What is one to make of what happened last week? What explanation could possibly be offered for the combination of craven capitulation and opportunistic cynicism that saw the Pakistani state – possessing nuclear weapons, vast administrative and coercive apparatuses, and the oft-stated desire to become a major economic player – succumb to the demands of a mob of just 2000 people occupying an intersection in Islamabad? What signal is being sent to society and, indeed, the rest of the world when a state that does not miss an opportunity to engage in chest-thumping over the defence of its sovereignty meekly goes ahead and gives in to the demands of a group of sectarian bigots who openly preach hatred and advocate violence in the pursuit of their pernicious ideological agenda? What does it mean for democracy and the rule of law when the government and opposition unite in endorsing religious discrimination even as they permit outside groups to control and influence the legislative process as long as it is done in the name of Islam?
Pakistan is being destroyed from the inside. On Friday, when burka-clad militants stormed the Agricultural Training Institute in Peshawar and killed nine people, the authorities were quick to point of the links between the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who claimed responsibility for the attack, and actors in Afghanistan, thereby reinforcing the idea that terror in Pakistan is a result of the machinations of foreign enemies. This may or may not be true, but can the same be said of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) and its affiliates, an organization that openly calls for the death of Ahmadis, consistently produces anti-Shia rhetoric, has the avowed goal of ‘Islamizing’ society in line with its own parochial interpretation of Islam, and repeatedly endorses the use of violence in the pursuit of its self-declared sacred goals? Are the Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies to blame for the rise of the TLY, or does the blame lie closer to home? Are foreign agents behind the government’s acceptance of the TLY’s demands in return for that organization ending its sit-in in Islamabad? Were the images broadcast in the media, of serving military personnel distributing cheques to participants of the sit-in, also part of some vast foreign conspiracy?
No, of course not. The TLY is a monster of Pakistan’s own creation, the logical consequence of the state constantly and consistently using religious to legitimate itself and pursue its political and strategic objectives. Even now, the language being used to describe the TLY and its supporters beggars belief. Across the political spectrum, from the PML-N to the PTI and even within the military itself, there has been virtually no condemnation of the TLY, its cause, or its tactics. Whether out of fear, genuine belief, or cynicism, the state has demonstrated no willingness or ability to confront the TLY and what it represents. Instead, constant reference is made to the ‘sensitivity’ of the issue of the Finality of Prophethood, and repeated exhortations are made to respect the sentiments of those who ‘fight’ for this cause. Forget the fact that Khadim Rizvi and his acolytes in the TLY have nakedly political, rather than spiritual, ambitions. Forget that the PML-N government’s alleged legislative transgressions, which prompted the TLY’s sit-in, were quickly reversed and, more importantly, did nothing to alter the status quo when it came to the position of Ahmadis in Pakistan; indeed, one of the sit-in’s great ironies was how little its participants seemingly understood about the exact nature of the legal changes proposed by the PML-N, and how uninterested the government seemed in defending itself or pushing forward a counter-narrative. Forget that the TLY and its supporters clearly believe in taking the law into their own hands and threatened those who opposed them with violence and death. One after another, the ‘leaders’ of Pakistan’s political parties and institutions have lined up to prostrate themselves before the TLY with nary a word of criticism or complaint.
At one level, this is not surprising. The religious right represents a powerful vote bloc that the PML-N has actively cultivated, and which the PTI clearly seeks to co-opt in Punjab. Similarly, the military establishment has long been suspected of harbouring a soft spot for organizations like the TLY, partly because of the potential strategic use of the ideology they espouse when it comes to inspiring proxy militants in Afghanistan and India, but also because of the convenient way in which they can be relied upon to pressurize civilian governments. Amidst all of this, society has been fed a constant diet of bigotry and religious intolerance by opportunistic political elites who recognize the powerful appeal of religious rhetoric as a means through which to garner legitimacy and deflect attention away from more uncomfortable issues like poor governance, inequality, and widespread human rights abuses. That this strategy will inevitably lead to ruin – as can already be seen by how tens of thousands of Pakistanis have lost their lives to religious extremism over the past two decades, and millions no live in constant fear of persecution – is something that the powers-that-be are either too stupid or too cynical to do anything about.
As Aasim Sajjad Akhtar has recently argued in Dawn, perhaps it is pointless to expect any different from the state and mainstream political actors, given their track record in this regard, and that it makes more sense to organize a truly progressive alternative to the status quo that is willing to challenge forces like the TLY and their enablers in the state. This is sound advice and if the events of last week have demonstrated anything, it is now more important and necessary than ever before to mobilize and oppose forces like the TLY which are going to tear Pakistan apart.
Yet even this task, which was difficult enough to begin with, is being made harder by the moral cowardice of Pakistan’s political leadership. Amidst the political elite’s frenetic competition to lick Khadim Rizvi’s boots, more than a few decided it made sense to identify and target the ‘real’ enemy – Pakistan’s liberals. No less a personage than Imran Khan claimed that ‘liberals’ – a blanket term used to describe anyone who does not subscribe to the Religious Right’s ideology – are the greatest threat to the stability of Pakistan. Because, as everyone knows, it was liberals who massacred schoolchildren in the attack on APS in Peshawar, it was liberals who attacked and killed dozens of people in Lahore’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park, it was liberals who bombed an Imambargah in Shikarpur, and liberals who slaughtered dozens of lawyers and bystanders at the Civil Hospital in Quetta. It is liberals who are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis in terror attacks, liberals who call for the lynching of religious minorities, liberals who fight to oppose granting rights to women, liberals who issue religious fatwas authorizing the use of violence against their political opponents, and liberals who constantly crave armageddon by pushing for war against India.
The political and military leadership are complicit in creating the situation Pakistan now finds itself in. They have collectively brought this country to the brink of ruin, and show no sign of demonstrating the courage and conviction required to make things better. But why dwell on these inconvenient truths. It clearly makes much more sense to blame India, Afghanistan, the USA, and ‘liberals’ for Pakistan’s problems. Indeed, one suspects that these delusions run so deep, they will persist long after the country has been reduced to little more than a fractured theocracy devoid of joy and happiness, art and music, freedom and tolerance, ruled instead by the iron fist of dogma and the cruel cynicism of those in power.