Pakistan has lived most of its short life in the shadow of threats of violence from religious extremists. The so called 1953 ‘riots’ set a pattern for rabble rousing that continues to this day. Instigated by Majlis-Ahrar-e-Islam and Majlis-e-Tahaffuz-e-Khatme Nabuwwat, the 1953 riots set the tone for this sort of protest: simply label somebody as a heretic or denier of the Prophet (pbuh), and declare them “deserving of death”, thereby glorifying their killers as heroes who are “fulfilling a religious duty.”
That particular campaign of violence and hate resulted in the first imposition of martial law in the country. It also provided the religious right with an effective rallying cry and focal point: violent action against those who are perceived to be a danger to the faith or a denier of the Prophet. It served to unite various religious parties in their anti-secular efforts. Jamaat-e-Islami’s Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, the author of Qadyani Masla (The Ahmadi Problem) and responsible for various inflammatory press statements was tried and sentenced to death, although this was later changed to a life sentence.
The same was the case with Maulana Abdus Sattar Niazi. Despite these sentences and the military crackdown and subsequent enquiry into the riots, the incident provided religious parties with the confidence that if they were able to rally a mob fuelled by religious fervour and zealotry, the state would have to capitulate to their demands in some part.
Over the decades this sort of mob violence ‘in the defence of religion’ has continued and been mostly successful even if pointless and destructive. The year after the publication of The Satanic Verses by the novelist Salman Rushdie, a mob tried to attack the American Centre in Islamabad. Five people were killed in the firing. Although, the violent protest followed the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Rushdie, it is worth noting that the book was actually published in Britain the year before, when General Ziaul Haq was in power in Pakistan. The violence however, took place just a few months into Benazir Bhutto’s government and there were reports that allegedly a number of protestors were bussed in from Rawalpindi and facilitated by military officers.
That elements of the military establishment have periodically used religious rabble rousing to destabilise civilian governments and democratically elected politicians is now fairly well-documented. However, this patronage which has been used to destabilise other countries in the region as well as its own civilian governments has often proved detrimental to the handlers of such militant cadres. The Red Mosque siege was an example of such a Frankenstein monster spinning out of control and challenging a military ruler, General Musharraf. The TTP’s attacks on GHQ and other military targets are similar examples.
Prime Minister Imran Khan took a brave and clear stand last week when he stated unequivocally that the actions of those threatening the Supreme Court judges who had decided the appeal in a blasphemy case would not be tolerated. It is worth noting that this was the same group that last November held the PML-N government hostage and forced the resignation of the law minister, again by playing the ‘Ahmadi card’. After that protest ended senior army military officers were filmed distributing money to the protestors, patting them on the back and calling them “our children”. The same group, TLP, was later able to contest elections and gain seats in parliament, something which many analysts describe as a deliberate ‘mainstreaming’.
But last week the group overstepped their limits and issued appeals to army personnel to support the new protest and go against the army chief because of his ‘Ahmadi connections’. This is perceived to be one of the main reasons why the PTI government first blacked out media coverage of the statements and then took a strong line against the protestors. Whatever the reason, it was a brave and timely step to take. And one that hopefully will not be reversed or undermined.
The government must establish the writ of the State and make clear that those who try to undermine the rule of law will have to face consequences. But it cannot do that unless the patronage of the rabble rousers and their networks is discontinued.
Let’s see if the PTI government’s actions live up to PM’s words.