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Religious fundamentalism weakens Pakistan’s bargaining power with China

  • Adnan Aamir says the anti-blasphemy protests highlight the need for the government to end its policy of appeasement and tackle Islamic radicalism
  • The unrest, stark against the backdrop of Imran Khan’s visit to China, will only complicate Pakistan’s bid to escape an economic crisis
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2018, 12:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2018, 8:46am

While Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, was on his first official visit to China, major cities in Pakistan were at a standstill due to anti-blasphemy protests by supporters of religious fundamentalists.

Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and economic capital, was paralysed as roads were blocked at more than 30 spots. In the capital, Islamabad, violent protesters set fire to cars and trucks. There was a complete media blackout of the protests and cell phone services were suspended in major cities. For several days, chaos and uncertainty reigned across the country’s major urban centres.

The unrest erupted on October 31 when Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi in a blasphemy case. Bibi, a 47-year-old Christian woman, was convicted by a lower court in 2010 for insulting the Prophet Mohammed – under a law that prohibits blasphemy of Islam and its principles – and put on death row. She had always pleaded her innocence and claimed the charges were made up. Last Wednesday, Pakistan’s top judges declared her innocent and ordered her release.

As soon as the verdict was announced, supporters of the political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) led violent protests across the country. TLP was founded in 2015 primarily on a platform of upholding the blasphemy law and punishing anyone who commits blasphemy against Islam.

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The situation is alarming even by standards in Pakistan, which has more than its fare share of violence and chaos. Not only has the TLP paralysed life in major cities, it also verbally attacked Pakistan’s powerful military. A TLP leader, Afzal Qadri, openly instigated the army’s “real Muslim” generals to revolt against their commander-in-chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. This was unprecedented.

Despite these provocative attacks, a spokesman said the army had nothing to do with the issue and urged protesters to take the legal route. This speaks volumes about the gravity of the issue and the huge power the TLP has acquired by banking on religious fundamentalism in Pakistan.

That all left Khan’s government in a predicament. It wanted to control the chaotic protests but a crackdown would require the use of force, resulting inevitably in a loss of life. That would lead to a nightmare scenario: the protests would only intensify if the government provided the TLP with more ammunition in the form of dead bodies.

Consequently, the government reached a deal with the TLP to call off the protests, basically surrendering to the party’s demands. It agreed to prevent Bibi from going abroad and said it would not object to a petition for a legal review of the acquittal submitted by the party. TLP leaders compelled the government to accept their unconstitutional and illogical demand.

Moreover, the anti-blasphemy protests coincided with Khan’s visit to China, his first as prime minister. After assuming office, Khan’s government scaled back some of the Chinese-funded projects in Pakistan amid the country’s balance-of-payments crisis. In the run-up to the trip, it was clear that Khan intended to renegotiate the terms of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In Beijing, Khan asked China for financial assistance so Pakistan could avoid loans from the International Monetary Fund. The Chinese government pledged support but gave no concrete help. Chinese officials said they want to hold more negotiations on the details.

Khan needs to end the policy of appeasement with the religious fundamentalists

No doubt, violent protests like last week’s were one reason China hesitated giving immediate financial support. Beijing needs Pakistan to guarantee that such protests can be prevented in future so progress on the economic corridor is not affected. The second phase of the mega project is due to officially start following Khan’s return home.

The joint statement issued after his visit pledges that both nations will increase cooperation in economic, cultural and foreign policy, yet it shared no specific details of the new agreements. It is clear that the overall scope of the economic corridor was not revised.

Beijing also needs to be assured that radical groups like the TLP will not be allowed to direct policy. The worry is that it may turn its attention towards China by criticising alleged human rights violations against Ugyur Muslims in Xinjiang. Given the party’s street power, TLP could force the Pakistani government to raise the Ugyur issue with China, which would put Islamabad in a very difficult position.

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The issue of religious fundamentalism is no less a security threat for Pakistan. It can be used at any time to disrupt life for millions of ordinary Pakistanis and blackmail the government. The issue needs to be tackled urgently to ensure stability in the country.

Khan must make a firm decision to enforce the rule of law in Pakistan. He needs to end the policy of appeasement with the religious fundamentalists. If groups like the TLP violate the law, then top officials must take stern action, rather than surrendering before them. This is possible only if the government does not allow Islam to be used to play power politics. With CPEC and the political stability of Pakistan at stake, Khan has no choice but to take this difficult decision.

Adnan Aamir is a journalist and researcher. Follow him on twitter @iAdnanAamir. Email: [email protected]