Another day, another bigoted outburst from someone in a position of power. Earlier this week Capt. Ahmed Safdar, the son-in-law of Nawaz Sharif and an elected member of parliament, took to the floor of the National Assembly to denounce Ahmadis. His utterly unwarranted outburst reiterated many of the tropes that have been used to demonize the community in the past, and which have been used to justify much of the state-sanctioned and societally enforced discrimination against them; Ahmadis, Capt. Safdar said, were anti-Pakistan elements whose religious beliefs meant that should not be allowed to serve in the government or the armed forces. The virulent cherry on this hate-filled cake was a call for Quaid-e-Azam University to reverse its decision to name one of its centres after Dr. Abdus Salaam, Pakistan’s first Nobel Laureate, with Capt. Safdar arguing that the eminent scientist’s religious identity invalidated all of his many accomplishments. Why this should be the case was not made clear in what will undoubtedly be remembered as one of Pakistan’s more unhinged and swivel-eyed displays of intolerance.

Capt. Safdar is no stranger to this kind of display, having engaged in theatrics of this sort in the past as well. What is more interesting to consider is the timing this time around; why did Capt. Safdar make these statements when he did, given that they seemed to come out of the blue, devoid of any broader context or debate. Here it is possible to discern four potential motivations, none of which are mutually exclusive. The first of these is simply that the views expressed by Capt. Safdar represent his genuine beliefs, and that his words in the National Assembly were nothing more than an unacceptable articulation of his prejudice. However, while this may indeed be the case, it does not fully account for why he said what he did when he did. After all, one would assume that Capt. Safdar could make use of his pulpit in the National Assembly to speak in this fashion at any point in time.

A second potential explanation is that the logic behind this outburst was more personal. Given the Sharif family’s on going and increasingly serious legal troubles, in which Capt. Safdar and his wife Maryam Nawaz figure prominently, making outlandish statements against a minority that has long been the unfortunate subject of popular persecution might have been a ham-fisted attempt to curry favour with those elements of parliament and, indeed, society who would look upon such conduct favourably. If this were to be the case, it would represent a degree of cynical manipulation and opportunism that makes the whole episode even more unsavoury, showing how some of this in power might be willing to incite violence and hatred against already marginalized communities in order to protect their own interests.

The third explanation is related to the second, and highlights the political gains to be made from fanning the flames of religious bigotry. In the recently held by-election in NA-120, one of the key developments was how the decrease in the PML-N’s vote share was accompanied by the emergence of significant support for two far-right religious parties, the MML which is an offshoot of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, and the Labaik Ya Rasool Party which has mobilised around the issue of blasphemy. As some commentators have pointed out, the PML-N has a long history of using religion to garner support for itself (as evinced, for example, by Nawaz Sharif’s attempt to have himself declared Ameer-ul-Momineen through a constitutional amendment in the late 1990s), and the MML and LYK therefore represent an electoral threat to the PML from the Right, peeling away the types of religious voters who might have previously voted for the former. In this context, anti-Ahmadi hate speech could be construed as dog-whistle politics aimed at appealing to sections of the electorate that may have been defecting to more overtly religious organizations.

Finally, it could also be that Capt. Safdar’s words were an attempt to insulate the PML-N from the attacks it was being subjected to in parliament after the controversy that emerged over amendments to the Elections Bill that altered clauses relating to the Finality of Prophethood. Whether these amendments were accidental or deliberate (with the latter option potentially being an attempt to test the waters with regards to introducing incremental reforms to religious laws), using anti-Ahmadi rhetoric as a defence mechanism is, once again, cold-heartedly cynical and morally reprehensible.

In the aftermath of Capt. Safdar’s speech, there has been little in the way of condemnation from opposition parties or the PML-N itself. Indeed, the only official statement that came out was from Ahsan Iqbal, whose briefs words or reproach two days after the event did little to challenge or confront the bigotry he and others in government often claim to be fighting. This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this entire fair; while there will always unfortunately be individuals like Capt. Safdar who are perfectly willing to fuel bigotry and hatred, the widespread acceptance of this by society reflects poorly on all of us.