Pakistan’s meek surrender to Tehreek-e-Labbaik was inevitable

It long deployed religious extremism as a policy tool. But giving too much space to religious and other extra-constitutional forces only weakens the state

“The writ of the state must run” has been the refrain that radiated out of Islamabad last week as Prime Minister Imran Khan confronted the radical Islamic movement called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan that was marching towards Islamabad with an impossible set of demands, including the expulsion of the French Ambassador. After much wringing of hands, the Pakistan government threatened to use force against the TLP and ordered the deployment of the paramilitary forces to prevent the march into Islamabad. It also hurled that ultimate charge that can be levelled against any political opponent in Pakistan — accusing the TLP of working for the Indian intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing.

Pakistan’s national security adviser, Moeed Yusuf, thundered in a tweet that no force in Pakistan can challenge the power of the state. Yusuf insisted that the “TLP has crossed the red line and exhausted the state’s patience. They have martyred policemen, destroyed public property, and continue to cause massive public disruption”. He added that the “law will take its course for each one of them and terrorists will be treated like terrorists with no leniency.”

All that bravado, however, lasted barely 48 hours. On Sunday, Islamabad apparently bought peace with the TLP. As in its frequent mobilisations over the last few years, the TLP has once again forced the Pakistani state onto the backfoot and enhanced its own political clout.

A relatively new phenomenon, the TLP, was founded in 2015 by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a firebrand cleric who died in November 2020. It now has a strong following among Pakistan’s Barelvi sect. At the heart of TLP’s ideology is the protection of the Prophet’s honour and a vigorous defence of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. In Pakistan, anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or the Prophet Muhammad can face the death penalty under blasphemy laws.

The fierce ideology of the TLP was mobilised by the establishment for political purposes to weaken the Nawaz Sharif government in 2017. Imran Khan, then in opposition, actively supported the TLP’s protests against Sharif. Some in Pakistan suspect that the TLP has been mobilised again to bring Imran Khan down a peg or two.

The TLP won enough votes in the 2018 general election, especially in Punjab, to prevent Sharif’s Muslim League from winning its traditional stronghold. Having ousted Sharif, the deep state stitched together a majority for Imran Khan in both the Punjab province as well as the National Assembly.

The TLP had no desire to spare the Imran Khan government either. It continued its repeated onslaughts against the government, mounting massive protests in April against the arrest of its leader Saad Hussain Rizvi, who succeeded his father as the head of the TLP. The TLP then set a deadline of April 20 for the expulsion of the French ambassador over its outrage about an incident of blasphemy in France.

In October 2020, Samuel Paty, a French school teacher who had shown cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in a class was beheaded by a young Islamic zealot. French President Emmanuel Macron criticised the Islamists and defended the traditional French principles of secularism. PM Imran Khan denounced Macron’s comments while the TLP organised massive countrywide protests.

The Imran government, caught in a cleft stick, could neither say no to the TLP nor accept its demands. After all, France was a major aid donor to Pakistan, Europe’s leading power, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Imran Khan’s government found a way to fudge the issue, and kick the ball into the court of the National Assembly. As the TLP returned to the streets last month, Imran Khan found himself in a pickle again.

Even as it signalled great resolve to put the TLP in its place, the Pakistani government over the weekend quickly turned to the more familiar strategy of accommodation. Saad Rizvi and other leaders of the TLP were brought out of prison to safe houses in Islamabad and the government turned to senior Barelvi clerics to negotiate with them.

The terms of the agreement between Islamabad and TLP have not been revealed to the public. Media reports suggest that the government has agreed to release Saad Rizvi and other leaders, withdraw all cases against the TLP cadre, and unfreeze their bank accounts. It is not clear if the TLP has agreed to give up the demand to expel the French ambassador.

After decades of promoting and pandering to religious groups of one kind or another, the Pakistani state now finds that its room for manoeuvre has dramatically shrunk in relation to Islamist groups. But while the state has repeatedly bowed to the pressure from right-wing religious groups, it has acted ruthlessly against a secular movement called Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.

While the TLP has been a violent force, the PTM, demanding self-respect for Pashtuns, has been utterly peaceful. If Saad Rizvi, who has been convicted of violence by the courts is treated with political deference, Ali Wazir, leader of the PTM and a member of the National Assembly has been jailed just for a speech.

Instrumentalising religious groups for political ends at home and abroad has long been a convenient strategy for the Pakistani state. At home, it has used Islam to marginalise the moderate and secular political forces. Abroad, it has nurtured and deployed militant Islamic forces to destabilise its neighbours, especially Afghanistan and India. But today, Pakistan finds the religious took-kit difficult to control. The religious forces have acquired the power to challenge their creator — the Pakistani state.

Although Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of the state, visualised a secular future for Pakistan, his successors steadily moved towards leveraging religion for political ends. An occasional call for the “modernisation of Islam” by General Ayub Khan or “enlightened moderation” by Pervez Musharraf has not been able to stop the diminution of the state in relation to religious forces.

Pakistan’s meek surrender yet again to the TLP underlines how hard it is for a state to regain the authority that it has ceded to religious forces. Given the power of religion, most states find a way to live with it. But giving too much space to religious or other extra-constitutional forces inevitably weakens the state.

For one, there is no end to accommodating such forces. Each concession compels the next. The power of religious groups undermines the much needed social and economic modernisation that most developing societies badly need. It also complicates the state’s pursuit of its national interests on the global stage.

Pakistan’s support to the Taliban in Afghanistan and various jihadi groups in Kashmir have long been viewed as successful use of religion for foreign policy ends. Yet the permissive environment Islamabad has created for terror has also spawned violent religious groups that want to fight the Pakistani state.

On top of it all, these groups have begun to weaken Pakistan’s ties to long-standing partners in the West — such as the US and Europe — and its neighbours. The deployment of religious extremism as a policy tool has also invited international sanctions and financial constraints. Islamabad’s trajectory is a self-defeating one that is best not taken by others. Sacrificing the state is too high a price for any political formation that wants to rule a nation.

(The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express)

Source: Read Full Article