by Alia Ahmed
The religious protesters who blocked the Faizabad Interchange—connecting the twin cities of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, and the garrison town of Rawalpindi—last month had important things to discuss. For instance, could one have really drunk the urine of the Prophet, so divine and pure was he?
A pressing issue—so important, in fact, that normal movement between the two cities was completely paralyzed during the 21-day sit-in. Nevertheless, the language and tone of cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, addressing followers of his Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) party, soon turned so utterly disgusting that the Supreme Court felt obliged to rule on December 2: “No one can be allowed to use filthy-abusive language to advance a political agenda in the guise of an Islamic cause.”
The Supreme Court is right about one thing: this latest conflation of religion and politics is by far the ugliest, and one artificially composed on flimsy grounds. It is the latest example of Pakistan’s policies coming full circle. The self-destructive mode of dynastic politics, of choosing leaders based not on issues but personalities, has left the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) vulnerable since the ouster of its namesake—Nawaz Sharif, a three-times democratically-elected prime minister. His daughter, Maryam Nawaz, even recently asserted that her father was not merely one man but an ideology, boasting to the National Assembly: “Everybody wanted to subtract one man but they could not because he was not one man. You cannot subtract an ideology.”
It is in this absence of government that the TLYRA, surprising everyone, used loopholes in election laws to come in third in a Lahore National Assembly by-election this past September. In its campaign, it openly used posters of Mumtaz Qadri—the man who assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2008 for speaking in support of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.
And yet so potent is political Islam that the relatively new TLYRA (formed in 2015) is the one taking the lead, throwing the first stone at the crumbling edifice of the state while mainstream politicians are latching onto it to gain leverage rather than the other way around. Soon after the PML-N government capitulated to the ludicrous demands of Rizvi and the 2,000 or so violent protesters in Faizabad, Imran Khan declared that his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s party workers would have liked to join the sit-in. Even the irrelevant General Pervez Musharraf piped up. He declared himself the “biggest supporter” of Hafiz Saeed, recently released from judicial custody (not for the first time) after 10 months, and of his (banned) Jamat-ud-Dawa party, which espouses the Kashmir cause. Back in 2002, Musharraf, as president, had banned Saeed’s other militant organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Saeed’s release has put the international spotlight on Pakistan at the worst possible time. As one editorial writes, “The government is distracted, the state’s institutions are narrowly focused and the people are clueless.” The United Nations has declared Saeed a global terrorist, while India and the United Nations believe he is the mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai bombings.
The case brings to light the gap between local laws and international laws when dealing with transnational terrorism. The United States calls for Saeed’s arrest and trial over the Mumbai attacks. But Pakistan, according to its own laws, cannot try him without sufficient proof, which it hasn’t found. International mechanisms don’t apply; the writ of Interpol is limited and to bring a case before the International Criminal Court, of which the United States isn’t even a member, requires a massive body of evidence. The last option—America’s favorite—of international renditions is no longer viable, even though the US has placed a $10 million bounty on Saeed’s head. To tackle such a matter calls for relationships of political coordination and cooperation, not those of coercion (as with the US) or rivalry (as with India). The government wants to keep Saeed detained, but the judiciary cannot do so indefinitely without proof. So the ongoing cycle of detention-and-release continues.
Pakistan is a cockpit of international interests and thus internal rivalries. It is home to 200 million people, 35 percent of whom are youth. It is a strategically placed atomic power, with considerable military might. It is not a trifling nation. Its descent into radicalism and instability would not be without serious ramifications for the entire region, and well beyond. But there is indeed a strong and redeeming silver lining. Despite the acknowledged and disturbingly disruptive street power of the religious right, it has been confounded or rejected at successive polls. Even Saeed’s threat to compete in the September 2018 national election rings hollow. He wouldn’t get a vote.
The contradiction is cultural. At its root, Pakistan is a pluralist and Sufi-inspired society, with a fundamentalist fringe that holds it hostage. Its silent majority is like a deer caught in the headlights, stunned and petrified—caught between its social engineering and its inherent desire to reassert its inclinations and cultures as an ancient civilization, without knowing how or when to do so. It cannot or will not confront its faith with its nationality.
The majority of Pakistanis are conservative. The religious right amounts to a small Salafist minority. There is a stark disconnect between the two, with a resounding lack of communication and absence of common space for meaningful interaction, let alone compromise. The roaring of angry mullahs may seem and feel like the loudest voice in the land, but people at large are tired of bloodshed and bomb blasts. They are the main victims.
So long as religion is seen as a viable political tool, and the pillars of state—its government, institutions and military—cynically view each other as contenders in a zero-sum power game, the Khadim Hussain Rizvis and Hafiz Saeeds of the world will continue to focus public discussions on the drinkability of pee. As the editorial above quoted above put it, “A distracted government, a myopic state and a confused society. And then we complain that we have become what we are seen to be by the rest of the world—unwanted.”
Photo: Protesters at Faizabad in November 2017 (YouTube)
Correction: This article initially identified Lashkar-e-Jhangvi as the group Pervez Musharraf banned in 2002.
Alia P. Ahmed is a journalist based in Karachi and New York. She recently completed her MFA at Columbia University.