By Daanish Mustafa
November 5, 2018
The glorious legacy of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is etched in the greatest achievement of his followers — from the halls of Al-Hamra to the Taj Mahal, from Alif Leila to Firdausi’s Shahnama, to the theory of optics by Ibn-al-Haytham — in architecture, literature, sciences, and politics great men and women inspired with his message have helped make a better world.
To that legacy, and my fingers shiver as I try to write this, can we add Tehreek-e-Labaiq Pakistan (TLP)? Would we have to live with the image of devotees of TLP stealing bananas from a child vendor in Sheikhupura? Who is the blasphemer here? The poor mother of four against whom, the Supreme Court says there is no credible evidence of blasphemy, or the TLP activists stealing bananas in the name of protecting the honour of the Prophet?
The absurdity and perversity of the TLP protests has been well debated all over the (mostly English language) Pakistani press. The issue to me is what state’s capitulation to those protests represents.
First, the Pakistani state’s capitulation echoes the policies of the BJP government in India. Both the governments are beholden to the religious right, but more so to the young voters who find their anti-corruption, nationalist rhetoric highly attractive. In this national conversation about economic growth, zero corruption and national dignity the question of religious freedom, minority rights, and redistributive justice are superfluous.
Oppressing ethnic or religious minorities is bad, because it is bad for business, not because there is any inherent problem with it. The focus is on the optics rather than the reality. Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) is anti-state because it makes us look bad, as are the liberals who complain about the treatment of religious minorities. Compare that to the behaviour of the Modi Sarkar which muzzles any criticism of its treatment of minorities as bad for the image of India, and you wonder if the two states are singing from the same hymn book.
Secondly, in Pakistan there is an old cliché that we are Muslims we don’t have a caste system. Asia Bibi’s case is exhibit of how caste is in fact deeply woven into the fabric of the society.
According to many accounts the blasphemy accusations against Asia Bibi first emerged as a result of an altercation with Muslim women on the question of her drinking water from the same vessel. The calls for legal lynching of Asia Bibi are in fact, no different from the caste based violence in India where schedule caste members or Muslims are routinely lynched for one religious or social infraction or another, including insulting Hinduism by eating beef. One wonders why the two countries ever bothered to separate given so much perversities binding them together.
There is then also the question of class. Amir Liaqat was accused of blasphemy and all he had to do was to shed a few tears on TV and he is now an MNA for the ruling party. There were wall chalkings calling for blasphemy FIRs against Khurshid Shah and late Junaid Jamshed. We know those went nowhere. Is it that the poorest and the most downtrodden are inclined to commit blasphemy, or those are the ones’ that we can get on blasphemy?
There’s also the question of why are people protesting on the streets. In a deeply unjust society, here’s a cause which momentarily equalizes the working and lower middle class with the upper classes. In playing out their anger against the state in the idiom of blasphemy, the working class finds a solidarity that the state wont’ allow otherwise. And it provides the momentary satisfaction of publically cursing the highest and the mightiest in the land, which would be unthinkable otherwise, and get away with it. As my friend Ayyaz Malik would say ‘a hysterical unitarianism’ creates a false illusion of equality within a wider community of the ‘true’ lovers of the Prophet (PBUH). But like all illusions it wilts away soon enough, and despair returns as life.
The most important question is how does an outfit get away with calling for rebellion within the Army, assassination of Supreme Court Justices and over throw of the constitution? Why does the state find peaceful activists of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) deeply threatening while as it looks upon TLP hooliganism with guilty indulgence?
Beyond the tactical concerns of the security state that others have pointed to, I think it is deeper than that. There is a fundamental convergence between the worldview of TLP and the self-image of the security state. It is that reality that I suspect lies at the heart of the contradictions we see in the state’s behaviour in Pakistan. Why might there be that convergence, is an issue for another time.
Daanish Mustafa is a reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. His research includes water resources, hazards and development geography. He also publishes and teaches on critical geographies of violence and terror