I

t is a pattern that has become all too familiar. An utterly innocuous occurrence, one that would pass without any mention whatsoever in virtually any other part of the world, ignites a moral panic of apocalyptic proportions, sending with raging fanatics frothily baying for the blood of those whose actions they take exception too. Here in the Land of the Pure, the threats and hate speech directed towards those accused of transgressing the country’s puritan religious boundaries enter the public discourse without hindrance, with the self-appointed guardians of Pakistan’s faith and moral fabric remaining untroubled by the remote possibility that they might receive as much as a slap on the wrist in response to their clear incitement to violence. The government remains a silent spectator, choosing to enforce its writ elsewhere knowing that there are some fights it cannot even start, let alone win.

Earlier this month, a group of students from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) accompanied one of their professors on a visit to Rabwah, the small Punjabi town that is the headquarters of Pakistan’s Ahmedi community. The purpose of this visit was simple; the aim was to express solidarity for a marginalised group of citizens who have been at the receiving end of state-sponsored discrimination for decades. Pictures of this visit were circulated widely on social media, resulting in what has now become an inevitable, if deeply regrettable, backlash. Activists and supporters of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) quickly took to accusing the students and their professor of all manner of ‘crimes’; sympathizing with ‘non-believers’, blasphemy, and even treason. Khadim Rizvi, the leader of the TLP, himself recorded a statement in which he lambasted the students for their visit and threatened them, suggesting that they leave Pakistan if they wanted to show solidarity with Ahmedis.

It goes without saying that this latest show of bigotry by the religious right’s most vocal and visible movement (at present) is utterly unsurprising and is yet another symptom of the intolerance that now characterises the entire debate about religion and minorities in Pakistan. Hot on the entire Atif Mian debacle just two months ago, when the new PTI government was forced to backtrack on the appointment of one of the world’s leading economists just because he is an Ahmedi, it is clear that the parochial, violent, and fundamentally intolerant brand of Islam practiced by the TLP and its ilk is now mainstream more than it has ever been before. Those who deviate from the beliefs of these groups are branded heretics and therefore deserving of any violence that might be directed their way, and the same is held true for those who happen to express any sympathy for those victimised by these attitudes. There was a time when those commenting on Pakistan warned of a ‘creeping Talibanisation’ that would slowly engulf the country. In many respects, this has now come to pass.

Consider, for example, broader context within which the TLP and related groups engage in advocating violence and propagating hate speech. In the past year alone, numerous politicians have been hauled before courts and sentenced to jail, bureaucrats and businessmen have suffered a similar fate, and a Supreme Court exercising almost unlimited power has asserted its authority forcefully and repeatedly in a number of areas pertaining to the public interest. At the same time, the country’s security forces and civilian administration continue to use the sweeping powers at their disposal to clamp down on dissent and protest; people go missing, others are imprisoned, media houses are muzzled, activists on the internet are tracked down, and so on. Accusations of treason and anti-state activity are levelled at the drop of a hat, the writ of the state is rapidly imposed as and when required, and all this is done in the name of national security.

Yet, when it comes to the TLP, nary a word of protest emerges from the lips of those in power. Khadim Rizvi is not just guilty of threatening some university students with violence; this is a man who has repeatedly and gleefully done the same to all manner of public luminaries, up to and including elements of the military establishment and members of the superior judiciary. Yet, when uttering threats inviting violence upon judges, or hurling insults ridiculing the country’s political and military elite, Rizvi and his supporters do not face any repercussions for their actions even when there is a clear precedent for doing something. After all, there is currently an entire laundry list of politicians facing contempt and treason charges in court for saying things that, if anything, are not nearly as inflammatory as the words uttered by the leading lights of the TLP.

There are only two unfortunate conclusions that can be drawn from all of this. Either the state does not wish to restrain or sanction the TLP, or it cannot do so. If the former is true, the implication is that the TLP has some value for the powers-that-be, and that the continuous stream of threats and insults coming from the organization is considered to be a small price to pay for its utility as a pressure group. If the latter is correct, it is perhaps a more frightening scenario as it suggests that even if the state wished to do something, it cannot for fear of the consequences, either in terms of widespread protests, or violence, or both. Either way, it is clear that groups like the TLP are likely to remain a party of Pakistan’s broader body politic for some time to come, and the violence they promise to visit upon students, activists, and others will remain an ever-present feature of life in the Land of the Pure.

 

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

 hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk