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November 11, 2018

Fruits of appeasement


November 11, 2018

Following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to acquit Aasia Bibi (who spent eight years on death row) in a blasphemy case, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) locked down the country’s major cities and brought normal life to a standstill.

The TLP demanded the government to place Aasia Bibi’s name on the ECL and file a review petition in the SC to reverse the decision. The TLP’s rabblerousing clerics provoked open mutiny and issued threats against the three SC judges who had given the verdict.

Initially, the Imran Khan-led PTI government took a stern notice of the seditious remarks against the country’s institutions. It warned the protesters not to challenge the writ of the state. Three days later, notwithstanding the initial blazing response, the government capitulated and signed an agreement with the TLP, resulting in an end to nation-wide protests.

However, this is not the first time that a Pakistani government has appeased the religious right. Since Pakistan’s inception, successive civilian and military regimes have co-opted the religious right to gain ideological legitimacy, improve their public image and neutralise political competition from religious groups. The military regimes kowtowed to the religio-political groups to undermine secular parties. Unfortunately, this appeasement policy has empowered religious groups to such an extent that they have dictated policymaking from outside parliament through agitation.

In 1949, Pakistan’s legislative assembly adopted the Objectives Resolution – a guideline for constitution-making – which mandated that no law or policy contrary to Islamic teachings could be enacted in the country. In the 1970s, the then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto passed the Second Constitutional Amendment to appease a coalition of religious-political parties that had threatened to bring down his government.

Likewise, military dictator Ziaul Haq heavily relied on religious parties for political legitimacy and power perpetuation. Similarly, General Pervez Musharraf signed several deals with militant groups to restore peace. These agreements emboldened the militants and allowed them time and space to increase their influence in society.

In 2009, the PPP signed a pact with the extremist cleric, Sufi Muhammad of Tehreek-e-Nifaaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM). A few days later, Sufi Muhammad declared Pakistan’s parliament and judiciary un-Islamic and “systems of infidels.” The nature of Nawaz Sharif government’s deal with the TLP in November 2017 to end the sit-in is no different from the agreement signed between the TLP and the PTI government on November 2, 2018.

The continuous appeasement of the religious right seems to be neutralising Pakistan’s hard-earned gains against violent extremism after the tragic Army Public School attack in Peshawar in December 2014. Co-option has allowed these groups to increase their influence in society – with catastrophic effects for inter and intra-faith harmony in Pakistan.

Pakistan will have to reconsider its policy of mainstreaming radical Islamist groups into politics. Various radical groups have been allowed to join politics with the hope of moderating their hard-line ideological outlooks. However, this amounts to turning the logic of reintegration approach on its head. Radical and extremist groups are reintegrated into politics after they moderate their views and reform their extremist ideologies. Put differently, moderation is a prerequisite, not an outcome of reintegration.

Keeping the above in view, the TLP is a classic case of what is wrong with Pakistan’s approach to preventing and countering violent extremism. The two agreements signed with the TLP in November 2017 and November 2018, as well as allowing it to register as a political party and contest general elections, have centre-staged a right-wing group that was on the fringes of politics. In other words, Pakistan’s poorly-thought approach has mainstreamed extremism instead of overcoming it.

The TLP’s genesis lies in the revival of Barelvi politics in Pakistan. The TLP emerged in 2011 as a resistance movement to free Mumtaz Qadri, the convicted assassin of former governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer. Following Qadri’s execution, the TLP transformed itself into a political party with a sharp sectarian bent.

In the 2018 general elections, the TLP has emerged as Pakistan’s fifth largest political party in terms of numbers of vote received (2.2 million), surpassing established religious-political parties in political weight and electoral performance. The party has a devout membership which is growing in numbers. And social media has further expanded the party’s outreach.

The TLP has positioned itself in Pakistan’s religious-political landscape as the self-appointed protector of the blasphemy laws. From vigilante and mob violence, the TLP has attained the capability of perpetrating organised violence at a large scale. The three-day sit-in this month cost Pakistan’s flagging economy Rs100 billion to Rs120 billion.

The five-point agreement signed between the PTI government and the TLP has endorsed its extremist narrative and entrenched it in Pakistan’s political landscape. The agreement is so vaguely worded that both sides are interpreting it differently even before the ink has dried. Not only were the TLP’s demands accepted, it also got away with the seditious speeches and threats its leaders had hurled at politicians and institutional heads. Ironically, for all its sins and crimes, the TLP only tendered a half-hearted, one-liner of an apology for “hurting anyone’s sentiments or causing inconvenience without reason.”

Indubitably, the threshold for religious intolerance has become dangerously low in Pakistan. A slight provocation involving religious sentiments can quickly spill over into violence. The boundaries of hate and bigotry have expanded, as the state seems to be on the retreat. The never-ending appeasement policy of the state has empowered extremist groups to such an extent that now they are openly challenging and defying decisions of the superior judiciary and challenging the writ of the state.

Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government have started off on a wrong footing in dealing with the challenge of violent extremism in Pakistan. In his first brush with the extremists, Khan had capitulated to the pressure leading to the resignation of Atif Mian, a Princeton economist, as an economic adviser.

Pakistan will continue to remain hostage to blackmail tactics by extremist groups and Khan’s dream of ‘Naya Pakistan’ will remain elusive as long as the policy of appeasement does not stop. If the state does not uphold and enforce rule of law against such radical groups, nothing will be left but a charred edifice of a capitulating state.

The writer is an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

Email: [email protected]

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