Using the siege mentality
The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) managed to hold the capital city and parts of other cities in Punjab hostage for a period of 21 days. The protests and sit-ins have ceased with the agreement between the government and the TLY, following Law Minister Zahid Hamid’s resignation on November 27.
The debacle highlighted that the manipulation of religious ideology is the weapon of choice for political parties and religious groups on the fringes to gain leverage and influence over competitors. The irony is that, despite being an Islamic state, the ‘Islam is under siege’ narrative continues to haunt Pakistan.
This storyline has been employed by different Deobandi organisations periodically in order to grant more legitimacy to their cause. For instance, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) have regularly invoked the threat to Islam clause. The TLY’s foundations rest on similar ideals. The party was initially labelled as the ‘Movement to Free Mumtaz Qadri’, later changing its name and broadening the agenda to advocate social justice, free healthcare and education while ‘defending Islam’.
The recent NA-120 by-elections after Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal are evidence to the traction of the defending Islam narrative. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa linked political party, Milli Muslim league (MML) won 5 percent of votes in Lahore, while the TLY managed to gain 7,000 votes despite being new to the political scenario. The TLY effectively used the religion card to break the PML-N’s voter bank, decreasing their votes from 61 percent to 49.3 percent since the 2013 elections.
However, right-wing religious organisations and terrorist groups aren’t the only one’s backing the rhetoric of ‘endangered Islam’. The recent fiasco showed the PTI speaking in support of the TLY’s agenda and asking for the resignation of the law minister. The PAT’s Tahirul Qadri released a similar statement, asserting that those who “tinkered with the law regarding the finality of Prophethood should be send home and meted out exemplary punishment.” Mainstream political parties have regularly vowed to protect Islam in fear of alienating their conservative voter base and agitating the religious clergy.
The TLY has managed to lionise and venerate the killer of late Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer; Mumtaz Qadri was arrested in 2011 and executed last year. In fact, research indicates that organisations venerating a slain leader and constructing beleaguered accounts of a threat to their identity are more likely to engage in violence and ‘us versus them’ rhetoric. Multiple reports of terrorist and extremist organisations tapping in on the educated urban demographic have emerged since 2015. Similarly, the TLY has attracted a steady following of the youth, who have been sporting his notorious hairstyle and kohl-rimmed eyes in hopes to imbibe their hero and ‘defend Islam’. Dangerous precedents are being set when a segment of the youth is effectively idolising a man who is a symbol of intolerance.
The rise of social media has amplified the ‘Islam under siege’ narrative in recent years. In 2012, the protracted use of social media was seen in riots in different countries after a video denigrating the Prophet (pbuh) was released on YouTube. This incident triggered protests in Pakistan, and it is unlikely that such events would have unfolded in the country without the proliferation of social media. The TLY has utilised social media and Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s following has developed drastically owing to the rapid spread of his lectures and videos.
One of Rizvi’s speeches, with more than 250,000 viewers, showed him speaking in fiery Punjabi against the minor change in the election oath. In the same video and other posts, he called on firebrands and zealots seeking to ‘protect Islam’ to join the protests. In order to prevent an explosion of the victimhood narrative and further mobilisation the government shut down spcial media sites after launching an operation against the protesters.
It is unlikely that the TLY’s rhetoric of defending Islam will lead to a large-scale support for ultra-religious parties, or increase their voter base considerably. But, it will harness their ‘street power’, furthering divisions along sectarian and religious lines in a society that remains heavily fragmented. In fact, the TLY’s agenda also advocates taking a stricter stance against other religious sects while seeking Shariah in Pakistan.
Nothing is stopping the TLY from becoming a harbinger of mob violence, vigilantism and furthering radicalism within the Barelvi sect that has traditionally been known for its moderate ideals. In fact, the strategic manipulation of Islam is only the beginning in the two-way struggle for power between the government and right-wing and extremist organisations that will continue vying for supporters and dominance.
The writer is a senior analyst at the SRajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.