Islamabad Protest – Who is in control

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FOR the past one week, Islamabad has been virtually under siege with the followers of a radical cleric blocking the expressway connecting the city to the airport. The administration’s move to enclose the Red Zone with containers has added to the chaos.

While the clerics blast the civil and military leadership with their highly inflammable harangue, inciting their supporters to violence, there is no sign of the government moving against them. Seldom has one witnessed such a state of inertia with the security agencies unable to act against even a small group of zealots paralysing the seat of government.

It is a case of a matter being blown out of proportion and used by the extremist clerics to whip up religious sentiments. It is all about an oversight, missing a clause in the Election Act related to the finality of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) in an oath that was turned into a religious and political controversy. Although the omission was immediately rectified, it has failed to satisfy some radical clerics.

It is mainly the weakness of the administration and an increasingly divided state authority that has given these zealots complete impunity. The demand that includes the resignation of the law minister is certainly not acceptable. Although the hard-line clerics have failed to draw any significant public support on the issue, some vested political interests have joined in to keep the matter alive.

Why are those who preach hate allowed to participate in electoral politics?

However small the number of those laying siege to the capital, the episode is a manifestation of a more serious problem related to the rise of a new and more radical Barelvi sectarian movement that publicly espouses violence in the name of its narrow view of religion. The siege has coincided with the emergence of a new political outfit, by the name of Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah, or TLY, whose members are spearheading the protest.

Led by a firebrand cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who is notorious for his vitriolic sermons, the TLY announced its appearance in the electoral politics by putting up candidates in the recently held National Assembly by-elections in Lahore and Peshawar. In both constituencies, TLY candidates received a significant number of votes, eating into the support base of old mainstream religious political parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami.

What is more worrisome is that its entire campaign revolves around the glorification of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. In fact, the group has gained momentum after Qadri’s execution. The group that represents a new Barelvi militancy is now planning to go into the 2018 general elections using the highly sensitive blasphemy issue to mobilise votes. The Islamabad sit-in seems to be a part of its election campaign.

A major question is how these preachers of hate are allowed to participate in electoral politics in violation of the country’s laws. It is likely to stoke the fires of violent sectarian extremism, threatening the democratic political process in the country. Not surprisingly, the Islamabad siege and the arrival of the TLY on the electoral scene have triggered a host of conspiracy theories about its backers.

Many in the ruling party smell a conspiracy to destabilise the government. There is, however, no substance to these wild theories imagining a ‘hidden hand’ behind everything. What is missing in the whole discourse is the stark failure of the state to contain the spread of religious extremism in the country. The National Action Plan has long been dead and buried, providing complete freedom to parties like the TLY to operate and hatemongering clerics to preach violence from the pulpit.

While the security agencies have been quick to take action against some bloggers espousing secular views and branded them ‘traitors’ for questioning the establishment’s policies, no action is being taken against clerics like Rizvi who publicly instigate violence against the civil and military leadership. Their vitriolic speeches are freely posted on social media.

Now the monster is coming back to haunt us. Last year, the same group had occupied Islamabad’s D Chowk for several days threatening to storm key government installations. The stand-off was defused through negotiations and with a promise not to take any action against the clerics. That further emboldened the group.

It is quite intriguing that the march that started from Lahore was allowed to enter Islamabad this time too. Instead of stopping the protesters on the way, the administration is playing ostrich and enclosing part of the city with containers. That has become a common practice of the Islamabad administration while dealing with such protest marches.

It is apparent that the country’s civil and military leadership has never taken counter-extremism policies seriously. That may be either out of political expediency or a fear of backlash or both. It may be true that the situation is not yet completely out of control, but continuing with the current state of inaction could create a very dangerous situation and reverse the gains made in the battle against terrorism.

The siege of Islamabad and the induction of the TLY into electoral politics are ominous developments. Not only will they add fuel to violent sectarian extremism, they will also cause the space for moderate Islamic parties to shrink. The results of the NA-120 and NA-4 by-elections showed a marked rise in electoral support for TLY candidates though at the expense of right-wing parties.

Its participation would cast a huge shadow over the elections, particularly in Punjab that has been the stronghold of sectarian-based politics — not a good omen for democratic politics in the country. The present political uncertainty and the worsening tension between the civil and military leaderships provide a favourable atmosphere for the extremist groups that have recently emerged on the political scene.

It is a tragic commentary on our state policy which gives such leeway to a group that glorifies a murderer and exhorts its supporters to follow his example. The siege of Islamabad gives some insight into the shape of things to come.

Dawn News

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