It is a feature of Pakistan that the ordinary Muslim loves their Prophet (ﷺ) with a zeal and passion that is so apparent, that politicians like Imran Khan colour their political rhetoric to win support. Promises of ‘Riyasat e Madina’ and speeches at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) are targeted to appeal to the hearts of the ordinary man and woman.
Yet actions speak louder than words – and it is a foreign policy decision that has provoked protest and anger towards Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government.
In October 2020, France’s President Emmanuel Macron defended the right to publish insulting cartoons of the Prophet (ﷺ) – so upholding Republican values, even though French businesses might be affected by trade boycotts. Muslims in Pakistan expect their government to uphold Islamic values. So it was not surprising when the former charismatic leader of the Tehreek-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the late Khadim Hussain Rizvi (may Allah have mercy on him) demanded the expulsion of the French ambassador and a boycott of all things French. Even though he died unexpectedly in November, the TLP and the PTI government reached an agreement that the question of the expulsion of the French ambassador would be re-visited in February 2021 (later extended to 20 April 2021) with a parliamentary vote. Such decisions are taken by the executive, not parliaments.
Yet the government unexpectedly arrested the new leader of the TLP, Saad Hussain Rizivi. It was seen as a pre-emptive move, reneging on the previous deal. TLP supporters protested the arrest of its leader – and the PTI government announced the proscription of the TLP.
As Pakistan faces another critical moment, this crisis once again exposes a failure of leadership by failing to act in yet another case of dishonouring of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) that is the cause.
The failure of leadership, is first and foremost, because the ruling PTI – like previous governments in Pakistan and regimes across the Muslim world – fail to act in accordance with public sentiment when they see attacks on the Prophet (ﷺ). Calling in ambassadors for a dressing down, expelling ambassadors or withdrawing ambassadors are normal diplomatic instruments – as are calling for citizens to boycott products. They are the minimum action that most Muslim citizens would expect. Yet, the most that is heard from their leader is that we should explain how the ‘feelings of Muslims’ are hurt – and not that the honour of the Prophet needs defending. When politicians do not respond to public sentiment in such an emotive matter, then they automatically lose leadership from the masses.
The second failure of leadership is a heavy-handed approach towards its own citizens. This will open bitter divisions in Pakistan. There are echoes of the Lal Masjid catastrophe in 2007, and how the Musharraf regime fomented divisions labelling some ‘extremists’ for their opposition to the military operations in FATA at the time, which provoked a violent backlash that destabilised Pakistan for some years.
Concerns about greater autocracy are not without grounds. The current unrest has come while there are concerns that the regime in Islamabad may be moving to sell-out Kashmir. Against this backdrop, PTI lawmaker, Amjad Ali Khan has proposed a law that critics of Pakistan’s armed forces are to face two years in jail, or fine worth up to Rs500,000 or both. Banning Islamic parties, banning criticism of the army leadership and arresting political leaders could be seen as ways to implement otherwise unacceptable policies.
Imran Khan argues that he has to govern in the interest of the country and expelling an ambassador would jeopardise trade with the EU. Pakistan has also been on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) ‘grey list’ for many months now and has been under pressure from Western governments to take stronger action against Islamic groups, which are seen as an obstacle for Afghanistan and the settlement of Kashmir with India as well as in applying liberal cultural values at home. Banning movements may be seen as complying with the FATF demands – whereas being escalated to the ‘blacklist’ would have dire economic consequences for Pakistan.
No one wants to see more economic hardship for the people of Pakistan – but the current approach, followed by successive governments, does not appear to have benefitted ordinary citizens. Rather it simply enslaves the country to external interests, because everytime it threatens to take an independent stance, it will be threatened with financial retribution.
Pakistan’s economy is already in a dire state for average citizens – who are punished by double-digit inflation and tax rises on utilities such as electricity, gas and fuel, with more increases expected as the government is expected to seek more IMF loans. But neither this, nor corruption scandals involving PTI supporters and ministers related to sugar and wheat, have brought people out in protest as the dishonour of the Prophet (ﷺ) has. Pakistan’s economic problems are due to successive rulers tying Pakistan’s economy to global institutions that had drowned the country in debt.
Ask the masses in Pakistan if the honour of the Prophet (ﷺ) has priority over themselves and they will say ‘absolutely’. Yet successive governments try to convince them that their own interests (which in reality means the economic interests of the elite, expected to trickle down to the rest) and diplomatic niceties come before the honour of the Prophet (ﷺ).
The current approach to politics has failed so spectacularly that it has not even achieved the release from US custody of a single woman, Dr Aafia Siddiqui, never mind more challenging diplomatic matters. This approach means Pakistan effectively has no voice in the world.
If any country is to stand as a voice for Islam in the world, even on this most fundamental of issues, it cannot fear criticism and sanction over the honour of RasoolAllah (ﷺ). It cannot be held hostage by the global financial structures of the world everytime it feels the need to take a diplomatic stand. That means it needs to take a self-reliant approach – harnessing its ample agricultural and mineral resources as well as strategic location, for its citizens rather than for neocolonial states. Even if that means a short-term hit – like the bullied child in the playground who wants to stand on his own two feet.
It is the current crop of leaders that are ‘out of sync’ with the sentiments of the people. It is they who are diametrically opposed to the values and beliefs of the people. The ummah in Pakistan has faced poverty, economic crisis, sanctions and has been victim to earthquakes, but is still standing today due to its belief in Tawakal, Sabr, Rizq and Ajal. It is these values why the ummah in Pakistan is standing today, despite its traitorous rulers.