Don’t surrender to mob rule

As tensions continue to simmer in the Aasia Bibi case, Pervez Hoodbhoy calls for less tolerant attitudes towards religious intolerance

An inflammatory video filmed just after the Aasia Bibi verdict has received well over 5 million views. Therein you can watch the leadership of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP) calling for the murder of the three Supreme Court judges who dismissed the blasphemy charges against Aasia; hear that officers of the Pakistan army should revolt against COAS Gen. Qamar Bajwa; see the country’s prime minister being called a ‘Yehudi bacha’ (Jewish child); and listen to calls to overthrow the PTI government.

The orator of these calls is Pir Afzal Qadri(who heads one of the Sunni Ittehad Council parties), but next to him is the TLP’s founder-leader, Khadim Husain Rizvi. Famed for his foul mouth and colourful Punjabi expletives, Rizvi does not speak in the video, but periodically raises both hands in enthusiastic endorsement. Once an unknown small-time madrassah operator, he rocketed to national prominence last November after paralysing Islamabad for three weeks. He draws his strength from heading khatm-i-nabuwat(seal of the prophets) demonstrations across Pakistan.

Had a call for murder and mutiny been made by any other members of Pakistan society, unimaginable punishment would have been meted out. Similarly for other countries: in the United States, instigators of bloody insurrection would be locked up for years; in Iran or Saudi Arabia they would be hanged or beheaded; and in China they would mysteriously disappear.

But we in Pakistan are apparently nicer, kinder people. Our normally voluble judiciary suddenly lost its voice. Unlike with errant politicians, the Supreme Court did not dock TLP leaders for contempt of court. The military’s ever-vigilant ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations) wing also somehow missed hearing the call for mutiny against the top army leadership; instead, it pleaded for ‘an amicable and peaceful resolution’ to the Aasia Bibi case because it ‘does not want the army dragged into the matter’.

And the prime minister? Against the ‘enemies of the state’ his fighting words and body language initially drew widespread approbation. Some liberals bravely termed this Imran’s finest hour. But the hour lasted an hour and no more, and what started with a roar ended with a whimper. The TLP’s flaccid half-apology was accepted, ignoring the lives lost and property damaged by the rioters.

Imran Khan now wants to fight fire with fire. His current talking points are fulfilling ‘Allama Iqbal’s dream’ and remaking Pakistan as the seventh century state of Medina. His information minister announced unprecedented celebrations of the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) birthday, and a grand khatm-i-nabuwatconference in Islamabad. Invitees will include the imam of the Holy Ka’aba, the mufti of Syria and various high clerics.

With these new battle plans, Imran hopes to take the wind out of the TLP’s sails by showing its followers and others that he loves the Holy Prophet even more than them. But will it work in the Aasia Bibi case? And will it also work once the next crisis starts (assuming the present one somehow ends)?

As mullah power rises, one cannot be too optimistic. Clerics now believe they can take on any politician or, if need be, generals as well. There is good reason for their confidence. After all was said and done, in 2007 Islamabad’s destroyed Lal Masjid – now grandly reconstructed – defeated the generals.

TLP followers protesting in Lahore against Aasia Bibi's acquittal
TLP followers protesting in Lahore against Aasia Bibi’s acquittal

Consider that the insurrectionists lost about 150 students and other fighters, but head cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz lives more comfortably in 2018 than in 2007. No charges were ever levied against Aziz or others for killing 11 Special Service Group (SSG) commandos. Meanwhile, Gen. Musharraf, the then army chief, glumly passes his days in Dubai. Among other charges, he is accused of quelling an armed insurrection against Pakistan and killing one of Lal Masjid’s ringleaders.

The state’s reluctance to confront clerical power makes its earlier promises ring hollow. Take, for instance, madrassah reform. Forgotten is the anti-terrorism National Action Plan that called for financial audits of madrassahs, uncovering funding sources, curriculum expansion and revision, and monitoring of activities. That’s a dead duck. Try auditing TLP-associated madrassahs.

The security establishment must now ask itself hard questions: has its mainstreaming of religious extremism gone too far? Can extremists actually be moderated by bringing them into the political fold? On the political chessboard, was it a good move to try balancing ‘hard’ Deobandi power with ‘soft’ Barelvi power?

Blowbacks do happen: whereas a year ago Imran Khan had cautiously welcomed Rizvi into the anti-Nawaz Sharif camp, others who wanted Nawaz defeated went a step further. They allowed themselves to be recorded on video while handing out Rs 1,000 notes to the rioters. Politically, this is very embarrassing because Rizvi and his wild-eyed boys have gone their own way.

Certainly, the TLP turned out to be a bad investment. Contrarily, there appears to be a good investment. The largely Deobandi  LeT/JuD was encouraged to launch its own political party, the Milli Muslim League (MML). In August 2017, its debut in national politics via the Lahore NA-120 by-elections gained it fourth position, a surprising show of strength for a new party. MML election posters denounced Nawaz Sharif as a traitor for seeking peace with India and carried aloft pictures of LeT co-founder Hafiz Saeed.

Another apparent plus: LeT/JuD has threatened neither army nor government. Its spokesman explained away its low profile during the recent violent protests saying that JuD has appealed against the Supreme Court decision to free Aasia Bibi and would await the conclusion of the legal process before taking to the streets. What a relief!

Some parts of the establishment might see this good behaviour as vindicating its mainstreaming doctrine. But injecting religious leaders and ex-militants into the political mix is a bad idea. When large masses of people react unthinkingly to emotive slogans, everyone is endangered by an explosive, unstable configuration. Ultimately political leaders – and those who secretly engineer political outcomes – also become unsafe. Have we not suffered enough tragic blowback since Soviet times? Pakistan must firmly reject the rule of religiously charged mobs. Instead, it should aspire towards becomingpart of civilised, cosmopolitan world society. Surrender is not an option.

Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy is a Pakistani nuclear physicist and activist

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