Violent incidents across Pakistan, particularly in the Punjab province, during a recent protest and agitation by a radical Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) and the government action to ban the group would have far-reaching consequences for the country.
The main demand of the TLP protesters was to expel the ambassador of France for his government’s support to blasphemers. As the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to fulfil the demand, the TLP protesters resorted to large-scale violence against law enforcement personnel, resulting in the killing of at least four policemen. In the following days when the protesters continued to disturb public life, the law enforcement agencies (LEAs) responded with a heavy hand, resulting in the killing of a few protesters.
Insofar as the demand of the TLP protesters to expel the ambassador of France was concerned, there might be some logic in it. It may be mentioned that French President Emanuel Macron said a few months ago that his government would support the magazine, which had come under attack by Muslims for publishing blasphemous caricatures. The act of Marcon was against all norms of decency and respect for sacred religions and cannot be justified in the name of “freedom of expression”. However, the expulsion of the French ambassador from Pakistan by the federal government would only be a symbolic act and it could not achieve the desired results of stopping France from withdrawing support to publications, like Charlie Hebdo. Yes, if all Muslim countries, around 55 in number, together take such action against France then it would create pressure on it to respect the religious sentiments of Muslims. As Muslim countries have not taken any unified stance in this regard, either due to their respective national interest or indifference, any action by Pakistan solely would not make any difference.
In case Pakistan expels the French ambassador, it is feared that many western countries would disapprove of the action of Islamabad. Consequently, it would damage Pakistan’s image, which is already portrayed in the West as a country of extremists. It would affect the trading relations of Pakistan with Western countries and more importantly, may also result in travel restrictions on Pakistanis. It would negatively impact students and prospective job-seekers from Pakistan. Thus, the economic fallout of such a diplomatic action would be immense. Now, it is the decision-makers of Pakistan to do the cost-benefit analysis of taking such steps while it is obvious that it would not influence France to reverse its decision.
Now coming to the violent protest of the TLP in the country, the demand of the group to respect the sanctity of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and other personalities of Islam is totally justified, but the modus operandi was totally unjustified. As Prime Minister Imran Khan rightly said in his address to the nation on April 19 that his government and the TLP had the identical stand on the respect of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), it was maddening to attack state functionaries, particularly the personnel of law enforcement agencies, who all are Muslims, and inflicting damage on public property. Insofar as the government action to ban the TLP is concerned, it was a step in the right direction because no outfit could be allowed to hold state functionaries hostage and challenge the writ of the state. It is known that even terrorist groups have used the name of Islam to justify their anti-Islamic acts, while the great religion does not allow inflicting damage on anyone.
It is unfortunate to see political groups, like the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), putting their weight behind the TLP. The support of the JUI-F to the TLP is a complete display of political opportunism and hypocrisy. After failing to keep together the opposition parties’ anti-government alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement, JUI-F head Fazlur Rehman’s political fate was almost sealed. He could not stage the much-touted “long march” in March. Therefore, he was on the lookout to resuscitate his political fortunes. Thus, Fazl grabbed the first opportunity which came his way by joining the protest of the TLP. It was despite the fact that the JUI-F is a party belonging to the Deobandi school of thought, which has strong reservations about the beliefs and practices of Barelvi sect members. The TLP comprises Barelvis. For purely political reasons, Fazl tried to join the TLP while practically he had no potential to do it.
It is also very disturbing to see that a large number of PML-N activists joined the TLP violence in the Punjab. Many PML-N workers have been arrested while inciting and taking part in the violence. On its part, it seemed a stratagem of the PML-N to create more problems for the PTI government and PM Khan. Already, the government is trying to put its house in order badly damaged by large-scale poor governance, inapt policymaking as well as internal rifts. It was not at all a good strategy by the PML-N, because it was a matter of the state and, therefore, political advantage should not have been attained from it. The situation also suggests that how corrupt have become our mainstream political outfits that they could go to any extreme to inflict damage on their political opponents.
The TLP protest also suggests the level of extremism in Pakistani society, whether in the name of religion or ethnicity. If a large number of young men in a society are unemployed and have a very narrow worldview, the result is extremism, like what we saw recently. In the meanwhile, the state finds itself in the dark to deal with extremism. The reason is that state authorities have not been able to understand the causes of extremism holistically or they do not want to understand or address them. In this connection, the statement of Minister of Information Fawad Chaudhry that the state could not be dictated by the TLP and that even militancy and widespread terrorism by the more resourceful and broad-based Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) could not force the state to budge. His statement is fundamentally correct that the state has trounced the TTP but it was achieved at a great cost of men and material losses. Moreover, even after defeating the TTP, the state could not address the causes of extremism and that is why we find it difficult to contain fundamentalism.