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Mainstreaming TLP Or TLP-ing The Mainstream?

The past few years have been a dismal affair in Pakistan on the whole: with a floundering economy and the slide into a hybrid order based on brute force and official lawlessness. These have been accompanied by fewer economic and political rights for citizens within the country and a foreign policy driven by desperation, ad-hoc-ism and irresponsible manoeuvring. But historians tomorrow might look back at all this as merely the tip of the iceberg.

On their own, all these processes are dangerous enough to put the future of any society in grave jeopardy. But the crowning misfortune was yet to come.

This final misfortune appears, in some ways, as the result of all the others. And having acquired a life of its own, it threatens to engulf every social and political process in the country – such that at some point in the near future, it could become one of the foremost drivers of all other crises. We speak of the rise of the Tehreek-e-Labbayk Pakistan (TLP) and what it represents.

To be sure, religious fanaticism that benefits from majoritarian rage is not new to Pakistan. One of its most recent faces was the long, brutal insurgency waged by the Taliban (TTP), which cost the lives of tens of thousands of security personnel and helpless non-combatants alike. At first sight, it may seem overly alarmist and dramatic to see the TLP as representing an even greater danger than the TTP – especially since the former has not unleashed anywhere close to the violence of the Taliban. But it would be a costly error to conclude that the worst is behind us in the form of the Taliban, and that the TLP is merely another far-right force whose “issue” can be resolved by somehow bringing it into the mainstream.

In a sense, when the Taliban resorted to violent insurgency featuring acts of horrific terrorism, they had already conceded that they were unlikely to win power. Hence their strategy of terrorising and punishing a majority which was never going to accept their rule – at least partly because the Taliban belong to a school of theological thought which is a minority in Pakistan as a whole.

By contrast, the TLP does not need to resort to spectacular and macabre acts of violence to impose its will, because it is based in the single largest theological constituency within the country: Sunni Muslims of the Barelvi tendency. A demographic majority flexes its muscles in somewhat different ways from a minority: the impact is more profound and permanent. Due to its constituency being in the religious and ethnic heartland of the country, the TLP can draw upon a level of public support – as well as sympathy from state functionaries – in ways that few other groups can.

As for its agenda for Pakistan, TLP is no less ambitious than any of the other fundamentalist groups – including those who have fought violent insurgencies. It has a vision for what it calls “implementing Islam” which is comparable to any of the other far-right Islamist groups – and as mentioned, it has no need for extra violence to break into the mainstream. All it needs to do is play on sentiments that already exist within society, such as the rage which it whipped up in an effort to force authorities to disregard the judiciary’s verdict on the unfortunate Aasia Bibi.

The organisation is well beyond the stage where it can be seen as a single-issue pressure group. It now thinks like a power player, with electoral ambitions no less than other parties. Nevertheless, in the imagination of a pious public, TLP continues to cleverly pose as a kind of pressure group, driven by single-issue emotional campaigns around figures venerated by all Muslims.

In some ways, TLP represents a volcano of majoritarian rage which was waiting to burst, especially in a society where poverty and the state’s neglect have created a huge “expendable” population of angry young men with no future – and with a generally Islamist imagination being the only proper ideological game in town.

But it is equally important to remember that the process of TLP’s metastasis and rise was greatly aided by the Deep State for its own reasons. Had the ruling elite been more clear on the need to “manage” the rise of Barelvi extremism after the assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer, this society might have had some kind of fighting chance. Instead, the decision made in corridors of power was to ride the new tiger and use it as an instrument in tussles with elected politicians.

This decision might be one that we all live to greatly regret for the coming decades.

What future role is the TLP likely to play in Pakistan? The signs are public and clear to see – for those who dare to read them. Marking its rise and flexing its muscles, the TLP has immediately inserted claws into two of Pakistan’s strategic weak spots.

The first instance is how the organisation suddenly took the lead in fanning sectarian hatred during this year’s Muharram and Ashoura commemorations – a role which was previously not played by Barelvi organisations. Quantity has a quality all its own, and the nastiness of this year’s sectarian discourse bore all the marks of having been led by a majoritarian group, rather than the Deobandi and Salafist-inclined ideologues who once had a monopoly on this kind of politics.

And the second instance is how the TLP immediately seized upon Pakistan’s weakness in terms of foreign policy. It hit upon the ‘perfect’ way to drive a wedge into state and society with a polarising demand whose fulfilment is extremely difficult – if not possible – for the state. We refer here to the campaign for cutting off diplomatic relations with France, possibly to be followed by demands for similar behaviour towards other European states. The more the Pakistani government and state authorities wring their hands in their inability to fulfil this demand, the more the TLP strengthens its legitimacy in its core constituency by claiming that refusal to break with European states means being ‘soft’ on blasphemy. For a group which is unlikely to deal with the international and administrative consequences of such a break in diplomatic relations, the campaign carried out by the TLP is a horrifyingly effective political strategy.

It is likely that we have already entered a snowballing process where the TLP makes outrageous demands, the state fails to meet them but makes yet more promises which it cannot keep – setting the stage for further outrageous demands and more violent protests by the TLP. The snowball continues to roll and gets larger and larger with each episode.

One can imagine the difficulty for those at the helm of affairs in Pakistan to suffer the hit in political capital which is necessary for any effort to put the genie back in the bottle. This is probably what drives the hesitation to uphold law and order against an increasingly confident TLP. The rising organisation is fully cognisant of this hesitation and it factors into its calculations.

Even if some way were found to ‘manage’ the TLP at this stage – which, ceteris paribus, seems unlikely – the discourse unleashed by TLP can be seized upon by similar actors. Consider, for instance, the right-wing social media personalities who are leading “youth groups” with an even more openly confrontational stance than the TLP.

The environment is such that it few in the mainstream can even dare to directly point out that the TLP’s demands on France, for instance, simply cannot be fulfilled without condemning the country to diplomatic and economic isolation. The ban on the organisation, imposed after the latest round of violent protests over the France issue, did not last even a week.

At the moment, nobody in Pakistan’s ruling class is willing to take responsibility for confronting or even ‘managing’ the TLP – not the government, not the opposition and certainly not the Deep State. The government makes desperate concessions to the worldview, ideology and demands of the TLP in a doomed effort to avoid being outflanked from its right. Meanwhile, the opposition seeks to do just that: i.e. outflank the government on its right flank by seizing upon the government’s inability to fulfil TLP’s demands in an effort to win back some far-right Barelvi votes on the cheap. The Deep State is unlikely to put its face on any effort to confront the TLP, even though it was quite happy to make its 2017-18 backing for TLP public.

All of this adds up to a level of latitude for the TLP which most other political and ideological forces anywhere in the world would envy. It has no incentive to ‘moderate’ itself and every reason to push forward ever more boldly and ever more violently. This is not lost on it, and even less on the more extreme ‘youth groups’ waiting in the wings of the TLP.

One can only pray that everything written here proves to be wrong – perhaps by some combination of fortune and hidden dynamics which were not obvious to this writer.

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Naya Daur