A landmark decision by the Supreme Court (SC) saw Asia Bibi secure her freedom after spending eight years in prison wrongfully accused of a crime. With conflicting witness statements and an overall inconsistency in the evidence presented, justice finally being served and an innocent person being released from prison is cause for celebration.

The Supreme Court should be lauded from both the legal and humanitarian perspective, but there is still something lacking; what happens to those that falsely accused Asia of blasphemy? Will they stand trial or face punishment for getting an innocent woman imprisoned for eight years or marking her for death at the hands of zealots?

Considering that the judgement effectively accepts what was known to many all along – that the law that led to her incarceration has several flaws that can be exploited and misused – a sentence or two in the judgement about recommending a change in the law would not have gone amiss either.

In that way this was a missed opportunity, but at the same time the mere fact that Asia Bibi is now free is enough to lift the heart. At the very least, any other blasphemy cases under appeal should be reviewed under the same lens and lower courts of the country should be directed to follow the SC’s footsteps in adjudicating over all future cases of a similar nature.

Sadly, the judgement penned by the honourable members of the Supreme Court has brought the mob out in force once more; anti-state individuals under the banner of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) have taken to the streets and Khadim Rizvi and co are actively inciting violence and mutiny against the heads of state institutions including judges and generals.

Should we be surprised at this turn of events? Hardly. We have given in to these mobs before; when TLP came out in protest against changes in the Khatm-e-Nabuwat clause in 2017, we acceded to the demands and rewarded them with (petty) cash envelopes for their efforts. Judging by the moves being made by Khadim Rizvi, he was looking for an opportunity to mobilise support no matter the cost.

We saw this in August first, when TLP was protesting the blasphemous cartoon contest organised by Geert Wilders of the Netherlands. That quickly dissipated when the far-right Dutch politician called off the contest as a result. Earlier in October, when the SC was hearing the case, Khadim Rizvi had already made statements against an acquittal. Rizvi’s actions are not surprising from a political standpoint either; his party has been gaining support quickly and as long as that is the case, he is going to keep employing his winning formula – use religion to sway the public emotionally and instilling fear in both the general public and the sitting government by protests that take a violent turn.

With public and private property and the lives of innocent civilians and institutional leaders such as judges under threat, what happens now? In his quest for his desired pound of flesh, Khadim Rizvi is disrupting the country’s infrastructure and making borderline treasonous statements which the Prime Minister – in his address to the nation on Wednesday – said was intolerable. A day later, ruling party member Pervaiz Khattak has stated that negotiations are underway and there is no sign of the government looking to clear the streets by exerting its legitimate ability to use force when it deems necessary. Why is there a discrepancy between stated word and action?

No amount of negotiations and discussions is going to change the fact that the leaders of this movement have openly compelled their followers to threaten those at the helm in the army, judiciary and government. If the government grants amnesty to the protesters and accedes to demands once more (as the PML-N did during its time in power), there is no telling how much more brazen the leaders of TLP and TLYRA will become going forward.

The nature of the TLP/TLYRA support-base is an additional problem. Many of the rapidly swelling following are in urban centres and form a substantial part of the blue collar workforce; often serving the same people that TLP and TLYRA are threatening. This has already happened before. Salmaan Taseer’s murder at the hands of one of those designated to protect him tells us that in this case, the enemy can be within striking distance, invisible and ultimately even more dangerous than other known threats.

Forgetting this important lesson is only going to lead to a grave catastrophe yet again. Remember, Khadim Rizvi and his party came into focus after championing Mumtaz Qadri as their hero. Just to be clear, that means that this party condones murder in their bid to protect sentiments that are hurt on falsified grounds.

If these supporters continue to see their leaders successfully making the government bow down to its demands, and if the leaders keep using increasingly vitriolic rhetoric and asking for the supporters to give their lives to the cause, who knows how far TLP and its like will go the next time? Can the state allow for its writ to be become non-existent, like it does each time these mobs take the entire country hostage?

The government’s options are limited if it is to avert a clash in the long-term; negotiations can only stall the inevitable. TLP is going to find another hill to die on if it goes home as a result of negotiations, with additional supporters in tow. This is a battle of narratives and one that stands shoulder to shoulder with extremism must not be tolerated. The Prime Minister’s speech said the right things, now the government must back its words with concrete action. No free passes this time. One can only hope that this government is braver than all those that preceded it.

 

The writer is a former member

of staff.