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Photo Source: The Express Tribune

Pakistan Reader# 156, 23 February 2021

Decoding the TLP's anti-France protests



Appeasement policies provide more space for the rightwing groups

Why should be a rightwing party in Pakistan have a problem with France? And why should the government try to accommodate the TLP, at the cost of letting it affects the bilateral relationship with France?

Vishal Rajput
PR Insights 28

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), one of the extreme far-right and religious parties,  had called off its anti-France protests in February after it reached an agreement with the government. Why should a rightwing party have a problem with France? And why should the government try to accommodate the TLP, at the cost of letting its bilateral relationship with France?

It all started in November 2020
On 16 November 2020, the activists of TLP gathered at Liaquat Bagh on the call of TLP chief Allama Khadim Hussein Rizvi to protest against the publication of the blasphemous caricature in Charlie Hebdo Magazine and remarks on Prophet Mohammad. This resulted in clashes with the police (Rawalpindi tense as TLP activists, police clash, Dawn, 16 November 2020). With the pouring of a larger number of activists at the protest site in Rawalpindi, the police retaliated with a harsh and extreme force which led to the threatening by the protestors to block all entries into Islamabad. 

However, the above led to a dialogue between the government and stakeholders of TLP.  Subsequently, the TLP announced that the government has agreed to accept all its four demands, which include: the expulsion of the French ambassador within three months, not appointing an ambassador to France and release all the arrested workers of the TLP.  (TLP claims govt accepted all its demands, Dawn, 17 November 2020). 

The TLP's return in February 2021
However, the Pakistani government could not fulfil the demands within the stipulated period of three months. Hence, TLP announced that they would hold another protest later in February. The government, instead of taking on the TLP, caved in again. There was another round of negotiations between the government and TLP leaders which resulted in a new agreement. 

According to the new agreement, “Terms of the [previous] agreement will be presented in parliament by April 20, 2021, and decisions will be taken with the approval of the parliament”. Moreover, the new agreement added that the names of TLP members that had been placed on the Fourth Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) would be removed (TLP calls off protest after reaching new agreement with govt, Dawn, 11 February 2021). According to the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997, any individual placed on the Fourth Schedule or watch list is bound to inform the respective police before leaving their hometowns and after return and about their activities.

In addition to this, if the parties involved undertake any activity that is contradictory to the spirit of the agreement before April 20, 2021, it shall be considered void, the text of the agreement says.

Pakistan's Charlie Hebdo problem
Since the publication of Samuel P. Huntington’s book, the Clash of Civilizations into being, there is a debate between advocates and critics over the clashes or conflicts based on religious civilizations, as the author argued. This had intensified the prevailing wave of Islamophobia in the western countries and the antagonism of the Muslim World over the alleged wrong perception about the nature of Islam as the violent religion in western society. In the backdrop of this, a popular satirical magazine, Charlie Habdo, had the history of being in controversies over the caricatures of Prophet Mohammad. Recently also, there was a major incident that happened over the beheading of a French teacher, Samuel Paty, by an 18 years old Chechen refugee, Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov. It ushered a wave of protests in the world where one the one hand the proponents of freedom of expression justified Samuel Paty and on the other, followers of Islam protested and condemned the publication of the cartoon. Moreover, French President Emmanuel Macron has also rallied behind the supporters of Samuel Paty and see the event as the ‘typical Islamist terrorist attack’. This event has also impacted the regional politics of a South Asian nation, Pakistan. The TLP is making use of this sentiment.

But, why would the State yield to the TLP?
In the whole episode around the TLP protest, the government seems to be yielding to the demands of TLP leaders without using any force and putting forward any conditions. It is the constitutional responsibility of the ‘government’ and not a political party, to decide on such a sensitive and important matter regarding the expulsion of the French ambassador. However, coercion by the TLP leaders indicates that Imran Khan’s government doesn’t want to project itself on the other side of the controversy where the issues such as blasphemy could lead to a serious consequence in the popular support to Imran Khan’s government. Moreover, at the international level, Imran Khan has projected himself at the forefront in the mobilization of the Muslim world’s support to raise the issue of the blasphemous caricature of the Prophet at international junctures.

However, Director Pak Institute for Peace Studies, Mohammad Amir Rana, argued that “State institutions have sympathy for all sorts of religious groups, except when they start challenging their turf. The TLP had been testing the nerves of state institutions for a long time and the state adopted its conventional approach of appeasement and pressure whenever TLP supporters came out onto the streets. The disadvantage of the approach is that religious groups seek legitimacy and political power whenever the state makes an agreement with them” (The Rise of TLP, Dawn, 29 November 2020).  

And that is Pakistan's larger problem. 


About the author
Vishal Rajput is an independent researcher and enrolled in a Certificate course on Contemporary Pakistan. He has recently graduated from MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia. His research focuses upon Pakistan’s Foreign Policy towards China, CPEC investments in Pakistan and its electoral politics.

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