Pakistan is looking for another major homemade calamity in the face. Known for provocative anti-religious writing and picturing French satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” suffered a deadly jihadist attack in Paris in 2015 for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). They republished the same cartoons in September last year. In October, comments by French President Macron in support of the magazine’s right to publish the cartoons triggered anger across the Muslim world, with tens of thousands in Pakistan, neighboring Iran and other Muslim countries, flooding the streets and organizing anti-French boycotts.
State secularism (laïcité) is central to the country’s national identity; in France freedom of expression in schools and other public spaces being part of that, curbing it to protect the feelings of a particular religion is seen as undermining national unity. Their secularism includes rejection of all religions, including but not limited to Islam.
Following the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri in 2016, the murderer of former Governor Salman Taseer, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) rose to fame. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) being the centerpiece of their belief, the Tehrik demands that Shariah law be established as the fundamental law in Pakistan. All Muslims without exception believe in the Prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH) and its finality. Most TLP members belong to the Barelvi school of Islam comprising of upto two-thirds of Pakistani Muslims. With strong relations to Sufism this Barelvi brand used to be regarded as peaceful, but during the last decade they have turned to violence, attempting to counter the spread of Islamophobia in the West and the growing globalization that brings such western sentiments fast into focus of traditional Musim societies.
Street protests organized by TLP broke out against the publication of the Prophet’s (PBUJ) caricatures in April, it is still not clear why six months after the actual re-print? After about three weeks new protests were organized, this time in the big cities of Pakistan. Violent clashes took place between the protesters and the police. To prevent the protests from continuing, a resolution was presented in Parliament on 20th April demanding to expel the French Ambassador. That would certainly lead to 27 other EU ambassadors going with him seriously damaging Pakistani relations with Europe.
It is unthinkable that Pakistan’s foreign policy should be decided by the mob in the streets of Islamabad or Karachi. A break-up of relations with France would not only severely damage our international standing which has been recently on the upswing given our successful policy to help peace in Afghanistan, it would certainly impact our economic relations with the EU and the West. When we were faced with sanctions after 1965 and then again in 1990 when we struggled to make a credible military deterrent against India, other than China only France withstood pressure from the US and other western countries, thus ensuring critical supplies of aircraft and missiles, submarines, electronic equipment, etc. Imran Khan warned that more than half of the Pakistani exports go to the EU having both adverse economic and political consequences particularly in the middle of the ongoing pandemic. Our detractors have taken this opportunity to smear our image.
The EU Parliament has overwhelmingly adopted (with 681 in favor out of 705, 3 against, and 9 abstaining) a Resolution that calls for the review of the GSP+ status of Pakistan. Because of an “alarming” increase in the use of blasphemy accusations in the country as well as the rising number of online and offline attacks on journalists and civil society organizations, the EU resolution also calls on the Government of Pakistan to “unequivocally condemn” incitement to violence and discrimination against religious minorities in the country, and expresses “deep concern” at the prevailing anti-French sentiment in Pakistan! Citing various incidents of members of religious minorities killed or imprisoned in Pakistan over accusations of blasphemy Member of European Parliament (MEP) Charlie Weimers of Sweden, who co-authored the Resolution in his remarks said, “Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, rather than defend his citizens’ human rights against false accusers, […] equated denial of the Holocaust and genocide to criticism of Islam’s Prophet (PBUH)”. The blasphemy law was unknown in South Asia till brought in by the British in 1860.
Consider the criminalizing of “Denial of Holocaust” in EU, certainly, the EU countries have a right to frame their own laws. Similarly, Muslims have a right to criminalize blasphemy against the Prophet (PBUH). While the two cannot be equated, it is the principle of each country having the right to frame laws according to its own particular requirements. There are serious reservations about the implementation of the Blasphemy Law and the manner and mode it is grossly misused in Pakistan, these certainly need rectification. To quote my article “Misusing Religion” of Nov 1, 2018, “to end manipulating the laws by false accusation, which seems to happen more often than not, the accusers should face the same penalty that would be imposed on those they accuse if their accusation is proven to be false”, unquote. It is very good that the govt will engage with the EU to address both the GSP Plus status and the blasphemy laws. Pakistan should neither yield to the pressure of TLP nor to that of the West but must do the right thing.
Despite a tremendously successful campaign against the TTP by the Pakistan Army and the PAF, and de-escalation measures for former militants, the home-grown militancy has been left unopposed and untackled. The right step of banning the TLP cannot be the end. The state and the law-enforcing institutions need to regain control over militant organizations and militant people. One can disagree on political issues but violence is not the way to solve problems. Malcontents presently out in the cold will join the fray to regain their nuisance value, no surprise that Maulana Fazlur Rahman quickly lined up behind TLP. Most French nationals cautioned by their Embassy to leave the country stayed, clearly indicating thus showing trust in Pakistanis and the Pakistani state to do the right thing. We should honor their trust.
On April 9, 1948, Leon Marchal, the first French Ambassador to Pakistan, presented his credentials to the Quaid. Consider extracts from the Quaid’s speech on the occasion, “The magnificent history of your great country and its achievements are well-known to the world. In common with other nations, we in Pakistan have admired the high principles of democracy that form five basic principles of your great State. The cry of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, which was raised during your Great Revolution and officially adopted by your great Republic, had its repercussion throughout the world, as is known to buoying up the hopes of many downtrodden nations”, adding, “With knowledge of our brother Muslim countries, you (France) inaugurate a new era which, I hope, will lead to inaugurate a new era between France and Pakistan”, unquote. The Founder of the Nation further told the Ambassador, “The people of France and Pakistan are not strangers to one another. Pakistan will give you our support and co-operation which you may require in promoting a relationship of goodwill and friendship between our two countries”, unquote.
Addressing the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry on April 28, 1948, the Quaid pointed out that given our urgent need to be connected with the world as soon as possible. France was one of the first few countries that helped Pakistan to immediately establish our Civil Aviation.
Seventy-three years later both countries have become hostage to those on the extremist fringes. Do we want to expel the French Ambassador when President Macron’s off-the-cuff comment really does not reflect the feelings of the vast majority of the French population, a growing part of whom is Muslim?
(A defense and security analyst the writer is Chairman Karachi Council on Foreign Relations (KCFR) and Vice Chairman Board of Management Quaid-e-Azam House Museum (Institute of Nation Building).