Shadows from history hang over Pakistan’s present and future

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Dramatic developments in Pakistan over the past three weeks evoke a certain sense of deja vu: rampaging mobs causing a breakdown of law and order; mainstream political parties watching mutely, too scared to take a stand against the bigotry whipped up by mullahs; and a civilian government appealing to the army to step in and restore calm.

The climax came on Saturday evening, as large-scale violence gripped several Pakistani cities. With the government in a state of retrenchment, all eyes turned to the army leadership in Rawalpindi.

By Sunday morning, it had set out its position in a letter to the Interior Minister. The army was prepared to discharge its constitutional responsibility to assist the government, the letter said. However, its authors also wished to highlight a “few aspects meriting deliberation,” such as how the “police has not been utilized to its full capacity” in dealing with the protesters.

The letter underscored that – in-keeping with orders passed to the civilian government by the Supreme Court and Islamabad’s High Court on the matter last week – the terms of the military’s deployment need to be clarified. Simply put, the army has drawn attention to the fact that it’s the only adult in the room.

At the core of the current mayhem is a game of thrones stemming from the ouster of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from power in July following a court verdict on corruption charges that resulted in his disqualification from holding public office. Sharif maintains there has been a conspiracy by a coalition of political forces – orchestrated from behind the scenes by the army – to drive him into the wilderness and eventual perdition.

Sharif has fought back, regaining much lost political capital over the last few months. His political base remains intact, his party is holding together and its prospects of winning federal elections next September have looked good.

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, an Islamist political party, place hurdles and block the main road leading to the airport in Karachi, on November 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Akhtar Soomro

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, an Islamist political party, place hurdles and block the main road leading to the airport in Karachi, on November 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Akhtar Soomro

That is, they did until religious mobs were mobilized around the country on the basis of false allegations that rightly belong to the theatre of the absurd – namely, that the government under Sharif’s party has not been unequivocal in its articulation of the rule that candidates for election must swear by the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat, or finality of prophethood.

This mobilization is a blatant attempt to replace the incumbent government with a subservient “interim government” that would be willing to gerrymander the upcoming elections and keep Sharif’s party out of power. Alas, the other mainstream parties – both the Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – also pine for the disintegration of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).

In this three-way power struggle between civilian government, clerics and the military, the latter puts on the appearance of an impartial arbiter. In reality, it’s plain to see that it fears a resurgent Sharif repeating the feat of Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, who has been able to assert civilian supremacy and send his country’s “Pashas” packing to their barracks.

When the violence began spiraling over the weekend, army chief General Qamar Bajwa pointedly spoke about the mullahs and the elected civilian government in the same breath. Rawalpindi tweeted: “COAS [Chief of Army Staff] telephoned PM. Suggested to handle Isb Dharna (protest marches) peacefully avoiding violence from both sides as it is not in national interest & cohesion.”

The religious parties, most of which have been mentored by the army for decades as ‘strategic assets,’ traditionally act as the vanguard to create political mayhem and force regime change in Pakistan

The former military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, was characteristically blunt in his analysis, proposing that an interim government be set-up to “run Pakistan for a few years through constitutional amendments and restructure the whole country.” Musharraf warned that Sharif’s party had a fighting chance to secure a renewed mandate.

The religious parties, most of which have been mentored by the army for decades as “strategic assets,” traditionally act as the vanguard to create political mayhem and force regime change in Pakistan. Mark Twain’s observation – that history does not repeat itself but often rhymes – may be worth bearing in mind, however.

Faith-based violence is an established feature of Pakistan’s political landscape. A significant difference this time, though, is that unlike in the past when the extremist fringes of the Deobandi sect provided the foot soldiers, this time it is the moderate Barelvi sect (which is often perceived as belonging to Sufi tradition) that has been mobilized. This is a fateful development.

The radicalization of Barelvi clerics and networks in Pakistan is ominous. As a perceptive Pakistani editor, Raza Roomi, points out: “Their (Barelvi) weaponization is arguably the worst outcome of the power struggle in Islamabad. We have been suffering the onslaught of extremist variants of Deobandi clerics and with the Barelvi power turning violent, Pakistan is headed towards a disastrous path.”

There are implications for wider sub-continental Muslim politics as well: whereas Deobandis constitute less than one-fifth of India’s Muslims, Barelvis form a majority. The point is that all of this is happening at a time when religion-based politics – something that has been more fundamental, historically, to Pakistan’s DNA – has been gaining huge traction among India’s Hindu majority.

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