Politics of religious passion

What can explain the fact that the TLP, which has no representation in the parliament, routinely challenges the writ of the state?

A few days ago, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) held a protest rally in Rawalpindi followed by a sit-in in Faizabad to press for its demand for the expulsion of the French ambassador, recalling of Pakistan’s ambassador to France and severing of its diplomatic relations with France. A potentially explosive situation was brought under control following a dialogue between TLP leaders and a government delegation. The government assured the TLP that it would expel the French ambassador in two to three months and release all TLP members held for rioting and not press charges against them.

While the stand-off between the TLP activists and the government turned out to be short-lived, the mayhem on the roads and suspension of internet services kept the twin cities on edge for days on end. The reports of injuries to the police and protesters also kept the nation on tenterhooks. The use of force by law enforcement agencies – including firing of teargas shells, was in stark contrast with the benign welcome of TLP members during the Faizabad sit-in under the previous government that had ended with the distribution of money among the sit-in participants.

Even if a confrontation has been temporarily avoided, the vagueness at the heart of the agreement between the TLP and the government has the potential to pave the way for more sit-ins. As some sections of the media reported, the government has promised the protesters that it will bring the question of expelling the French ambassador before the parliament “within two or three months”. If the history of such agreements is any indicator, this assurance has all the signs and symptoms of a temporary appeasement. What happens after two or three months is anybody’s guess. More importantly, will the TLP use this time to mobilise more workers for a larger protests later on?

The TLP sit-in has raised a few critical questions about the intersection between religion and politics in Pakistan‘s foreign policy, the nature of government‘s terms with the firebrand TLP leaders, and the way the Islamic world has responded to the developments in France.

There is a widely shared perception that Pakistan‘s foreign-policy follows a piecemeal approach dictated more by the vagaries of the times than a predictable rule-based policy regime. Given an extremely insensitive, ill-informed, and malicious statement by the French president, the government could have summarily expelled the French ambassador. However, the government chose to follow the path taken by most of the Muslim countries. It expressed its disgust at the French president’s remarks but stopped short of downgrading the diplomatic relations with France.

In Pakistan, the intersection of religion and politics is often puzzling. What can explain the fact that the TLP, which has no representation in the parliament and represents a narrow sectarian denomination, routinely challenges the writ of the state? Despite public interest in the theatrical histrionics of some rabble-rousers in the TLP ranks, a vast majority of the public does not subscribe to the TLP ideology.

Pakistan has a history of use of religious passions in politics, and it is extremely hard to disentangle the genuine religious motives from expediency and ulterior motives. Previously, the TLP held the capital hostage for weeks on end. The judgment by Supreme Court’s Justice Qazi Faez Isa and Justice Mushir Alam in the Faizabad sit-in case is a significant watershed in the judicial history of Pakistan. However, this time, the TLP faced a radically different situation from what it had faced under the previous government. The previous Faizabad sit-in had continued under the full media glare for weeks. This time, there was a total blackout of the sit-in. What has brought about this change of fortunes for the TLP? As opposed to TLP’s protracted sit-in under the previous regime, what led to the quick end this time around? This raises many questions about the role of religious sentiment in Pakistani politics.

Selective use of religious sentiment in government policies has historically created many fault lines in Pakistan. Pakistan champions the rights of the Palestinians and the Muslims being ostracized in India and Myanmar. However, incontrovertible evidence exists regarding China’s detention of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in a network of high-security prison camps but Pakistan has never raised a voice against the violation of the rights of the Muslim minority in China.

Expedient use of the concept of jihad to justify Pakistan‘s role in Afghan resistance did massive damage to Pakistan. A U-turn on the Afghan policy spelled further disasters and culminated in the Lal Masjid massacre and the APS tragedy. Their deleterious effects on Pakistan resonate to this day.

The second question relates to a more general response of the Muslim countries to the provocative drawings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). There were mass protests against the French president‘s irresponsible rant against Islam. Muslims in many parts of the world sent an unequivocal message that nobody can be allowed to smear the character of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and justify that as an exercise in free speech. Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau was categorical in saying that free speech has limits, and an acknowledgement of the right does not give any person a carte blanche to cause distress to others.

There was a widespread demand in the Islamic countries that French products should be boycotted. The question is whether waging a trade war with France is the right thing to do. Muslims believe that something far more existential and transcendental is at stake. It is not an ordinary exchange of jibes among opponents. No amount of economic harm done to France is enough to placate the Muslims’ concerns. The Muslims want an end to insulting presentation of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Also, the actions of some individuals cannot be a justification for stereotyping 1.8 billion people and branding their religion.

Individual initiatives by Islamic countries are not expected to achieve any major objective, let alone TLP-style sit-ins. A concerted response under the auspices of the OIC is the need of the hour. Islamabad needs to use diplomatic channels to convince the OIC about the need for such a response.

While it is relatively straightforward to boycott French agricultural products and consumer goods retailed through supermarket chains like Carrefour and petroleum products through Total petrol pumps in various Islamic countries, a boycott of French products will amount to a hollow gesture unless it touches the strategic partnerships between Muslim countries and France.

Muslims are almost exclusively dependent on the developed countries for their military equipment. France is one of the major producers of military hardware in the world. According to recent data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), France is the third-largest exporter of arms during the past five years after the United States and Russia. The strategic relationship between several Muslim countries and France is deep. Recent SIPRI data shows that international transfers of major arms during 2015–19 increased by 5.5 per cent compared to 2010–14. The flow of arms in this period was directed mostly to the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia being the world‘s largest importer of arms.

SIPRI data shows that OIC countries‘ arms imports from France over the last decade averaged at 429 million TIV which was 157 percent higher than the average arms imports by non-OIC countries from France. TIV is a trend-indicator value which is based on the known unit production costs of a set of weapons and is a consistent measure of the value of the military hardware transfer. While Pakistan did not import any arms from France after 2014, Pakistan has previously been a major buyer of French military products after the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Morocco. In 2019 alone, French export of arms to OIC countries came to 142 million TIV which was 244 percent higher than French exports of arms to non-OIC countries.

In view of the deep strategic partnerships between Islamic world and France, will the OIC send an unmistakable message to France that it would not tolerate irreverent content? Or will the leaders of Islamic countries be content with venting their anger over French biscuits and cookies?

Dr. Rafi Amir-ud-Din is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus

Politics of religious passion: What can explain that TLP routinely challenges writ of state?