Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 191, 19 November 2020

Pakistan: Anti-French protests called off
Abigail Miriam Fernandez

In the news
On 16 November, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) announced that the government had accepted all its four demands; however, the leadership made no announcement calling off its sit-in. Earlier on 15 November, the federal government claimed that it succeeded in convincing the TLP to end their sit-in after hours-long negotiations. This came two days after they laid a partial siege to the national capital as a means to denounce the publication of blasphemous caricatures in Charlie Hebdo magazine and remarks about Islam and terrorism by French President Emmanuel Macron.

The agreement signed between the two sides includes four stipulations. First, the government has to make a decision regarding the expulsion of the French ambassador within three months. Second, it will not appoint its ambassador to France, third, the boycott of French goods and fourth, the release of all the arrested workers of the TLP and not register any case against the TLP leaders or workers even after it calls off the sit-in. The agreement was signed by Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Qadri, Interior Minister Ijaz Shah and the deputy commissioner, Islamabad.

Issues at large 
First, TLP strikes again, but this time against an international development. The ongoing protest which was staged outside Islamabad is not the first time the staunch cleric and TLP chief, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has organized demonstrations over blasphemy-related issues in Pakistan. The TLP first came to limelight in 2017 when they staged demonstrations against few changes in the wording of an electoral oath which they considered "blasphemous" and organized a three-week-long sit-in at Faizabad, blocking off the twin cities. This time the group has garnered against an international development; however, it still shows that the religious rhetoric is still being used to counter the political forces.

Second, the rise of the Barelvi right. The Barelvi's are trying to prove that they are in a better position to protect, preserve and promote religious values in society. A group which was once seen as the embodiment of traditional, peaceful, Pakistani Islam, has seen certain Barelvi elements becoming radicalized. They have found a cause that fits their interpretation of Islam, thus making anyone from a different religion or someone deviant from their interpretation of Islam an easy target. Further, the electoral rise of the TLP indicates an aggressive and militant face of Barelvi politics.

Third, the force behind the TLP. It is a known fact that Rizvi, who does not enjoy massive street power like the religious party of Fazal-ur-Rehman, somehow always succeeds in arriving at the strategic Faizabad Interchange without much difficulty. Although earlier verdicts stated a link between Rizvi and the military establishment, this has not been proven. However, the situation is not new; religion has been used to benefit the power elite, especially the military establishment, while the faith merchants in the process have become stronger at the cost of weakening the state.

In perspective
First, religious narratives continue to overrule democracy. Rizvi's arrival, the capital shows that democratic governments are weak for fundamentalists can easily capture even the national capital and turn the hands of the government in power. Further, the deal does not look like a good sign for the political parties and democracy, for it shows that religious sentiments are considered above anything else.

Second, the government's willingness to negotiate with the group shows that the former also believes in the same narrative. However, the narrative for both the state as well as extremist groups has moved further from their Palestine and Kashmir cause to a larger cause under the tag of combating Islamophobia.

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