Since Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi of blasphemy, the religious right, led by the party Tehreek-e-Labaik, have taken to the streets. In an attempt to counter the party’s influence, several of the its leaders have been arrested and mosques associated with the party raided. Hannan R. Hussain argues why legal action not security measures hold the key to countering the rise of religious extremism in Pakistan.
Over the past month religious fundamentalism has taken a dangerous turn in Pakistan. The far-right religious political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), took to the streets from the end of November on the issue of blasphemy, laying siege to major cities, and encouraging violence against Supreme Court judges. This unrest comes in the wake of the country’s highest court’s acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian-woman convicted of blasphemy in 2010. While the protests have been a landmark moment for the recently elected Imran Khan, it has been the first time that the party’s top command, including Pir Afzal Qadri (one of the party’s leaders) has called for the assassination of Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Mian Saqib Nisar. The party has also called for Asia Bibi’s name to be placed on the Exit Control List, a government-run emigration list that bars certain individuals from leaving the country.
The government’s decision to also detain Khadim Hussain Rizvi, another TLP leader, along with more than 3,000 TLP workers, is a noticeable change from its recent attempt to appease hardline religious protestors. The crackdown of the TLP began on November 23rd with law enforcement personnel raiding TLP mosques and deploying security units to the site of the 2017 Faizabad sit-in. This collective attempt serves as the first coordinated effort among the police, security agencies and the government since TLP’s rise to prominence in November last year.
The TLP’s overt criticism of Pakistan’s military has been a key trigger for involving Pakistan’s recent security response. The party’s co-founder Pir Afzal Qadri recently called for the overthrow of Army Chief Qamar Bajwa, encouraging members of the party to rise in rebellion. The Pakistan Army has a reputation for responding to criticism such as this decisively; its disintegration of the non-violent, Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement being the latest example.
Problems with a Charge of Treason
Such moves from the military may have an effect in curbing the organizational powers of the party in the short-term, however the arrest of Rizvi and a possible charge of treason against him offers a potential legal solution, but one unlikely to be pursued by the government.
Jibran Nasir, one of Pakistan’s most high profile activists, believes that a treason charge against TLP will be difficult to establish. He argues that a person is guilty of treason when he abrogates (or conspires to abrogate), suspends, or subverts the constitution of Pakistan, either by force or any other unconstitutional means. This can be done once an armed group takes over the state. TLP never actually took over.
Mr. Nasir argues that the interests of the military establishment will be another impeding factor. “A treason trial against Khadim Rizvi is automatically going to raise questions about the decade-long trial against General Musharraf“, he recently told me. “And if a treason precedent was to be established against TLP, it will also be used to go after the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, or any movement opposed to the military. This is a concern among the progressive intellectuals of Pakistan.”
Ideology not Security
While the TLP’s rift with key institutions of state might result in a decline in the party’s ability to operate, it does not deal with the continued presence of the ideological power and popularity of TLP’s conservative messaging. So far, the government’s efforts to contain the party have remained largely ineffective. The government’s strategy has mainly been through an attempt to reason with the party. Last month, the government convened a two-day conference on the ‘Finality of Prophethood’, assuring the religious clergy of its commitment to safeguarding Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The government also allowed the TLP to file a review petition against Bibi’s acquittal.
At present, Tehreek-e-Labbaik enjoys a support-base of 2.2 million voters nationwide. The party made its electoral debut in the 2018 general election on the back of an attempt to allow the TLP into the political mainstream, a strategy proposed by Pakistani military officials in 2016. TLP finished as the fifth largest party in terms of vote count in 2018, beating Pakistan People’s Party to third in Punjab, the country’s most populous province.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik’s participation in elections poses a direct threat to the conservative vote of parties such as Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). A 2018 Gallup Pakistan Exit Poll found that a substantial number of Tehreek-e-Labbaik voters had voted for PML-N in 2013. Thus, the former’s 6% vote share in Punjab proved enough to break into PML-N’s far right vote, allowing the centrist party Tehreek-e-Insaf to finish first in many constituencies.
If the TLP decides to field candidates in the next elections, its impact on provincial politics is going to be much of the same: appealing to the conservative vote and denying majority-parties a comprehensive victory margin in home constituencies. The party’s growing street support is reflected in its well-attended sit-ins. During the 2017 Faizabad dharna, a few-thousand protestors were enough to subdue capital police units, and lay siege on the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi for nearly three weeks. Last month however, Tehreek-e-Labbaik’s sympathizers also appeared in the cities Karachi, Lahore and Multan – jamming major avenues and highways in protest against the Asia Bibi verdict. This departure from citywide protests to an inter-provincial support base comes in less than a year.
Legislative Steps to Counter the Religious Right
The government’s starting point to limit the power of TLP should be the revival of the 2015 National Action Plan, and the collective implementation of its twenty points. The plan was proposed as an overarching framework for combatting violent religious extremism in the country in the wake of the 2014 Peshawar school massacre. It states that banned political parties will not be allowed to operate under different names, potentially ending TLP’s case for electoral participation. It also focuses on cutting finance sources of terrorist organizations, setting up provincial intelligence agencies, and prosecuting all sectarian extremist groups in all forms.
Additionally, the government should work towards amending Section 295 and 298 of Pakistan’s Penal Code. Both sections enable blasphemous conduct to be established in the absence of specific material evidence, and the victim’s right to a “fair trial”.
If Not Reform Then a Change of Politics Alliances
Should the government not peruse these legal changes and or implement the policies above, it should consider strengthening its alliances with left-leaning parties, especially those that have been vocal critics of faith-driven politics. This includes Pakistan People’s Party, whose senators and ministers have questioned the participation of banned parties in elections, as well as made attempts at amending the blasphemy laws to protect Pakistan’s minorities from unjust conviction. In Pakistan there exists many tools to try and combat the TLP. Only when these have been exhausted should the solutions be security-based.
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Hannan R. Hussain is an Islamabad-based writer for the Diplomat, Daily Times, DAWN and the Express Tribune. He is also the author of And the Candles Blew.” He Tweets @hannanhussain7