On October 5, the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) announced that it would be holding a countrywide protest against Indian aggression and atrocities in Kashmir, with the campaign being launched in Islamabad at a conference to be held on October 28. At the meeting where this announcement was made, the Jamaat-i-Islami’s Liaqat Baloch and the All Pakistan Muslim League’s Sheikh Rashid rubbed shoulders with the Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, infamous for his closeness to the Taliban, and Hafiz Saeed, the head of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. In the past, the DPC has demanded that the government sever all ties with the United States and India, and do whatever is necessary to liberate Indian Kashmir. At the rallies the DPC has held over the past few years, the government has repeatedly been threatened with dire consequences should it fail to meet these demands; for an organisation that claims to be interested in nothing more than defending the sovereignty of Pakistan, the irony of doing so by undermining the state and its institutions appears to be lost.

Earlier this week, a spokesperson for the Lal Masjid in Islamabad also threatened the government with ‘dire consequences’ if the Supreme Court failed to uphold the death sentence for Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman accused of blasphemy who has been languishing in prison for years, and support for whom eventually led to the assassination of Salman Taseer in 2011. Vowing to lay siege to parliament, and declaring that all those who supported Aasia Bibi were committing blasphemy themselves, the people speaking on behalf of the Lal Masjid and its supporters made no effort to hide their violent intentions, or to mask their attempts to intimidate parliament and the judiciary. As has been the case with the DPC in the past, the threats emanating from the Lal Masjid were met with nary a word of protest or condemnation from the state.

It is not surprising to find the state remaining silent in the face of such vocal opposition from the Religious Right. After all, this pattern of craven capitulation is nothing new, and typifies the many contradictions at the heart of Pakistan’s attempts to rein in militancy and extremism. Although there have been repeated military offensives in FATA aimed at dismantling militant organisations involved in perpetrating violence across the country, little has been done to challenge the power of groups operating elsewhere in the country that espouse a millinerian religious ideology that is not too dissimilar to that articulated by the Islamist groups operating in the North-West. While it would arguably be injudicious to advocate yet another military solution to the problem of religious extremism in Pakistan, given the heavy-handed and opaque way in which counter-terrorism operations have been conducted thus far, there is little evidence to suggest that the state is interested in taking even non-violent measures, like clamping down on extremist organisations and seminaries, or promoting narratives aimed at de-radicalising society, in order to deal with the problem. 

Contrast this with the speed and efficiency with which Cyril Almeida, a journalist working at Dawn, was placed on the Exit Control List after writing a story in which he reported on a meeting between the civilian and military leadership in which the former allegedly took the latter to task for failing to endorse action against militants and extremists operating in Punjab and elsewhere. The story, which was based on information supplied by anonymous sources, was backed by the newspaper, which also published no less than three rebuttals from the government that denied the contents of the report and dismissed it as being entirely fabricated. 

There are several ways in which to interpret all of this. The identity of Mr Almeida’s sources remains anonymous, but the reality is that the information he received could have been leaked from a variety of places for a number of different reasons. The report could have been aimed at somehow strengthening the civilian government by piling pressure on the military on the eve of a transition to a new Chief of Army Staff. Alternatively, the purpose could have been the opposite; as many observers of Pakistan’s politics would undoubtedly agree, the report actually had the effect of weakening Nawaz Sharif by providing a pretext for an assertion of the military establishment’s power amidst an attempt by a civilian government to overstep the bounds set for it within the country’s de facto political framework. Unlikely as it may sound, it could also simply be the case that the events reported in Dawn unfolded as described, involving an unprecedented attempt by the civilian leadership to hold the military accountable. 

While Mr Almeida has been taken of the Exit Control List following an outpouring of support for him, and condemnation of the government, across the world, the entire incident points towards several troubling facts. For one, while it is not possible to independently verify the veracity of Mr Almeida’s report, the government’s actions and narrative in its wake are revealing. Mr Almeida was accused of undermining Pakistan’s national interests by reporting on a secret meeting. Following from this, the government argued that the report was even more problematic because of the way in which it suggested that there were divisions between the military and civilian leadership, and for implying that the military was not entirely on board with the fight against terror and extremism in Pakistan. 

As I wrote in my column last week, the most interesting thing about Mr Almeida’s report was perhaps how uninteresting it was; the idea that there are militant and extremist groups operating in Pakistan unhindered, and perhaps even enjoying state patronage, is not surprising. We need only look at the DPC and the Lal Masjid’s activities this past week to find evidence of this. Similarly, while it stretches credulity to believe that a civilian government in Pakistan would find the wherewithal to question the military establishment in so direct a fashion, the core idea – that more needs to be done to fight militancy by both institutions – is one that should not be particularly controversial. Instead, the events of the past week have morphed into yet another chapter of the long-running saga that is the tension between the civilian and military establishments in Pakistan, with the two sides engaging in yet more conflict and contestation in an attempt to assert their power. Meanwhile, the DPC and its ilk continue to threaten and coerce the state, secure in the knowledge that whatever they might say or do, they will not be placed on the Exit Control List. Once again, Nero fiddles while Rome burns.