Editor’s Note: Michael Kugelman is deputy director and senior associate for South Asia with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can follow him on Twitter @michaelkugelman. The views expressed are his own.
On October 31, Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman languishing on death row since being convicted of blasphemy in 2010. It was a landmark decision for Pakistan, where the law is frequently unkind to religious minorities, and particularly to those accused of blasphemy.
Religious hardliners, led by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a new political party, immediately took to the streets in protest. Several days later, Pakistan’s government, led by Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, reached a deal that made generous concessions to the protestors, who want Bibi executed. Islamabad agreed to take steps to prevent Bibi – newly acquitted of all charges by the highest court in the land – from leaving the country. She remains in Pakistan, her life in danger.
The protestors were at times violent and led by a party that calls for liberal activists to die and uses a rallying cry of “kill all blasphemers.” They were extremists, and Islamabad gave in to them. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.
A year ago, when the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PLMN) party was running the government, the TLP led a sit-in outside Islamabad that demanded the resignation of Pakistan’s law minister for making a small change to a religious oath uttered by new parliamentarians. The official resigned, and the change to the oath was reversed.
Then, several months ago, following pressure from religious hardliners, the current government asked Princeton professor Atif Mian, a distinguished Pakistani economist, to step down just days after having appointed him to serve on a new economic advisory council. The reason? He is an Ahmadi, a deeply persecuted religious minority in Pakistan.
Initially, Khan telegraphed a desire to take a hard line against last week’s protestors. He addressed the nation and described the unrest as unacceptable and a disservice to Islam.
Such tough talk was understandable; protestors were calling for judges to be killed and for Pakistani soldiers to mutiny. Pakistan uses an iron fist against those that attack or merely criticize the state, from the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) to the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, which demands more rights for ethnic Pashtuns.
Khan, however, did not walk the talk. That’s because, so far as the Pakistani state is concerned, the risks of staring down the TLP and its ilk are simply too great. The premier’s tough words are likely to ring hollow.
Crackdowns on Islamists – especially in a deeply conservative and religious state – risk triggering large-scale unrest. In 2007, President Pervez Musharraf used force against religious students and militants holed up in Islamabad’s Red Mosque. The operation killed dozens and spawned numerous retaliatory attacks. It also led to the formal establishment of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), which terrorized the country for nearly a decade. The sobering lessons of 2007 haven’t been forgotten.
Additionally, taking on the TLP has potentially damaging political costs – because the PTI has religious conservative supporters, but also because the TLP has become an ally of both the PTI and Pakistan’s military.
The TLP sit-in last November successfully pressured and weakened the PLMN government, with which the PTI and the military had sparred for years. Shortly after that sit-in, Khan claimed PTI members were ready to join it. The TLP also bagged more than two million votes in Pakistan’s 2018 election – enough to cut into the PMLN’s vote bank.
The TLP’s anti-state threats last week highlight how it could morph into a Frankenstein’s monster – another case of a Pakistani state asset turning into an adversary. It’s a scenario the government would much rather avoid.
In effect, both the PTI and the military have little incentive to antagonize the TLP and its allies.
The consequences of a hands-off policy are stark. So long as Islamabad dishes out the kid gloves treatment, it will struggle to curb the violent extremism that has long stalked Pakistan. With these hardliners moving into the political mainstream and contesting elections, their narratives of hate are gaining more traction across society—a space already suffocated by toxic ideas propagated by school textbooks, religious leaders, and the mass media.
Additionally, if the state won’t confront those waging violent protests and calling for mutiny within the military, then it certainly won’t crack down on those that sit quietly in Pakistan – think Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network – and help the security establishment pursue its goals in India and Afghanistan. These outfits don’t stage attacks in Pakistan, but their violent ideologies further entrench extremism there.
There’s an unsettling irony here. By appeasing the TLP and its ilk, Pakistan could hasten the very destabilization it hopes to avoid. Capitulating to hardliners will embolden them, giving them more confidence to impose their views in increasingly brazen ways, and adding to an already-enabling environment for extremism.
Those kid gloves are playing with fire.