Politics of blasphemy

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Brigade Is The Latest Proxy Of The Army

Taha Siddiqui Paris, France 8 November 2018

On October 31, Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who had been languishing in jail for nine years, convicted for committing blasphemy against Mohammad, the founder of Islam. Back in 2009, while working in the field near her house in Ittanwala village, she had an altercation with two Muslim sisters who went on to accuse her of committing blasphemy after they were upset that she drank from a glass that belonged to them. In Islamic faith, Muslims are not supposed to share the same eating and drinking utensils that are of non-Muslims.

Following the orders of Aasia’s release (who denies she ever blasphemed), a religious extremist group called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which is a registered political party, came out on the roads, demanding that Aasia be hanged.

The supporters of this party held the country hostage for over three days, and forced the government to come to a
standstill, until their demands were met. The government agreed to some of their demands and signed an agreement in this regard, which many say reflects its capitulation. Interestingly, just last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan had supported the same TLP against the previous government of Nawaz Sharif. At that time, the TLP had demanded the resignation of the then federal minister for law, alleging that the law maker had committed blasphemy by trying to amend an Islamic oath, taken by members of the parliament. The government had denied any such amendments but the group would not listen. And as the group went on to attack life and property, it became quite clear that the real reason of the protests that had paralyzed Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, was not the perceived blasphemy, but more to do with the Pakistani military using the TLP as a proxy to settle its own scores with the then civilian government of Nawaz Sharif, who it considers a threat against its military interests.

The group agreed to stop protesting after three weeks, when the law minister resigned. An agreement was also signed between the government and the TLP at that time, and a military general, known to be behind orchestrating the episode, was one of the signatories of that agreement.

Almost a year later, the TLP has now come to haunt not just Imran Khan’s government, but also the Pakistan Army, which is thought to be behind the rise of the party.

The TLP recently won a record 2.1 million votes in the last general elections held a few months ago. It was contesting
elections for the first time. Observers say that after being used as a measure of street power in 2017, the group was also used to dent the vote bank of Nawaz Sharif’s party in the 2018 elections, who enjoyed popularity among the same population that the TLP now draws its strength from.

But it appears that the TLP is already threatening its military masters. In the latest protest against the Christian
woman Aasia’s release, the leaders of the TLP called for a mutiny within the military, asking soldiers to stand up
against the army chief.

The army seems to repeatedly create such out-of-control monsters and this backlash is quite similar to what happened when it helped pave the way for the creation of the Pakistani Taliban, although there are some major differences between those it has armed in the past, and those it is doing so now, as they belong to different sects.

For the longest time, the Pakistan Army has used religious groups from the hardliner Deobandi sect to serve its
strategic objectives in neighboring Kashmir and Afghanistan, allowing the so-called jihadis to operate from Pakistani soil. At times, the military has also been found training and sponsoring these groups. Also, the Arab world has also been involved in helping to arm such groups given Deobandi and Wahhabi Islam are quite similar and easier to militarise, because of their motivation to wage jihad against non-Muslims. And through this jihad policy, the Pakistan Army manages its foreign policy in the region.

On the domestic policy front, the Pakistan Army has also been Islamising the local population using Arab-funded seminaries, especially in areas where there were nationalistic tendencies, so as to counter such anti-Pakistan insurgencies. This can be seen in Balochistan, and Gilgit-Baltistan, where there has been a rise of religious extremists.

However, as explained earlier, there has been a backlash from arming these Saudi-allied sects and such terrorists
started targeting the military and the Pakistani state in recent years. Also, given how these terrorists fight abroad
to purify the countries from foreign non-Muslim influence there (like in Kashmir of the Indians or in Afghanistan of the Americans) – when they come back home, they start going after domestic religious minorities too, wanting to eliminate the ‘other’ at home too – to purify Pakistan.

Today, the Pakistan Army continues to face the brunt of its policy of arming the Deobandis. But it is now also facing
trouble from using the Barelvi, which it has also militarised in the last few years, to serve as a pressure group against
political parties that stand up to the Pakistan Army.

The Deobandis were easier to manage given they are a small percentage of Pakistani population but the Barelvis are the majority Muslims in the country. The Barelvis have woken up to the realisation that like the Deobandis who had jihad to rally their supporters behind, they have the cause of blasphemy to rile up their supporters – an idea that has been planted within their ranks, by the Pakistan Army.

(The writer is a Pakistani journalist living in exile in France. He is the founder of safenewsrooms.org. Views are personal)

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