By Hassan Javid
On Friday night, on the eve of protests and rallies planned for the 25th of November, Khadim Rizi and other leaders and activists of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) were taken into ‘protective custody’ after a law enforcement operation launched across the country. At the time of writing this column, there is very little clarity about what is going on and what the fallout will be; have Rizvi and his associates been arrested in response to the protests they held previously and the seditious statements that they made then, or is this simply a tactic being used to impede the rallies planned for the 25th? Is the state choosing to enforce its writ or is this yet another instance in which a U-turn will be heralded as a sign of great leadership? Is this the beginning of the end of the TLP, severing the alleged links it has had to the powers-that-be, or will this end with the organisation emerging stronger than before as its incensed supporters take to the streets?
Taking a more optimistic view, if the government has finally decided to take a stand against Rizvi and his thugs, it is a development that can only be welcomed. Even more welcome is the route that has been taken; rather than going in guns blazing or engaging in yet another round of pointless negotiations ending in capitulation, the government has done what it should have always done, which is use the police and law enforcement agencies to arrest the TLP leadership. The next logical step would, of course, be for Rizvi and others to be brought before a court, tried for their crimes, and sentenced accordingly. This may be expecting too much, but hope springs eternal.
Assuming the government is now serious about confronting the TLP, and does not backtrack on its commitment to do so; important questions need to be asked about the next steps to be taken in the fight to counter extremism in Pakistan. In explaining the appeal of Rizvi and the TLP, for example, it is necessary to move beyond the rational/irrational dichotomy that often characterises such discussions, and focus instead on the material factors underpinning his support. Indeed, instead of painting his followers as ignorant and bigoted, it might make sense to actually pay attention to the form and content of Rizvi’s rhetoric, and recognise how it represents a variation on the same anti-elite, anti-establishment populism that has become the hallmark of right-wing movements around the world. Coarse and unrefined as they may be, Rizvi’s sermons, peppered with swearing, personal anecdotes, and apocryphal ‘facts’, resonate with ordinary people who can identify with the ideas Rizvi expresses. Putting blasphemy to one side, Rizvi ultimately spends his time castigating rulers and elites he accuses of not working to defend the interests or sentiments of the masses.
The appeal of this approach should be obvious in a world where disenchantment with mainstream politics is widespread. The PTI itself has arguably been a beneficiary of this same phenomenon. However, dissatisfaction with the status quo alone forms only part of the explanation behind the success of the TLP. Of perhaps greater importance is the manner in which Rizvi has linked his brand of populism to the explosive issue of blasphemy. In a context where the state has done little to reverse several decades of indoctrination, with schools, the media, and governments themselves working tirelessly to feed the populace a steady diet of dogma, it is hardly surprising that Rizvi and his ilk have been able to weaponise blasphemy, using it as a means through which to acquire ever more political space. It does not help that virtually all of the mainstream parties have done the same, flirting with the more extreme elements of the religious right and campaigning on blasphemy as part of attempts to acquire legitimacy and support through the cynical use of Islam as a political tool.
Addressing the problem posed by the TLP and similar groups therefore requires an approach that deals with both of the factors discussed above, namely the disconnect many people have from mainstream politics, and the ideological affinity that has led many to endorse extreme religious positions. What this means is that arresting Rizvi and his supporters, while a necessary first step, is not sufficient by itself. Instead, the government (and those that succeed it) will have to work to address the grievances, rooted in poverty and inequality, that make populist appeals so attractive, just as it will have to work to reverse the decades of indoctrination and radicalisation that have been facilitated by the poor policy choices of the past. Based on current evidence, the likelihood that Pakistan will experience the kind of structural reform thus required seems remote; the main political parties remain beholden to both the elite and religious interests that have militated against reform in the past, and it is not clear if there is even any recognition of the need for taking a more holistic approach to countering the TLP. Yet, these are the measures that will ultimately need to be taken to combat the cancer of extremism, and the sooner this dawns on the powers-that-be, the better it will be for Pakistan.
(The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS. firstname.lastname@example.org)