IN Pakistan, frenzied protests entailing roadblocks and violence have apparently emerged as a new way of communicating with the state. While multiple religiously inspired groups have contributed to the development of this particular protest feature, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan has taken this chaotic tactic to new heights. The TLP threat had been growing at an alarming level, and eventually the government officially banned it under the anti-terrorism laws. The government also plans to file a reference in the Supreme Court for the group’s dissolution as a political party.
The TLP has not only become an internal security threat but is also hurting Pakistan’s international image and its relations with the world. The state has been tolerating the group for many years overlooking domestic and international concerns. Certainly, the state institutions have their own assessments and calculations.
The TLP’s street saga this past week revealed the potential strength of the new leadership of the organisation and its cadre. For one, the street power of the group is still intact despite a relative decrease in its verbal ferocity or hate speech after the death of its founder Khadim Hussain Rizvi, whose memory will continue to inspire the TLP support base for a long time. But his demise may have offered the state institutions the opportunity to limit the bargaining power of the group. The assessment may have its pros and cons, but the future of such groups would depend on the state institutions’ approach towards them. If the state continues seeing these groups through a political lens they will continue thriving in one way or another. And as in the past, they will resurface, and be allowed to operate, with different names, and will continue exploiting the religious-ideological and sociocultural sensitivities of the state and society.
Therefore, it will be important to see how effectively the state enforces the ban on the TLP and its leaders. The Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, and related laws are very clear and, if applied in letter and spirit, will not allow the group to survive as a coherent organisation. But history has a different story to tell. Many organisations have continued to survive, thrive and operate in the country after being banned. The TLP might not be an exception, especially when it has a support and vote base that makes it attractive in the power corridors.
State institutions pick and choose religious groups when needed for their political purposes.
However, the TLP is merely an expression of the poor and retrogressive political and religious-ideological ‘scholarship’ in the country to which many actors and factors have contributed, ultimately nurturing a unique code of linking power to religion. The code in particular defines the relationship between state institutions and religious forces. The code only promotes a narrow worldview, discourages questioning, and insists on believing in a self-created utopia. But how to deal with a relationship if it becomes ugly or burdensome? Through negotiations or coercive means? Both ways are tricky.
Religion has become a delicate subject in the country. But if the state is willing to show resolve and enforce its authority, the situation can be turned around. It will have to make one significant change in its attitude, which is to keep religious scholarship and politics altogether separate. It is pity that the 30,000-plus religious seminaries, the Islamic studies departments in all universities and colleges, religious bodies such as the Council of Islamic Ideology as well as the teaching of Islamic studies up to graduation level have together not been able produce religious scholarship as compared to other Muslim societies, which have fewer religious institutions. Google can provide a good view of the participants of any international forum on religion, state, and society, and we can assess the capabilities of Pakistani religious scholarship against that. Only a few noteworthy Pakistani names will appear on the screen — and most of these individuals have either already left the country after receiving threats or are not part of any state-sponsored religious institution and initiative.
The economy of religious institutions has badly damaged religious scholarship in the country, and only promotes the view which suits its financial and political interests. The state has empowered them through various means, but mainly through legislation to please them or as a consequence of pressure from them. State institutions pick and choose religious groups when needed for their political purposes. They have developed a synergy at a level, where they don’t go completely against each other’s interests. State institutions are strong and whenever a group becomes strong enough and tries to fly high, state institutions trim its feathers through punitive measures as happened in the case of the TLP.
If the state wants to promote religious scholarship it can take some simple measures, starting with providing more space on media and public forums to genuine scholars. A list of a few dozen scholars from all religious sects — those, who are considered to have saner opinions and do not have political motives — can be prepared easily. They will help broaden the worldview of the public and create a challenge for the religious institutions to review their practices. The beneficiaries of the religious economy will react and will try to defame them, but if the state remains committed and protects scholarship, the insanity will certainly subside gradually.
The power corridors have been harping on the same argument of ‘narratives’ and ‘counter-narratives’ without offering a real-world solution to problems related to extremism. Narratives cannot be generated through bureaucratic policy procedures. If this were the case, plenty of policy initiatives and guidelines such as the National Action Plan and even state-sponsored fatwas like the Paigham-i-Pakistan would have already transformed society. Narratives cannot be prepared on orders. Scholarship nurtures new narratives and cultivates minds and prepares them to accept change.
However, the billion-dollar question remains: would state institutions want to promote religious scholarship and alter their comfortable relationship with religious groups? They may not want to as this would require minimising their role in politics, something that they may not be ready to do. Or will they come up with a few other tools for political manoeuvring?
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2021