The Pakistan Army and Khadim Hussain Rizvi

This Dawn article by Kalbe Ali is sobering reading. In a profile of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the Barelvi cleric who has been leading pro-blasphemy law/anti-Ahmadi protests with military backing, we have this passage on why the security establishment has lent its support:

“Incidentally, a senior security officer also claims that the matter relates to more serious issues that is beyond politics and elections. “This will eventually lead to de-radicalisation of the society away from the clerics who preach violent extremism and are secretly affiliated with banned groups such as the TTP,” he says.

The strong reaction on social media to video clips of DG Punjab Rangers distributing envelopes containing Rs1,000 to the participants of sit-in who were released from police custody generally been based on criticism against the military’s involvement in local politics and on it being seen as rewarding those who had defied the state. The senior security officer, however, asserts the need to consider the other side of the coin too.

“The involvement of the establishment in local affairs is nothing new in this country, but it has never been in such a way,” he says. “This distribution could be indirect too but it was open and so obvious that the religious majority will develop a liking and attachment towards the armed forces, and not believe in what is being said by some clerics.”

The officer says that the main problem in eradication of terrorism was that very small number of sleeper cells were present in the society, operated by experts who have had hardened training in Afghanistan.

“Only clerics can counter the extremist narratives, and if Barelvis become organised and active, they will eventually prevent the youth from falling into the hands of extremists,” he adds.”

If this is accurate (a caveat throughout), I’m not even sure what to say, beyond that it’s extremely obviously not a good idea. The notion that Rizvi isn’t an extremist is only not laughable if your definition of “not extremist” includes “big supporter of Salman Taseer’s assassin” and “hates Ahmadis.” It’s a reminder that perceptions of moderation and extremism are contextual and ideological.

The Army’s support for the TLYRA is presented in this article as a coldly strategic calculation to abandon Pakistan’s Ahmadi citizens (and likely others, from Shias to “blood thirsty liberals”) in order to undermine the TTP among the so-called “religious majority.” It also shows the Army’s simultaneous deployment of and vulnerability to religious languages of legitimacy. Even if officers themselves are personally not particularly Islamist, the institution has regularly fused Islam and nation in ways that provide advantages in domestic politics (as the guardian of Muslim nationalism, however one might try to actually define that) – but also make it difficult to credibly criticize and crack down on large swathes of Pakistan’s Islamist landscape, since they often use similar discourses and symbols.

(This is why I don’t have much patience for “Well, the officer corps isn’t personally Islamist!” argument – analysts shouldn’t care what they do at home if what they do in the public square is different. That’s what matters. Same deal with the Jinnah historiography.)

The history of such divide-and-rule strategies in Pakistan is of course disastrous –  the 1971 war, the very rise of the TTP, the expansion of sectarianism, etc all have involved the Pakistan Army trying to be clever in manipulating identity cleavages and/or discriminating between armed groups. Propping up one set of extremists against another is a hard-to-control process – it will entrench and legitimize the further exclusion and marginalization of people who the Army is technically supposed to be, you know, protecting, while allowing deeply destructive forces to further implant themselves in society.  The Army’s calculations, if correctly presented in media accounts, blend myopia and malevolence. This won’t end well.

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