Since November 8, Pakistan’s capital Islamabad has been in the grip of a group of zealous protesters belonging to the Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah political party. The protests have now resulted in the resignation of the federal minster of law and many deaths. The protesters camped out at an arterial intersection in Islamabad, disrupting local transportation and civilian affairs.
The government’s initial response was indecisive. The authorities placed shipping containers and barb wire to contain the protest, but were reluctant to use force against the protesters themselves. After three weeks of blockades by the protesters, the High Court of Islamabad acted and ordered the government to clear the main transportation route by deploying the police and paramilitary force.
Matters took an ugly turn when nearly 8,000 police and paramilitary personnel failed to clear the protesters, and since then demonstrations have spread to all the major cities in Pakistan. On November 25, the Ministry of Interior requested the army to be deployed in Islamabad to assist the civil authorities in maintaining law and order. By that point, the protesters had already torched private and public property, and educational institutions had been closed in the capital and in the major cities of Pakistan for two days.
The turmoil followed an amendment to the oath of office for candidates of the National and Provincial Assembly, which changed the words “I believe” to “I solemnly swear” in regard to affirming Muhammad as the final prophet, or Khatm-e- Naboowat. The news of the error was fodder for the media. Within days, the government declared it to be a clerical mistake and reverted to the previous version. At the floor of the National Assembly, the Minster for Law Zahid Hamid swiftly declared, “The government cannot even think of deleting this provision. The oath-taking form for the candidate has been made simple but the provision regarding Khatm-e-Naboowat has not been changed at all.”
Who Benefits from the Turmoil?
Pakistani politics has multiple players with differing agendas. The most powerful of them all is Pakistan’s military, followed by the judiciary, the mullahs, and the media. The political parties in Pakistan must walk a fine line and be careful not to step on the wrong toes. A weak position toward India or a debate on blasphemy laws can end a politician’s career (or even life) and torpedo a political party’s prospects for the next elections.
In recent months, the governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), has been dealt not one but multiple major blows. These range from the disqualification of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges to the current blockade of the capital by religious extremists over a clerical mistake. Sharif and his PML-N remained strong despite the Supreme Court’s decision and his disqualification. This was evident from the support displayed at his rallies and the result of the special elections, in which Sharif’s wife was elected by a large majority to his National Assembly seat.
With elections on the horizon, Sharif’s opponents are aiming to weaken him further. To diminish and cripple support for the PML-N, political opponents will use the clerical error of Khatm-e- Naboowat against the governing party. The issue of blasphemy remains highly controversial and evokes passionate responses from all sectors of Pakistani society. Blasphemy accusations and the resulting mob violence have spared neither politicians nor civilians. The blasphemy charge is a black hole, and only time will tell if Sharif’s party recovers from it.
The leader of Tehreek-i-Labaik, Khadim Rizvi, accused the minister for law of committing blasphemy and demanded his resignation. On Sunday, the law minister resigned after his home was attacked and fears were raised that the protests would spread to other cities of Pakistan. The fact that the minister resigned is a further sign of the strength of the zealots and the failure of the government’s writ. This demonstrates the impossibility of a dialogue or debate on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Any politician that has dared to speak against it or advocated for changing it has faced death, with the killer being celebrated as a hero.
Sharif’s main opponent, the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, further strengthened the position of the protesters when he called for the Law Minister to step down. Khan also asked for the resignation of the prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi of the PML-N. Khan aspires to become the next prime minister of Pakistan after next year’s elections, but for that he must walk the tightrope of pleasing two completely opposite groups — the liberal elites of the major cities and the conservative religious elements of rural Pakistan. In Pakistan’s northwest province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Khan’s party sent signals to hardliners by adding chapters to KP textbooks that glorify men who murder blasphemers. These pro-Islamic steps were greatly praised by the likes of Maulana Sami, also known as the father of the Taliban. Sami has been critical of the PML-N government and contends that “the country had been besieged by enemies and there was a need for a united struggle to face the current situation.”
The army has till now cared about its public perception and advised the government to resolve the crisis peacefully with the agitators. In a top-level meeting with Abbasi, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of army staff, and Lt. Gen. Naveed Mukhtar, the director general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the participants decided that the army would not be used to launch an operation against the protesters. As Bajwa said, “We can’t use force against our own people,” although previously Pakistan’s security forces have not hesitated to do just that. The army’s current position places it in a comfortable position to control and mediate between all the actors involved, while keeping its public perception intact.
In the early morning of the November 28, it was the army chief who brokered a deal between the government and the protesters. As per the agreement, the law minister would resign, and within 30 days the government would punish those responsible for the blasphemous error. It was a clear victory for the hardliners and a setback to the forces of democracy in Pakistan.
The actors that gained from this turmoil are the religious hardliners. This includes the leader of Tehreek-i-Labaik, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a foul-mouthed cleric who holds strong opposition toward any changes to Pakistan’s parochial blasphemy laws. Rizvi rose to prominence in recent months when his party’s candidate performed better than expected and finished third in the by-elections, after Sharif and the PTI candidate. Rizvi is known for openly inciting violence and ridiculing state institutions and the judiciary.
The resignation of the law minister is a victory for the hardliners. It confirms the impossibility of changing the blasphemy laws that have targeted minorities and in this instance have been used as a tool to remove a federal minister. This communicates to any politician or political party not to dabble with laws pertaining to religion or blasphemy.
Allowing the protest to continue for three weeks was a mistake on the government’s end, but caving in to the demands of angry clerics will have long-term repercussions. For starters, it has emasculated democracy by weakening the governing party. The army’s hesitation to use force against the agitators illustrates either a crack in its armor, since it suggests that the army feels threatened by the zealots, or that the all-powerful military institution hopes to weaken the PML-N before the next elections. The long-term consequences of such strategies will have lasting impact on the generations to come.
Farah Jan, Ph.D., is Lecturer at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.