The TLP solution

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By Saad Rasool

admRecent protests by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), and response by the Government of Pakistan, have laid bare our State’s inability to conceive and implement permanent solutions to the myriad of domestic fault-lines that run through our politico-religious diaspora. It has exposed all sides as being reactive, short-sighted, and devoid of strategic thinking to address deeply entrenched issues of national importance.

Let us start with the brief recounting of the relevant facts.

The story, culminating in this (avoidable) stand-off between the State and supporters of TLP, dates back to the publication of blasphemous material in France. In response, many thousand miles away, in Pakistan, the TLP and its supporters demanded that the government take ‘some action’ against France. In particular, they demanded that the French Ambassador be expelled from Pakistan, and French products be boycotted at the State level.

In this context, on November 7, 2020, the late Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi (then leader of TLP), staged a rally at Sharah-e-Faisal in Karachi, urging the government to take ‘practical steps’ to meet TLP’s demands; failing which, the TLP threatened to take ‘extreme action’. On November 15, 2020, TLP announced the ‘Tahafuz Namoos-i-Risalat’ march from Liaquat Bagh Rawalpindi to Faizabad in Islamabad. Under the garb of security threats, on November 14, 2020, police and other law enforcement agencies detained 181 leaders and activists of the TLP, in different parts of Rawalpindi. On November 15, 2020, the police and stick-wielding activists of TLP clashed throughout the day. On the following day, TLP announced that the government had ‘accepted’ all its demands, and released a copy of the handwritten agreement signed between TLP, on the one hand, and the Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Qadri, the then Interior Minister Ijaz Shah, and Deputy Commissioner, Islamabad, on the other.

In the first week of the new year, TLP, under its incumbent leader, Hafiz Saad Rizvi, threatened to re-launch its protest if the government did not fulfil its promise of expelling the French ambassador by February 17, 2021. However, on February 11, 2021, TLP called-off its protest after a new agreement was signed between the TLP and the government, in which it was decided that the government would, by or before April 20, 2021, approach the Parliament for a resolution concerning for enforcement of the earlier agreement reached between the parties.

Before this deadline was reached, on April 12, 2021, the Punjab government arrested TLP’s Chief Saad Hussain Rizvi, as a ‘pre-emptive measure’, thereby prompting TLP’s ‘naib emir’, Syed Zaheerul Hassan Shah to announce that the government had “completely deviated from” its earlier agreement, and called upon TLP leaders and workers to ‘come out on the roads’ to protest against the government. The ensuing clashes, between security forces and TLP members, claimed the lives of 4 policemen, injuring hundreds of others.

Through murky negotiations, the matter was once again quelled (not resolved) for a few months, resulting in the instant march of TLP workers, and the ongoing action by the government, which has reportedly claimed half a dozen lives.

The State’s short-sighted response to ‘handle’ the situation, and prevent TLP workers from damaging public and private property, has been based on three actions: (1) directing law enforcement agencies to maintain public order, and arrest miscreants; (2) banning all media platforms from covering the TLP protests; and (3) officially notifying TLP as a proscribed organisation. The government has claimed that these ludicrously short-term measures are a ‘solution’ to the TLP ‘problem’.

In this backdrop, let us ask a few (simple) questions: Has banning the TLP, or arresting their supporters, ‘fixed’ the problem? Has the underlying sentiment in our society, concerning blasphemy and its violent reactions, been remedied? Does it mean that any future cases of (alleged) blasphemy will no longer result in an outpour of people on our streets, because those people are ‘banned’? Does banning a religious organisation, which was also been registered as a political party, dissipate the fervour of its followers? Has there been any effort of engagement—not in terms of politics, but in terms of theology—with the members and supporters of TLP? Has the government, and more importantly the State, made any attempt to create a counter-narrative to the TLP methods, as it did against extremism by other proscribed organisations (e.g. TTP)? Over the past twenty years, has our experience in the ‘war against terror’ not taught us that a battle for ‘hearts and minds’ cannot simply be won through bullets and batons? And that, for a permanent victory, the might of the State must be wedded with the seduction of the intellect?

Also, TLP has only been designated as a ‘banned’ outfit, under the anti-terrorism laws; however, TLP is registered as a political party, under the Election Act, 2017, which can only be banned or outlawed through a process that culminates in the honourable Supreme Court. And even if that is (eventually) done, will it quench the sentiments of hundreds of thousands of people who sympathise with TLP’s ideology?

This is not about a particular party or legal course of action. Our State needs to recognise that members of TLP ascribe to a religious philosophy that perseveres through our society. Religious sentimentality, concerning incidents of (alleged) blasphemy in Pakistan, stretches back many decades. There was no TLP in existence when thousands protested against blasphemous material on YouTube some years back. TLP had not even been formed when hundreds of thousands of people came out in support of Mumtaz Qadri. Even before that—as far back as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government—people of Pakistan have come out in support of issues concerning anti-blasphemy. It is not the TLP that has evoked these sentiments amongst regular people. The TLP has merely given such sentiment a face and a voice. And so, banning of TLP will not fix the underlying issue—it will merely shrug it aside for a while—till the next eruption brings it to surface.

Also, while on the issue, let us also have the humility to accept that members of TLP are not all irrational violent beings. Most of the people who came out for the burial of Khadim Husain Rizvi were regular folk—who work in the local shops and factories and offices. They feel passionately about the issue of blasphemy; but that doesn’t mean that they are all ‘terrorists’ or followers of a proscribed ideology.

TLP, in its most basic appeal, represents the sentiments of a large fraction (if not the majority) of the people of Pakistan. In a nation-wide poll concerning the issue, the people of Pakistan (predominantly peaceful in nature) would probably vote in favour of strict government action to curb incidents of blasphemy. And that does not make them evil or bad people.

In the circumstances, the State of Pakistan must devise a long-term peaceful strategy to curb violence, while respecting people’s religious emotions. Where are the ulema of Pakistan, who can explain to the people that violence is not the way of our Prophet (SAWW)? That His (SAWW) infinite respect, in the material and the invisible universe, is not affected by some obscure cartoon in some random publication. That we—sinful souls—are incapable of adding to, subtracting from, or upholding the honour and respect of His (SAWW) majesty. That at best, as His (SAWW) followers, we can only attempt to act in a manner that would be deserving of His (SAWW) intercession. And that burning public property, blocking roads, inconveniencing other people, and beating-up police officials (who are just doing their duty) runs contrary to His (SAWW) peaceful example.

A narrative of this sort—only better—must be deliberately developed and debated across media waves, in order to counter the emotional appeal of TLP. Because till such time that we win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the TLP supporters, in their own theological diction, we will never fully be able to rid ourselves of this violence.

(The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be contacted at saad@post.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter)