By Pervez Hoodbhoy
THE hottest news in town: the PTI government says it wanted force used against violent Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) protesters but the Pakistan Army did not agree. Well, perhaps that’s true — or perhaps not. What we do know is that much property was destroyed and much blood spilled — that of at least eight dead policemen. Some 8,000 TLP members were arrested for rioting, arson and murder but the deal requires dropping charges against all. Punjab’s police force stands demoralised and in disarray.
Many call it surrender. But could this be in sly anticipation of TLP joining mainstream politics and becoming PTI’s partner in the next elections? PM Khan’s close ideological affinity with TLP as a Barelvi organisation makes this an open possibility. In April he stressed that “TLP and the government have the same objective but our methods are different”. To underscore his fondness for TLP, weeks ago Khan launched the blasphemy-busting Rehmatulil Alameen Authority (RAA). That TLP protests began from the Rehmatulil Alameen mosque in Lahore is coincidental? Well maybe, maybe not.
Separately: the Afghan Taliban — who flatly refuse to disown TTP — have just brokered a TTP-government ceasefire. Mainstreaming could follow. For this PM Khan could try blaming the army again. He might, however, have a credibility problem because he has never condemned any Taliban atrocity. In September 2013 — at the height of TTP’s suicide attacks against Pakistan’s people, police, and army — Khan as PTI leader insisted the Nawaz government declare a ceasefire and allow TTP to open offices in Pakistan.
A grateful TTP responded by authorising Imran Khan, along with Maulana Abdul Aziz and Maulana Samiul Haq, to negotiate on its behalf. Then, just weeks later, TTP militants played football with the severed heads of 23 captured Frontier Corps soldiers in a macabre, video-recorded football match. The APS massacre followed in December 2014. When newly-wed Imran Khan and his wife Reham Khan visited the school one month later, parents of the murdered children greeted them with ‘go Imran go’ slogans.
The present: all bluster of banning terror groups has evaporated. So have the usual accusations of TLP and TTP being Indian proxies. PM Khan and his coterie dismiss critics as disgruntled “bloody liberals”. This phrase, a 20-year-old trademark of Khan, has morphed slightly under chief negotiator of the TLP deal, Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman, who prefers “bloodthirsty liberals”.
It can’t be clearer: much as Narendra Modi would like India cleansed of Muslims and Christians, Imran Khan wants to do away with Pakistan’s liberal scum, as he calls it. But who are these creatures, how many are there, what do they want, why does our prime minister hate them, and what does victory over liberalism mean for the future of Pakistan?
Count me in as a fleck of liberal scum — anyone upset at terrorist organisations being pampered is one. Our total strength? Sometime ago a popular preacher put the number of khooni liberals at 300; other Pakistanis are good Muslims, he said. But, judging from the present public outrage, the number of bad Muslims could actually be several thousand times greater.
Defining liberal is hard enough, identifying khooni liberals is still harder. But, broadly speaking, liberals endorse personal freedoms and fairness to all, men and women. This large, fractious, and quarrelsome family respects diversity, pluralism and belief in a democracy where the Constitution holds sway. Some liberals are faithfully religious, others are indifferent. Just as hypocrites and crooks among the ultra-religious are plentiful, many liberals are also bad people.
Why Imran Khan angrily blames liberals for all that’s gone wrong in Pakistan is puzzling. This hopelessly fragmented bunch of individuals has zero political representation. Its ‘candle-light mafias’ carry no dandas, firebombs, or submachine guns like the ones with which TLP defended the honour of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). In fact, liberals can barely muster a few dozens to mourn those slain by terrorists or to show solidarity with rape victims.
Khan despises liberals, but why? He has told his story multiple times: his colourful past in the West (he gives no details) owes to him having been seduced by what he calls ‘liberalism’ — until faith finally came to his rescue. Actually his case is typical: many young, virile Pakistani men eventually return from Western countries consumed by guilt and, as atonement, turn ultra-conservative.
Khan’s messianic anti-liberal zeal also owes to his schooling at ultra-elite Aitchison College which, he says, never taught him Iqbal’s poetry. Indeed, he cannot quote Urdu verses of the poet who he declares to be his inspiration. Quite bizarrely, he believes liberals cannot read or appreciate Iqbal. In fact, Khan has difficulty reading Urdu — many noted the stumbling and fumbling during his oath-taking ceremony. To compensate, he recently ordered all official functions be conducted in Urdu.
Yet more galling to Khan is that while sermonising he can quote Quranic verses and hadith only in translation but not in Arabic. And so, Arabic teaching is now compulsory in all Islamabad schools. His ideological project, the Single National Curriculum, is yet another consequence. This radical restructuring of education conjoins all Pakistani regular schools with madressahs, forcing all to use the same textbooks and take the same exams. SNC graduates will be yet friendlier to TLP-TTP type organisations. But these mass-produced ignoramuses will be unemployable in the competitive global economy.
With TLP-TTP on the rise and liberals demolished — and mainstream parties too afraid to be seen as liberal — the consequence of joining state to religion becomes starker by the day. While Pakistan’s non-Muslims will remain useful punching bags, insistence on expelling France’s ambassador suggests TLP has national and global ambitions. As for TTP: a glance at Afghanistan should tell where it wants to take us.
Crucially: TLP and TTP are two violent organisations, one Barelvi and the other Deobandi. At daggers drawn, both have mass followings; that of TTP will skyrocket now that the Taliban rule Afghanistan. Both want a Sharia state but with different versions of Sharia. Which one prevails can only be settled by force and civil war. Imran Khan will have certainly created a Naya Pakistan, albeit not the one he promised.
(The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist and writer.)