Pakistan will pay for its appeasement of religious radicals
The recent resolution of the European Union Parliament exposes Pakistan’s internal dynamics laced with radicalization and increasing hold of religious fundamentalists over the state. If an “alarming” increase in the use of blasphemy accusations in the country was not enough, the rising number of online and offline attacks on journalists and civil society organizations has dangerous portents not only for Pakistan but for its neighbourhood as well.
Islamist party of the Barelvi school of thought Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) played a major role in fomenting anti-French protests in Pakistan. Although the government has announced the group’s dissolution, it remains a potent group with a strong base across Pakistan.
According to Smruti S. Pattanaik, Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), the half-hearted ban imposed on the TLP by the Pakistan government in the wake of the violence committed by the organisation in April 2021, it seems, is based more on immediate law and order priorities rather than on constraining its toxic, religion-based politics. The ban will not defang the religious radicalism that forms the TLPs core strength.
The TLP was the fifth largest party in the national elections held in July 2018. Several factors contributed to its rise. Most notable of them was the leadership provided by Allama Khadim Rizvi, the firebrand leader who used the blasphemy issue to mobilise people.
After his death in November 2020, his son and the current chief of the TLP, Saad Rizvi, is trying to find a toe-hold in right-wing politics. Its cadres are demanding the expulsion of the French Ambassador, over France defending the publication of the cartoon of Prophet Mohammad.
While the controversy dates back to October 2020, Rizvi had called off a strike last year after the government had assured him of action against the French Ambassador. When his demands were not met, his organisation resorted to violence, resulting in the April 2021 ban. The TLP gained attention when it participated in the 2016 protests along with other religious organisations against the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard of the then Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who was killed by Qadri in January 2011. Taseer’s crime was that he had described the blasphemy law as a ‘black law’ and demanded its repeal while supporting Aasia Bibi’s appeal for mercy, who was convicted in a blasphemy case.1 Later, even the Religious Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who opposed the blasphemy law, was killed in Islamabad in March 2011.
Only two choices before the judiciary
It is ironic that for anyone allegedly committing blasphemy, the judiciary has two choices – to award the death sentence or to free that person, rejecting the charges of blasphemy It is said that those awarded the death sentence by the judiciary should consider themselves lucky, as the other alternative is mob justice before the police intervenes – as happened in Gojra in 2009, or the accused can be killed inside court premises – as was the case when a blasphemy-accused was killed in the high-security court complex in Peshawar in July 2020.
It needs to be noted that there are political and economic factors that underpin blasphemy cases in Pakistan. According to a study by the Centre for Social Justice, between 1997 and 2020, “1,855 people have been accused under offences related to religion – mostly under Sections 295-B and C to 298-C of the Pakistan Penal Code”.9 In 2020, 200 people had been accused, out of which 75 were Muslims. The same study also points out that 75 persons had been murdered extra-judicially in circumstances involving an allegation of blasphemy, some even had no clue about why they were being killed. Seven were killed in police custody or by policemen. Those murdered included 39 Muslims, 23 Christians, nine Ahmadis two Hindus and two persons whose religious identity was not known.”
Judges are also not spared for dispensing a fair trial, as was the case with Justice Arif Iqbal who was killed in his chamber by a fanatic after he had freed the blasphemy accused. Before that, a Hafiz-e-Quran and practitioner of indigenous medicine, Dr Sajjad Farooq, was stoned to death by a mob instigated by the local cleric for blasphemy in 1994. Professor Attaur Rehman Saqib, the principal of Fehm-i-Quran Institute was killed in 2002. Samuel Masih, another blasphemy accused, was attacked in 2004 with a hammer by a policeman who was guarding him in prison, to avenge the alleged blasphemous act committed by him.11
For years the West and even in India the successive governments were projecting the Berelvis as a moderate Islamic group and sought their help to project a moderate view of Islam. But events have proven that they are not far behind in instrumentalising violence. The Barelvi School attaches importance to the veneration of Prophet Muhammad and believes that a true Muslim is an “Ashiq-e-Rasool” (One who loves the Prophet). Therefore, anything that is considered disparaging to the Prophet is considered an act of blasphemy.
France became one of the TLP’s targets when the Charlie Hebdo trial started in September 2020. The gruesome massacre of 12 people at the satirical weekly’s office in January 2015 was the first major incident in a wave of Islamist violence in which more than 250 people have since been killed in France.
A month after the start of the trial, France was shaken by the October 16 beheading of teacher Samuel Paty by a Chechen Islamist militant outraged by his decision to share Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in a class discussing freedom of expression. Paty showed the images to his civics class while emphasising that students could choose not to look at them if they were offend”France rebuffs Pakistan
In response to Paty’s murder, President Emmanuel Macron vowed that France would never give up its liberal Enlightenment values, including the right to mock religion. He hailed the slain teacher as a “hero” for representing the secular, free-thinking values of the French Republic. France has a long tradition of caricatures taking on political and religious authorities – including Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Catholicism.
The weeks that followed saw mass protests in Muslim countries – with people taking to the streets and burning French flags and images of the French president. In Pakistan, the TLP played a central role in fomenting the demonstrations. The party demanded that Pakistan sever diplomatic relations with France and send the French ambassador, Marc Baréty, packing.
The Pakistani government signed an agreement with the party to convince it to dial down the protests – agreeing to the boycott of French products and promising a parliamentary vote by April 20 on expelling the French ambassador.
But as that deadline approached, Islamabad distanced itself from the TLP – a position underscored by Rizvi’s arrest on April 12. More than 200 TLP activists were arrested during the subsequent clashes with police. At least two police officers were killed and at least 340 people were wounded.
The Islamist party then gained international notoriety in 2018, when the Asia Bibi affair hit the world’s headlines. A member of Pakistan’s persecuted Christian minority, she was arrested in 2010 for alleged blasphemy and spent eight years on death row until she was acquitted. In response to her acquittal, the TLP organised mass demonstrations calling for her to be sentenced to death.
In the light of the above developments, the EU resolution attains considerable significance.
The resolution also calls on the Government of Pakistan to “unequivocally condemn” incitement to violence and discrimination against religious minorities in the country and expresses “deep concern” at the prevailing anti-French sentiment in Pakistan.
The EU Parliament “calls on the Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) to immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status in the light of current events and whether there is sufficient reason to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of this status and the benefits that come with it, and to report to the European Parliament on this matter as soon as possible”, according to the resolution.
Member of European Parliament (MEP) Charlie Weimers of Sweden, who co-authored the resolution, in his speech during the parliament’s latest session cited various incidents of members of religious minorities killed or imprisoned in Pakistan over accusations of blasphemy.
“Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, rather than defend his citizens’ human rights against false accusers, […] equated denial of the Holocaust and genocide to criticism of Islam’s Prophet (PBUH),” he said in his remarks.
EU resolution expresses concern
The EU resolution expressed particular concern regarding the case of couple Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel, who were sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in 2014. These charges emanated from the alleged sending of text messages disrespectful of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from a phone number registered to Kausar to the person accusing the couple of blasphemy.
According to the resolution, the situation in Pakistan “continued to deteriorate in 2020 as the government systematically enforced blasphemy laws and failed to protect religious minorities from abuses by non-state actors, with a sharp rise in targeted killings, blasphemy cases, forced conversions, and hate speech against religious minorities including Ahmadis, Shia Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Sikhs; whereas abduction, forced conversion to Islam, rape and forced marriage remained an imminent threat for religious minority women and children in 2020, particularly those from the Hindu and Christian faiths”.
The text calls on the Pakistani government to “unequivocally condemn incitement to violence and discrimination against religious minorities in the country” and put in place “effective, procedural and institutional safeguards” to prevent the abuse of the blasphemy laws while noting that it has been made a requirement that no police officer below the level of police superintendent may investigate charges before registering a case.
The resolution says Pakistan has benefited from trade preferences under the GSP+ programme since 2014, while the economic benefits from this unilateral trade agreement for the country are “considerable”. However, the GSP+ status “comes with the obligation to ratify and implement 27 international conventions including commitments to guarantee human rights and religious freedom”, it adds.
“In its latest GSP+ assessment of Pakistan of 10 February 2020, the Commission expressed a variety of serious concerns on the human rights situation in the country, notably the lack of progress in limiting the scope and implementation of the death penalty,” the text says.
The resolution said that judicial procedures in blasphemy cases in Pakistan are “highly flawed” where low standards of evidence are required for a conviction and judicial authorities often uncritically accept allegations.
The EU Parliament deplored the continuing discrimination against and violence towards religious minorities in Pakistan, including Christians, the Ahmadi community, Shias and Hindus.
The EU resolution has raised alarm bells in Pakistan, even as the government said that it will not bend. A senior official of Pakistan’s Commerce Ministry told the media that it is a matter of grave concern. The adoption of the resolution by the EU parliament shows the sentiments of the EU countries.
According to Executive Director of All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA) Shahid Sattar, of textile exports of $13 billion, the exports to EU countries stand at $6 billion and GSP facility is withdrawn, a major dent in exports will take place and in return, the industrial activities will plummet in the country which may trigger to a new surge in unemployment. The official said that the EU is Pakistan’s most important trading partner, accounting for 12.8 per cent of Pakistan’s total trade in 2015 and absorbing 23.7 per cent of Pakistan’s total exports.
Pakistani exports to the EU are dominated by textiles and clothing, accounting for 82 per cent of Pakistan’s total exports to the EU in 2016. Pakistan’s imports from the EU are mainly comprised of machinery and transport equipment (40.2 per cent in 2016) as well as chemicals (19.5 per cent in 2016).
From 2006 to 2016, EU28 imports from Pakistan have almost doubled from €3,319 to €6,273 million. The growth of imports from Pakistan has been particularly fast since the award of GSP Plus (€5,515 million in 2014).
According to the latest data, Pakistan’s exports to the EU in 2018-19 stayed at $7.936 billion while the import stood at $5.478 billion whereas the export to France in 2018-19 was at $400 million. However, in 2019-20, the country’s exports to the EU were at $7.477 million and the imports stood at $4.167 million.
Besides loosing business with EU Pakistan is bound to be put on the black list-of Financial Action Task Force (FATF).-Unless :
-Pakistan dismantles terrorism ,religious intolerance and oppression qua the religious minorities.-
-Roll back the draconian blasphemy laws as demanded by EU resolution, till such time Pakistan will always be seen and characterised as a terroriststan by the international community and danger to peace in the South Asian region.
Ashok Bhan is Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India, Distinguished Fellow USI, and Geo-Political Analyst