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The losing liberals of Pakistan

Political infighting still hobbles liberal groups, which must stage larger rallies and accept a bit of chaos to effect change

The losing liberals of Pakistan

Pakistani supporters of the Tehreek-i-Labaik Yah Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLYRAP) religious group shout slogans during a press conference of their leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi as he announces the end of sit-in protest in Islamabad on Nov. 27, 2017. (Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP)

Kamran Chaudhry, Lahore
Pakistan

April 12, 2018

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It took church commissions over a decade to improve interfaith peace and understanding in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

But firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi destroyed both in a single rally.

In November 2017, his Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) party brought the capital Islamabad to a standstill for 22 days calling for Sharia and the execution of all blasphemers, including Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy.

The violent protests that involved about 1,800 people were called off after the resignation of Minister of Law Zahid Hamid, who was accused of blasphemy.

This was due to an omission in a parliamentary bill that introduced a modification to the finality of Prophethood, which critics saw as an "un-Islamic" amendment.

It was the first time blasphemy has triggered a nationwide response on this level.

According to a March 19 report submitted to the Supreme Court by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, Rizvi collected over 10 million rupees (US$86,500) before the sit-in.

The report added that madrasahs (Islamic seminaries), along with the group, collected the donations while the owner of a private television channel provided food to the demonstrators.

A company in Lahore also allegedly provided cleric Rezvi with an expensive electric generator.

Neither church groups nor progressive human rights organizations have displayed such coordination in the troubled history of Pakistan.

Ego problems and endless "rational" discussions of simple matters such as naming a cohesive front have limited the liberals to small groups.

Some refused to join simply because they were not invited to a previous meeting. Dialogue that quickly deteriorated into character assassinations or digressed into questions of people's motives ended up dissolving other initiatives.

Meanwhile on March 22, the day before Pakistan's National Day, 17 like-minded parties formed the so-called Lahore Left Front to revive left-wing politics and counter prevailing religious fanaticism in the country.

My hopes and prayers rest with the group as its chances of remaining unified, given the country's political history, remain in doubt.

The church has also formed various committees in the past. Usually, these joint groups of Catholic and Protestant leaders have been formed in post-disaster situations like mob attacks on a Christian community, or cases of religious or ethnic persecution.

Pakistan Christian Action Committee

I was part of one of such recently formed committee. The 16-member Pakistan Christian Action Committee (PCAC) comprised six pastors and Catholic human rights workers.

They assembled at the National Council of Churches in Pakistan to address unrest among the Christian community following the latest blasphemy case against Sajid and Patras Masih of Shahdara Bagh, a neighborhood in Ravi Tehsil of Lahore, Punjab province.

The two cousins were allegedly subjected to torture and sexual abuse by law enforcement officers after Lahore street sweeper Patras Masih enraged Muslims by posting an allegedly blasphemous image on a Facebook messenger group.

His cousin Sajid was later left fighting for his life in hospital after he reportedly jumped out of a window to escape the ordeal, breaking both legs in the process.

It was heartening to see all four mainstream churches — Catholic, Presbyterian, the Salvation Army and the Church of Pakistan — agree to combine their resources against rising extremism.

Sadly, after organizing one protest and issuing a single press release, the PCAC split into two groups.

The differences between protestant church leaders, arguments on forming strategies and disputes over who was calling the shots resulted in most of the human rights activists setting up their own camp.

With its short lifespan of just five days, the PCAC now ranks as the briefest ecumenical coalition in the history of the church in Pakistan.

Meanwhile the TLYR continues to spread its influence.

For example, the plaintiff in the Patras Masih case was a TLYR activist.

"Rizvi is not disabled — we all are disabled," a passionate youth told me during a visit to Dhir village, where Masih once lived.

"We did what we did to protect the dignity of the Prophet Muhammad," the young person added.

Similarly, TLYR activists accused six Christians from Faisalabad, another populous city in Punjab, of blasphemy in February of this year.

The TLYR activists have threatened a nationwide lockdown after the Anti-Terrorism Court issued arrest warrants for fugitive suspects Rizvi and several others in relation to a sit-in case in Islamabad.

The path forward

Some may argue that religious minorities are few in number and therefore cannot flex their muscle. Others may claim that minorities do not need violent protests in order to present their demands.

How can we resolve this?

To start with, certain time-honored practices should no longer be repeated. The failed strategy of sending messages to "friends" to come out and protest one day in advance of a rally should also be avoided.

Cliches do not a revolution make.

Demonstrations should be called after holding small corner meetings and mobilizing the rank and file.

Instead of challenging the TLYR directly, churches should question their narrative.

At this stage in the history of Pakistan, the main task is to introduce a progressive narrative to the masses. This requires large-scale and non-violent work.

Rallies, even if they are rarely held, need to be organized to show supporters the strength of their community.

It is important to think big rather than squander time and resources planning small events. No gathering should number less than 1,000 people.

Also leaflets should be distributed to the masses, especially in places of employment and learning. Catchy slogans need to be prepared to convey the church's concerns in a manner that is both convincing and memorable.

The very survival of liberal and minority groups is at stake.

There will be risks, but remember — paralysis is worse than a bit of chaos.

 

Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore.

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