Cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan who was sworn in as the 22nd Prime Minister of Pakistan on August 18 faced his first major challenge in less than two weeks after assuming office, when the right-wing Islamic party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) threatened to march to Islamabad to register their protest against a blasphemous cartoon contest that was to be held in the Netherlands later in November.
The protesters in the thousands led by firebrand TLP leaders Peer Muhammad Afzal Qadri and Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi set out on August 29 and demanded that Pakistan sever its diplomatic ties with the Netherlands and also ensure that the proposed cartoon event be cancelled.
The protesters marched from Lahore and reached Rawalpindi a day later, during which period intense consultations and negotiations were conducted and to the relief of the new Imran Khan government – the march was called off after the TLP cadres were assured that the cartoon contest had indeed been cancelled.
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician who was the brains behind the Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest deferred to the prevailing anger in Pakistan and cancelled the event. Earlier, the Dutch government had distanced itself from this proposed contest but had also indicated that it would not trample on the freedom of speech principle that the Netherlands upheld.
The satirical treatment of the Prophet Muhammad by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in February 2006 had led to a wave of protests from the Muslim world and the matter was referred to the French courts which again upheld freedom of expression and the tradition of satire. The controversy simmered with Islamic groups warning of retribution and the magazine occasionally continuing this practice till January 2015, when gunmen entered the office of the magazine in Paris and killed 12 staff cartoonists and plunged France into grief, anger and insecurity. No country in the world can accept its citizens being held to ransom in this manner by Islamic terrorists.
The siege of Islamabad by thousands of ardent guardians of the Islamic faith was averted at the last minute and there was an element of poetic justice at what had unfolded for the new PM of Pakistan. It may be recalled that in November 2016, Imran Khan, then an Opposition leader led a march to Islamabad to force then prime minister Nawaz Sharif to step down over corruption charges related to the Panama papers. At the time it was widely believed that both the Pakistan military and the right-wing Islamic constituency had endorsed this use of muscle-power to intimidate the government of the day.
Pakistan is familiar and now weary with the cynical use by its political representatives and the military of both religion and related violence to advance domestic agendas. This pattern began in full measure during the General Zia-ul-Haq years (1978 – 88) which saw the steady Islamisation of both state and society. But the Islamic right-wing constituency represented by clerics and the spectrum of the Mujahideen-militant-terrorist was relatively subordinate to the military or the political dispensation till recently.
The TLP which is the political wing of the religious group Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) came into prominence after the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011 by his bodyguard Mumtaz Qadri. The latter, a fundamentalist Barhelvi adherent took this extreme step since the Governor was supportive of seeking legal recourse in a blasphemy case, as opposed to the mob-lynching that was being attempted. The TLP celebrated the assassination of Taseer and deified Qadri as a true defender of the faith and ever since, this relatively little-known outfit has acquired a larger than life visibility in Pakistan.
In October 2017, the TLP seized upon a minor error in an election bill relating to the finality of Prophet Muhammad and brought the government to a halt. Whipping up religious fervor and insinuating that the Nawaz Sharif government was guilty of blasphemy, the TLP embarked upon a sit-in and a siege to Islamabad and finally forced the government to recant. It was supported by Imran Khan’s PTI that played the religious card deftly and thereby entered into a Faustian bargain.
The TLP tiger had tasted blood and was now ready to take the electoral plunge in 2018. At the just concluded national election, the TLP garnered 2.23 million votes and emerged as the fifth largest party in vote share which is quite significant given that this is a first-time national debut. While it did not obtain any seats in the assembly, the TLP emerged as a critical swing party in many constituencies and enabled Khan’s PTI to edge past the PML (N) of Nawaz Sharif.
The TLP is again claiming victory over the Dutch cartoon stand-off and while a crisis may have been averted for now, the implications of appeasing the TLP could prove costly and corrosive for Prime Minister Imran Khan and the short-term trajectory of Pakistan. The conjecture that follows is that the TLP, despite its legislative void, is a force to be reckoned with on Pakistan’s streets and has demonstrated that it can shape the country’s foreign policy. More recently it is rumoured that Prime Minister Imran Khan did not take a telephone call from the French President since some hardliners had ostensibly “blacklisted” France for its earlier Charlie Hebdo blasphemy.
Even if this allegation is baseless, it points to the manner in which the Imran Khan government will have to constantly look over its shoulder and pander to the preferences of the TLP and its inflexible, intolerant interpretation of the tenets of Islam. In the run up to the protest march to Islamabad, TLP leader Rizvi asserted to his flock: “If they give me the atom bomb, I’ll immediately bomb Holland, before they are able to hold any caricature competitions on the prophet.” It appears that Pakistan’s foreign and security policies will now have to factor in one more player – the TLP and its ideological clones. The cartoon competition may have been cancelled but a far deeper and more complex one in the power grid of Pakistan may have just begun.