Here we go again. Somewhere in Europe, a group of far-right demagogues decide that the best way to win support is to dress hate up as free speech and draw blasphemous cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), knowing full well that their provocation will generate a backlash that will allow them to cast themselves as both victims and courageous defenders of European values supposedly under threat from immigration and Islam. Around the world, Muslims protest against these actions, but none do so more vociferously than the people of Pakistan, many of whom respond by taking to the streets of Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad to burn down buildings, attack the government, and visit violence upon all who stand in their way.
This is what happened in the early 2000s, when the provocation came from a group of cartoonists in Denmark, and this is what seemed to have been happening again as Khadim Rizvi’s Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) geared up for a sit-in in Islamabad in response to a competition to draw blasphemous cartoons organised by far-right parties in the Netherlands. At first glance, it might seem that there is not much in common between the Freedom Party’s Geert Wilders and Khadim Rizvi but the truth is that while both might loathe each other as polar opposites should they ever meet; both have also recognised that blasphemy makes for good politics.
When Wilders called off his competition earlier this week, he did so after claiming that death threats he has received in response to the event had prompted him to do so. Indeed, a young man of reportedly Pakistani origin was arrested in the Netherlands for his alleged involvement in a plot to kill Wilders for his blasphemy. Yet, Wilders’ apparent capitulation actually fits in with his broader narrative of victimhood, and the weeks and months ahead will undoubtedly see the European far-right claim that Islam and Muslims are antagonistic to the free expression. It is ironic that racists, fascists, and Islamophobes would use the language of liberalism and tolerance to propagate their bigotry, but that is simply a sign of the times we live in.
Closer to home, in addition to the TLP’s agitation over this issue, which is entirely to be expected given the outfit’s recognition of the power of blasphemy as a political cause in Pakistan, the PTI government was quick to claim credit for the cancellation of the Dutch cartoon competition. From the very beginning, Imran Khan had vowed to take the issue of blasphemy up at the United Nations, and foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi contacted the Dutch government to make Pakistan’s objections to the competition clear. Once it was cancelled, Qureshi shared a platform with TLP leaders to congratulate the Muslim Ummah as a whole on a victorious campaign to stop the publication of blasphemous content, even as supporters of the government welcomed its first foreign policy achievement.
Beneath the surface, however, there is reason to be worried about the PTI government’s approach to this issue. Lest it be forgotten, the TLP is hardly an outfit that believes in a more progressive and tolerant Pakistan. Instead, it represents some of the more reactionary and parochial tendencies in the country, with its support for the oppression and persecution of religious minorities, as well as its full-throated calls for death and violence to be directed towards those it deems to be insufficiently pious. The memory of the Faizabad sit-in should still be fresh in most minds, an event that made it clear that the TLP is both dangerous and cynical, manipulating religious sentiment for its own ends.
In this context, what is gained by the Foreign Minister sharing a platform with the TLP? At a time when many fear that Imran Khan and the PTI are insufficiently committed to fighting religious extremism, it is worrying to find the government devoting so much time and energy to championing a cause that has long been the preserve of bigots in Pakistan. If the PTI is attempting to ‘mainstream’ the TLP by taking the sting out of its attempts to set the agenda when it comes to blasphemy, does this strategy not run the risk of further entrenching the kind of hateful politics that has come to be associated with this issue?
There is an additional dimension to consider here. Could it not also be possible that far from attempting to defuse a potential conflict, the PTI government itself is seeking to extract political mileage from blasphemy, winning popular support by appealing to the baser instincts of the electorate? Unfortunately, it would not be the first time a Pakistani government has taken this route, and matters are not helped by how Imran Khan and other members of his party repeatedly questioned the faith and piety of their political opponents prior to the 2018 elections, using the same talking points employed by the TLP to paint the PML-N government as being blasphemous.
Mixing religion with politics is always dangerous. The combination lends itself to abuse by extremists, and almost inevitably produces sectarian conflict and the persecution of minorities. While blasphemy is obviously an issue that is important to many Pakistanis, it is not at all clear that prioritising it in a manner that endorses reactionary politics is wise. The PTI is playing with fire.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.