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Pakistan and the Perils of Blasphemy: The Campaign Against France in Context

ARTICLES - 27 April 2021

Once again, the government of Pakistan has to confront the rise of radical Islamists. This time, the main challenge is not coming from a resurgent Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which was largely crushed by the Army after the terrorist attack against a military high school in Peshawar, in December 2014. On the forefront today is a very different movement, the Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). While the traditional radical groups were close to the Deobandi school of thought, encouraged by the president of Pakistan general Zia-ul Haq (1978-1988), the TLP belongs to the Barelvi tradition. Supposed to be more accommodative, closer to the Sufi congregations, the Barelvis were sometimes seen as a possible counterbalance to the rigid and militant Deobandis. Except that movements close to the Barelvis are extremely sensitive to an element they deem decisive: the finality of Prophet Muhammad, the last Messenger of Allah, and the love and respect He must inspire. This extreme sensitivity, therefore, gives prominence to a question which has mobilized massive agitations from the TLP for the past few years: fighting blasphemy, an offence Zia’s regime made punishable by death. Dozens were condemned and jailed, while some of those accused or suspected of blasphemy were killed by zealots.

Anti-blasphemy campaigns and the rise of the TLP

For liberal minds, it became clear that the blasphemy cases were too often a tool for settling personal rivalries, or a means to target members of religious minorities, be they the Ahmadis, excluded from the realm of Islam under Zia for not believing in the finality of Muhammad, or the Christians and the Hindus. In this context, Salman Taseer, the powerful Governor of Punjab, the most prosperous and populated province of Pakistan, suggested that excesses could be curbed if the blasphemy law was amended. He was then referring to a case that would soon become a cause célèbre: Asia Bibi, a Christian villager accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death in November 2010. Taseer’s comment was unacceptable for Mumtaz Qadri, an elite police commando who was a bodyguard to the governor. He shot Taseer to death in January 2011, immediately becoming a hero to those sharing his view that Taseer had been a blasphemer. Qadri surrendered, was jailed, and the Islamabad High Court sentenced him to death in October 2011. His appeal was rejected in 2015, and he was hanged on February 29, 2016. His funeral, the next day, was attended by some 100,000 mourners. His tomb has become a sanctuary for those believing that Qadri has become a shaheed, a martyr, a witness of faith.

It is in this context that a new protest movement crystallized in 2015-2016, under the leadership of a radical Barelvi, Khadim Hussain Rizvi. Echoing the slogan of the protestors campaigning in favour of Qadri, "Labbaik, labbaik, labbaik ya Rasool Allah!" (We stand, we stand, we stand with you, Ô Prophet of Allah!), it took the name of Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rassol Allah (TLYR). It was then also registered as a political party, duly recognized in 2017 as the Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). The Pakistani government, run by the Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif, was at the time trying to mainstream radical groups, including jihadi groups, through electoral politics. In 2017, in a National Assembly by-election in Lahore, the headquarter of the movement, the TLP-backed candidate came third, securing nearly 6% of the votes. The next year, during the general election which brought Imran Khan to power, the TLP gained no seat at the Lower House of Parliament, but got more than two million votes.

What we have recently seen in Pakistan is just the repetition of a strategy that launches massive protests when the question of blasphemy is at stake.

Besides its religious assertive main line, the TLP programme also has a social dimension. Mixing the promise of a welfare state, the denunciation of corruption and the emotional devotion to Allah’s Prophet has strongly mobilized protestors, coming largely from "that segment of youth that, even if it has inspirations for upward mobility, is imbued with an almost existential rage against ‘the system’". What we have recently seen in Pakistan is just the repetition of a strategy that launches massive protests when the question of blasphemy is at stake.

Thousands come to the streets, block avenues, highways and transport systems for several days in a row, eventually turning violent, until the government accepts to negotiate.

In 2017, the TLP launched a three-week sit-in on the main road linking Islamabad and Rawalpindi, against the Minister for Law and Justice, after the traditional oath in reference to the finality of Prophethood, "I solemnly swear…" that new members of Parliament have to take, was dropped in favour of the less dedicated statement: "I believe…". The protest turned national, the original oath was restored, and the minister had to resign, after some Army officers negotiated with the protest leaders.

In 2018, when the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, the TLP protest movement picked up again. One of the TLP founders called to overthrow the Army Chief, General Bajwa, and stated that the judges involved in Bibi’s acquittal deserved death. The government accepted to put Asia Bibi on a "non-fly list", in order to prevent her from leaving the country, before revoking its decision. As the TLP called for a new campaign against Bibi’s exit, the government arrested Rizvi and other TLP leaders, on charges of terrorism and sedition, before stating that they were simply put "under protective custody". They were released on bail six months later.

The campaign against France

The current TLP campaign against blasphemy started afresh when Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons of the Prophet, in a special issue released when the trial of the suspects involved in the deadly 2015 attack on the French magazine began, on September 2, 2020. Six weeks after, Samuel Paty, a school teacher who had shown some of the cartoons during a class debate on the freedom of expression, was beheaded by a young Muslim of Chechen origin, after a campaign against Paty had been launched by some of the children’s relatives. French President Macron decided to pay Paty a national tribute at the Sorbonne, where he praised the departed teacher, who "was killed because Islamists want our future and because they know that with quiet heroes like him, they will never have it". He confirmed, that, as per the French law about the freedom of expression, "We will not disavow the caricatures, the drawings, even if others recoil.".
 

These statements triggered negative comments from leaders of Muslim countries, and streets protest in a number of them. The Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan deplored remarks "encouraging Islamophobia", and tweeted: "This is a time when President Macron could have put [a] healing touch and denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarisation and marginalisation that inevitably leads to radicalisation," [...] "By attacking Islam, clearly without having any understanding of it, President Macron has attacked and hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims in Europe and across the world." [...] "The last thing the world wants or needs is further polarisation".

Neither Khan’s comments nor Macron’s explanations had a moderating impact on the TLP, who seized the opportunity to relaunch its campaign against blasphemy.

In an attempt at damage control, Macron gave a long interview to Al Jazeera, stating that he can understand the feelings of Muslims aroused by the cartoons, but explaining that defending the right to publish the cartoons is not equivalent to commending them…

Neither Khan’s comments nor Macron’s explanations had a moderating impact on the TLP, who seized the opportunity to relaunch its campaign against blasphemy, after having elevated Paty’s assassin, killed by the police, to the status of another shaheed. Mass protests were organized, calling for the boycott of French products, and for the expulsion of the French envoy in Pakistan. Finally, on November 16, the government agreed to submit the expulsion issue to the National Assembly before three months. Three months later, the TLP, now led by Saad Hussain Rizvi, who succeeded his deceased father, agreed to the government’s suggestion to postpone the consultation to April 20. Nothing being confirmed, on April 12, he called for a fresh demonstration, and was immediately arrested. His arrest triggered a massive countrywide protest, which turned violent. Four policemen were killed and hundreds wounded. Three days later, the Interior Minister announced the ban of the TLP under anti-terrorism law.

A government between a rock and a hard place

Pakistan has a long history of managing Islamist movements that get out of control, and the current developments illustrate again how walking on a tightrope is challenging. One day after banning the TLP, the government entered into talks with its leadership. Arrested militants would be freed with criminal cases withdrawn, the party ban could be a matter to refer to the Supreme Court and the debate at the National Assembly regarding the expulsion of the French envoy would be maintained. The TLP halted the protest, and an MP from Imran Khan’s party was assigned the task of submitting an individual resolution on the ambassador’s expulsion on April 20. Surprisingly, the resolution was to be addressed by a special committee and not the full chamber.

 

Beyond political games [...], the whole story illustrates the deep misunderstanding between the French dominant conception of "laïcité", and the ideology of Pakistan.

In another plot twist, three days later, the Assembly was prorogued till May, amongst strong protests from the opposition (and from some members of the party in power). In an address to the Nation delivered on April 19, Imran Khan reiterated that blasphemy is not acceptable: "I assure you that the purpose of the TLP for which they're bringing people out, that is my purpose as well and that of my government; [...] Only our methods are different ". He asked the West to understand why blasphemy "hurts us, when in the name of the freedom of speech they insult the honour of our prophet". He also asked the West to criminalize it, and evoked the need of a campaign by united Muslim countries.

But he also developed on why the expulsion of the French envoy would be problematic, asking in substance that if any new cartoons were published in another European country, should its ambassador be expelled as well? If so, it would impair the relations between Pakistan and the European Union, which is a key importer of Pakistan textile products, "This would put pressure on the rupee and give rise to inflation and poverty. So the loss will be ours, not of France".

For weeks now the opposition has lambasted the government for its poor management of the crisis, and for its lack of transparency on what has been negotiated with the TLP. But beyond political games and ideological ambiguities, the whole story also illustrates the deep misunderstanding between the French dominant conception of "laïcité", and the ideology of Pakistan, "the only country which was founded in the name of Islam", as Imran Khan reiterated. The issue, however, extends beyond Paris and Islamabad. Western military interventions in the Muslim world are invoked as well, and the West is accused of islamophobia. A key diplomatic plank of Pakistan diplomacy is now to call for a UN-backed, international policy against islamophobia, along the same vein as the measures taken against antisemitism or the negation of the Holocaust. Considering the current state of affairs in the Muslim world, Imran Khan’s hope to gather support for his initiative from the heads of Muslim countries may appear quite ambitious. Even if this support were granted, a challenge would still remain, defined by a leading Pakistani columnist as having to douse "the flames of bigotry". It is a task that goes well beyond the rank and file of the TLP, and beyond Pakistan itself…

 

 

Copyright: Asif HASSAN / AFP

 

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