France – a real friend in need – Ikram Sehgal

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Known for its provocative editorials and cover images, particularly on politics and religion, French satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” suffered a deadly jihadist strike on its offices in Paris back in 2015 as retribution for printing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Last September, the weekly republished these images to coincide with the start of the terror trial against those suspected of carrying out and abetting the attack. President Emmanuel Macron refused to condemn the move in the name of freedom of speech and the right to blaspheme under French law. Indeed, secularism (laïcité) remains central to the country’s national identity and is enshrined in the constitution. One month later, Macron was talking about Islamist separatism and when school teacher Samuel Paty was decapitated after showing students the Charlie Hebdo cartoons – he still refused to denounce the caricatures. All of which triggered anger across the Muslim world.

Here in Pakistan, the religious right-wing TLP (Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan) was at the forefront of protests and the party demanded the expulsion of the French ambassador as well as a boycott of all French products. The group enjoys considerable street power. And while Prime Minister Imran Khan warned of adverse political and economic fallout, particularly in the middle of a global pandemic, his government reached an understanding with the group. It would agree to all demands, subject to parliamentary consensus; with the TLP setting its own deadline of April 20 towards this end. However, when the ruling PTI gave the order for the party chief to be taken into pre-emptive custody – his supporters took to the streets once more, provoking violent clashes between protestors and the police. To bring the situation under control, the government introduced a resolution before Parliament to debate the fate of the French ambassador; though the matter has yet to be settled. In the event that he is sent packing, other EU missions would be quick to recall their ambassadors in a show of solidarity; thereby gravely damaging Pakistan’s relations with Europe.

The government has shown willingness to engage with the EU on the GSP-blasphemy issue. This is to be welcomed. PM Khan has already underscored what is at stake given that half of the country’s exports go to France. Nevertheless, Pakistan should neither yield to TLP pressure nor that of the West. It must simply do the right thing

It is unthinkable that the country’s foreign policy should be dictated by mobs on the streets of Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. The rupture of our relations with France would not only severely damage our international standing, which has been recently on the upswing given our successful policy to help peace in Afghanistan, it would certainly impact our economic relations with the EU and the West. Indeed, the EU is already in the process of reviewing trade ties with Pakistan with Brussels overwhelmingly adopting a resolution linking our GSP+ status to an “alarming” increase in blasphemy accusations. It calls on the government to “unequivocally condemn” incitement to violence and discrimination of religious minorities in the country as well as expressing “deep concern” over prevailing anti-French sentiment in Pakistan. Member of European Parliament (MEP) Charlie Weimers of Sweden, who co-authored the resolution, said: “Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, rather than defend his citizens’ human rights against false accusers, [. . .] equated denial of the Holocaust and genocide to criticism of Islam’s Prophet (PBUH).”

This brings us to an important point. The EU has in place laws criminalising Holocaust denial, which is certainly its right. Similarly, Muslim states have the right to criminalise blasphemy, including against the Holy Prophet (PBUH). While the two cannot be exactly equated, it remains the prerogative of each individual nation or bloc of nations to frame laws according to respective requirements. Nonetheless, there are legitimate and serious reservations about the implementation and misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. These need to be effectively addressed. To quote my article “Misusing Religion” (Daily Times, Nov 1, 2018): “to end manipulating the laws by false accusation, which seems to happen more often than not, the accusers should face the same penalty that would be imposed on those they accuse if their accusation is proven to be false.”

The government has shown willingness to engage with the EU on the GSP-blasphemy issue. This is to be welcomed. PM Khan has already underscored what is at stake given that half of the country’s exports go to France. Nevertheless, Pakistan should neither yield to TLP pressure nor that of the West. It must simply do the right thing. It has made an important first step by banning the TLP. But more is needed. The state and the law enforcing institutions need to regain control over militant organisations and their members. One can disagree on political issues but violence can never justify the means. Malcontents presently out in the cold will join the fray to regain their nuisance value. Thus, it comes as no surprise to see Maulana Fazlur Rehman quickly rallying behind the TLP. Elsewhere, most French nationals, cautioned by their Embassy to leave the country stayed put, clearly putting their trust in Pakistanis and the state to do the right thing. We must honour that trust.

On April 9, 1948, Leon Marchal, the first French ambassador to Pakistan, presented his credentials to the Quaid, who noted: “The cry of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, which was raised during your Great Revolution and officially adopted by your great Republic, had its repercussion throughout the world, as is known to buoying up the hopes of many downtrodden nations.” Indeed, Pakistan’s founding father understood the need for the country to urgently connect with the world. France was one of the first countries to help Pakistan establish Civil Aviation. Later, when we were faced with US sanctions – following the 1965 Indo-Pak war and again in 1990 when Washington invoked the Pressler Amendment against our nuclear programme – we struggled to make a credible military deterrent against India. During that time, other than China, only France withstood pressure from the Americans and other western countries to ensure critical supplies of aircrafts and missiles, submarines and electronic equipment.

Seventy-three years later both countries have been held hostage to those on extremist fringes. Do we want to expel the French ambassador when President Macron’s off-the-cuff comment does not reflect the will of the vast majority of the French citizenry, comprising a growing number of Muslims?