the Pakistan Supreme Court’s landmark decision to acquit Asia Bibi (who had spent eight years on death row) in the blasphemy case, a Sunni radical group Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) locked down the country’s major cities and brought normal life to a standstill. The TLP demanded that the government place Asia Bibi’s name on the Exit Control List (ECL), a roaster of people banned from leaving Pakistan, and file a review petition in the Supreme Court to reverse the decision. The TLP’s rabble rousing clerics provoked open mutiny within the military and issued calls to kill the three Supreme Court judges who announced the decision.

Initially, Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government took a stern notice of the seditious remarks against the judiciary and military. It warned the protesters not to challenge the writ of the state. Three days later, notwithstanding the initial blazing response, the government capitulated and acceded to all demands of the TLP resulting in an end to nation-wide protests.

However, this was not the first time that a Pakistani government has appeased the religious right. Since Pakistan’s inception, successive civilian and military regimes have co-opted the religious right to gain ideological legitimacy, improve their public image and neutralize political competition from religious groups. The military regimes kotowed to these religio-political groups to undermine secular parties. Unfortunately, this appeasement policy has empowered religious groups to such an extent that they have dictated policy-making from outside the parliament through agitation.

In 1949, Pakistan’s legislative assembly adopted the Objective Resolution — a guideline for constitution making — which mandated that no law or policy contrary to Islamic teachings could be enacted in the country. In the 1970s, then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto passed the Second Constitutional Amendment declaring the heterodox Ahmadiyya community as non-Muslims to appease a coalition of religious-political parties that threatened to bring down his government.

Likewise, military dictator Zia-ul-Haq heavily relied on religious parties for political legitimacy and power perpetuation. Similarly, General Pervez Musharraf signed several deals with the militant groups to restore peace. These agreements emboldened the militants and allowed them time and space to increase their influence in the society.

In 2009, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) signed a pact with the extremist cleric Sufi Muhammad of Tehrik-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) known as the Nizam-e-Adal Regulations. A few days later, Sufi Muhammad declared Pakistan’s parliament and judiciary as un-Islamic and “systems of infidels.” The nature of the Nawaz Sharif government’s deal with the TLP in November 2017 to end the sit-in is no different from the agreement signed between the TLP and the PTI government on November 2, 2018.

The continuous appeasement of the religious right seems to be neutralizing Pakistan’s hard-earned gains against violent extremism after the tragic army public school attack in Peshawar in December 2014. The co-option has allowed these groups s to increase their influence in the society with catastrophic effects on inter- and intra-faith harmony in Pakistan.

Pakistan will have to reconsider its policy of mainstreaming radical Islamist groups into politics. Various radical groups have been allowed to join politics with the hope of moderating their hard-line ideological outlooks. However, this amounts to turning the logic of re-integration approach on its head. Radical and extremist groups are re-integrated into politics after they moderate their views and reform their extremist ideologies. Put differently, moderation is a pre-requisite, not an outcome of re-integration.

Keeping the above in view, TLP is a classic case of what is wrong with Pakistan’s approach to preventing and countering violent extremism. The two agreements signed with the TLP in November 2017 and 2018 as well as allowing it to register as a political party and contest general elections has centre-staged a right-wing group that was on the fringes of politics. In other words, Pakistan’s poorly thought-out approach has mainstreamed extremism instead of overcoming it.

Pakistan will continue to remain hostage to the blackmail of extremist groups and Khan’s dream of “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan) will remain elusive as long as the policy of appeasement does not stop.

TLP’s genesis lies in the revival of Barelvi, a sub-sect of the Hanafi school of thought and politics in Pakistan. The TLP emerged in 2011 as a resistance movement to free Mumtaz Qadri, the self-righteous assassin of the former governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, and oppose his hanging. Following Qadri’s execution, it transformed itself into a political party with a sharp sectarian bent.

In the 2018 general elections, the TLP has emerged as Pakistan’s fifth largest political party in-terms of numbers of vote received (2.2 million) surpassing established religious-political parties in political weight and electoral performance. The party has a devout membership which is growing in numbers. Social media has further expanded the TLP’s outreach.

The TLP has positioned itself in Pakistan’s religious-political landscape as the self-appointed defender of Prophet Muhammad’s honour and the finality of His prophethood. The party lionizes the love for the Prophet Muhammad and anti-blasphemy laws. From vigilante and mob violence, the TLP has attained the capabilities of perpetrating organized violence on a large scale. The three-day sit-in cost Pakistan’s flagging economy Rs 100 billion to Rs 120 billion.

The five-point agreement signed between the PTI government and TLP has endorsed its extremist narrative and entrenched it in Pakistan’s political landscape. It is a surrender document that has set a very wrong precedent. The agreement is so vaguely worded that both sides are interpreting it differently even before the ink has dried. Not only were all of the TLP’s demands accepted, it also got away with the seditious speeches and threats hurled at the judges, political leaders and the military top brass. Ironically, for all its sins and crimes, the TLP only tendered a half-hearted, one-liner apology for “hurting anyone’s sentiments or causing inconvenience without reason.”

Alarmingly, as TLP fanatics ran amok in Pakistan’s major cities burning vehicles, ransacking properties, forcing shops and markets to close and blocking the main highways, there was no leadership and writ of the state in Pakistan. Khan, who is also the interior minister, jetted off to China on an official trip, President Arif Alvi was in Turkey and the army chief was holding a milad, a religious ceremony organized to pay tribute to Prophet Muhammad, in the army house.

Indubitably, the threshold for religious intolerance has become dangerously low in Pakistan. A slight provocation involving religious sentiments can quickly spill over into violence. The boundaries of hate and bigotry have expanded, as the state seems to be on the retreat. The never-ending appeasement policy has empowered the religious groups to such an extent that now they are openly challenging and defying decisions of the superior judiciary and challenging the writ of the state.

Pakistan’s new prime minster Imran Khan has started on a wrong footing in dealing with the challenge of violent extremism in Pakistan. In his first brush with the extremists, Khan capitulated to the pressure and forced his economic adviser Atif Mian, a Princeton economist who is from the minority Ahmadiyya community, to resign. Pakistan will continue to remain hostage to the blackmail of extremist groups and Khan’s dream of “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan) will remain elusive as long as the policy of appeasement does not stop. If the state institutions do not uphold and enforce the rule of law against the radical groups, nothing would be left but a charred edifice of a capitulating state.

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