Few things are as hypocritical as the baying outrage of many conservative Pakistanis who denounce Donald Trump for his bigotry and intolerance. More often than not, these people will pounce upon even the most remote incident of Islamophobia or racism in the United States to bemoan the plight of Muslims around the world, treating these events as further confirmation of the belief that the West and its allies in Israel and India are working together to undermine and destroy Islam. The hypocrisy of this position becomes self-evident when many of these same individuals turn a blind eye to the obvious oppression and discrimination that exists within Pakistan itself. This is a country in which religious minorities do not enjoy the same rights and privileges as their fellow Muslim citizens, where sectarian organisations openly preach hatred against rival sects and belief systems, and where people are routinely murdered for believing in the wrong God or for adhering to a different interpretation of history and scripture. To this ignominious list we can now add the election of a known preacher of hate and sectarian activist – a veritable member of a ‘banned’ organisation – to the Punjab Assembly. On the 1st of December 2016, Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi, son of the founder of the Sipah-i-Sihaba (now known as the ASWJ) Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, won the by-election held in PP-78 (Jhang) after receiving over 48000 votes. He defeated the PML-N’s Nasir Ansari by almost 13000 votes, and had more votes than all the opposition parties combined.
Masroor Jhangvi is no ordinary ASWJ leader, nor can his electoral candidacy and subsequent victory be seen as being unexceptional. Other than the fact that the ASWJ was and is a proscribed organisation in Pakistan, Jhangvi’s name in also on the Fourth Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997. What that means is that while he had not actually been convicted of any crime, he is suspected of terrorist activities and, as such, is supposed to be subjected to a variety of measures aimed at monitoring and restricting his activities around the country. Among other things, inclusion in the Fourth Schedule means that Masroor Jhangvi cannot undertake public engagements; he cannot address large meetings, he cannot visit schools without official permission, and he certainly cannot be given a platform upon which he can spread his message of hate and bigotry. Yet, despite the fact that his political party is ‘banned’, and despite the fact that the Fourth Schedule precludes participation in an election, Masroor Jhangvi openly campaigned for, and won, a provincial assembly seat in Jhang.
There are a number of reasons why Jhangvi was able to succeed. Jhang has, for various reasons, long been a hotbed of sectarian tension, and the ASWJ has high levels of support in the area. Jhang has also suffered from a tremendous amount of neglect, with low levels of public spending and service provision serving as a damning indictment of claims made by the PML-N about development and prosperity. It could also be argued that Jhangvi benefitted from a divided opposition vote bank, with the PML-N, PPP, and PTI all fielding separate candidates instead of uniting behind one person in order to stop the ASWJ, Indeed, the PML-N itself has cited this as the main reason why its candidate was unable to win.
All of this misses the point, and falls into the trap of normalising something that should never be seen as normal. Invoking poor governance and the absence of a united front as justifications for Jhangvi’s victory legitimise his participation in the election, and conveniently skirt around more fundamental questions regarding how and why he was allowed to contest the election in the first place. It is deeply disconcerting to see the state sit by and watch this man get elected, either unwilling or unable to do anything about it. It is profoundly disturbing to learn that almost 50000 voters supported Jhangvi’s politics and ideology. If there was ever any proof needed to demonstrate that the National Action Plan has failed, this is it; a suspected terrorist wins an election with the support of an extremely radicalized section of the populace.
What answer does the government have to all of this? What cunning plan will the powers-that-be devise to combat the cancer of extremism that has enveloped our society? Will there be an acknowledgment of the dangers posed by ‘friendly’ militant organizations? Will the establishment engage in a long overdue rethink of its disastrous Afghan and Indian policies? Will the distinction between good and bad Taliban be done away with? Will laws regarding hate speech and sectarianism actually be enforced? Will the miscreants who thrive on the propagation of religious terror finally be treated like the criminals they are, thrown in jail instead of being garlanded and feted as ‘scholars’? Will the full machinery of the state finally be deployed to fight an existential, ideological battle for the hearts and minds of the people, emphatically and implacably delivering the message that all people are equal regardless of their creed?
Of course not. None of this will happen. It is one of the sad ironies of our current situation that those in a position to do something meaningful about changing the status quo are precisely the actors who have the least incentive to do so. Religion has long been used as a tool by the state to establish its hegemony and pursue its objectives, and there are many in power who continue to believe in the efficacy of this strategy. Until this dangerous delusion is challenge change is unlikely. Just as Nero allegedly fiddled while Rome burnt, the government and establishment are likely to just keep screaming “CPEC!” and “Zarb-i-Azb!” as Pakistan is systematically and inexorably dismantled from within
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.