The past few days in the politics of Pakistan have been reminiscent of the sunset days of the PML-N era when a small but significant interest group, best classified as a non-state actor, played on the most sensitive Muslim religious issue in the country and used it to hold the government of the day on tenterhooks leaving it undecided whether to use police force to end its widespread public protest or follow the way of compromise through negotiations.
Last April, when the government was faced with the TLP protest of similar magnitude, it decided to enter into a dialogue with the protestors in the wider national interest of peace and tranquillity. The negotiations and resulting agreement signed between TLP and the government achieved the objective of ending the protest but at the cost of three big give aways: 1) acceptance that TLP is a political force which cannot be ignored or proscribed; 2) admission that the government’s hand can be forced in matters of foreign policy by mob action; and 3) acknowledgement that the ideology of TLP concerning the Prophet of Islam is the same as that of the government. This meant that: 1) the government could not prevent TLP from fielding its representatives at coming local and national elections; 2) the government could not assert its role of making foreign policy and agreed to place the TLP demand before Parliament ; and 3) that there was no ideological difference between the government and TLP on core issues, even though they differed on tactics.
TLP says it is out on the roads again in October 2021 because the government breached the signed agreement to take its demand to Parliament for a decision. The government’s position is that it submitted a resolution in Parliament on this matter, and that the demand of TLP is invalid because the French Ambassador is not in the country. Then, there are issues of TLP engaging in violence resulting in the tragic death of police officials; conflict between its demand and action which violates the teachings and Sunnah of the Prophet for tolerance and good public behaviour; breach of a written agreement by the government; and question on the government’s credibility and ability to assert its will on non-state actors with authority.
The aim of this article is not to go into the background of this repeat episode, which is already covered in the media, but explore the options for the government in dealing with such issues in the future.
There are four fundamental issues that need wider public conversation to reach a national consensus. These are, namely, the power of government and the calibre of those who govern; the role of state institutions to regulate non-state actors within the ideological moorings of the State; balancing legitimate state authority versus people’s democratic right to protest; and the role of government and political parties.
1) The power of government and the calibre of governors
People often ask why the writ of the government is openly flouted in Pakistan by non-state actors, including informal religious outfits and organised opposition parties? While it is correct that at every occasion, the State seems helpless, but this is not by choice. There are political coalitions or pluralistic compulsions which prevent the government from coming hard on an activity where its authority is challenged, including with armed resistance. It is not an easy task to establish a political equilibrium. While the government has the means to electronically listen into people’s personal conversations, issue search warrants for suspected persons, enter their residences and even arrest those suspected of flouting the law, the government cannot cross the established red lines because of democratic and human rights considerations, and the adverse reaction of civil society which has its sympathisers internationally. This delicate balance is also affected by how well prepared the government is in enforcing its political will and whether those tasked with the mandate to govern have the integrity and courage to implement policy into action. It cannot work if those who are vested with authority are unsure of their own positions or if there is a history of political insecurity. Sometimes, the cabinet is also not united on policy matters and the statements of two or more ministers on the same issue are contradictory or confusing. The buck in a parliamentary system for all such contradictions stops at the door of the Prime Minister who must be seen to be in-charge of his team and ahead of everyone’s game. Always in a crisis, he must be visible and lead from the front.
The PTI government may rightfully claim credit for acting wisely last April in defusing the crisis and not showing full force of the State in ending TLP protests, but it has certainly failed on consistency of policy. For example back in April it was ludicrous for the interior minister to rush to announce that his ministry had decided to approach the cabinet to ban TLP as a political party without due process but two days later the interior minister presided over a meeting with TLP leaders and reached an agreement with them to end the protests peacefully. It was also embarrassing that the Prime Minister, who is so rightly against the dishonouring of Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, and who addressed the UN General Assembly about Islamophobia, made no hard hitting statement, nor took any action last year when the French government officially supported the reprinting of the offensive cartoons by a French magazine in the name of freedom of speech. On the TLP crisis, the Prime Minister said one thing in his speech to the nation holding firm on not giving in to the key demand of TLP, but the very next day he appreciated his interior minister sitting down with TLP elders to sign an agreement accepting that in return for TLP ending the protests, the government would send their demand about the French ambassador’s return to France to Parliament for a decision. In October the interior minister again offered an olive branch to TLP to talk to government and end their protest in the interest of peace and security of the country. The mixed signals are too confusing to the public. It is hard to say, when everything is considered, where the government stands on TLP’s status.
The question of government credibility does not rest only with domestic audience. It is noted internationally. Once the international community starts to suspect that a country’s leader cannot be trusted for his word, then there is nothing left for the government machinery under that leader to convince the world that you are serious about a matter which they consider important. Pakistan has been through this storm before and we know that in the previous US governments, there were officials who did not trust Pakistan’s commitments.
Unlike the Turkish President who is unequivocal on the question of blasphemy against the Prophet, the Pakistani leadership has indirectly conveyed to France and the EU the wrong message that its had stand against the blasphemous cartoons is meant only to appease the mullas domestically. In conveying this message, the Prime Minister is not alone. He is joined by the whole caboodle of liberal politicians, many of whom, are represented in the PPP, ANP, BAP, and also to a certain extent in PML-N. Pakistani social media also shows this major ideological divide. On the one side are the liberal civil society, media and overseas Pakistanis living in the west who couldn’t care less about western far right media writing about the Prophet, or French lawmakers outlawing Islamic head-gear for French Muslim girls attending schools. On on the other side are those Pakistanis who genuinely think that raising their voice against Islamophobia is important, even though it is a bit late in the day to revisit this issue, and not helpful because Pakistan needs friends in the west to take Pakistan out of the FATF grey list, continue with their aid and trade programmes and support its Afghanistan policy for improving the uncertain security situation is the region. The TLP protest has come at the wrong time and is outdated considering that the cartoon controversy is over a year old.
The issue about the French Ambassador is something the Prime Minister’s Office or the Pakistan Foreign Office should have put to rest by acting immediately without wasting much time which gave TLP the excuse to take it up on behalf of the people of Pakistan. Last week the Turkish President threatened to expel ten western Ambassadors from Turkey on the ground that it was not their business to comment on the Turkish activist Osman Kavala who is under arrest and trial on charges of overthrowing the government in the failed 2016 coup. The reaction from Erdogan was so quick and credible that the US and some other western embassies retracted their statement the next day and Erdogan accepted their response. The matter was finished even before it could go to Turkish cabinet for approval of action. It is true that Turkish Lira tumbled in the week when all this was happening, but it was not a big cost to pay for protecting the sovereignty and credibility of the Turkish State internationally. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s leadership could not handle the problem of one foreign government and its Ambassador credibly on time. Islamabad does know very well how such things are done but it is terribly scared to risk anything, without realising that not taking action on time also costs the nation, if not the leaders personally.
The TLP demand for sending he French Ambassador home as PNG makes no diplomatic sense. As Ambassador he is only a high official of his government sent to establish secure communication between two governments. His function is not to make or change French policy but to act as a high representative of his government who acts professionally with tact and sensitivity. Sending the high representative packing to his home or downgrading diplomatic relations with a country makes sense only if an unacceptable act by a foreign envoy or a hostile act by his government requires a swift and proportional response. The host government alone can decide on such matters and no other entity, party or NGO can force the government to do so on its behalf. When signing the agreement with TLP last April, the government should not have accepted that it would table the TLP demand for the return of the French Ambassador before Parliament.
Three subjects, namely, national defence, conduct of foreign relations with sovereign states and printing currency are federal subjects and no federating unit, let alone a political party or religious group, has any authority to start dictating heir terms in these areas. The role of Pakistan Foreign Ministry is to advise the government through its envoys what is best and possible in the interest of the country. The interior minister has said that the French Ambassador is not in the country and may not return. His staying or returning is a matter only for the French government to decide. If Pakistan has any problems with the policies of the French government, it should take it up with Paris at the higher political level through diplomatic channels. The Pakistan Prime Minister has spoken to the people of Pakistan about Islam, morality and good deeds. He should also speak to the foreign diplomatic corps in Islamabad over a working lunch that if any foreign government condones or supports its ‘intellectual terrorists’ to cause anger and violence in the Muslim world through blasphemy against the Prophet and hate speech against Islam, Pakistan would consider it as an unacceptable act against its friendship and bilateral relations. The Prime Minister should also direct the Foreign Office to draw up a list of Islamophobia promoting entities and countries and move the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Conference to react reasonably and proportionately. This may include such action as issuing official protests, boycotting their products; stopping to attend conferences held in these countries, putting a freeze on their tender submissions or commercial deals, and temporarily suspending sporting activities with them.
2) Role of state institutions to regulate non-state actors within the ideological moorings of the state
This issue has been publicly debated at every public and official forum in the last ten years. However, what is new is that when the State has a constitution, which declares Islam as the state religion of Pakistan; when the elected leader of the country is a practicing Muslim and talks about making the country a welfare state modelled after the State of Madina; and when the state broadcaster dubs and airs for two years a Turkish TV play Dirilish Ertugrul which is half history and half fiction but it takes the entire country, as well as the Muslim Ummah all over the world by an audience-following never witnessed before, then you are obviously talking about a nation that is not prepared to ignore blasphemy against its Prophet, as well as its religious icons, and that its people expect their government to react strongly if the government of a western country where the blasphemous act has occurred wilfully to hurt or infuriate Muslims does not condemn such act or refuses to take action to stop it.
We live in a funny world. Governments and humanists who were so loud in condemning the destruction of the ancient Buddhist icons in the Bamian province of Afghanistan during the first Taliban rule in 2001 are not bothered with the insults hurled at the Prophet of Islam from their lands. Many tears have been shed over reversing the status of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul from a museum into a mosque but not a word has been said about the disappearance of ancient classical mosques in Seville, Cordova, Malta and Greece where Muslims once lived, worshipped and ruled. Most of these mosques were turned into churches. The long conflict in Syria for and against the incumbent Asad regime has resulted in the destruction of a rich historical heritage common to the adherents of three great Abrahamic faiths. No one bemoans this great loss. The far right in Europe has no problem with the whole humanity wearing face-masks to protect against the spread of Covid-19, but it has issues with innocent young Muslim girls wearing Hijab in deference to their beliefs. No one should be allowed to get away with blasphemy of the Prophet of Islam whose name, when recited in public, results in billions of hands rising to touch their hearts as a mark of deep respect for Muhammad, peace be upon him. The same rule of respect should apply to the gods and founders of all recognised religions.
Strictly speaking, TLP protests do not fall under the category of a non-state actor challenging the power of the State. Their leaders have not called the government to resign. TLP is a registered political party in Pakistan, or was so until it was shut down arbitrarily without involving the election commission or invoking a due process by the interior ministry. They still have the third largest political following in Punjab, which is Pakistan’s largest province. TLP has two elected representatives in Punjab’s provincial assembly.
This TLP protest is not new. This party has held similar protests earlier on one single issue, but the government did not take action despite promising to do so. In 2018 during their mass protest in Rawalpindi, some political parties tried to take advantage of TLP protest by demanding new elections. A lot of foul language was used in those dharnas, including verbal attacks on the State’s constitutionally protected institutions. Against the high tempers and the fluid political background of the country, the TLP episode was only a small jolt in the present uncertain situation. The PTI government which did not condemn the 2018 protest by TLP when it was in opposition then, should have known that a sleeping giant could always wake up one day to challenge its power, yet the government did nothing to remove the root cause of the problem, except join the giant in its sleep.
Pakistan’s present and past civilian governments have not fully used the available state institutions and apparatus, such as the Council of Islamic Ideology or the Ministry of Religious Affairs to bring about an understanding between the State and the religious parties (not just political parties) on issues that have caused confusion and distrust between the State and clergy. Not too long ago, a federal Minister of PTI government with no formal religious education attacked the Moonsighting Committee for being out of times for physically sighting the Ramadan and Eid moons. His seemingly well-meaning but controversial actions caused more harm than good in promoting goodwill between Muslim secularists and orthodox Muslims. It is not just this government that has been casual about religious sensitivity. The last government also did not realise that an important Annex was removed from the Election Amendment Act 2018 which resulted in a nationwide protest over certification of the finality of prophethood. Another past government had ministers in the cabinet who did not want official Qaris at the opening of parliamentary committee meetings , yet they themselves could not recite Quranic verses from Surah Al-Akhlas correctly on microphone.
The issues where the government needs to work hard include inclusive reform of the madrassas and their state financing, incorporating Imams and Muezzins in its state employee structure, and drawing TORs for their recruitment, employment and retirement and delivering a pre-approved single Friday sermon all over the country under the authority of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This will be possible only if the clergy sees these government institutions as sincere and qualified for promoting Islam and finding common ground, and which are run by officials who are not corrupt and who could be trusted with the religious knowledge and services they provide. The government also needs to address issues around application of blasphemy laws in relation to cases brought against poor and uneducated minority citizens; protecting and checking the status of principal witnesses who are called to testify and the way FIRs are drafted and filed by police; challenging the insistence of Ahmadis to defy the 14th amendment and their boycott of electoral rolls, which result in distrust against their community; and the more recent question of blasphemy of the Prophet by foreign-based provocateurs who clearly have an agenda to foment hatred and violence in the Muslim communities and countries, and who are officially protected by their governments for carrying out such racist and divisive acts.
3) Balancing legitimate state authority versus democratic right to protest
Organising protests is an essential feature of democracy and defines the political space in which the government and opposition parties operate. In a representative democracy, protests are not the right of political parties alone. Any interest group or gathering of citizens has the right to start or join a public protest in a democracy. In western countries protests are staged against the policies of the government on issues the protestors do not agree with. Sometimes their demands are ignored and at other times these are accepted fully or partially and result in change of policy. A protest is organised to register a dissenting point with the government, but it is not meant to force the government to accept it fully and immediately. A normal political protest is different from a popular revolution. Protests can happen many times in a year; a revolution happens only once in many years. Unfortunately, in countries where democracy is nascent or has repeatedly suffered from military or authoritarian rule, protests have not evolved into an established form of political expression. The Arab Spring protests resulted in premature revolutions in countries which were not prepared for post-revolution governance, resulting in great loss of life, instability of state, and devastating impact on the economic well-being of their people. Last year Sudan went down this slippery road. Today it is under a second military takeover. In fact, there are more examples in Africa to quote but I do not want to digress from the topic at hand.
In Pakistan, protests do not take place to convey a message of dissent to government. They sound more like a clarion call for a people’s revolution that thunders loud but never happens. The protesting side believes that the government has to bow down to its demands or else go home. The long history of political protests in Pakistan shows that these have been used to bring down a weak government through violence or by creating unstable conditions, which enable the military to intervene in the name of restoring peace and stability. This is how Ayub Khan’s rule was ended in 1969; and how the lawyers’ movement forced General Musharraf to convene multi-party elections in 2008. Since then, a good understanding has been reached between political parties that a regime change through public protests is not the best thing for democracy. However, they have yet to develop the understanding that the place to protest and make political noise is Parliament and not the back-end of someone’s else’s protest on the street or conversations on social media or debates on the country’s private TV channels.
Last April it was to the government’s credit that it showed flexibility and agreed to listen to the demands of TLP to end their protest in the long hot days of Ramadan. Although the interior minister’s U turn so soon after a threatened administrative action against the party was a surprise for the country, it was in retrospect a good thing in clearing the position of TLP as a party which has no hand in terrorist activities. The Sarina Hotel bombing in Quetta on 21 March, only a day after the successful talks between the government and TLP, is evidence of how foreign enemy planned to exploit the TLP protest to destabilise Pakistan and achieve multiple aims. Planning and executing a terrorist act from overseas using local sleepers does not happen quickly, and that’s why the enemy failed to anticipate how quickly the TLP protest would end. The enemy could not fast track the planning for its proxy terrorist act. Another lesson for the government is that if public protests on religious questions are allowed to continue without taking urgent and reconciliatory prudent action, Pakistan’s enemies will try to take advantage of it and make the situation worse.
4) Role of government and political parties
There are justifiable questions on the performance of government for not finding a permanent solution to the irritating religious issues resurfacing frequently despite its best intention to make Pakistan a moderate Islamic state. However, the silence of other political parties, as well as role of other religious parties during the peak of the TLP crisis is most unfortunate and unacceptable. As the country’s opposition they have a responsibility to set aside politics when it comes to issues like Kashmir, Palestine, Afghanistan, Islamophobia, attacks on the honour and character of the Prophet, and the defence of Pakistan. The opposition and other religious parties have often failed to meet this expectation leaving the government and TLP to sort this out between them. It is most unfortunate that some security personnel have lost their lives and public property is torched and in retaliation many protestors have been arrested for disturbing peace. This circus must come to an end with prudent policies that are not just aimed at shutting up the mulla but should go deeper than blaming only one side and addressing inefficiency and inertia within the government and concerned agencies on tackling sensitive issues.
5. What’s Next
The government must learn to make contingency plans on matters of utmost importance to the country where public sentiment cannot be ignored. It must learn how to create space for public protests and draw up a modus operandi for their organisation and acknowledgement and ensure that it will deal with them not by force but through flexible yet firm hand. On the question of protecting Islamic icons, values and traditions, there will always be a difference between the orthodox and liberal Pakistanis. This difference must be respected and nurtured as part of Pakistan’s rich ethnic and cultural diversity. However, if the country’s constitution envisages Pakistan to be an Islamic State and be guided by the holy Quran and Sunnah in its affairs, then the State should use its mandate, resources and institutions to bring about a new ‘entente cordiale’ between the clergy and the State to work for the common objective together, and not as mutually exclusive forces. The alternative is to follow the example of Bangladesh and change the constitution declaring that religion is a private affair of Pakistanis and nothing to do with the State. However, a referendum, not a constitutional amendment, will decide it, should God forbid, things go out of control that far.