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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Pakistan protests have exposed longstanding sectarian fault lines

Peaceful resolution can never be ruled out, yet the country's challenges are made greater by the presence of religious forces with opposite agendas

Pakistani police officers beat a protester during a clash in Islamabad, Pakistan. AP
Pakistani police officers beat a protester during a clash in Islamabad, Pakistan. AP

After nearly three weeks of simmering tensions, a 20-day protest finally erupted in violence in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Led by Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY), protesters blockaded the Faizabad Interchange and demanded the sacking of law minister Zaid Hamid amid accusations of blasphemy. In the ensuing clashes, at least six people have died, 200 have been injured and the government has called in for reinforcements from the army. It is yet another example of how Islamist groups in Pakistan are now bent on exploiting the sectarian fault lines that have existed in the country for a long time for their own political gain.

The TLY, who mostly consist of Barelvi Muslims – a Sunni sect with elements of Sharia and Sufism – were until recently considered a sect that largely believed in mysticism with no inclination for politics. Its members launched the protest after Mr Hamid was said to be behind a change in the wording of a government oath invoking the Prophet Mohammed. Government officials claimed the amendment was a clerical error and reversed the changes, but the damage was done.

The TLY, led by its chief, Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi, pledged to continue protesting until Mr Hamid resigned. Yet the purpose of the amendment to electoral law was to make it easy for minority sects like Ahmadis to register their votes and contest elections. Members of the anti-Ahmadi group Tehreek-e-Katm-i-Nabuwat and others joined the movement against the government, vowing not to bow to pressure. On Saturday, violence broke out as riot police waded in unsuccessfully.

This new phenomenon in Pakistan is disturbing the already fragile equilibrium between moderates and hardliners in society. The hardliners strictly interpret the Quran and consider modern democracy a flagration of Sharia. That has also exposed the fact that reviving all elements of Sharia, such as ijma (community consensus) and ijtihad (depending on a jurist’s personal judgment or reasoning), is not yet possible. In Pakistan, most moderates believe in the revival of ijtihad, abandoned hundreds of years ago by Sunni jurists. Sunni scholars today mostly believe in taqleed (the unquestioned acceptance of the great predecessors as authoritative). Pakistan’s national poet, Allama Iqbal, was a supporter of ijtihad as a means to modernise Islam and many intellectuals in Pakistan support the idea, which is opposed by traditional mullahs. Ijtihad cannot change basics of Islam like a belief in the last Prophet, but it can resolve modern issues, the intellectuals say.

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Rizvi and his followers do not limit their demands to the resignation of the minister. His is a longstanding movement aiming at the implementation of taqleedi Islam, which is also supported by other Sunni groups, including the Deobandi revival movement, born as a reaction to colonialism. Rizvi believes in gradually transforming Pakistani laws into Sharia with the support of Sunnis. Otherwise, his call to re-instigate the oath in a country with an overwhelmingly Muslim population – and a strong consensus on beliefs founded in Islam – would make little sense.

Protesters led by Rizvi were also in the limelight last year, campaigning against the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, a former policeman and personal bodyguard of Punjab governor Salaman Taseer. Qadri murdered Taseer for speaking in support of blasphemy convict Asia Bibi. Despite the protests, he was hanged in February last year.

Launched by Rizvi two years ago with a view to contesting the next general election, TLY has attracted attention in almost all parts of the country, with popular slogans including those taking an anti-Ahmadi stance. Rizvi has demanded the resignation of Punjab’s provincial minister, Rana Sanaullah, for his pro-Ahmadi speeches.

It was only inevitable his influential voice, growing ever louder, would result in disharmony. Countrywide protests started this month as government forces sought to move about 3,000 people from the sit-in near Islamabad. As more people congregated, violence erupted across Pakistan, resulting in fatalities and burnt-out and damaged property. Swiftly losing control, the government had to call in the army to control the situation.

There is a fear of a much more dangerous situation if the current crisis is not tackled with prudence and care. It could undermine peace in Pakistan and open a vacuum to be exploited by terrorists. Any violent operation could encourage militancy in a country already badly hit by terrorism and violence. Taking a tough stance against TLY could invoke sympathy for the group. On the other hand, if the government gives in, it could encourage hardliners to expect regime changes in similar protests in the future.

No doubt the government shares responsibility for the current mess in the country for several reasons. It failed to convince the protesters of its own stance or criticise TLY’s demands. Secondly, it failed to sense any real danger and committed the mistake of amending the oath, claiming an oversight. Moreover, members of the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz issued contradictory statements after the controversy surfaced. Some even blamed officials for the mishap. Thirdly, it delayed dispersing protesters at an earlier stage or even stopping them. Instead, it waited until the apex court took suo motu action, instructing the government to take steps for the removal of the protesters with some limitations.

A peaceful resolution can never be ruled out, yet Pakistan’s challenges are made greater by the presence of religious forces with contradictory agendas. Extraordinary crises are not new to Pakistan, which has faced three wars in the region as well as waves of terrorism. Its issues are complex, ranging from the establishment of democracy to economic revival. It faces tension both on its western and eastern border but has survived both. It remains to be seen how the country tackles the crises of the future through the prism of modern democracy.

Imdad Hussain is an Islamabad-based journalist and a regular contributor to the Express Tribune

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