The moment of truth

When you sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind. One wonders if this is a thought that has crossed the mind of the powers-that-be as protests erupt across Pakistan’s cities in response to the crackdown on the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah’s (TLY) sit-in at the Faizabad Interchange connecting Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Things are still in flux at the time of writing this column; a media blackout has been imposed by PEMRA, but reports suggest that the law enforcement agencies and TLY activists are currently engaged in running street battles in the Twin Cities, even as TLY supporters in Lahore, Karachi, and Peshawar have started blocking the main arteries of these cities.

How has it come to this? How is it that a few thousand ‘protestors’ can hold an entire country hostage for weeks, and bring the entire country to a standstill? How can a relatively new political organization mobilize so quickly and effectively that the government is left doing little more than contemplating its own impotence? Perhaps most importantly of all, why is that the TLY appears to enjoy so much popular support?

First things first. As I argued last week, it is blatantly obvious that the TLY’s motivations have little to do with defending the sanctity of Islam. As the Supreme Court itself has noted, the TLY’s agenda appears to be purely political, using the emotive issue of blasphemy to mobilize support in the months leading up to the 2018 general elections. In trying to stave off the threat posed by more visible Deobandi organizations, and in its attempts to capture the PML-N’s religious vote bank in Punjab, the TLY has chosen to fan the flames of religious bigotry to raise its own profile and that of its odious leader. However, a question that needs to be asked is whether the TLY is acting on its own or enjoys the support of other players in the political arena and potentially within the establishment itself. After all, it is precisely these elements that would stand to benefit most from a weakened PML-N; already reeling from the proceedings against Nawaz Sharif, a PML-N scarred from its confrontation with the TLY would enter the 2018 elections in a much weaker position than might have been expected just a few months ago. Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that a few thousand protestors would be able to occupy one of the country’s busiest roads without some behind-the-scenes assistance. Again, as the Supreme Court itself has observed when commenting on the ISI’s report on the Faizabad sit-in, it is curious that there appears to be no evidence on the source of funds going to the TLY, or regarding the mechanisms through which it has been able to feed and look after its supporters while simultaneously running a relatively sophisticated media and broadcasting operation. While it is possible that the organization possesses the wherewithal to do this on its own, itself a frightening prospect, something is not quite right about this entire picture.

Regardless of who, if anyone, has played a role in fomenting this latest round of unrest and conflict, what is perhaps most disturbing about the TLY’s campaign is the level of support it appears to enjoy, as well as the organizational capacity it seemingly has, both of which are evinced by the speed with which it has been able to launch protests across the country in response to the crackdown in Islamabad. Here, there are two different causal factors that bear mentioning. Firstly, it is not coincidental that the TLY has chosen to focus on blasphemy and the Finality of Prophethood as its cause celebre. Ever since Zia-ul-Haq amended the blasphemy law to make it easier to level allegations of blasphemy, the issue has repeatedly been used by the Religious Right to energize its supporters, with matters coming to a head around the assassination of Salman Taseer and subsequent execution of his murderer, Mumtaz Qadri. The same is true regarding debates around the Finality of Prophethood; anti-Ahmadi discrimination has an unfortunately long history in Pakistan, and it is once again an issue that has been used repeatedly to pressurize governments and mobilize religious sentiment. In both instance, Islam has been used as a rallying cry by cynical opportunists who seek to manipulate their supporters for their own political gain.

Secondly, it must also be recognized that the power and visibility of the TLY and similar groups is the direct result of the way in which they have been accommodated by the state in years past. Military and democratic governments, generals and politicians alike have long been willing to enter into pacts with these extremist elements, either out of political expediency, flawed strategic reasoning, or even fear, and have simply failed to act against a growing threat to peace, stability, and order in Pakistan. The slow religious radicalization of Pakistan’s young people has proceeded unchecked, sometimes even encouraged by the powers-that-be (as an antidote to, for example, ethnic separatism), and the scenes we are now witnessing on the streets of the country are simply the logical conclusion of this process. The genie of extremism has been out of the bottle for a long time, and it is not at all clear that it will be possible to contain it now that it is loose.

Consider, for example, the dominant narrative around blasphemy. According to the TLY and other extremist organizations, blasphemy (or indeed any action they deem to be un-Islamic) justifies any actions that a ‘believer’ may take against it, including murder. According to this logic, the law of the land and the legitimacy of the state and its institutions are both secondary to the private religious beliefs and inclinations of those who might happen to subscribe to ideologies of the kind promoted by the TLY. Consider also how cynical and opportunistic leaders, political parties, media networks, and elements of various state institutions, have been happy and willing to accept and even encourage this narrative. As such, should anyone be surprised that the TLY and its followers believe in their right to act and protest as they have? More worryingly, is it even possible to battle this narrative given how the entire discourse around Islam now appears to have been hijacked by these zealots and bigots? Whatever else may or may not happen in the aftermath of Faizabad, there are dark times ahead.


The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

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