Subscribe to South Asia Citizens Wire | feeds from | @sacw
Home > General > Return of a spectre called blasphemy - Farzana Shaikh / What’s behind the (...)

Return of a spectre called blasphemy - Farzana Shaikh / What’s behind the Islamist protests in Pakistan? - Niloufer Siddiqui / After Faizabad – what is to be done ? Ammar Rashid

10 December 2017

print version of this article print version

[Three Op-Eds on the implications of Faizabad protest by the fundamentalists in Pakistan ]

The Indian Express - December 9, 2017

Return of a spectre called blasphemy

The current turmoil in Pakistan is a rerun: The elected government has again failed to assert its authority against unconstitutional forces claiming to act in the name of Islam.

Written by Farzana Shaikh

Yet again the world must look on in bewilderment as Pakistan emerges battered and bruised from a crisis precipitated by an obscure theological dispute that has forced the resignation of the country’s law minister and led to the dramatic mobilisation of religious forces directed by the ponderous sounding Tehreek-e-Labbaik ya Rasool Allah (or Movement in the Service of the Prophet [Muhammad]).

Presiding over this version of Pakistan’s own passion play is the country’s military establishment. It has been credited with brokering a deal that ended the crisis, but on terms that raise doubts about the government’s Islamic credentials and leave it vulnerable to an early demise. Pakistan’s noisy commentariat meanwhile has taken in droves to the air waves, the press and social media.

They hope to decide if the latest events spell a capitulation to religious bigotry or point to a carefully stage-managed show by the army to bring down a recalcitrant government. The jury is still out. What is clear is that the political stock invested in the language of Islam, which dates back to the creation of Pakistan, is limitless and still the preferred instrument of choice of those seeking political change by unconstitutional means.

Indeed, there is a striking resemblance between recent developments and episodes in Pakistan’s early history when elected governments also risked being unconstitutionally dislodged for failing to meet standards set by the extravagant claims to be “acting in the name of Islam”. The trend was set in 1953 when religious protesters, aided and abetted by the provincial administration in Punjab, called for the Ahmadi minority to be stripped of their status as Muslims as a ploy to bring down the government at the Centre, which was accused of compromising Pakistan’s Islamic identity.

A more audacious attempt to test a government’s performance against Pakistan’s putative Islamic purpose came in 1977 when religious parties successfully ousted the then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for what were judged to be secular misdemeanours. In a striking parallel with current events, Bhutto had sought to appease religious parties by pushing through a constitutional amendment in 1974 that designated Pakistan’s Ahmadis as a non-Muslim minority. It remains in force to the present day.

Like Bhutto, the government’s beleaguered former law minister, Zahid Hamid, also moved to stave off protesters by acting pre-emptively. In October, long before the protests had erupted, he agreed to restore the original wording of an oath reserved for parliamentary candidates under a new election act. The new oath, which would later trigger the demonstrations, had required candidates to “declare” their belief in the finality of the Prophet Muhammad instead of undertaking to “swear” by it.

Although it took protesters almost a month after the restoration of the original wording to express their outrage and to charge Hamid with blasphemy, the momentum unleashed by the demonstrations developed rapidly thereafter. Besieged by the protesters’ sit-in, Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad, ground to a virtual halt. The government meanwhile was crippled by classic considerations that have plagued administrations in the past: A chronic unwillingness to be seen as “acting against Islam”. Though Hamid’s ignominious departure from office was perhaps inevitable in the circumstances, his public confession of faith in the days leading up to it was unprecedented even by the standards of Pakistan’s blasphemy-obsessed political culture.

That culture has gained immeasurably with the emergence of a distinctly muscular style of politics by followers of the Barelvi school of thought, who led the protests. They represent the dominant persuasion among Pakistan’s Sunni Muslim majority and have been regarded, until recently, as the standard bearers of an internationally sanctioned discourse of “moderate” Islam owing to their close ties to local Sufi shrines. Their strident entry into Pakistan’s politics has taken many by surprise; others have reacted with disbelief over reports that some Barelvi leaders now intend to tone down “the Sufi face of Barelvi Islam” which they claim has been promoted to “please the West”.

Be that as it may, signs of a shift in the posture of Barelvi groups have long been in evidence. In 2011 the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated in broad day light after mounting a spirited campaign to reform Pakistan notorious blasphemy laws. His killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was a Barelvi militant, then serving as one of Taseer’s bodyguards. Qadri’s actions, his trial and his subsequent execution in 2016 are now seen as a turning point in the radicalisation of Barelvi politics.

But they also brought to fruition a state-sponsored policy, active since 9/11, of quietly empowering Barelvi groups to counterbalance so-called “hardliners” among Pakistan’s proliferating Deobandi and Salafi groups. They were seen to have grown increasingly independent of their handlers within Pakistan’s military and security establishment, whose authority it was said they were now prone to question. It is no wonder that eyebrows were raised when Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, declined to act in support of the government claiming the protestors were ‘our people’.

Whether Bajwa meant to refer to “people” who had been consciously nurtured by his institution — namely the army — for ends unknown, or “people” who were merely exercising their democratic right to protest, may never be known. What is known and clearly in the public domain is the fulsome praise showered on Bajwa by Barelvi leaders, who hailed his decision to set his role as the guarantor of their interests above the military’s constitutional responsibility to assist the civilian government when called upon to do so.

It hardly needs saying (again) that current developments in Pakistan are far from conducive to stable government. Nor indeed are they welcome at a time when Pakistan hopes to emerge as the hub of ambitious new schemes of regional co-operation piloted by China. But so long as the state’s vexed relation to Islam is allowed to hold governments to ransom in Pakistan, we can all expect to witness a re-run of present events.

The writer is an associate fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London and the author of ‘Making Sense of Pakistan’

o o o

The Washington Post, December 8, 2017

What’s behind the Islamist protests in Pakistan?

by Niloufer Siddiqui

Three weeks of protests ended in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, on Nov. 26, with the resignation of the country’s federal law minister — a demand of the hard-line Islamist protesters. The country’s major English-language newspaper termed the deal a “capitulation” and “a devastating blow to the legitimacy and moral standing of the government and all state institutions.”

The protests, which had effectively paralyzed the city after blocking a major highway, resulted in the loss of at least six lives and 200 injured. They were sparked by a minor change to the oath taken by election candidates, which slightly altered the language declaring the prophet Muhammad as the final prophet — a central belief of the Islamic faith. The change was dismissed by the government as a “clerical error” and quickly reversed. However, the protests continued, calling, among other things, for the law minister to resign for his alleged blasphemy in overseeing this change. At the root of the issue was whether this tweak was intended to benefit the widely ostracized Ahmadi sect.

Further underlying the protests, and the state’s response to them, are a number of key, recurrent issues in Pakistani politics: the troubling use of the blasphemy law, the street power of Islamists, the gray zone between political parties and militant actors — and of course, when it comes to Pakistan, civil-military relations aren’t too far beneath the surface.

Here are the main things to understand about the protests — and the trends to watch for.

Who were the protesters?

The protests were spearheaded by a newly formed political party, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLP). The party adheres to a sub-sect of Sunni Islam which emphasizes personal devotion to the prophet Muhammad, engages in such practices as the veneration of saints, and has typically been considered moderate and tolerant. As a result of some of these practices, the sub-sect has been a victim of extremist outfits in Pakistan, such as the Pakistan Taliban.

But the TLP itself has violent origins. It was formed in large part to express support of Mumtaz Qadri, who killed the governor of Punjab for defending the rights of a woman accused of blasphemy in 2011.

As the TLP seeks to establish itself as a relevant political force, the already fuzzy boundary between traditional Islamist electoral parties and explicitly militant — but not political — groups such as the Taliban is becoming increasingly blurred. While the country’s largest Islamist parties are no stranger to the art of street protests and vigilante action, the TLP’s open incitement to violence and its avowedly sectarian nature are more emblematic of anti-Shiite movements in the country.

These movements have been responsible for the killings of thousands of Shiites, at the same time as political wings affiliated with them contest elections. Individual clerics associated with such sectarian groups are also increasingly becoming important local actors, controlling vital vote banks, and proving to be valuable electoral allies for mainstream political parties.

What led to the protests?

The protests last month were related to the status of Ahmadis, a minority group that identifies as Muslim but diverges from other Islamic sects over the belief that the founder of their faith is the last messiah. For their beliefs, Ahmadis have long suffered mob violence and targeted attacks by Islamist groups.

Street protests have played a central role in the Ahmadi issue, with protesters demanding, and state authorities largely acceding to, a steady erosion of Ahmadi rights. The Pakistani state resisted anti-Ahmadi street agitation in 1953, but since then, it has frequently capitulated to Islamist demands, including adding a 1974 constitutional provision that Ahmadis were non-Muslim. The alleged change in the election act in 2017, which precipitated the most recent crisis, was perceived as softening this constitutional amendment.

The protests’ success threatens to embolden those who seek to use blasphemy accusations — a capital offense — as a tool in personal or political disputes. The law minister who resigned as a result of the protests was forced to apologize and, to counter these accusations of blasphemy, assure the nation that he believed in the finality of the prophet.

Civil-military relations: a perpetual challenge

The manner in which the protests ultimately disbanded demonstrates the outsized role of the military in Pakistani politics. The protest’s leader made clear that he would negotiate with the army and not the civilian government, and the list of demands to which the government ultimately agreed includes a note of gratitude to the chief of army staff for “saving the nation from a big catastrophe.” The army’s role was such that an Islamabad high justice released a scathing order criticizing it for extra-constitutional meddling.

A video showing a member of an army-controlled paramilitary force distributing money to the protesters further raises questions about the army’s motivations. Coupled with the army calling for nonviolence on both sides, which was seen as equating the civilian government with the hard-line protesters, journalists and political analysts have asked whether the army is seeking to — once again — influence upcoming national elections.

In particular, the entry of the TLP and other newly formed religious parties into Punjabi electoral politics can make a dent in the vote bank of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), whose support base stems largely from a right-leaning religious electorate. The power of Islamists — who have historically failed at the polls — emanates primarily from their ability to get people out on the streets. However, their ability to weaken the vote share of mainstream parties is proving increasingly important. The recent release of a militant leader thought to be responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks is being interpreted in a similar vein.

The army’s role aside, parties such as the PML-N know that they must ally with such religious actors — or, at the very least, avoid antagonizing them — or risk losing voters. Opposition political parties were quick to capitalize on the PML-N’s failure to manage the situation, publicly siding with the protesters. These electoral considerations encourage appeasement of militant actors by strengthening and entrenching them in politics. The state’s most recent capitulation to the protesters remains a continuation of a dangerous trend of ceding space to militant actors.

Niloufer A. Siddiqui is a postdoctoral fellow at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs at the University at Albany-State University of New York.

o o o

Dawn, December 08, 2017

After Faizabad – what is to be done ?

by Ammar Rashid

There has been a tangible sense of despair among liberal and progressive commentators in the wake of the state’s capitulation to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) at Faizabad.

It has been said that the state’s writ has been forfeited, mobs now dictate policy, and extremism has permeated deep into society’s roots.

While there is truth to such lamentations, there is also an urgent need to move beyond such cathartic grieving, to learn from what this moment signified, and strategise affirmatively for the future.

Fascism unbound

It is important to remember that the forfeiture of the state’s writ in Faizabad has not occurred without its own complicity. This is true both in a historical and a current sense.

The blasphemy and anti-Ahmedi laws, whose protection has animated the new surge of fanaticism, were strengthened and weaponised by the Pakistani state.

More recently, the spate of enforced disappearances of progressive bloggers, and the orchestrated campaign of vilification against them earlier in the year, had insidiously conflated political dissent against the establishment with blasphemy.

In this context, the public affirmation of Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s demands by the state at Faizabad was the logical culmination of the anti-blasphemy hysteria collusively fomented by the state and the right.

Nearly all political or religious dissent against the majoritarian consensus was now deemed a legitimate target for lethal violence.

Yet, even if the state is complicit in the rise of fascism, that does not imply it is in control of the passions that have been aroused.

Among the most chilling aspects of Faizabad was that it took us a step closer to public sanction for mass murder.

As the TLYRA leaders demanded the publication of an Ahmadi registry and the creation of state commissions dedicated to the persecution of the minority group, the state’s acquiescence signified its nod to steps that, historically speaking, have foreshadowed genocide.

The mesmerised mob-like euphoria that would greet Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s onstage invocation of rhetorical violence against religious ‘enemies’ also provided a legible blueprint for how such mass violence could easily be made to occur.
Fascist movements are not an uncommon sight in the world today – across the globe, movements have resurfaced that have transformed the economic and cultural anxieties of ordinary people into political projects that scapegoat racial and religious minorities.

Just months ago, American Nazis openly marched in Charlottesville, Virginia with torches in hand, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’ and calling for the establishment of a white ethno-state in the US.

European streets from Greece to Poland have witnessed fascist marches seething with anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic hatred in the past year alone.

The crucial difference is that across the democratic world, such public displays of bigotry are usually met with organised resistance.

The Nazis at Charlottesville were met by larger numbers of anti-fascist and leftist activists, one of whom paid for her defiance with her life.

From anarchists in Greece to communists in India, the forward march of the organised far right has been opposed and defied on the streets, usually by political workers of a progressive disposition.

The fascist frenzy that lasted for three weeks at Faizabad however, saw no such street challenge, allowing for an impression that it represented majority sentiment.

Pakistani progressives – insufficient or ineffective?

Quite often, the explanation offered for such inaction in Pakistan revolves around a widely-prevalent idea that liberals and progressives in Pakistan are simply too minuscule a minority to exert any influence in an overwhelmingly conservative polity.

Articles abound in the international press about Pakistan’s permanently ‘beleaguered’ liberal minority while jokes habitually crop up on social media about how liberal and left Pakistanis can be counted on two hands.

This perception is understandable. But it is also something of a careless underestimation.

There is of course little doubt that the predominant political disposition in the Islamic republic is one that is conservative and authoritarian.

Yet, after a decade of deadly fundamentalist violence, with often visible links to state institutions and laws; frustration from the senseless bloodshed, and lost lives and opportunities has crystallised in a significant progressive minority, which is severely disenchanted with the destructive character of the state and its proxies.

Until now, the bulk of this minority is visible largely on social media.

If the content and volume of engagement on liberal and progressive social media platforms is anything to go by, Pakistanis who believe in a greater degree of individual religious liberty, democratic continuity, political freedoms, socio-economic justice, and liberties for women and minorities, number in at least the hundreds of thousands, if not more.

Yet one rarely sees even a fraction of such numbers amassed for these causes in the streets.

As Aasim Sajjad notes in his recent column, it is this inability of most progressives to consciously act as members of a political community that constitutes a stiffer challenge than the supposed smallness of their numbers.

The TLYRA’s cadres too were not present in enormous numbers at Faizabad – there were a couple thousand of them at best at the height of the sit-in – yet they managed to cultivate the impression of representing popular sentiment.

Even if one accounts for the support of the deep state, they were simply much more organised than Pakistani progressives are today.

Why is this so? Popular opinion dictates that Pakistan’s descent into madness is the product of an ideological shift – one in which progressives have simply been marginalised by the rightward drift of political convictions.

But there is also a practical, material dimension to this shift – it has also been a consequence of the loss of the left’s organisational forms and spaces, which has greatly weakened and diminished progressive politics over time.

In the 20th century, political Islamism, while still a force, was kept in check by the presence of formidable progressive political and social forces.

Parties like the National Awami Party (NAP), social movements like the Khudai Khidmatgar, and the once-powerful left-wing labour, farmer, and student organisations, not only used to provide an ideological counterweight to the far right, but also channelled working people’s class and nationalistic grievances against an unrepresentative and exploitative economic and political system.

As decades of both military and civilian authoritarianism destroyed those class-based organisations through violent repression and bans, they also undermined the organic reproduction of political subjects who self-identified and acted primarily through the secular categories of class and regional nationalisms.

The loss of these organisational spaces amid a global decline of left-wing politics after the Cold War was catastrophic for progressive politics in Pakistan.

Shorn of both their shared clout and interactive spaces, progressives split up into disparate Marxist, liberal, and ethno-nationalist camps, each seeking their own form of accommodation with the state.

This often resulted in dubious political positions, from tacit support by some for the Musharraf coup to backing non-transparent military operations.

At the same time, the loss of progressive class-based organisations also meant a withering of the close relationships between progressive intellectuals and working classes that had fuelled the left-wing struggles of the 20th century.

Increasingly, it was the ideologues of the right that filled the space progressives had vacated. As the state and its American and Gulf benefactors patronised extremist mosques and seminaries, class grievances began to be morphed and politically mobilised through increasingly exclusionary and reactionary expressions of religious identity.

The earlier struggles against class exploitation by feudal, capitalist and imperialist elites were replaced with crude fundamentalist formulations about ‘Western cultural invasion’, often defined to mean anything remotely progressive as coming from the ‘West’, from women’s freedoms to music and dance.

Rizvi’s TLYRA is merely the latest iteration in this process of class contradictions being cynically mobilised in the service of totalitarian ideology.

Rebuilding progressive organisations and collective spaces – be it through joining existing ones, forming new ones, or overturning senseless legal restrictions like the 33-year-old student union ban – is critical if fascism is to be fought.

Agonising over the need for ‘counter-narratives’ is pointless if the social and political collectives that will popularise and enact these narratives are weak or non-existent.

As such collectives are rebuilt, so too will the possibilities of both class and inter-ethnic solidarity and indigenous cultural resistance that were the mainstay of the progressive politics of our past.
A return to a constructive class politics

However, even as progressives reorganise, it is also clear that they cannot simply do so under the banner of secularism and tolerance alone.

For a disaffected young generation whose subjectivity was forged by the post-Zia Pakistani state and the imperialist invasions of the 9-11 era, there is an overwhelming suspicion of such labels as being a cover for more sinister motivations.

While secular pluralism must remain central to the foundations of any progressive political project, progressives cannot rely solely on symbols of an ideological milieu that has not been experienced by a majority of the population, and that hence, carries few positive connotations for them.

To render such ideals palatable to a conservative majority, they have to be tied to and synonymised with political demands aimed at the redistribution of wealth and power.

This is not just important because Pakistan is one of the most obscenely unequal societies in the world, where millions of under-employed and poorly educated young men, living alienated lives with bleak prospects, become useful fodder for fundamentalist entrepreneurs, who convince them of the possibility of finding purpose in fighting imaginary threats to religious honour.

It is also important because in a populist era, in which the legitimacy of the political and economic status quo is crumbling, a progressive project can only succeed in blocking the right-wing onslaught with popular support if it actively seeks to transform existing relationships of power (rather than seek accommodation and ‘reconciliation’ with the status quo, as most formerly liberal-left parties have done).

There are two principal ways in which this political project can be constructed. The first has to do with undertaking conscious and collective resistance against excesses of political and economic power.

Anyone who stakes a claim to progressive politics must work to support those engaged in struggles for a more just distribution of resources – and there are many.

This includes, among others, workers protesting for living wages and formal contracts, katchi abadi residents struggling for dignified housing, farmers demanding rights to the land they till, women fighting against patriarchal violence, ethno-nationalist political workers protesting for the right to freely express their beliefs, and indigenous communities protesting the destruction of their local ecology by the state and private capital.

If such disparate struggles can be brought together as a collective movement for people’s rights, they can create the critical mass needed to revive the political clout of the left.

However, a politics of redistribution cannot solely be confrontational, be it on the question of the civil-military imbalance, extremism , or resource distribution.
In order to be effective, our politics must also be constructive. It must seek to mobilise and deploy common resources to meet people’s collective needs.

This is critical, in part, because the madrassahs and charity networks have exploited the survival needs of the poor to great effect.

Constructive programmes rooted in an ethic of participatory and cooperative labour for the collective good are also part of both the progressive traditions from our region’s past, as well as contemporary revivals in progressive socio-economic movements on the left from Cuba to Nepal.

Such work is easier said than done and will require years to build. But the political worth of constructive forms of productive and redistributive work is undeniable.

Even in our recent context, the example of Edhi is instructive – till his death, Edhi remained an unapologetic humanist and avowed follower of Marx, speaking out for the liberation of the poor, women and minorities, while often taking unorthodox theological positions that could easily have landed others in the dock for blasphemy.

Yet, the peerless example he established through his constructive humanitarian work ensured that he could openly speak truth to power without fear.

Of course, not everyone can be Edhi, nor is the suggestion that all progressives should rush to establish charitable institutions. The forms such interventions may take depends on the context, resources and capacity.

What is important is the principle of creating cooperative models of fulfilling people’s needs that can become vehicles for the transmission of egalitarian ideas and practices, and reflect the society progressives wish to see in the future.

If even small numbers of people around the country begin to engage in such forms of conscious collective practice over the next few years, it will help create the sense of purpose, community and identity required for the popular rejuvenation of progressive politics.

Perhaps more than anything, progressives must become conscious of the legitimacy and urgency of their cause.

There are a great many people who can sense things are going awry, and that violence and injustice in the name of religion, national security and petty political interests have gone on far too long.

Yet, there remains a certain timidity in thought and action, remnants of a political culture long afflicted with defeatism, and wracked by self-doubt and fears, about the reactions of a society that never fails to punish the mildest of critical thought and speech.

We are now at the point where we no longer have a choice. The state, the extremists, and their enablers in political society have pushed this society to the brink of collapse.

Faced with this realisation, their only answer is to further divert people’s frustrations toward imaginary foreign and domestic enemies.

The progressive agenda; of the democratisation of the state, of the redistribution of resources to meet ordinary people’s basic needs, of an end to the doctrine of national security and strategic depth, of the celebration of ethnic, national, religious and ideological difference and diversity, of the dismantling of patriarchal oppression, of the rejuvenation of the ecology; is a decisively better one.

More than anyone else, progressives themselves need to overcome their doubts to realise this and consciously act upon it.

Otherwise, our descent into barbarism is inevitable.


Capitulation - Editorial in Dawn November 28, 2017 ]


The above articles are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use