The Pakistani government’s efforts to disperse hardline Islamist protesters from the capital turned deadly last week when scores of people died in clashes between protesters and security forces across the country. In response to the government’s crackdown, thousands of protesters blocked main highways across the country and shut down major city centers. On Monday morning, after the military’s intervention, hardline Islamists finally called off their three-weeklong sit-in after one of their core demands–the resignation of the federal law minister–was met by the government.
The protest began with the aim of forcing the government into taking back a controversial bill that allegedly questioned the finality of Prophet Muhammad, which seemingly posed a serious challenge to the country’s already complex security situation. Nonetheless, the way it suddenly ended with the military becoming the central part of the negotiation process offers a chilling insight into the country’s deep ideological divisions, the political elite’s rivalries, and the military’s profound influence that continues to dominate Pakistan’s politics.
The use of different strands of Islam in the country’s politics has been the state’s primary tool for internal political mobilization and for the external projection of its efforts and ambitions. At times, Islamists are mobilized or encouraged by the state to settle political scores. On other occasions, Islamists have been used to wage wars abroad in the name of hihad. The recent episode of Islamists coming out to streets to protest against the government to forcefully settle an issue that in essence was a non-issue points toward a long-established approach on the part of the country’s military and political elites to use Islam and Islamists to further their strategic interests.
As the next general election in Pakistan is drawing closer, the political climate in the country is heating up. About two months ago, the ruling party’s lawmakers were passionately supporting the same religious hardliners that have attacked their homes and the government. The ruling party for a long time has tried to play with the issue for various political and electoral reasons, in the process emboldening Islamists and isolating an already segregated Muslim and non-Muslim minority communities.
Moreover, the incident also offers a grim reminder that the country’s recent efforts at counterterrorism that involved countering the narrative of hardline Islamists and their street power have virtually been lost. The consensus and the narrative that the country’s ruling elite was able to put together against Islamist hardliners in the country after the tragic incident of the Army Public school massacre in 2014 has simply gone to waste. According to the specifics of the agreement that was signed between the government and the protesters, the former has accepted the latter’s demands that “no ban will be imposed on the use of loudspeakers” which came into force after the National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism was formed about three years ago. Moreover, the government has also agreed that “two representatives of the Tehreek-i-Labaik will be included in the panel assigned to decide changes in the textbook board.”
The country’s counterterrorism effort is thus back to square one. Once again, Islamists and their sympathizers control the narrative related to the use of Islam in the state’s inner workings. While it has been argued that the country’s military was allegedly behind the whole agitation to weaken the government, the demands that the state has agreed to do not appear to be targeting one political party or the other. Rather, their implications are focused on the destruction of the state. It seems logical to argue that Islamists’ power, in particular in the province of Punjab, has expanded to a degree that even the military cannot take on the radicals when they challenge the state with an ideological narrative that resonates with millions of people across the country.
The recent shakedown of the state by right wing Islamists is not only bound to create a new generation of jihadists, but will also make any attempts by the state to reverse the creeping Islamization of the country virtually impossible. Effectively, the state’s policies appear to contribute to a divisive future for the country. The law minister’s resignation and the state’s surrender to a handful of Islamists may defuse tensions today, but it will surely pave the way for an existential crisis for Pakistan in the long run.