If there ever was a doubt that hardline Islamists are the de facto rulers of Pakistan, it was removed yesterday when the civilian government capitulated to their demands.
Earlier in the week, the Supreme Court acquitted a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad. The court’s decision overturned the ruling by the lower courts that had sentenced her to death.
In the decision of the three-member bench, Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar mentioned the lack of evidence and the lack of credibility of witnesses as two of the reasons for acquittal. As in other civilian cases, the court allowed the option to appeal, which the civilian government initially decided not to use.
The Islamist hardliners took to streets and shut the country down within hours. A year-old Islamist political party led the protests and called for Asia Bibi’s hanging. Not only that, they called for the murder of the Supreme Court justices and called on the members of the Pakistan army to revolt against the Army Chief. These were not just statements, they were Fatwas (religious decrees) by the Islamist leaders.
Under Pakistani law, it was seditious and people have been tried on treason charges for less severe actions.
The same day as the court ruling, Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed the nation and appealed to the protesters to give in or else the state would exercise its’ power to restore order.
But where criticism of the judiciary could get you a prison term in Pakistan, outright calls of the murder of the Supreme Court justices prompted no action from the civilian government.
Just last week, a federal minister had been called to the court for rhetorically asking what need there was for elections if the civilian government could not even appoint Inspector Generals. So apparently where rhetorical questions count as violations of the Pakistani law, Fatwas calling for the murder of judges do not.
After repeated calls by the civilian government to end the protests, the country remained locked down. Rather than exercise the power of the state as Prime Minister Khan had vowed, the civilian government began negotiations with the Islamists.
There is no other fringe group in Pakistan that a civilian government would capitulate to except hardline Islamists. The previous government did not act against the same Islamist leaders with force but opened fire on pregnant women protesting the removal of barricades.
So the civilian governments in Pakistan do know how to use force but never are they the fringe Islamist elements who face their ire. Last week, police fired water cannons and struck teenage girls with batons who were protesting their removal from government housing in Karachi.
But when it comes to Islamists, the civilian government prefers leniency and negotiations.
The talks between the Islamists and the civilian government hit a ‘breakthrough’ last night. The government agreed to start proceedings to bar Asia Bibi from leaving the country and appeal for a judicial review of the court’s acquittal.
Furthermore, they also agreed to release the arsonists belonging to the Islamist party who had damaged public property and burned down hundreds of vehicles countrywide. However, the Islamists made clear that they would resort to the same tactics if the court’s review did not come out the way they wanted.
So not only did the Islamists force the government to challenge a decision by the highest court of the land but also deny a citizen the right to free movement without good reason. The arsonists that had kept the country on lockdown and damaged public and private property s received government amnesty despite the extent of their criminality and seditious actions.
In return, the Islamists agreed to disperse the protests and rescind Fatwas (religious decrees) calling for the murder of judges and revolt in the military. Their willingness to rescind Fatwas shows that these Islamists use Fatwas only to achieve their political ends.
They are not even a legitimate political party and where the Election Commission of Pakistan reprimands political parties for their statements, they are yet to act against the Islamist elements that hold the vast majority of Pakistanis hostage.
The civilian governments of Pakistan both past and present are also to blame for the lockdown. They ignore protesters if they act with civility and only pay attention to the radicals who threaten to lock the state down.
Last week medical staff from a Children’s hospital in Karachi protested. They chanted, held signs, and demanded attention but they received nothing precisely because they were civil. The only time when the civilian government does pay attention to people with grievances is when they threaten lockdowns.
The protest by the medical staff of the Children’s hospital was barely mentioned in the Pakistani media while Islamists got the state’s attention within hours. By taking these radicals seriously, the government inadvertently encourages the people to take dire steps rather than act with civility.