IT was too outrageous an outburst for anyone to defend. So it is not surprising that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif distanced himself from his son-in-law’s hate speech on the floor of the National Assembly. The august house had perhaps never witnessed such bigotry targeting one of the most vulnerable religious communities in the country.
Equally troubling was the silence on both sides of the aisle, as no one found the courage to rebut Capt Safdar disrespecting national heroes because of their religious belief. If that were not enough, he led some of his supporters to raise slogans outside the hall hailing Mumtaz Qadri, a convicted assassin. But no action was taken against them for violating the sanctity of parliament.
It took days for the ruling party leadership to disown the rant though apologetically. The opposition leaders, who otherwise would not miss out on any opportunity to blast the government, remained largely quiet. Some even tacitly condoned the call for the expulsion of members of the community from the armed forces and other government departments.
Playing the religion and sectarian card is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways.
All this shows how deeply entrenched religious bigotry is in our political culture. Even those aware of the consequences of this growing religious intolerance do not dare speak out, perhaps out of fear of a backlash. The increasing use of religion as a political tool is alarming. In fact, what happened in the National Assembly last week was a manifestation of a deeper malaise.
There appears a clear political motive behind Capt Safdar’s tirade on the floor of the house. Although known for his extremist sectarian views that he has often demonstrated at public rallies, his remarks had more sinister connotations in the context of the present political crisis fuelled by the ouster of his father-in-law, with the MNA himself facing trial by the accountability court.
Perhaps his remarks were also meant to appease the religious right, which has been up in arms against the government for unwittingly omitting from the oath the article on the finality of the Prophet (PBUH) in the recently passed election law. The former captain went too far on the issue to the embarrassment of his own party that also saw some opposition leaders whipping up religious sentiments on the oversight that was immediately rectified by the government.
The use of religion as a propaganda tool against political rivals invariably comes back to haunt them — this is a lesson our politicians have failed to learn. Unfortunately, we have failed to define the limits of freedom of speech or action fuelling intolerance.
Provocative and hate speeches from the pulpits and even at political rallies are tolerated by the state that has increasingly become hostage to religious extremists. Even top government officials are threatened with death by extremist clerics for not conforming to their sectarian views.
One glaring example of hate-based political campaigns was witnessed in the recent NA-120 by-election in Lahore, that saw the rise of a new radical sectarian group Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah. Led by a cleric notorious for his firebrand hate speeches, TLY ran its campaign in the name of Mumtaz Qadri. It vowed to take revenge for Qadri’s execution and publicly justified murder in the name of religion.
But nothing was done to stop that hate campaign. Not long ago, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the founder of TLY, declared Nawaz Sharif a blasphemer for making a speech at the Hindu celebration of Holi. Rizvi’s incitement to violence is still posted on social media.
The cleric was free to run the campaign for his candidate who received close to 8,000 votes, standing third after the PML-N and the PTI. Encouraged by the outcome in the Lahore by-election, TLY now plans to participate in the coming general elections.
If allowed to do so, it would strengthen an extremely dangerous sectarian-based politics that would threaten the democratic process in the country.
Ironically, the Assembly speech was not very different from the vitriolic sermons delivered by radical clerics like Rizvi. Electronic and social media, too, have hugely contributed to propagating extremist ideology and bigotry, thus serving the objectives of radical outfits like the TLY. But it is mainly the weakness of the state that has led to the non-enforcement of the law. It is also expected of mainstream political parties not to exploit religious sentiments for short-term political gains.
Finding itself at the receiving end in the NA-120 by-election, the PML-N may have forgotten that it also used the Lal Masjid operation to mobilise support for the 2008 elections. The incident and casualty figures were exaggerated to whip up religious sentiments. That may have helped the party gain a few more seats, but that also strengthened the violent narrative of the militant groups that are now challenging the state’s authority.
Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who has been leading the anti-government campaign on the matter of the oversight in the electoral act, must not forget that it was the Lal Masjid issue raised by his opponent that cost him his seat in the 2008 elections. The lesson to learn is that playing the religion and sectarian card is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. The ultimate beneficiaries of this politics of hate are the extremist groups who present the greatest threat to the democratic process and national security.
Ahsan Iqbal, the interior minister, is right that the trend of issuing decrees and inciting violence against any group or individual will turn the country into a battlefield. He has also promised to take action against hate-mongers posting fatwas on social networking sites under the cyber crime laws.
But these solemn declarations are not enough; it is time for action now. As he said, there is a need for putting one’s own house in order. However, it remains to be seen when that process will start. It was a positive move by the PML-N leaders to disown the speech. But it is also imperative to purge the ranks of bigotry.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2017