Is anyone really surprised by what has been going on at the Faizabad Interchange this past week? Is it really shocking to find that the government has chosen to meekly stand by and watch as a few thousand protestors stage a sit-in at one of the busiest roads in the country? After all, has it not become the norm for Islamabad to be encircled by shipping containers and besieged by unruly and potentially violent mobs every few months? In this latest episode of public idiocy, supporters of the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) and Sunni Tehreek (ST) have decided to take the Twin Cities hostage in order to protest against revisions to electoral law that made it slightly less difficult for Ahmadis to register to vote and contest elections. Never mind that these changes to the law were quickly reversed after being attributed to a clerical error, or that the government bent over backwards to apologize for the mistake and rectify it as quickly as possible. The TLY and ST continue to treat the incident as an unforgivable attack on the concept of the Finality of Prophethood, and are currently calling for the resignation of the Law Minister while also threatening members of the government and parliament with violence and even death if their demands are not met.
There is an argument to be made about how Ahmadis and other religious minorities in Pakistan continue to suffer from state-sanctioned persecution and discrimination of the sort that should be completely and utterly unacceptable in any civilized, democratic society. However, we in Pakistan have long since moved beyond the point where a rational discussion could be had about this issue. Instead, even the smallest attempts to initiate a dialogue or make even the most incremental changes to the country’s ‘religious’ laws are seized upon by Islamist parties and organizations, and their opportunistic supporters amongst the mainstream parties, to attack the government, ‘liberals’, minorities, and anyone who dares to disagree with the parochial and bigoted version of Islam peddled by these self-appointed custodians of the faith.
To be clear, the true purpose of the TLY, ST, and their ilk is not to defend Islam, nor is it to prevent the alleged ‘secularization’ and ‘liberalization’ of Pakistan. Indeed, one of the great paradoxes of contemporary social and political life in the country is the persistence of a narrative that suggests Islam and its believers are constantly under siege in a nation where the overwhelming majority of the population are Muslim, and where Islam plays a prominent and largely unquestioned role in public life. That this is narrative is constantly peddled by organizations that enjoy tremendous support and have demonstrated the ability to act and speak with impunity is an irony that is lost on those who are sympathetic to this idea.
If calling for the ‘defence of Islam’ is little more than a means through which to mobilize supporters and employ an idiom for political action that is unlikely to be challenged in the Land of the Pure, then it becomes obvious that the TLY and ST are interested in little more than claiming yet more public space for themselves and their dangerously divisive ideas.
Moreover, given the recent entry of the TLY into the electoral arena, it also not difficult to see how constantly evoking the emotive issue of blasphemy serves to further attempts at cultivating a voter support in the months leading up to next year’s general elections. Indeed, it could be argued that the TLY and newer right-wing religious parties like it are currently engaged in what some people refer to as ‘outbidding’, making increasingly extreme statements and promises in their attempts to peel support away from their more moderate rivals. In this instance, the TLY appears to be staking a claim to supporters who might have previously chosen to align with the PML-N (long known to have a solid bloc of ‘religious’ supporters), and those who might otherwise be drawn to the more muscular and visible politics of Deobandi outfits like the Milli Muslim League (itself an offshoot of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa).
In this context, it does not matter to the TLY if its ludicrous demands are not met, especially when the government has already addressed the supposed cause of the sit-in. Instead, what the TLY craves is visibility and attention, with its leaders smiling ever more broadly every time TV cameras and microphones point in their direction. For them, the fact that they are stoking the flames of religious hatred and sectarian bigotry is of little consequence; it is all a means to an end, the disastrous consequences of which will be felt not by them but the country’s most marginalized communities. This cynicism and opportunism has to be juxtaposed with the sad reality that there is undoubtedly a large number of true believers who genuinely identify with, and follow, the leaders of the TLY and similar organizations, having been bred on a diet of religious intolerance and extremism for the better part of the thirty years. As such, the government’s reluctance to proactively confront the protestors is understandable; any violence or heavy-handedness by the government would play right into the TLY’s hands and reinforce its narrative of victimhood.
Yet, to argue this is also to let the government off the hook for many of its failings past and present. Knowing that the TLY planned to stage a sit-in, the government could have moved against it earlier. It could have also launched a robust campaign to discredit the movement and its nakedly opportunistic goals. Instead, it has chosen to do nothing, giving greater credence to the idea that ultimately, the state is reluctant to confront increasingly mainstream manifestations of extremism, either out of fear or the misguided belief that these actors represent valuable political constituencies or even strategic assets to be deployed to bolster the ideological and strategic imperatives of the powers-that-be. This can only be contrasted with the vicious enthusiasm with which the same government and its assorted agencies and institutions pursue, persecute, and punish activists and intellectuals who question the status quo from a more progressive political orientation. For years, analysts have wondered about Pakistan’s creeping ‘Talibanization’, worrying about how the inaction of the state will inevitably lead to the spread violent and extremist ideas in society. Unfortunately, as events like the TLY sit-in become more frequent, this might have already happened.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.