As the primary constitutive basis of Pakistan, religion has been coming at a crossroads with politics, strategy, and the wider state policies for over decades now. This interaction of religion and politics has usually arrived as the elites-led politicisation and militarisation of Islam for the achievement of political and strategic goals. So far, questions over the extent and limitations of Islam as the predominant driving force of state affairs remains fraught with confusions and subject to debate. Hence, politically motivated and disarrayed capitalisation over religion is one unfortunate yet defining consequence of this puzzle. As its latest manifestation, the rise of the now-proscribed Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), an ultra-right-wing religious movement-cum-political party, has sent tremors among Pakistan’s strategic community and policymaking circles. With strategic violence as a political tool and a hefty street power at its disposal, the TLP indicates its capacity to make headways into the country’s dominant political discourse. The TLP has emerged as a prominent political party known for employing religious zealotry for inciting activism, vigilantism, and mob violence. If anything, Pakistan’s societal-level diverse sectarian and sub-sectarian composition might not be able to withstand the untoward derivatives of sub-sectarian ideologically motivated politics.
The emergence and rise of TLP in Pakistan’s political fabric is a recent development and does not span over a long stretch of time. Named as the “Tehreek-e-Rihai Mumtaz Qadri” (Movement to Free Mumtaz Qadri), the TLP took off as a social movement in 2015, seeking to mobilise masses for pressuring the state into reviewing the capital punishment convicted to Mumtaz Qadri. After the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri in 2016, the movement was renamed “Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasoolullah” which, later transformed into a political party under the name of TLP. In terms of its religious alignment, the TLP hails from the Sunni-Barelvi subsect of the Hanafi school of thought. Until the rise of TLP, this particular subsect was generally understood as relatively peaceful, owing to its denunciation of terrorism. On the other side of this spectrum, the Deobandi subsect, having received the Zia administration’s patronage during the 1970s and 1980s for fighting against the Iranian Shiite activism and Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, was considered otherwise. On its formative basis, the rise of the Deobandi school entrenched the Barelvi subsect into grievances. Henceforth, the “Enlightened Moderation” programme launched in 2006 sought to strengthen the Barelvi subsect as a counternarrative to Deobandi militancy.
While Pakistan makes advances in establishing its narrative of a responsible nuclear state, such statements only come as disfavours to the country’s larger interests. The recent demand for expelling France’ envoy is once again viewed as a sheer disregard for Pakistan’s foreign policy contingencies and constraints.
In the 2018 general elections, owing to several reasons, the TLP displayed a considerably sound performance. However, this has not led the TLP to establish political finesse on national security and foreign policy issues. The former chief of TLP, late Khadim Rizvi, is known for giving naïve statements regarding foreign policy issues on several occasions. To quote one, Rizvi’s views on employing nuclear weapons against France. While the statement must have been delivered in the heat of the moment merely to generate public sway, it got traction on the international media for all the wrong reasons. While Pakistan makes advances in establishing its narrative of a responsible nuclear state, such statements only come as disfavours to the country’s larger interests. The recent demand for expelling France’ envoy is once again viewed as a sheer disregard for Pakistan’s foreign policy contingencies and constraints.
The latest TLP-led fiasco unravelled on April 12 when protests across Pakistan’s major cities erupted, after the state’s security forces detained the current chief Saad Hussain Rizvi. It was a pre-emptive measure ahead of the TLP’s deadline to the government for implementing the terms of an agreement signed between the two in November 2020. The agreement was signed over the state’s response to certain blasphemous activities that took place in France. During the protests, police officials faced the onslaught of mobs, with a number of casualties being reported on each side. The crisis further escalated on April 18, when the TLP miscreants attacked a police station with petrol bombs, taking five police officials hostage. Consequently, violence broke out between the two groups; the police claimed it to be in self-defence and aimed at establishing the state’s writ.
On April 15, the TLP was formally banned under the auspices of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997. While the ban was seen as a welcome development for its capacity to paralyse TLP’s political and financial activities, the practical effectiveness of the blacklisting remains subject to several contestations. Nevertheless, the blacklisting might be understood as providing a breather to the government, struggling to evade the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey-listing, among other extremism-related predicaments on the foreign policy front. As of now, the TLP remains banned; however, the final verdict regarding this remains an onus for the Supreme Court.
While the state’s ongoing counterterrorism drive has considerably decreased the trajectory of terrorism in Pakistan, the threats posed by societal-level extremism remains a facet requiring redress.
The TLP-led clashes against the state reflect a difference of modus operandi for achieving the “same objectives”, as Prime Minister Imran Khan termed it. However, the unattended impending consequences of this fiasco shall bode a more significant socio-political outcome for the state and society. These trends indicate a resurgence of ideologically motivated violent extremism in a post-conflict society that is yet to make leaps and bounds in countering extremist narratives and achieving socio-political, economic and ideological stability. While the state’s ongoing counterterrorism drive has considerably decreased the trajectory of terrorism in Pakistan, the threats posed by societal-level extremism remains a facet requiring redress. Additionally, the changing regional environment, characterised by the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, is feared to provide an impetus to the neo-Jihadist groups like the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) resurge. The TTP has already displayed its support to the TLP, calling for a joint struggle against the government. The threat spectrum becomes further acute when the chances of the rise of Shiite sectarian militancy turning against the Sunni sectarian violence are considered. Hence, the rise of far-right ideologues among the political ranks, building upon ideological, religious, sectarian identities, must be alarming for the political and strategic community of the country.
As of now, while the current government devises its response mechanism, it is pertinent that political parties and religious institutions earnestly pool in their faculties for the larger interests of the state. Most recently, the national assembly session held on April 20 manifested a sheer lack of consensus and political manoeuvring over the subject issue among the political parties. On an immediate basis, the capacity-building of Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies and moving an effective criminal justice system against the perpetration of hate speech, religious bigotry, disruption of public and private property, and false accusations are required. In this regard, an essential yet less debated-over measure is the need of revamping Pakistan’s anti-terror legislation to respond to the evolving needs and ground realities. It may involve the initiation of legislative reforms to provide security nets to prosecutors and judges trying cases of misconduct by far-right groups. Also, it may include stricter punishments for perpetrators of hate crime and violence against false accusation of blasphemy and religious misconduct. The state also needs to establish multi-dimensional and robust counternarrative campaigns delivered via contemporary and relevant modes of communication to the public. In the longer run, it impinges on initiating religious and educational reforms and building healthy and reflective debate environments, the responsibility of which is not only on the state but also on individuals.
To conclude, it is crucial than ever that this understanding be institutionalised on state, institutional and individual-level: the employment of the public’s reverences and religious ideals as a tool for political gains, generating discord, and attacking public and private property is an eventuality off-limits. Such groups have been known for pulling their own strings, and hence, the state and society have to stand firm against the possibility of taking a course back in time.