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

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“The state’s mandate must be executed” was the refrain that emerged from Islamabad last week when Prime Minister Imran Khan confronted the radical Islamic movement called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan which marched towards Islamabad with a set impossible demands, including the expulsion of the French Ambassador. After many hand wringing, the Pakistani government threatened to use force against the TLP and ordered the deployment of paramilitary forces to prevent the march towards Islamabad. He also launched this ultimate accusation which can be brought 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 Advisor Moeed Yusuf thundered in a tweet that no force in Pakistan can challenge state power. Yusuf insisted that “the TLP has crossed the red line and exhausted the patience of the state. They have tortured police officers, destroyed public property and continue to cause massive public disruption ”. He added that “the law will run its course for each of them and terrorists will be treated like terrorists without mercy.”

All this bravado, however, lasted barely 48 hours. Islamabad apparently bought peace with the TLP on Sunday. As in its frequent mobilizations in recent years, the TLP has once again pushed back the Pakistani state and reinforced its own political weight.

A relatively new phenomenon, the TLP, was founded in 2015 by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a burning cleric who died in November 2020. It now has many followers among the Pakistani Barelvi sect. At the heart of the TLP ideology is the protection of the honor of the Prophet and a vigorous defense 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 TLP ideology was mobilized by the establishment for political gain to weaken Nawaz Sharif’s government in 2017. Imran Khan, then in opposition, actively supported TLP protests against Sharif. Some in Pakistan suspect that the TLP has again been mobilized to bring down Imran Khan a notch or two.

The TLP won enough votes in the 2018 general election, especially in the Punjab, to prevent the Muslim League of Sharif from winning its traditional stronghold. After ousting Sharif, the Deep State gathered a majority for Imran Khan both in Punjab province and in the National Assembly.

The TLP was also unwilling to spare Imran Khan’s government. He continued his repeated attacks on the government, mounting massive protests in April against the arrest of its leader Saad Hussain Rizvi, who succeeded his father as head of the TLP. The TLP then set April 20 as the deadline for the expulsion of the French ambassador for his outrage at an incident of blasphemy in France.

In October 2020, Samuel Paty, a French schoolteacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a classroom was beheaded by a young Islamic fanatic. French President Emmanuel Macron has criticized Islamists and defended traditional French principles of secularism. Prime Minister Imran Khan denounced Macron’s remarks as the TLP organized massive protests across the country.

The government of Imran, caught in a split stick, could neither say no to the TLP nor accept its demands. After all, France was a major aid donor to Pakistan, the leading European power, and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Imran Khan’s government has found a way to rig the problem and throw the ball into the court of the National Assembly. As the TLP returned to the streets last month, Imran Khan found himself in deep trouble again.

Despite showing great determination to put the TLP back in its place, the Pakistani government quickly turned to the more familiar strategy of accommodation this weekend. Saad Rizvi and other TLP leaders were taken from prison to shelters in Islamabad and the government turned to senior Barelvi clerics to negotiate with them.

The terms of the agreement between Islamabad and TLP were not disclosed to the public. Media reports suggest that the government has agreed to release Saad Rizvi and other leaders, withdraw all cases against TLP cadres and unfreeze their bank accounts. It is not clear whether the TLP agreed to waive the French ambassador’s deportation request.

After decades of promotion and appeasement towards religious groups of one type or another, the Pakistani state is now finding that its room for maneuver has shrunk considerably compared to Islamist groups. But while the state has repeatedly bowed to pressure from right-wing religious groups, it has acted ruthlessly against a secular movement called the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.

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

The instrumentalization of religious groups for political ends at home and abroad has long been a convenient strategy for the Pakistani state. At home, he used Islam to marginalize moderate and secular political forces. Abroad, it has nurtured and deployed militant Islamic forces to destabilize its neighbors, particularly Afghanistan and India. But today Pakistan is struggling to control the religious kit. Religious forces have gained the power to challenge their creator, the Pakistani state.

Although Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of the state, envisioned a secular future for Pakistan, his successors gradually turned towards the use of religion for political ends. A one-off call for the “modernization of Islam” from General Ayub Khan or for “enlightened moderation” from Pervez Musharraf could not stop the decline of the state in relation to religious forces.

Pakistan’s soft surrender to the TLP underscores how difficult it is for a state to regain the authority it ceded to religious forces. Given the power of religion, most states find a way to live with it. But giving too much room to religious or other extra-constitutional forces inevitably weakens the state.

On the one hand, there is no end to welcoming such forces. Each concession obliges the next. The power of religious groups undermines the social and economic modernization that most developing societies desperately need. It also makes it difficult for the state to pursue its national interests on the world stage.

Pakistan’s support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and various jihadist groups in Kashmir has long been seen as a successful use of religion for foreign policy purposes. Yet, the permissive environment Islamabad has created for terrorism has also spawned violent religious groups who want to fight the Pakistani state.

On top of all this, these groups have started to weaken Pakistan’s ties with its long-standing partners in the West – such as the United States and Europe – and its neighbors. The deployment of religious extremism as a political tool has also prompted international sanctions and financial constraints. Islamabad’s trajectory is a self-destructive trajectory that is best not followed by others. Sacrificing the state is too high a price for any political party that wants to rule a nation.

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


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