IT all started with just few hundred zealots blocking Islamabad’s main highway. Now into its third week and with thousands more joining in, the blockade has virtually brought the administration to its knees. Pampering and pleading have failed to move the defiant clerics; even the court order to end the siege has fallen on deaf ears. The paralysis of the state has given the fanatics a greater sense of empowerment.
What is more troubling is that the flames of bigotry are sweeping across other parts of the country creating a dangerous confluence of religion and politics. The controversy over the missing oath that has apparently been exploited by the newly formed Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) to whip up religious sentiments has turned into more of a political issue bringing the beleaguered government under severe pressure.
It is the fear of a blowback that seems to have limited the option of using force. The repeated extension of deadlines and seeking the help of religious leaders to end the stand-off demonstrate the helplessness of the administration in a midst of a political crisis. The political fallout of the 2007 Lal Masjid military operation and the 2014 Model Town police action keeps haunting the embattled government.
But giving in to the irrational demands of a political-religious group would further weaken the authority of the government and the state. The administration has failed to learn from the consequences of the policy of appeasement and the delayed action against the Lal Masjid militants. Undoubtedly, there would have been no need for such massive use of force had the then military-led government acted a year earlier when the vigilante squads organised by Lal Masjid clerics went on the rampage. The police could have easily tackled the matter then without much bloodshed.
The authorities have not learnt from the consequences of the policy of appeasement.
It may not be appropriate to draw a parallel between the two situations. But it would have certainly been much easier for law-enforcement agencies to remove a few hundred protesters when they started to block the road earlier this month. There was certainly no groundswell of support for the unruly mob; in fact, there has been huge public outrage over the blockade. But that initial dithering on the part of the administration encouraged some other groups to join the siege, making the situation much more volatile.
It was certainly not a spontaneous move when the protesters led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi marched into Islamabad travelling all the way from Lahore. There seems to be a clear plan behind the siege. It is quite intriguing why the Punjab government did not stop the TLY supporters despite the fact that the issue of the missing clause about the finality of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had already been resolved.
It is quite evident that some senior members of the ruling PML-N also played a role by stoking the controversy because of political expediency. Some of the opposition party leaders have also jumped into the fray for their own vested political interests. Then questions have also been raised about whether the newly formed TLY enjoys tacit support of some intelligence agencies to undercut the PML-N vote bank. All these factors have created a monster and stoked the flames of bigotry that may burn down their own homes.
Notwithstanding the rise of religious extremism in the country, this new phenomenon spearheaded by clerics like Khadim Hussain Rizvi is more dangerous as it evokes wider emotional appeal among the less-educated populace. The filthy language used by these clerics and the open incitement to violence has made the lives of not only members of minority religious communities but also moderate Muslims more vulnerable to mob violence.
In his landmark report on the 1953 Lahore religious riots former chief justice Muhammad Munir wrote: “…[P]rovided you can persuade the masses to believe that something they are asked to do is religiously right or enjoined by religion, you can set them to any course of action, regardless of all considerations of discipline, loyalty, decency, morality or civic sense.”
This applies to present-day Pakistan that has rightly been described as among the most intolerant nations in the world. In this overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country, everyone’s faith is being questioned. The slightest perceived deviation or allegation of blasphemy can cost one his/her life. It reminds one of the Inquisition in mediaeval Europe.
Just listen to the speeches of Rizvi and his fellow clerics being live-streamed on social media to understand the kind of vitriol being spewed in the name of religion. The law of the land is certainly not applied to these merchants of hate who are holding the nation hostage.
It is pathetic that the law minister has to prove his allegiance to faith and beg forgiveness for an oversight for which he was not directly responsible. The demand for his resignation is not just about his person but the sanctity of parliament. Conceding to this demand would further strengthen these extremist forces that consider themselves above the law.
For sure, efforts must be made to bring this blockade to a peaceful end. But the government must not allow any group to challenge the state’s authority. One cannot understand the administration’s dithering despite the order of the Islamabad High Court to clear the siege. The order declared that no group could be allowed to infringe upon the rights of the people or disrupt the administration.
Indeed, it is primarily the responsibility of the government to protect the rights of the people and uphold the rule of law. But the issue of extremism must also be the concern of the state and other stakeholders in the democratic setup. There is a need for a joint effort to deal with this rising menace that threatens the national fabric.
The use of religion as a policy tool by the state and its confluence with politics has divided the nation along sectarian lines and fuelled bigotry. The ongoing siege of the capital presents a serious challenge to not only the government but also the state.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2017