Pakistani head of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLYRAP) religious group Khadim Hussain Rizvi (C) announces the end of sit-in protest on a blocked flyover bridge during a press conference in Islamabad on 27 November, 2017
Hardline Islamists brought the Pakistani capital to a standstill for several weeks in November in protest against amendments to the country’s electoral oath. The government pointed out that the change, which was subsequently reversed, was due to nothing more than a clerical error. Those leading the charge, however, felt the move was part of a calculated, coordinated conspiracy to undermine Pakistan’s fundamental Islamic values.
The protests, which began in Islamabad but sparked demonstrations in Lahore and Karachi, sought to pressure the government to identify and punish individuals involved in altering the wording of the Khatm-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) oath in the country’s election laws. Protestors claimed that the altered wording “I believe”, used to replace the original clause “I solemnly swear” in a proclamation of Mohammad as the religion’s last prophet, was tantamount to blasphemy. The issue of the Khatm-e-Nabuwat is closely associated with Pakistan’s Ahmadi minority, which identifies as Muslim but was declared non-Muslim by the Pakistani government under the premiership of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1974. That was followed by the introduction of further discriminatory legislation by General Zia-ul-Haq during his process of Islamising Pakistan in the 1980s.
The Ahmadi community believes in the advent of a prophet after the Prophet Mohammad, a view that most of the world’s Muslims reject.
Members of the community have long faced political challenges and suffered at the hands of vigilantes as a result of their beliefs, which the state deems blasphemous. State-sanctioned discrimination against the Ahmadis has allowed religious conservatives and extremists to scapegoat the community for the challenges facing Pakistan.
While the recent demonstrations were largely peaceful sit-ins, there were some clashes with riot police, leading to the deaths of several protesters. Images of demonstrators brandishing wooden sticks and metal poles, combined with the martyrial language of those rallying the crowds, show that a propensity for protesters to resort to violence remains a real possibility.
The protesters’ chief demand was the resignation of Pakistan’s law minister, Zahid Hamid. This demand was eventually met after the country’s army, which holds decisive political sway, intervened to broker an agreement to bring the protests to an end. Although the demonstrators dispersed and Islamabad’s residents returned to some semblance of reality, the long-term impact of the recent protests spells a bleak picture for the future.
The situation is being read by many observers as a capitulation by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government – now led by Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi after the ousteing of Nawaz Sharif in August 2017 over corruption allegations – in the face of pressure from radical religious elements. The league, a conservative political party, has generally enjoyed the support of religious hardliners in the country. However, its decision in October 2011 to support the death penalty for Mumtaz Qadri, a former police protection officer who gunned down the former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in January 2011, angered some who went on to pursue their own political party and enter the fray more directly.
The chief instigator behind the recent protests was Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool, an ultra-conservative, Barelvi Islamist political party whose aspirations hinge on widening the application of sharia law in Pakistan. Rizvi, a charismatic and popular figure, has rallied supporters across Pakistan, using social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to share speeches and calls to action.
If current trends continue, next year’s general election could see extremist religious elements make significant inroads throughout the country. The election, for which a date has not yet been confirmed, is unlikely to produce substantial shocks in terms of which party ends up in power. But if a recent by-election in Lahore is anything to go by, the Islamists who were once confined to pulpits and the political margins are now entering, and succeeding in, the mainstream. In that by-election, the constituency formerly held by Sharif was won by his wife, while Shakih Azhar Hussain Rizvi, a member of Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool, finished third. Although he officially ran as an independent candidate, the fact that he finished ahead of established parties such as the Pakistan People’s Party and Jamaat-e-Islami shows how much of a political force these Islamists can be.
The outcome in Lahore has given the hardliners not only a small yet significant political victory but also a renewed zeal and sense of confidence. Even the likes of Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and a relative liberal in the Pakistani political scene, refused to openly condemn the activities of protesters, instead insisting that demonstrations should remain peaceful.
Following the deadly Peshawar school massacre in December 2014, when attackers from the Pakistani Taliban killed over 100 schoolchildren in the deadliest terrorist attack in the country’s history, the government established a 20-point National Action Plan to address terrorism, attacks on minority communities, and hate speech and literature intended to incite violence. However, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom noted in its 2017 Annual Report that despite the development of the action plan, “societal violence and terrorist activity continues, and inherently discriminatory laws remain” and that “implementation of the [National Action Plan] and other steps have fallen short and have not produced substantive religious freedom improvements.”
It remains to be seen whether the clerical error noted by the government had anything to do with the action points in the plan.
But it has become abundantly clear that any attempt – regardless of how small – to amend the country’s strict, discriminatory religious laws is enough to bring the ire of the country’s increasingly influential and politically engaged religious extremists to the streets in force.
Where conservative religious groups have traditionally aligned themselves with political parties that serve their interests, these groups are now taking it on themselves to pursue their political ambitions. These relatively new kids on the block, compared with the likes of Jamaat-e-Islami, the stalwart of Pakistan’s Islamist scene, are making their presence felt on the national stage.
Heading into 2018, Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool will be emboldened by what the movement has achieved: trouncing established political parties, including fellow Islamist groups, at the ballot box and seeing the government capitulate to street protests, culminating in the resignation of a senior cabinet minister. An Islamist government in Pakistan next year remains improbable, but the inability of the current political establishment to condemn or censor hardliners’ hateful narratives, coupled with their growing appetite for power, means these former fringe elements will increasingly be moving into the limelight.