POLITICS: PLAYING WITH FIRE

22 Nov 2020

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Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan protesters set fire to posters of French president Macron | AP
Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan protesters set fire to posters of French president Macron | AP

Last Sunday saw the Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP) leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi resume his pilgrimages of protest to Islamabad.

They’ve become a familiar sight by now. He was there in 2017, protesting a change in the oath-taking language of the Elections Bill. His party had confrontations with the police, accompanied by tear gas and water cannons, then there was a resignation of the then incumbent law minister to quieten things down. He was there in 2018, after the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row over alleged blasphemy. Rizvi relented after the presiding government promised that the Supreme Court would review the acquittal and Asia Bibi would be put on the Exit Control List. Both things didn’t happen — she was flown out of the country, out of concerns of safety for her continued well-being.

The protests this time round are against French President Emmanuel Macron’s statements insisting that the right to blaspheme is freedom of speech. More shelling, more tear gas, more water cannons followed; as did threats to invade the Diplomatic Enclave and storm the French embassy. As in the previous episodes, only local police ended up getting hurt, while life in Islamabad was brought to a standstill, with cellular services and traffic remained blocked for about 30 hours. As of writing this piece, Rizvi’s party claims to have reached an agreement with the government to legislate the expulsion of the French ambassador from Pakistan, to not appoint our own ambassador to France and to boycott French products from government use.

Like the Asia Bibi agreement previously, these seem like token agreements that will not be followed through. Pakistan doesn’t have an ambassador in France to begin with, and no legislation or discussion in parliament is needed to expel the French ambassador from these borders. The French embassy has been an important ally in getting trade concessions from the European Union and France remains an important source of military contracts. Any diplomatic detachments from France are unlikely.

But regardless of whether these agreements hold any legal weight or are swept under the rug of history, the question that everyone is asking is simply, why? Why is the state giving the impression of entertaining an incendiary Islamist party at all?

A party that has issued death threats to the judges who acquitted Asia Bibi and produced a would-be assassin who tried killing our former interior minister. A party whose leader the government itself arrested two years ago for disturbing public order and challenging the writ of the state. Yet, here is his group of incendiaries causing chaos and bedlam again.

Why does the state give the impression of entertaining an incendiary extremist party such as the TLP at all?

Political analysts and commentators are baffled as to how — when the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement is blocked access to public spaces and disbarred from peaceful assembly, when ‘overzealous’ officers can abduct an inspector general of police in Sindh over political demonstrations in Karachi — can the security apparatus of the state not manage to thwart religious hardliners from congregating in the nation’s capital multiple times a year? In a country where one can’t even sneeze without a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from intelligence agencies, why was there a violent assembly promoting hatred in Islamabad?

The alleged agreement between the TLP and the government | Twitter
The alleged agreement between the TLP and the government | Twitter

Questions on the state’s complicity in the mainstreaming and facilitation of religious hardliners aren’t new. Before the new millennium rolled around, these sort of fanatical rallies in major cities were the forté of Deobandi sectarian groups instead of Barelvi ones. Back in 1993, the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) carried out a massive caravan to Islamabad, protesting perceived Shia infractions against Sunni historical figures. In 1997, they stormed various Iranian diplomatic offices and cultural centres in Pakistan, just as TLP planned to invade the Diplomatic Enclave. Even the language used has similarities. Back then it was Namoos-i-Sahaba [Honour of the Companions of the Prophet (PBUH)] — a demand for legislating against Shia customs and speech. Today, it’s Namoos-i-Risalat [Honour of the Prophet (PBUH)]. The stated form of aggrievement is the same in both cases: blasphemy. The SSP were granted political relevance and involvement, even as they carried out sectarian killings across Punjab.

So we’ve had this dance with death before.

The SSP were just one of a litany of Deobandi extremist organisations whom generals Hamid Gul, Asad Durrani and their ilk vaguely alluded to as being ‘our boys’ — extremists in spirit but loyalists in nature, who can help the insurgency in India-held Kashmir and embed themselves with the Afghan Taliban to secure the western front.

But then the twin towers fell in New York and the association between Deobandi hardliners and the Taliban became a public relations nightmare. America’s ‘war on terror’ severed many erstwhile unions, and the people that would become central figures in the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) proved that everyone is just one bad day away from declarations of autonomy. Loyalists until the day they suddenly aren’t.

I remember when Gen Pervez Musharraf started promoting Barelvi groups as the ‘soft face’ of organised Islam in Pakistan. Many on the fringes were given funding and legitimacy. I remember thinking how soft an ideology advocating death for blasphemy — by law or by lynching — could possibly be. I got my answer a few years later, when the ‘soft face’ went on to murder a governor. That’s where Rizvi’s TLP originates from, as frontline protesters against the judicial sentencing of the governor’s killer.

Our current interior minister Ijaz Shah, who has purportedly just signed the agreement with TLP over the France problem, was the Intelligence Bureau chief from 2004 to 2008 while this recalibration of state patronage for religious groups under Musharraf’s regime was taking place. While Deobandi groups were being banned and disbursed, Barelvi groups were being promoted. I remember a federal minister from Jhang — the Ground Zero of Deobandi sectarian militancy — telling me that he was instrumental in getting the Barelvi Dawat-i-Islami an NOC back in 2007, that resulted in the launch of their television channel a year later. Something he felt would provide his political platform against SSP some religious support.

I remember reading summaries and think -tank reports advising the United States to invest in Barelvi Islam as a foil to the militant Deobandi groups embroiled in the fallout from the ‘war on terror’. Pakistan’s new state patronage produced things such as the Sunni Ittehad Council, ostensibly to take out anti-Taliban rallies and issue fatwas condemning everything from inland terrorism to jihad against Pakistan itself. The US admitted to spending tens of thousands of dollars on the Sunni Ittehad Council in 2009.

When a peace was brokered between the sitting government and TLP in 2017, it was through the army as mediators. The Director General of Punjab Rangers at the time, was caught on camera distributing cash envelopes to protesters. He later explained that he was distributing ‘travel expenses’ to send those people just released from jail back to their homes. The Supreme Court took notice of irregular activities of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies during the first Faizabad protests. Yet, nothing has changed since then.

In the realm of statist politics, the explanations offered mostly relate to ‘nuisance value’. If you get enough people to make enough noise, you can derail other processes and movements going on at the same time. But there is a limit to the value of nuisance too. They will be back a year from now, citing another topical concern or perceived infraction against Islam. Buoyed by the positive impetus of the past.

The disturbing thing isn’t that we keep playing with fire and expect not to get burnt. It is that we believe the self-immolation serves a purpose somehow.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

He tweets @haseebasif

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 22nd, 2020