The assassination attempt on Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal on Sunday in his home constituency at Narowal during a corner meeting provides a bleak assessment of the country today and certainly does not augur well for the coming election. With the arrested culprit, 21-year-old Abid Hussain, having said to be affiliated with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik, it is obvious that such groups present a new and extremely dangerous threat to our political landscape. The shooter has reportedly told authorities that he carried out the attack because of the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat issue. Just so as to refresh our memories, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik is the right-wing extremist group which had held Islamabad hostage last year over a change in the election oath; eventually the group secured the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid in an agreement with the state.
At the time, many had warned that the surrender to the right-wing group was never going to be enough and that, rather than being sated, they would only be emboldened. Although the Tehreek-e-Labbaik’s Khadim Hussain Rizvi has denied his organisation had anything to do with the attack on Ahsan Iqbal, the fact is that the methods used by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik clearly encouraged the use of violence; the protest led by Khadim Rizvi himself at Faizabad set the pattern for this. Our political leadership and all others with any influence in the country need to consider how to manage the current environment complicated by the emergence of new forces which act on the basis of their own extremist beliefs with little logic and little rational support. The fact that these forces exist outside the framework of regular religious parties or political groups means that they are harder to bring under control.
Others who are complicit in creating the conditions for such groups to thrive – and, consequently, for such attacks as the one on Ahsan Iqbal – most definitely include the political parties who demagogued on the Khatm-e-Nabuwwat issue to score points against the government. These parties know how inflaming religious passions can endanger lives – and yet they persisted. False accusations of blasphemy have soared in recent years, with often lethal consequences for those who are accused. From Salmaan Taseer to Mashal Khan, we know how baseless blasphemy accusations can be lethal. Ahsan Iqbal was lucky to survive on Sunday but, if we keep following our current trajectory, the next person may not be as lucky. A line in the sand needs to be drawn. No longer should groups or parties that encourage and spread hate speech be allowed to dictate the terms of debate. Any political parties that hop on their bandwagon should also be shunned. Such groups and parties have blood on their hands and cannot be treated as legitimate in any way.
Beyond the threat of physical harm and political extremism, such violence also creates another problem. There had been fears that Election 2018 could turn out to be violent; the attack on Ahsan Iqbal is an ill omen of exactly that and will likely make political parties somewhat weary of holding the corner meetings that form the foundation point for any electoral campaigns. As authorities assess the situation, they must also consider security arrangements and other plans to avert further acts of violence. An election held in a climate of fear is not a free and fair election, particularly with some political parties more vulnerable to such attacks. We have lost too many leaders to bullets and bombs in the past. Our democracy can simply not survive further bloodshed or any further violence.