Scraping the bottom of Pakistan’s political barrel

Scraping the bottom of Pakistan’s political barrel

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Power politics may be a house of cards, but here in Pakistan we’re not quite playing with a full deck.

Perhaps one reason for this is that the cards dealt out to political opponents have the dull regularity of an unimaginative gambler. There’s the ethnic card, with all its many sub variants and there’s the treason card, a perennial favourite which - while now giving diminishing returns - still has its fans and its uses. There’s the conspiracy card, of course, which while not powerful on its own can be quite deadly when played in a combination hand…especially when you marry it to the Ace of Spades, the religion card. This card, while certainly faded from overuse, isn’t made of paper or plastic but instead of razor-edged stainless steel so as to better slit your opponents’ throat with; you can even throw it shuriken style.

That’s what PML-N leader Javed Latif did when he took to the screens on state-run Pakistan television, accusing Imran Khan of “attacking the basic tenets of Islam” by allegedly not just supporting the minority Ahmedi community, but being part of a grand conspiracy laid out by that community. Not content with that, he even played a selection of clips from Khan’s various public engagements in a montage titled: ‘How can you choose a leader who is not even Muslim?’ Now this kind of thing is part of a long, if not proud, tradition in Pakistani political discourse. To use a visual metaphor, it’s something like a man repeatedly stomping on an already squished ant while claiming that it is in fact a vicious lion that would savage us all if he were to relent for even a moment. But it’s not. It’s an ant. 

Nevertheless, just about every major political party has its minority and ahmedi-bashing contingent which is eagerly trotted out to appease public sentiment, gain rightwing votes and demonise (and possibly encourage) attacks against opponents, as Javed Latif just did.

Javed Latif’s display, on the television channel that is paid for by our taxes – yours and mine – was meant not just to incite religious hatred but also to incite violence. 

Zarrar Khuhro

Do note that this is the same Javed Latif who very nearly had his head bashed in during the turbulent November of 2017 after the crackdown on TLP protestors at the now-infamous Faizabad interchange. At around the same time, his colleague and then minister Ahsan Iqbal was almost assassinated by a religious fanatic. Simultaneously, this dangerous rhetoric was eagerly amplified by the PTI which showed itself more than willing to exploit religious sentiment for cynical political gain. But in Latif’s case, this is as close as you can get to inciting violence without actually saying it out loud.

Since the Faizabad days, we have seen countless statements from the PML-N decrying the use of religion in politics, with the focus now on Imran Khan’s countless religious allusions during his 7 days a week rallies and public addresses. If that is so unpalatable, then how does one entertain and condone spreading religious hatred? Pakistan’s game of thrones is ruthless, as all such games are, but one had hoped that at least one principle could have been adhered to.

However, principles rarely survive contact with power, especially when panic at the thought of losing that power sets in, as it so clearly has. Latif’s display, on the television channel that is paid for by our taxes – yours and mine – was meant not just to incite religious hatred but also to incite violence, because that’s the end goal of all such actions: to try and reach that one person who may be crazy enough to act on the dog whistle.

There’s plenty of crazy to go around, of course. The fallout of the Latif press conference had barely subsided when the PTI, true to form, decided to once again jump into the midden heap as well. With pictures of Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s various UNGA meetings coming forth, the PTI’s leading lights, such as Shireen Mazari (of course) Murad Raas and Dr. Yasmin Rashid took photos of PM Sharif’s meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron and began captioning them with calls for the Tehreek-e- Labbaik Pakistan to take notice and (hopefully) protest against the PM. Dr Rashid, of all people, even went the extra mile by calling out Shahbaz for exchanging pleasantries with Macron, whom she labelled as a supporter of blasphemy. 

Now it was bad enough when PTI leaders started drawing circles and arrows on just about every meeting that the PM held on the sidelines of the SCO in an effort to paint Sharif as unprofessional and inefficient, but this latest effort is dishonest and dangerous. All in all, it is also sadly par for the course in the vicious zero-sum game that is Pakistani politics.

- Zarrar Khuhro is a Pakistani journalist who has worked extensively in both the print and electronic media industry. He is currently hosting a talk show on Dawn News. Twitter: @ZarrarKhuhro

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