Appeasement thy name is capitulation

Appeasement thy name is capitulation

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Since the 2017 Faizabad sit-in, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan’s (TLP) long marches toward Islamabad, except for 2019, have become an annual spectacle. Each year, TLP besieges Islamabad and returns after securing concessions from the government of the day by holding a gun to its head. In doing so, it gains more strength, political space and ideological prowess. 
After blowing hot and cold for two weeks, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government’s capitulation to TLP’s demands captures the pitfalls of using radical-religious groups for short-term political gains which incur long-term catastrophic consequences. The PTI government’s helplessness and knee-jerk responses in the face of TLP’s long march also underscore the state’s lack of imagination and viable strategies to deal with faith-based extremism, which is now creeping into mainstream political space. 
The TLP-PTI standoff is not fully resolved yet as the former is staying put in Wazirabad until the release of its chief Saad Hussain Rizvi and the removal of the ban. Saad’s release and TLP’s success in forcing the PTI government to remove the ban would turbocharge its incendiary narrative ahead of the next general elections. It will further increase TLP’s grassroots appeal among the lower-middle and working-class, reeling from soaring inflation, unemployment, and poverty. If combined with an emotional ideological narrative, these three elements make for a heady mix. This combination provides TLP, which was unleashed to undercut the far-right vote bank of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, with a fertile ground to grow and entrench itself in Pakistan’s political landscape. 

Despite sporadic incidents of lone-actor terrorism by its members, TLP does not profess systematic violence to achieve its stated political ends. Instead, it uses disruptive politics, vandalism, protest rallies, long-marches and sit-ins as the preferred modus operandi. However, at the same time, TLP has not discouraged lone actor killings by its operatives. Hence, TLP can be located at the intersection of violent and non-violent extremism if it is classified from typological frameworks of terrorism studies, i.e., isolated incidents of terrorism are there, but the group on balance is extremist but not terrorist. 

TLP’s hybridized nature and grassroots permeation makes it a hard nut to crack politically, ideologically and legally

Abdul Basit Khan

TLP, like all other religious groups in Pakistan, has both formal and informal mobilization structures to advance its ideological and political interests. Formally, it is registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan as a political party and contests elections to gain political legitimacy and mainstream its agenda. Informally, it operates as a movement, i.e., Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasoolullah, to exert street pressure on the political system to compensate for its weak electoral clout. In the 2018 general election, TLP won only two provincial assembly seats from Sindh. Hence, TLP is a hybrid entity that operates both as a party and movement, or it can be described as a party-movement. TLP’s hybridized nature and grassroots permeation make it a hard nut to crack politically, ideologically and legally. 
Had on-off bans, arbitrary arrests and censoring it from the mainstream media worked, TLP would have been confined to the dustbin of history. Even the demise of TLP supremo and founder Khadim Hussain Rizvi in 2020 did not weaken the radical-religious group. Quite to the contrary, TLP grew from strength to strength under its new leader and Khadim’s elder son Saad. Like it or not, TLP is here to stay, unfortunately. 
Since its emergence on Pakistan’s religio-political landscape, TLP has taken blasphemy activism to a whole new level. For instance, in 2020, as many as 200 incidents of blasphemy accusations were recorded in Pakistan. This year, this figure soared to 234 cases of blasphemy allegations by mid-October. These troubling statistics reveal the traction of TLP’s ideological narrative and its fallout, i.e., growing religious intolerance, shrinking space for free speech, and the state’s inability to rationalize religious discourse in Pakistan. In this hostile environment, no one can even dare think of reforming the procedural lacunae in the blasphemy laws, which often have been misused. 
TLP is a self-inflicted political wound that can only be healed through the organic evolution of the democratic process, notwithstanding its slow and messy nature. The PTI government walked itself into a corner by signing an agreement with TLP in November 2020 and renewing it in February 2021 to expel the French Ambassador from Pakistan. 
If we situate TLP’s political trajectory in the broader evolution of Pakistan’s religio-political landscape, it is not markedly different from other religious-political parties, which maintain both formal and informal structures and have limited electoral appeal. Hence, TLP can be cut to size at the political level if the mainstream political parties are not undermined and genuine democratic process is not interrupted and tinkered with election rigging. 
TLP is the long-term price the state is paying for its short-term myopic policies. Following what has transpired in TLP’s long marches and style of politics, the state is at crossroads. It will have to decide what kind of polity it wants— the one which bends over backwards to appease such groups to keep its writ at the cost of long-term peace and stability, or vice versa. 
- The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter @basitresearcher. 

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