This is not the first case of mob vigilantism related to blasphemy vis-à-vis a foreign national. In 2021, a mob lynched and burned to death a Sri Lankan national who was working as a manger in a factory in Sialkot, Punjab, when he was accused of desecrating posters bearing the name of the Holy Prophet.
Although the Chinese national was arrested and later shifted to Abbottabad amid fears of being lynched by the furious mob, blasphemy incidents, targeting both Muslims and non-Muslims, particularly minorities, have become very common in recent years.
According to a Center for Research and Strategic Studies (CRSS) Report from 2022, from 1947 to 2021, around 1,415 blasphemy cases have been registered across Pakistan. Out of this total, 1,287 cases have been registered in between 2011 to 2021, and around 70% of the cases originate in the Punjab. In January 2011, the former Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer was assassinated in January 2011 by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, a member of the Sunni-Barelvi group, when Taseer raised his voice for the acquittal of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death on alleged blasphemy charges. Since then, Pakistan’s home-grown religious extremist landscape has become very volatile and dangerously intolerant. The CRSS report is an appropriate indicator of it.
The emergence of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a radical Barelvi group, in 2015 has further provided impetus to religious extremism in Pakistan. The group gained momentum when in 2020, it staged country-wide demonstrations across the country for the expulsion of the French ambassador from Pakistan and boycotting French products. All of this was done supposedly for the French government’s defense of published caricatures of the Holy Prophet in the name of freedom of expression.
The task of the government to counter the TLP becomes very challenging since doing so involves countering the majoritarian narrative, as Barelvis comprise more than 50% of the total population of the country.
It is a fact that the TLP-led extremism is different from the traditional Shia-Sunni violent extremism. While highlighting the issues of blasphemy and honor of the Prophet, the main target of TLP militancy are the government officials who intend to change the blasphemy laws of the country. These issues are very sensitive and evoke emotive responses. It must be noted that blasphemy is constitutionally protected; Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code became a part of the Constitution during Zia’s regime in 1986 by an act of Parliament, clearly reads: “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet shall be punished with death or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to pay a fine.” Moreover, “in 1991, the Federal Shariat Court ruled that life imprisonment was repugnant to Islam, and that, therefore, the death penalty was the only punishment possible for those convicted of blasphemy under 295-C.”
Keeping in view the degree of political instability in the country, no government or institution would dare to touch or make any minor changes to the existing laws. The government has several times bowed to pressure from the TLP, which has carried out violent agitation by staging mass demonstrations and riots, and has paralyzed the whole country. The Faizabad dharna in 2017 is a case in point.
There are three major challenges the government has been facing to counter the TLP-led violent extremism. First, the task of the government to counter the TLP becomes very challenging since doing so involves countering the majoritarian narrative, as Barelvis comprise more than 50% of the total population of the country, and the TLP has succeeded in presenting itself as the guardian of the rights of all Barelvis, while it has also succeeded in marginalizing other major Barelvi groups and political parties.
The PML-N’s defeat in Punjab was due to the party losing 9% of its vote share; 4% of these votes swung towards the TLP.”
Second, since the TLP has successfully cultivated a strong nexus between power and religion, so for the government, it is very difficult to counter TLP-led political activism and mob-vigilantism. With the very powerful vote base, the TLP has emerged as an important political actor in the mainstream politics of the country. Although it failed to win any National Assembly or Provincial Assembly seat in any provinces except Sindh, where it won only two Provincial Assembly seats, its political performance in the 2018 elections have severally impacted the electoral results of Punjab’s politics. It played a significant role in ensuring the political defeat of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in Punjab. According to a poll by Gallup Pakistan, “46% of voters in Punjab who voted for the TLP had previously voted for the PML-N. The survey further demonstrated that the PML-N’s defeat was due to to the party losing 9% of its vote share; 4% of these votes swung towards the TLP.” In terms of votes, it bagged 2.2 million votes and emerged as the fifth largest political party in the country. The TLP’s growing power and its political triumph has not only has further strengthened its narrative, but also gave it genuine political legitimacy.
Lastly, in recent years, the TLP’s network has expanded in both urban and rural areas of the country, where it enjoys an ever-growing support-base of middle and lower-middle class youth, which is also highly exposed to social media. The frequent and easy use of social media apps, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube and Twitter have not only brought the TLP cadre much closer to each other, but also made it easy to propagate its narrative through speeches and lectures, thus, enhancing the TLP’s support-base and power at the grassroots level.
Although the TLP-led violent extremism poses a serious threat to the state and society of Pakistan, countering its extremist narrative is an uphill task for the government. The alarming aspect is that the government’s approach to devising a strategy to seriously deal with the TLP threat is full of imperfections. Countering the existing extremist threat requires a comprehensive, robust, multifaceted and sustained approach, which is based on a two-pronged strategy: one short-term, while the other is long-term. In the short-term, the government needs to take a tougher stance against those who are involved in violent extremist activities, and persecute and punish them according to the law of the land. Moreover, the use of hate speech, as well as the funding sources of the TLP need to be sternly scrutinized by implementing the National Action Plan (NAP) in letter and spirit. In this regard, the role of National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) needs to be strengthened and made effective by enhancing coordination among various security agencies of the country.
On the other hand, the long-term strategy requires the government to develop a strong counter-narrative to challenge the extremist ideology of the TLP by promoting the universal values of tolerance, peace, pluralism and respect for diversity.