Karachi Despatch | World

Pakistan’s tryst with religious extremists

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN, NOVEMBER 25: Pakistani police commando is seen alert beside a buring police van which was set on fire by protesters after security forces launched a crackdown on Saturday morning against protesters, who had been blocking the main entrance from Rawalpindi city to capital Islamabad, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on November 25, 2017. (Photo by Muhammed Reza/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN, NOVEMBER 25: Pakistani police commando is seen alert beside a buring police van which was set on fire by protesters after security forces launched a crackdown on Saturday morning against protesters, who had been blocking the main entrance from Rawalpindi city to capital Islamabad, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on November 25, 2017. (Photo by Muhammed Reza/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Just when many in Pakistan thought that the country had attained some stability after a decade-long battle with religious extremists, a little-known group with a few thousand supporters held Islamabad under siege for three weeks, reminding the state that the fault-lines remain intact. The Tehreek-i-Labbaik, led by radical cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, known for his hard-line stand on the country’s blasphemy laws, blocked the capital city’s main entrance last month, demanding Law Minister Zahid Hamid’s resignation over blasphemy allegations.

A few weeks ago, everything seemed normal. Despite the ouster of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges, his party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, was getting back on its feet. Parliament finalised legislation for poll reforms in October ahead of next year’s general elections. Most lawmakers in Parliament, including Opposition members, voted for the Bill.

It was pointed out by a legislator that the oath for lawmakers, which declares that Mohammed is the final prophet, was replaced with another undertaking in one of the amendments. The original oath was introduced to bar the Ahmadiyya community from contesting elections on a Muslim seat as the Pakistani Constitution had declared them non-Muslim in 1974. Ahmadis have never participated in elections ever since. The government reversed the amendment within a week after religious parties declared the change a conspiracy. An inquiry was also ordered into the matter and the dust was settling down.

But Mr. Rizvi suddenly announced a march towards the capital. Labbaik supporters, who seized the main entrance to Islamabad, said they wanted the Law Minister to go. The government half-heartedly ordered a police operation on November 25, after directions from both the Islamabad High Court and the Supreme Court. The operation failed to vacate the crowd. Instead, protesters tortured police personnel, burnt vehicles and looted nearby showrooms, causing damages of 160 million rupees. The government ordered the military to intervene, but it refused. Instead it offered to mediate and convinced the protesters to leave after ensuring them that the Law Minister would resign. He did, in return for a religious edict that he would not be declared a “blasphemer”.

Military’s role

The sudden resolution of the issue raised many eyebrows. Some questioned if the military had ganged up with the protesters to corner Mr. Sharif’s party. PML-N leaders also believe that even Mr. Sharif’s ouster was masterminded by the military as he was increasingly asserting civilian authority over the Army.

At a party meeting, Mr. Sharif expressed dismay over the deal with the Labbaik, and raised doubts over the military’s role. Several rights activists and writers fear that the siege itself was an attempt by the military to influence the 2018 elections.

Former Human Rights Commission chairperson and activist lawyer Asma Jahangir took to Twitter to express the fear: “Quaid’s Pakistan defeated and surrendered to dharna brigade, an offshoot of the military establishment, paving the way to the rule of Piristan. The new national anthem selected from the brilliant jurisprudence of our Supreme Court. It begins with ‘pity the nation’ Have pity on us.” Journalist and writer Ejaz Haider summed it up on Twitter. “This country, this flag, the national anthem, the motivation, the sacrifices, the pride sab #PaynDiSiri [an abuse often used by Labbaik’s Rizvi]”.


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