By Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar*
The impact of organised religion on nations has historically been a sense of contrived significance, but in essence has neither refined society nor elevated power status. The case of civilizational encounters is curious. The vanquished wontedly looked backwards for spiritual succour while succumbing to the influences of the aggressor; in the process, dogmas and rituals replaced inventiveness as the spirit that propelled development calcified (Toynbee, 1957). This state is symptomatic of a society in the throes of derangement. A failed response to the challenges of plurality and vigour of competing belief systems is thus marked by religious masquerade and a despairing choice inspired by fundamental ideologies. In the past, the Egyptiac world, Judaism and Christianity have succumbed to this fanatic impulse. Ironically, primitive Islam was spiritually tolerant of civilisations that it considered allied to as ‘People of the Book’. It is no coincidence that this very period saw Islamic civilisation flourish. Contemporary political Islamic movements are, however, marked by failed responses; the more radical, the more savage towards the idea of plurality and renewal.
In the recently concluded elections to the Pakistan National Assembly, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP) polled nearly two and a quarter million votes (Election Commission of Pakistan), making it the fifth largest political party in that country. While this may not have readily translated to seats in the National Assembly, what it stands for is ‘street power’ of the radical Islam variety. Regaling the event, their chief, Allama Khadim Husain Rizvi narrated a grisly electoral episode from Nawabshah, a district in Sindh. “We were singing our anthem Deen Aaya, when the Peoples Party (PPP) camp started playing their electioneering jingles; we asked them to stop because our hymn was in veneration of Allah, but their leader spurned our entreaty.” Imagine ‘Allah’s wrath’, for that very night the PPP leader breathed his last. The next morning it was God’s will that all of the PPP followers switched their loyalty to the TLP!
TLP shot to prominence when it opposed the 2016 hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, convicted in 2011of assassinating the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province. Born in 1966 in Attock, Punjab, Rizvi, a self-acclaimed Barelvi cleric, was in government in the department of religious affairs, the auqaf. He was soon removed for radical activism. A paraplegic, he became deeply involved in organising public support for harsher and more invasive blasphemy laws. In November 2017, his siege of Islamabad for this cause paralysed the capital for over three weeks. The government and its law enforcement agencies made an abortive attempt to curb the mayhem but only succeeded in spreading protests to all the major cities. It was the army chief’s personal intervention that defused the situation with the offer of unconditional capitulation of the state to more severe blasphemy laws, sacking of the Federal Minister for Law Zahid Hamid, and the release of all prisoners taken. The siege of Islamabad was lifted. Allama Khadim Husain Rizvi had arrived; it is reported with a ‘little’ help from the army.
Karachi was a distant frontier for the TLP whose home grounds were the radical madrassas of South Punjab (Bhawalpur, Multan, Mianwali, Dera Ghazi Khan etc.) Their electoral gains in Karachi owed largely to pulpit intimidation, violence and menacing politics. The city, latterly dominated by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), represents Pakistan’s Urdu-speaking mohajir, immigrant community. The odious ‘mohajir’ moniker was dropped from its name and replaced by the less unpalatable muttahida (united). The MQM is known for its muscular methods in Karachi; it had in the past controlled the vote in the inner city and its immediate urban enclaves through a grid that organised the city’s underworld. Aided by the army, the TLP broke up these networks. The mosque became the platform from where the message of redemption was hammered home, in a manner and scale not seen since the call for jihad to fight the US invasion of Afghanistan. The argument now was that since the people of Karachi had committed crimes and violence for mortal reasons, atonement in the eyes of God was only possible if these same people took up Allah’s cause by volunteering their time and labour for the TLP. An irreverent ‘Anschluss’ between the deep state, piety and politics now paved the way for the electoral success of the Army’s willing protégé, Imran and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).
Central to the strategy was infusing politics with ritual, a messianic propagation of the Barelvi belief system, and of the TLP’s near prophet-like paraplegic leader and his ‘mystical’ powers over followers. The irony is that of the two Sunni sects, the Barelvi was seen as the more reticent and less prone to militancy than the orthodox Salafist-driven Deobandis. Meanwhile, the legend of how deen has managed to purify and chasten non-believers flourishes despite being in mortal conflict with what makes for a democratic state. The question at the core is, what makes Pakistan more susceptible to ideological blackmail from such extreme shades of the religious right?
Ideological blackmail is potentially congenital to the Islamic state particularly when a myth of Islam-in-danger becomes the testament. To fully appreciate this phenomenon, one goes back in recent history to Partition. The disproportionate security apparatus that Pakistan inherited and the communal basis of award (33 per cent of the military as opposed to 18 per cent demography, 23 per cent landmass and 18 per cent of financial assets) fuelled the idea that Islam, communal hatred and perpetual hostility towards India were innate to the separation of the Muslim nation. Also, an army under the banner of Islam was an imperative to forge unity and guard both ideological and geographic frontiers of the fledgling state. That the concept not only gained salience but is also an abiding characteristic of the strategic culture that the army has carefully nurtured is today the idea of Pakistan.
And, in August 2018, when the Dutch politician Geert Wilders comes along and announces that he would hold a Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest that was a thinly veiled attempt to attack and provoke one of Wilders’ favourite whipping-boys, Islam; the TLP seized the opportunity to once again show its strength. On cue, lakhs of TLP supporters made their way to Islamabad to demand Pakistan sever diplomatic ties with the Netherlands or face a repeat of the siege of the capital. Why did Wilders call off the contest? It could not have been for economic reasons since the Netherlands’ GDP at US$ 830 billion is almost threefold of Pakistan’s, while bilateral trade is less than US$ 1.2 billion, nor could it be any influence that Islamabad wields for they have little of that (there was of course the threat of jihadi violence).The probable cause for cancellation was perhaps the fragile situation in Afghanistan which James Mattis explained as “co-existence of violence and progress” against a backdrop of stability. President Ashraf Ghani was less cryptic when he offered an unconditional peace proposal to the Taliban; a ceasefire, recognition of the Taliban, elections afresh, and a constitutional review. Any disruption of this process, in US’ perspective, may have provided space for exceptionable Chinese and Russian interference. So it could be that it was the US that reined in Wilders. At any rate, the cancellation served to enhance Khadim Rizvi’s notional power across continents and the reality that his ideas found resonance with leaders and elites in mainstream political parties. That this has happened raises the question, how close to being an extremist state is Pakistan?
As this question is pondered, comes Deen and the news that the Pakistan Supreme Court has sacked Atif Mian, a Princeton economist from the PM’s Economic Advisory Council for being an Ahmadi, and in quick succession lifted the international ban on the terror proscribed Hafeez Sayeed’s outfit the Jamaat-ud-Dawa.
*Vice Admiral (Retd) Vijay Shankar is former Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command of India.
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