The agreement signed with Khadim Hussain Rizvi to end the Faizabad sit-in marks a new low in Pakistan’s history of appeasing the religious right groups. Both state and society have paid an astronomical price in blood and treasure for this appeasement. Yet, this reckless practice continues.
Four broad arguments provide insights into decision-making of this nature. First, weak and unpopular governments appease religious groups for political survival. When governments struggle to maintain political legitimacy, provide security and deliver economically, religious and ethnic groups become the alternative suppliers of social services and political action. These alternative actors are good at producing club-goods – both spiritual and material. Moreover, they provide a strong sense of cohesion and identity to their followers so much so that group-loyalty surpasses state-loyalty. Followers from these groups form their own communal and sectarian boundaries, fragmenting society along religious lines.
After losing its chief Nawaz Sharif in the Panama case inquiry, the PML-N government has been at its weakest. The Sharifs are facing graft probes by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Pakistan’s chief anti-corruption body. Regionally, the US is breathing down Islamabad’s neck to do more to facilitate reconciliation in Afghanistan. Domestically, the judiciary has been pressurising the government over multiple issues, while political opposition inside and outside parliament is increasing.
Second, governments pander to religious groups if they have a vested interest. From the start, the PML-N viewed the Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasul Allah’s sit-in as a conspiracy against the party to deprive it of its Barelvi vote-bank ahead of the 2018 elections. To keep its Barelvi vote-bank intact, the PML-N government did not take any action against the protesters for 21 days, allowing them to fortify their position at Faizabad, gather stones and sticks, create their check posts and swell their numbers by the thousands. Court orders to clear the Islamabad Highway finally compelled the government to respond.
Third, weak governments co-opt religious groups to shore up their political and ideological legitimacy. Pakistan never had a stable political order. As a result, democracy as a system of governance could not take roots in the country, leaving successive civilian regimes vulnerable to popular dissent. Due to the faith in religious groups in Pakistan, their co-option has been a source of ideological legitimacy for civilian governments.
Four, confessional nation-states whose national philosophy is constructed along religious lines find it difficult to reform laws and policies that involve religion. They face fierce opposition by religious-political groups inside and outside parliament to this end. Proposed amendments to such laws and policies are viewed as a disservice to Islam. Pressure groups employ the ‘Islam in danger’ narrative to push back against the government and deter legal reforms concerning religious issues.
Notwithstanding the theological merits and demerits, the Faizabad sit-in and the government’s response are disturbing on several levels. First, TLY supremo Rizvi has been successful in bringing the TLY from the margins to the centre-stage, turning a new chapter in Pakistan’s Islamisation. He has politicised the Barelvi identity along narrow sub-sectarian lines using the Khatam-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) narrative. The TLY is a by-product of political turbulence and rapid social transformations in Pakistan
During the Faizabad sit-in, the TLY speeches, statements and social media campaigns have sharply criticised the Ahmadiyya community and the rival Sunni sub-sect, the Deobandis. So, the TLY is not only creating a contradistinction for its Barelvi brand of Islamism but it is also outbidding its rival Deobandis.
Barelvis constitute the largest portion of Sunni Muslims in Pakistan. Historically, the Barelvi faith, which identified with Sufism, has been accommodative, tolerant and not particularly authoritarian about its religiosity. This has allowed them to maintain good relations with other Islamic sects and faiths. Arguably, these dynamics can change when the majority faith feels insecure due to some self-imagined and perceived threat. This can result in self-destruction, intellectual stagnation, religious and new divisions. The Rizvi-Jalai split within the TLY is a case in point.
The most disturbing trend emanating from the Faizabad sit-in is the weaponisation of speech and fatwa. The intolerance in discussions involving religious matters, particularly differences of opinion, has become border line in public and social media discourses. In such a hostile environment, it is difficult to hold rational debates on religious matters because discussions turn into polemics devoid of substance and nuance. Differing opinions and disagreement with the majority’s beliefs can result in the dissenter being branded as an apostate or non-believer.
Finally, religious politics in Pakistan has moved away from pan-Islamism to narrow sectarianism with the entry of new religious-political groups. When new religious groups enter into activism, they interact with public and political life in several ways. Some of them become socially and politically controversial while others attain some level of recognition. At times, they push the boundaries of the system and refuse to conform to laws that they believe infringe their liberty.
The newly established political groupings such as the Rah-e-Haq party (a political front of the Ahle-Sunnat Wal-Jamat, a sectarian group), Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen (MWM) and the TLY are shrinking the support base of Pakistan’s mainstream religious-political parties. These outfits are gaining traction among their followers. This may not be fully reflected in the upcoming elections but their social and religious clout cannot be underestimated. Their influence creates and recreates sectarian identities and political agendas with the changing circumstances.
The appeasement of the religious right has had catastrophic effects on Pakistan’s social ethos and religious landscape. It has emboldened radical groups to expand their space in society. Without improving governance credentials, service delivery and democratic institutionalisation, the Pakistani state will remain hostage to such extra-parliamentary pressures.
The writer is an associate researchfellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.