Monday, November 5, 2018
CRITICS SEE DEAL REQUIRING AASIA BIBI TO REMAIN IN PAKISTAN UNTIL FINAL REVIEW OF HER ACQUITTAL AS YET ANOTHER CAPITULATION TO RELIGIOUS HARDLINERS
Prime Minister Imran Khan will return home to a deepening political crisis on Monday, with pressure mounting over a deal struck with Islamists hardliners that analysts say has eroded faith in his government.
Khan spent the last four days on a state visit to China, trying to win some desperately needed relief for his country’s parlous finances, as his homeland fractured over the fate of Aasia Bibi—a Christian woman cleared of blasphemy charges last week by the Supreme Court.
The overturning of her conviction, which Pakistan’s top judges ruled was based on flimsy evidence, ended Bibi’s eight-year ordeal on death row. But it enraged Islamists hardliners who took to the streets, blockaded major cities and demanded her immediate execution.
Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even the whiff of an unsubstantiated allegation of insulting Islam can spark death at the hands of mobs. The protests were only brought to an end once Khan’s administration agreed to a deal with the hardliners, where Bibi would remain in Pakistan while a final review of the Supreme Court’s ruling takes place.
Many critics saw the climb-down as another capitulation to Islamist hardliners who called for the assassination of the country’s Supreme Court justices and mutiny against the Army’s top brass in the ruling’s wake.
“The government seems to be directionless and it does not seem to have a proper strategy,” said analyst Fasi Zaka. “The government has just bought time and we’re still waiting to see what they do.”
Only a few days earlier, Khan had been riding a wave of positive energy. Shortly before his departure for China he delivered a speech vowing to confront the protesters head on, winning widespread praise from those detractors who had long accused him of courting extremists and for defending the blasphemy laws.
The protests calling for Bibi’s execution were being headed by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party (TLP), which is known for whipping up anger over blasphemy and successfully achieved a minister’s resignation under the previous administration in 2017 by blockading roads into Islamabad for more than three weeks.
Many critics of Khan noted that it was the second time his young administration had folded to Labaik demands after his government sacked an economics adviser belonging to the persecuted Ahmadi religious minority following pressure from its outspoken leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi. “Khan may have won the election, but it is Rizvi who seems to be ruling Pakistan today,” wrote columnist Fahd Husain in an editorial published in the English daily Express Tribune over the weekend. “The government must act against the TLP to sustain its popularity,” added security analyst Amir Rana. “The government looks weak and fragile.”
The deal has left Bibi in legal limbo and her family fearing for her safety. Her husband has appealed for Britain or the United States to grant the family asylum while her lawyer has fled overseas.
Khan’s first wife, British activist and filmmaker Jemima Khan, joined the chorus chiding the premier for backing down, saying his administration had effectively signed Bibi’s “death warrant.”“Not the Naya Pakistan we’d hoped for. 3 days after a defiant & brave speech defending the judiciary, Pakistan’s gov caves in to extremist demands to bar #AsiaBibi from leaving Pak,” she tweeted on Sunday.
The government continued to defend the deal on Monday, saying the agreement had averted violence. “We dispersed them in a peaceful way which is an achievement,” Information Minister Fawad Chaudry told reporters.
Analysts said Khan’s government had little strategy in place for following through on the vow to confront the protests, which were quickly snowballing. “I think there’s a huge fear of a backlash,” said analyst Zahid Hussain, adding that the Army also did not appear to support a potential crackdown.
Adding to the weekend’s woes, Khan appeared to be returning from traditional ally China empty-handed as he tries to reduce the amount of funds Pakistan will likely seek from the International Monetary Fund in bailout talks.
A statement released late Sunday hinted at new assistance from the Chinese but made no mention of the billions the government had been hoping to secure. “The prime minister is facing a real problem as he went to China to get an aid package, but he was given a cool reception,” said Zaka. The reception that awaits him on return might get much hotter.
Khan spent the last four days on a state visit to China, trying to win some desperately needed relief for his country's parlous finances, as his homeland fractured over the fate of Asia Bibi - a Christian woman cleared of blasphemy charges last week by the Supreme Court.
The overturning of her conviction, which Pakistan's top judges ruled was based on flimsy evidence, ended Bibi's eight year ordeal on death row. But it enraged Islamists hardliners who took to the streets, blockaded major cities and demanded her immediate execution.
The protests were only brought to an end once Khan's administration agreed to a deal with the hardliners, where Bibi would remain in Pakistan while a final review of the Supreme Court's ruling takes place. Many critics saw the climbdown as another capitulation to Islamist hardliners who called for the assassination of the country's Supreme Court justices and mutiny against the army's top brass in the ruling's wake.Read more at https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asia/pakistan-pm-under-fire-for-deal-with-hardliners-in-blasphemy-row--10899864
"The government seems to be directionless and it does not seem to have a proper strategy," said analyst Fasi Zaka.
"The government has just bought time and we?re still waiting to see what they do."
Only a few days earlier, Khan had been riding a wave of positive energy.
Shortly before his departure for China he delivered a speech vowing to confront the protesters head on, winning widespread praise from those detractors who had long accused him of courting extremists and for defending the blasphemy laws.The protests calling for Bibi's execution were being headed by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party (TLP), which is known for whipping up anger over blasphemy and successfully achieved a minister's resignation under the previous administration in 2017 by blockading roads into Islamabad for more than three weeks.
By Michael Kugelman
On October 31, Pakistan's Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman languishing on death row since being convicted of blasphemy in 2010. It was a landmark decision for Pakistan, where the law is frequently unkind to religious minorities, and particularly to those accused of blasphemy.Religious hardliners, led by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a new political party, immediately took to the streets in protest. Several days later, Pakistan's government, led by Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, reached a deal that made generous concessions to the protestors, who want Bibi executed. Islamabad agreed to take steps to prevent Bibi -- newly acquitted of all charges by the highest court in the land -- from leaving the country. She remains in Pakistan, her life in danger.
The protestors were at times violent and led by a party that calls for liberal activists to die and uses a rallying cry of "kill all blasphemers." They were extremists, and Islamabad gave in to them. It wasn't the first time, and it won't be the last. A year ago, when the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PLMN) party was running the government, the TLP led a sit-in outside Islamabad that demanded the resignation of Pakistan's law minister for making a small change to a religious oath uttered by new parliamentarians. The official resigned, and the change to the oath was reversed.Then, several months ago, following pressure from religious hardliners, the current government asked Princeton professor Atif Mian, a distinguished Pakistani economist, to step down just days after having appointed him to serve on a new economic advisory council. The reason? He is an Ahmadi, a deeply persecuted religious minority in Pakistan. Initially, Khan telegraphed a desire to take a hard line against last week's protestors. He addressed the nation and described the unrest as unacceptable and a disservice to Islam.
Such tough talk was understandable; protestors were calling for judges to be killed and for Pakistani soldiers to mutiny. Pakistan uses an iron fist against those that attack or merely criticize the state, from the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) to the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, which demands more rights for ethnic Pashtuns. Khan, however, did not walk the talk. That's because, so far as the Pakistani state is concerned, the risks of staring down the TLP and its ilk are simply too great. The premier's tough words are likely to ring hollow. Crackdowns on Islamists -- especially in a deeply conservative and religious state -- risk triggering large-scale unrest. In 2007, President Pervez Musharraf used force against religious students and militants holed up in Islamabad's Red Mosque. The operation killed dozens and spawned numerous retaliatory attacks. It also led to the formal establishment of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), which terrorized the country for nearly a decade. The sobering lessons of 2007 haven't been forgotten. Additionally, taking on the TLP has potentially damaging political costs -- because the PTI has religious conservative supporters, but also because the TLP has become an ally of both the PTI and Pakistan's military. The TLP sit-in last November successfully pressured and weakened the PLMN government, with which the PTI and the military had sparred for years. Shortly after that sit-in, Khan claimed PTI members were ready to join it. The TLP also bagged more than two million votes in Pakistan's 2018 election -- enough to cut into the PMLN's vote bank.
The TLP's anti-state threats last week highlight how it could morph into a Frankenstein's monster -- another case of a Pakistani state asset turning into an adversary. It's a scenario the government would much rather avoid. In effect, both the PTI and the military have little incentive to antagonize the TLP and its allies. The consequences of a hands-off policy are stark. So long as Islamabad dishes out the kid gloves treatment, it will struggle to curb the violent extremism that has long stalked Pakistan. With these hardliners moving into the political mainstream and contesting elections, their narratives of hate are gaining more traction across society—a space already suffocated by toxic ideas propagated by school textbooks, religious leaders, and the mass media.
Additionally, if the state won't confront those waging violent protests and calling for mutiny within the military, then it certainly won't crack down on those that sit quietly in Pakistan -- think Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network -- and help the security establishment pursue its goals in India and Afghanistan. These outfits don't stage attacks in Pakistan, but their violent ideologies further entrench extremism there. There's an unsettling irony here. By appeasing the TLP and its ilk, Pakistan could hasten the very destabilization it hopes to avoid. Capitulating to hardliners will embolden them, giving them more confidence to impose their views in increasingly brazen ways, and adding to an already-enabling environment for extremism. Those kid gloves are playing with fire.