Yet again the world must look on in bewilderment as Pakistan emerges battered and bruised from a crisis precipitated by an obscure theological dispute that has forced the resignation of the country’s law minister and led to the dramatic mobilization of religious forces directed by the ponderous sounding Tehreek-e-Labbaik ya Rasool Allah (or Movement in the Service of the Prophet [Muhammad]).
Presiding over this version of Pakistan’s own passion play is the country’s military establishment. It has been credited with brokering a deal that ended the crisis, but on terms that raise doubts about the government’s Islamic credentials and leave it vulnerable to an early demise. Pakistan’s noisy commentariat meanwhile has taken in droves to the air waves, the press and social media.
They hope to decide if the latest events spell a capitulation to religious bigotry or point to a carefully stage-managed show by the army to bring down a recalcitrant government. The jury is still out. What is clear is that the political stock invested in the language of Islam, which dates back to the creation of Pakistan, is limitless and still the preferred instrument of choice of those seeking political change by unconstitutional means.
Indeed, there is a striking resemblance between recent developments and episodes in Pakistan’s early history when elected governments also risked being unconstitutionally dislodged for failing to meet standards set by the extravagant claims to be 'acting in the name of Islam'. The trend was set in 1953 when religious protesters, aided and abetted by the provincial administration in Punjab, called for the Ahmadi minority to be stripped of their status as Muslims as a ploy to bring down the government at the centre, which was accused of compromising Pakistan’s Islamic identity.
A more audacious attempt to test a government’s performance against Pakistan’s putative Islamic purpose came in 1977 when religious parties successfully ousted the then-prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for what were judged to be secular misdemeanours. In a striking parallel with current events, Bhutto had sought to appease religious parties by pushing through a constitutional amendment in 1974 that designated Pakistan’s Ahmadis as a non-Muslim minority. It remains in force to the present day.
Like Bhutto, the government’s beleaguered former law minister, Zahid Hamid, also moved to stave off protesters by acting preemptively. In October, long before the protests had erupted, he agreed to restore the original wording of an oath reserved for parliamentary candidates under a new election act. The new oath, which would later trigger the demonstrations, had required candidates to 'declare' their belief in the finality of the Prophet Muhammad instead of undertaking to 'swear' by it.
Although it took protesters almost a month after the restoration of the original wording to express their outrage and to charge Hamid with blasphemy, the momentum unleashed by the demonstrations developed rapidly thereafter. Besieged by the protesters’ sit-in, Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad, ground to a virtual halt. The government meanwhile was crippled by classic considerations that have plagued administrations in the past: A chronic unwillingness to be seen as 'acting against Islam'. Though Hamid’s ignominious departure from office was perhaps inevitable in the circumstances, his public confession of faith in the days leading up to it was unprecedented even by the standards of Pakistan’s blasphemy-obsessed political culture.
That culture has gained immeasurably with the emergence of a distinctly muscular style of politics by followers of the Barelvi school of thought, who led the protests. They represent the dominant persuasion among Pakistan’s Sunni Muslim majority and had been regarded, until recently, as the standard bearers of an internationally sanctioned discourse of 'moderate' Islam, owing to their close ties to local Sufi shrines. Their strident entry into Pakistan’s politics has taken many by surprise; others have reacted with disbelief over reports that some Barelvi leaders now intend to tone down 'the Sufi face of Barelvi Islam' which they claim has been promoted to 'please the West'.
Be that as it may, signs of a shift in the posture of Barelvi groups have long been in evidence. In 2011 the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was assassinated in broad daylight after mounting a spirited campaign to reform Pakistan notorious blasphemy laws. His killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was a Barelvi militant, then serving as one of Taseer’s bodyguards. Qadri’s actions, his trial and his subsequent execution in 2016 are now seen as a turning point in the radicalization of Barelvi politics.
But they also brought to fruition a state-sponsored policy, active since 9/11, of quietly empowering Barelvi groups to counterbalance so-called 'hardliners' among Pakistan’s proliferating Deobandi and Salafi groups. They were seen to have grown increasingly independent of their handlers within Pakistan’s military and security establishment, whose authority, it was said, they were now prone to question. It is no wonder that eyebrows were raised when Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, declined to act in support of the government claiming the protestors were 'our people'.
Whether Bajwa meant to refer to 'people' who had been consciously nurtured by his institution — namely the army — for ends unknown, or 'people' who were merely exercising their democratic right to protest, may never be known. What is known and clearly in the public domain is the fulsome praise showered on Bajwa by Barelvi leaders, who hailed his decision to set his role as the guarantor of their interests above the military’s constitutional responsibility to assist the civilian government when called upon to do so.
It hardly needs saying (again) that current developments in Pakistan are far from conducive to stable government. Nor indeed are they welcome at a time when Pakistan hopes to emerge as the hub of ambitious new schemes of regional cooperation piloted by China. But so long as the state’s vexed relation to Islam is allowed to hold governments to ransom in Pakistan, we can all expect to witness a re-run of present events.
Dr Farzana Shaikh, Associate Fellow, Asia Programme.