Anti-French protests and the worldview of Pakistan

In what seems like a series of missed opportunities to disband radical groups, Pakistan at every step of its evolution, let the Islamic outfit Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), founded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi grow in scope and exercise clout on all matters of religious and even political significance. Over a period of time, it isn’t surprising to see extreme views being expressed and action being sought by the group such as expulsion of the French Envoy and a coy submission and acceptance of their demands by a weak establishment.

The TLP Protests and Thereafter

After weeklong protests orchestrated by the outfit Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), over the arrest of its leader Saad Rizvi, which reached its climax in the form of violent clashes between the party supporters and the security personnel, peace and order has been finally restored in Pakistan following a truce between the two sides. These clashes, which had transformed the streets of Pakistani in Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi into veritable battlegrounds, have taken a serious toll on both lives and property, killing about a dozen, including police officials and injuring many others.

The Background

At the core of this anarchy and mayhem which wreaked havoc in Pakistan until April 20, 2021 is the intense anti-French feeling which a large number of Pakistani citizens harbour over the issue of defamation of the Prophet Muhammad. It may be recalled that on 16th October, 2020, a French school teacher, Samuel Patty, was brutally decapitated in the suburbs of Paris by a Chechen youth on account of the former’s display of cartoons of the Prophet in his classroom. The French Government, under President Emmanuel Macron, had deemed this act as a challenge to the principles of the French Republic, an attack on the freedom of speech and expression and displayed those very same cartoons on public buildings in retaliation to the violence. By this act of perceived blasphemy, France incurred the wrath of a large number of Muslims across the world. The situation became particularly tense in Pakistan where thousands of protestors rallied all over the country against these controversial cartoons in public spaces and urged the Pakistani authorities to severe all diplomatic and trade ties with the French Government.

The Demands of the Protestors

The situation has been tense in Pakistan for a while. After initial protests immediately after the controversial cartoons were in public space, the Government had reached a deal with the party over the French Envoy’s expulsion. Probably the Government had hoped that over a period of time the issue can be relegated to cold storage, the tone and demeanor of the party over the expulsion of the envoy may change and things may not become ugly. However, this did not happen and when the Government failed to meet the deadline as part of the deal, the TLP leader decided to call for nationwide protests, in response to which he was arrested. Thus the TLP, which is spearheading the protest movements, have retained their earlier stance and demanded that the French Ambassador be expelled from Pakistan and that all French products be boycotted. Their demands also include the release of their 26-year old young leader, Allama Saad Hussain Rizvi, the son of the founder of the organization, Late Khadim Hussain Rizvi TLP, a firebrand cleric who died in November 2020.

The Government Crackdown

Amidst the rioting and disorder, the Pakistani Government did try hard to contain the situation. Earlier, on 15th April, 2020, the Government imposed a ban on TLP, and issued a notification, categorizing it as a proscribed, terrorist organization with authorities opting to move the Election Commission to delist the group as a political party. Meanwhile, an alarmed French Embassy in Pakistan urged its citizens and companies to temporarily leave the troubled country.

As is known, recently, the Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the Government and the TLP have embarked on a truce wherein the latter has agreed to call off its plans of sit in protests across the entire country. It has also been reported that the Pakistani Government will be asked to decide on the basis of voting in the National Assembly, whether or not to expel the French ambassador from the country.

The Pressures on the Government

The decision of the Pakistani establishment to democratically examine the case of the French Ambassador’s exit is being widely interpreted as its surrender to the bullying tactics of the hardliner Islamist pressure-group. Till recently, it appeared that the Pakistani Government was determined to put down the mischief with an iron fist. However, it seems the establishment buckled to the pressure for multiple reasons ranging from ideological commitments to public safety. Primarily of course, there was the need to end the large scale violence and anarchy and restore peace and order in society. However, it is absolutely ridiculous for Pakistan as a country, to give in to the demands of boycotting France and isolating itself internationally. Besides, having been placed in the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), since June 2018, Pakistan is eager to exonerate itself from allegations of inaction against terrorists and their associates. To gain sympathy of global leaders, PM Imran Khan had even warned that if blacklisted at the FATF, Pakistan’s entire economy would be destroyed due to inflation and a massive fall in the Pakistani Rupee. That said the country is still risking being pushed into the blacklist if it does not fulfill its commitments to curb terrorism financing.

Realpolitik and the Ideological Sympathy

Given the current circumstances, it would be rather simplistic to analyze the situation by means of a liberal versus extremist framework. The Pakistani Government no doubt has its own reasons to curb the anti-French agitation spearheaded by the TLP. But when it comes to the ideological arguments that are at the root of all these disturbances, there is hardly any difference of opinion between an average Pakistani Statesman and the stone-pelting protestor on the streets. Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan in this regard, had clarified through a tweet that his Government took action against the TLP under the anti-terrorist Law for challenging the writ of the State, for using street violence and attacking the public and the law enforcers. He further added that no one was above the law and the Constitution of the nation.

Admittedly, the logical corollary to this candid clarification by the Pakistani Premier is the fact that had the TLP not vented its ire against the Pakistani establishment using violence and not dared to violate the law of the land, the authorities would have taken no action against the group. Had foreign nationals and establishments, French in this case, alone been at the receiving end of these disturbances, Mr. Khan’s Government might have been a little less harsh on the perpetrators. Is that so? Well, it is discernible in his enthusiasm to condemn Islamophobia, but remain silent when it comes to condemning violent acts committed on the grounds of defense of Islam. This is also unambiguously been demonstrated through his tweets after the beheading of Samuel Patty and the subsequent French backlash.

It is obvious today that if the TLP threat goes unchallenged, it will lead to Pakistan’s international isolation. As is known, the country’s establishment, the military, has historically used Islamist groups to strengthen its anti-India narrative. It is time the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who harbours Islamist sentiments himself, tells Pakistanis to have a realistic world view. Thus banning TLP alone won’t solve the problem of rising religious extremism in Pakistan. “Pakistan has done the right thing by banning the TLP, but that’s only the first of many necessary steps. Many extremist groups have been banned in Pakistan, and they tend to reappear under new names,” said Michael Kugelman, the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, DC.

The Pakistani Worldview

In order to have a clear, objective understanding of these recent events, it is necessary to understand the collective conscience of Pakistan as a nation. PM Imran Khan, as a matter of fact, personifies its ultimate Volksgeist. Pakistan is unique, being the only country in history to have been created solely on the basis of the religion of Islam. Therefore, when it comes to the cardinal principles of the Islamic faith, even a slightest compromise seems entirely out of question. Islam too, is understood here in a very conservative way with a specific form of Islam gaining precedence over others. It is this dedication to the religion that keeps the blasphemy law and the provision of death penalty for the offender vigorously alive in the Pakistani Constitution. On these grounds, Pakistan also tirelessly attempts to bring in prohibition of the criticism of Islam through clauses in the United Nations Organization. Thus, the fury of the TLP members is not exclusive to the organization alone, but in fact, is representative of the collective fury of the overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan which includes both its ordinary citizens as well as members of the establishment.

It is this foundation of Pakistan in religion and its growing radicalization that the world in general and the liberal western democracies in particular need to take note of. In a way, the adjectives like Islamist, hardliner, extremist, right-winger and the sort, used by the mainstream English media to describe an organization like TLP could be perceived as notoriously misleading by many. The moderate-extremist binary in Islam, as in any organized belief system, no doubt, exists. Yet, there are certain basic established / non negotiable principles which do not leave much scope for interpretation. It is in this context that one can state that any action that is derogatory to the religion of Islam and Prophet Muhammad is considered as blasphemy and warrants punishment of the alleged culprit. According to Article 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), this punishment is “Mandatory Death”. In fact in such instances, there is no moderate versus extremist disagreement, the predominant view just holds. However, human rights activists have in due course realized that more often than not these laws are employed in situations that have hardly anything to do with blasphemy but rather used to settle petty disputes and personal vendettas. Invariably, Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis-a minority Islamic sect, are the ones most victimized as a consequence.

Conclusion

In the context of the TLP protests, the Government crackdown was goaded by considerations of the realpolitk. The impact of the truce and the subsequent submission of the establishment to the demands of a pressure group that it nurtured and supported over the years is there for the world to see. Even with regard to the issue of blasphemy, ideologically and ethically, it cannot be denied that the Pakistani establishment as well as majority of its citizens are possibly bitter against Macron and the French Government just like Rizvi and his followers. True that, the Love for Islam and Prophet Muhammad is as integral to the Pakistani national identity as is the love for liberty to France and other liberal democratic nations. Its time this fundamental truth is understood and acknowledged before any secular nation ventures into any kind of engagement with an ideologically rooted and a religiously embedded Pakistan. (CPFA)

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