Wages of religiosity By Ghazi Salahuddin


Again and again, as we accumulate our wounds, we get notifications that we have obstinately been rejecting. And what is it that flashes on the dark horizon like a bolt of lightning that we are unwilling to read?

One way of interpreting this message is that the ruling ideas that have steered this country for decades have led us into an ideological wilderness. We need to abandon this death wish and hack our way out to the path of peace and progress and social harmony.

But meanwhile we are in the midst of a deep crisis. We have to first put out this fire of the massive movement that the supposedly proscribed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has raised. Dark passions, invoked in the name of religion, hold sway across the nation.

The situation, at the time of this writing, is critical and in a flux. There is not enough information available to find the truth of what is happening on the ground. Nor would I make an attempt to look at how we have arrived at this place. At the same time that we are told that the government is set to establish the writ of the state, cabinet ministers have spoken in different languages.

Quite simply, they don’t know what has hit them. In addition, there has been willful deception and recourse to falsehood. This ambivalence is rooted in how the TLP was born and how this outfit that draws its support from the lower echelons of our society was invested in national politics. Or is this confusion about how to deal with this devastating protest being carefully managed?

In many ways, what has happened this week is an action replay of previous agitations launched by the religious party. In addition to terrorist violence and manifestations of extremism and intolerance, the resistible rise of the TLP is a factor of how exploitation of religion in our politics has subverted the overall growth of Pakistani society across the entire social and political spectrum.

Why are Muslims in Pakistan so different from the citizens of other Muslim countries when they react to instances of blasphemy in distant, Western countries? Why do we end up harming our own interests?

As I said, a credible and transparent account of how the present agitation by the TLP was launched in Lahore and what has transpired during the past more than ten days is not possible. However, the scare of what can happen is palpable. There are many incendiary glimpses of the march on social media. But this certainly cannot go on for a long time.

Before the crucial meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC) on Friday, presided over by Prime Minister Imran Khan, there was ample evidence of the present government’s doublespeak. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry and Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid tended to play the good cop and the bad cop routine. Fawad said that the writ of the state was about to be established and Sheikh Rashid hinted at the continuity of negotiations.

One expected that this confusion would finally be resolved at the NSC meeting in which civilian and military leadership sat together and reviewed the internal security situation with reference to the TLP agitation. They may not have been on the same page, but they were in the same room. But the outcome left many questions unanswered. I have to do this column before the prime minister’s address to the nation. Will the writ of sanity be enforced before the writ of the state?

Anyhow, the NSC resolved to not tolerate “any further breach of law” by the TLP. Prime Minister Imran Khan told participants that “no group or entity will be allowed to cause public disruption or use violence to pressure the government”. It was reiterated that the state’s restraint should not be seen as a sign of weakness. Fawad Chaudhry said that the government would “not tolerate this joke for long”.

Since I see this agitation as action replay, we can learn a lot about the dynamics of this protest by tracing the history of other such episodes. Obviously, passions rise when you invoke religion. Let us look back at that fateful Faizabad interchange sit-in by the TLP in November 2017, almost exactly four years ago. Some observers saw that 21-day ‘dharna’ as a move against the government of Nawaz Sharif.

How that ‘dharna’ ended and what reverberations were felt afterwards is a story worthy of a Netflix mini-serial. It also involves a judge of the Supreme Court – Justice Qazi Faez Isa. He was one of the two-member bench of the Supreme Court that issued a judgment in the Faizabad sit-in case. The strongly-worded judgment was authored by Justice Isa. And there were consequences that have not concluded.

On November 25, 2017, when the sit-in was about to end with the army’s intervention, the then DG ISPR, sent this tweet: “COAS telephoned PM. Suggested to handle Isb Dharna peacefully, avoiding violence from both sides as it is not in national interest & cohesion”.

We do not know whether the present TLP agitation will have a similar, apparently happy ending. Even when the stories are similar, there may be variations in how they are wrapped up. One difference is that the present agitation has vastly disrupted the lives of citizens along the road to Islamabad. All attempts to block the march, including by digging deep trenches, have so far failed. The Rangers have joined the action and they have drawn a ‘red line’ near Wazirabad.

Ideally, the NSC and other formations that formulate policy and exercise power should meet when the present agitation is over to deliberate on the mess that such use of religion in public life has created. If only the rulers had the guts to listen to their ‘secular’ critics. And that would be in national interest – the mantra that they carry as a stick.

This may not be a fair expectation at a time when a born-again Muslim is our prime minister. The fault, perhaps, lies in our stars.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com