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A fatal mixture in Pakistan

On Sunday, Pakistan’s interior minister, Ahsan Iqbal, survived an assassination attempt. Iqbal was attacked during a corner meeting in his constituency in Narowal. Thankfully, the bullet did not hit any of his vital organs and he is out of danger now. In February, a man had hurled a shoe at Iqbal at a PML-N workers’ convention in Narowal. The two incidents — one with a shoe and another with a pistol — do raise questions over the security details of one of the most important federal ministers of Pakistan. Then again, there is not much that can be done vis-à-vis security during election campaign season but any minor loophole can lead to a major catastrophe as witnessed on Sunday.

While the assassination attempt itself is shocking, there is a more alarming factor: the shooter, Abid Hussain, is affiliated to the Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah. He carried out the shooting due to the ‘ Khatam-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood)’ issue. I had written about the TLY and the Khatam-e-Nabuwat in these pages back in December. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government was blamed for a minor amendment made in an oath pertaining to the Khatam-e-Nabuwat clause in the Elections Act 2017 even though other political parties had also agreed on that amendment as it did not change anything significant. Unfortunately, politics was played over this sensitive issue and we all know very well what happens when religion is mixed with politics. A dharna (sit-in) was staged by the TLY in Islamabad, more commonly known as the Faizabad dharna. The speeches at that sit-in were not just inflammatory but downright bigoted and dangerous. Instead of a proper crackdown, a botched operation was launched which failed. The government then acquiesced to all of TLY’s demands. The then law minister resigned as per the demands of the protesters. The army played a mediatory role between the TLY protesters and the government; the TLY leadership also thanked the army chief for ‘special efforts’. The State surrendered. We, the people, lost.

After the attack on the interior minister, Iqbal, the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, said: “This is the result of the distribution of Rs 1,000 to the protesters. If the protesters had not been given Rs 1,000 each, perhaps this day would not have come.” Sharif was referring to an incident after the Faizabad dharna ended in which the representatives of the armed forces were seen handing out Rs 1,000 to the TLY protesters when they were dispersing. Sharif is right.

Had the State not capitulated before the religious mob back then, this day would not have come. The State did not do anything to stop these protesters: the army was not in favour of an operation while the Punjab government gave the TLY protesters safe passage to the capital. Once the State surrenders its writ, such elements only gain in strength. Back then, many analysts had rightly warned the government that the Khatam-e-Nabuwat card would play a major role in the upcoming general elections. The threat of violence citing this sensitive issue will definitely cramp the PML-N’s election campaign. This threat is all too real. We cannot forget how the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated in broad daylight because of fake propaganda against him regarding the blasphemy issue and how his murderer, Mumtaz Qadri, was hailed as a hero by many in our society. In fact, Mian Sharif’s son-in-law, Captain Safdar, has been one of the most vocal supporters of Qadri. It is extremely sad to see politicians use the religion card because it will definitely come back to haunt them, if not today then tomorrow. The PML-N itself has been involved in this kind of divisive politics in the past. Now politicians like Sheikh Rasheed and Imran Khan are using the Khatam-e-Nabuwat issue only to sabotage the PML-N’s electoral chances in the 2018 elections. While it was good to see all political parties condemning the attack on our interior minister, it remains to be seen whether the Opposition parties will realize their mistake and stop using the religion card. Mixing religion with politics is a poison we are all too familiar with. We have seen our military not taking any action against extremists and our politicians using such issues to fan hatred towards the opposing party for electoral gains. We will also see people like Abid Hussain picking up guns to silence voices that are ‘anti-religion’ and which they think are responsible for something that never actually happened.

But it is not just the military establishment and the political class that strengthen extremists; a segment of our media is also complicit. When we see such propaganda on our television screens day in and day out, it is bound to lead to a deeper radicalization of an already radicalized society. Only a handful of people in the media were willing to explain what was actually amended in the Elections Act 2017. Others just played to the gallery and fanned religious sentiments.

In 2013, the Pakistan Peoples Party, the Awami National Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement could not campaign properly due to threats from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan for being ‘secular’. In its editorial titled “The TTP threat and elections”, The Express Tribune rightly noted that, “We would all like to believe that the ballot is more powerful than the bullet, and that the pen is mightier than the sword. They are, but only in the long run. In the heat of battle, a pen is rather useless. Similarly, the positive effects of the ballot can be diminished, if not destroyed, by the use of the bullet.”

We can see something similar happening to the PML-N at the moment. This time, while the TTP is contained due to recent military operations, a fringe party like the TLY and its supporters are rearing their ugly heads by playing the Khatam-e-Nabuwat card. This will lead to insecurity within the PML-N ranks and it will subsequently jeopardize their election campaign. There will be no level playing field for the ruling party if such incidents are repeated. Attacks like the one on Iqbal can lead to more violence and can even put the upcoming elections at stake. Pakistan has seen enough violence to last us a lifetime; we don’t need to see more carnage. We can only hope and pray that the 2018 general elections takes place without any violence and bloodshed.