Any Pakistani watching the local news the past few days must have been suitably perturbed in some manner by the ongoing events – either by the phone calls of loved ones unable to make the journey via the motorway, or by the media coverage of seemingly endless lines of traffic, or perhaps even slightly amused by the agitated live accounts of those seamlessly stuck in that traffic. Immobility stemming from religiously-inspired marches isn’t a new phenomenon for residents of Lahore, or other cities of Pakistan for that matter.
By now, most of us have become familiar with the Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR), a far-right party that gained prominence on the national stage in 2017 for staging a sit-in at the Faizabad Interchange, led by the formidable Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a name that quickly gained distinction. The raison d’etre for this display of civil disobedience was a controversial amendment of the oath in the electoral law- an alteration that ‘challenged’ the notion of the finality of the Prophethood; the Khatam-e-Nubuwat. The rest we all saw play out on our television screens (minus the temporary panicky media-blackout promulgated by the government); ridiculous diatribes and violent clashes that finally ended with the intervention of the armed forces and the drawing up of an ‘agreement’.
Elated with their success, TLYRA asked for the immediate deposition of Law Minister Zahid Hamid, the ‘vile’ man they held chiefly responsible for this supposedly blasphemous transgression. But it didn’t stop there. The daunting list of demands accepted by the government with the aid of the army chief included an interrogation of Punjab’s Law Minister Rana Sanaullah on his comments regarding the persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims (how dare he state facts, Pakistan had an exemplary status in its treatment of minorities), a review of the significant role played by clerics in controlling the textbook board (as if there hadn’t been enough state-imposed versions of Islamic curriculum since Zia’s era) and direct punishment for offenders of the blasphemy code 295-C, all truly harkening back to the memory of Pakistan’s longstanding sordid affair with political Islam.
Given the inability of the government to uphold the fulfilment of this agreement, TLYRA’s supporters took to the streets again in the last few days at the beckoning of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who issued an ultimatum for the government to either fully comply with the promises made in the Faizabad escapade or to ‘martyr’ him and his trusty band of followers. Under the guise of ‘bettering’ the religious sensibilities of a nation on the path to waywardness, Khadim Hussain Rizvi has determinedly set himself on a path of reform that denies any space for sensible negotiation. While it is apparent that his authority that stems from a misguided sense of righteousness, the question of what to do with him arises repeatedly with little answer from those in a position of power, leaving the citizens to suffer rampant misery in the brunt of chaos and a disruption of civic life.
It is especially amusing to see the caption “Mere Quaid ka farmaan” written on his posters shared online – of course, you can hardly go wrong when you collectively use the smoking guns of religion and jingoism.
But this does not take away from the glaring fact that it is indeed an act of defiance to democratic ideals because the methodology is incorrect. What if such a party were to rally up even greater numbers over a certain period? Would they respect the electoral system or just paralyze the city once again by force with little or no opposition?
But all this is only symptomatic of a much larger ailment that is grappling the nation.
In fact, Pakistan seems to be caught up in a strange screening of its turbulent past- since its inception, the nation has interminably struggled with a convoluted Islamic identity, facing constant challenges from Muslim fundamentalists and clergy with theocratic agendas.
T.V Paul, a notable South Asian writer, provides further insight into Pakistan’s indissoluble bond with phases of religious revival, tracing its origins back to the Objectives Resolution of 1949 that set the stage for the clergy to indefinitely trump other authorities and justify the disenfranchisement of minorities in the nation-state. For him, therefore, these issues are grounded in the very basis of the conception of this nation. His notion that the clergy has the power to influence the most secular of political leaders rings true today, as we witness bodies of authority in a stupor.
The establishments liaison with religious groups in the past has come at a high cost- Islamist groups have served as indispensable weapons in military offenses against the likes of India and then consequently the Soviets in Afghanistan. Other religious factions like the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) have also always had the tacit support of the military, and this support has trickled down to the population over decades perhaps as a reaction to the radical anti-Islam movements in the West.
In a bid to seek political supremacy for the Barelvis, Khadim Hussain Rizvi brings an archaic ideology to the mantle. Indeed, it is a morose day for the citizens, government, armed forces and other law enforcement agencies of Pakistan when scores of members of Tehreek e Labaik took to the streets, practically bringing the three cities of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad to a troubling standstill. And what of the law enforcement agencies? While the army stepped in at the perusal of government in the previous run in with Khadim and his followers, its silence on a matter that routinely would evoke more involvement indicates that while abetting may not be the case, the display of tolerance certainly sends a message. So what is one to do in a situation where members of the police, rangers and armed forces don’t want to lay a finger on the individuals involved, even if their leader is deemed an offender by the anti-terrorism court in Islamabad?
But it is this religious immunity that needs to be shattered to its core. There is a dire need for the building of a national counter-narrative of de-radicalisation and non-support to be perpetuated nationwide, but perhaps it is of little use to a country whose ethnic wounds have not healed. We need to devise a plan to collectively think of the future of the nation, which can only occur with the eradication of fear in discussing the matters of religion, where the alteration of electoral oaths do not have to relegated to ‘clerical errors’ out of fear, but where a liberal society can step confidently onto the global stage and not be weighed down by inner turbulence. The ruling gentry have also previously failed to negotiate with domestic actors, indicating the need for an open discussion between various segments of society on the matter. We need to stand against the imprudent spread of radical messages and create an environment where a diversity of beliefs can coexist without violence. Perhaps another not too irrational fear is the reaction such movements ferment within the emerging youth; it is not unlikely that they create a divide of culture and religion that becomes harder to bridge as people move away from religion itself. After all, who will be left to read the annals of great writers on religion, like Iqbal and Rumi? Let us build a future that does not mirror the past in its errors.