By Zahid Hussain
Pakistan has finally acted against the radical clerics who
incited mutiny against the army chief and called for the killing of the
country’s judges. The move to charge firebrand cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi,
and a few senior members of his ultra-right religious group, the
Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), for terrorism and sedition, seemingly marks a
shift in the policy of appeasement towards the violent extremist network.
However, it remains to be seen whether the government is serious about pursuing
the charges or will, once again, succumb to the pressure from the obscurantist
elements within and outside the ruling party.
The crackdown came weeks after the clerics had paralyzed the country with a wave of violent protests against the apex court’s decision to acquit a Christian woman who had been accused of blasphemy. It was certainly not a spontaneous movement. The violence spread like a prairie fire, taking law-enforcement agencies by surprise. A controversial peace deal may have ended the violence, but the capitulation had exposed the state’s inability to deal with the radical religious group that had established a reign of terror.
Surely, it was not the first time that the state had been brought to its knees by rampaging zealots, but never at the cost of such humiliating terms of submission. The government not only agreed not to take any action against the rioters, it also promised to bar Aasia Bibi — who was freed by the apex court after languishing in jail for nine years — from leaving the country.
It is not just about the content of the agreement; in fact, what mattered more was that the government yielded to radical clerics who openly called for insurrection. Their calls to overthrow the civilian and military leadership was no less than sedition. Prime Minister Imran Khan had warned tough action against those challenging the writ of the state. Yet the government didn’t have the courage to act when it needed to.
While the government claims that the accord has helped
restore peace, its politics of appeasement has eroded the authority of the
state and further empowered the religious right groups. The controversial,
five-point agreement, the legality of which was questionable, and ceding to the
demands of a group that refuses to accept the Supreme Court’s order was a big
blow to the country’s struggle against violent extremism. The clerics declared
signing the deal as their victory dealing further humiliation to the state.
However, some observers believe that the government was waiting for the right
time to act.
And that came in the form of another protest rally on November 25 when the TLP pressurized the government to implement the deal signed last month. In a nationwide clampdown, the law enforcement agencies detained Rizvi and hundreds of his supporters on various charges under the country’s anti-terrorism laws. According to media reports, more than 3,000 people have been taken into custody.
Intriguingly, there has not been any public reaction against the detentions, doing away with the myth that the group enjoys massive popular support. Additionally, a widespread perception that the TLP enjoyed the patronage of intelligence agencies had also provided them with a sense of impunity.
The real test for the government and the courts is to now bring them to justice as this could set an example for other sectarian groups that have held the country hostage to their violent ideologies. It is apparent that any action can only be taken with the support of the military, which is already infuriated by the clerics urging army officers to revolt against their top commander General Qamar Bajwa. They tried to incite rebellion by declaring the chief an infidel. It marked the first time any religious group had publicly incited mutiny in the security forces.
The main opposition parties also seemed to be on board with the crackdown. The confrontation with the military establishment has cost the TLP dearly. If convicted by the top court, Rizvi and some other leaders of his group could be sentenced to life in prison under sedition and terrorism charges. It is not yet clear when the trial will start.
The rise of the TLP has given a more dangerous twist to violent extremism in the country. What is even more worrisome is its increasing impact in electoral politics. While the vote bank of the mainstream Islamic parties has shrunk, the strong showing of the TLP in the general elections in July became a cause for concern for many. Although the group failed to win even a single seat in the newly elected National Assembly, it secured more than two million votes and emerged as the fifth largest group in terms of vote share. The latest crackdown has certainly dealt a serious blow to the TLP. What’s questionable is whether the government is serious about taking its battle against violent religious extremism to its conclusion.
( Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. Twitter: @hidhussain)