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Blasphemy agreement: Is Pakistan ruled by Islamists?

November 3, 2018

Experts say that an agreement between the government and Islamists to bar a Christian woman recently acquitted in a blasphemy case from leaving the country shows that radical groups are more powerful than the state.

Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious political party, chant slogans during a protest on the blocked Faizabad bridge
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Kahn

When Prime Minister Imran Khan, who took office in August, addressed the nation on October 31, the day when the top court accepted Asia Bibi's appeal against her death sentence for alleged blasphemy, many observers hoped that the government would deal with agitating Islamists with an iron hand. Khan had warned the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party (TLP) not to mess with the state's authority. But the premier left for China the day after, and instead of taking stern action against TLP activists, his government surrendered to the group's demands by sealing a controversial agreement with Islamists.

Despite this, for three days the TLP managed to paralyze Pakistan's major cities, with its supporters blocking streets and highways and vandalizing private and public property. TLP leaders declared the Supreme Court judges who had acquitted Bibi infidels and urged their followers to assassinate them. The TLP had also called for a mutiny within the Pakistani military, with soldiers supportive of their Islamist narrative to oust General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the army chief.

Read more: Asia Bibi's blasphemy verdict: Islamists protest across Pakistan

According to the agreement, the TLP will end the nationwide protest (which it has); the government will release arrested protesters without charge; the government will not block a review of Bibi's acquittal in the Supreme Court, and most critically, will take measures to ban Bibi from leaving Pakistan. She and her family continue to receive death threats. Her lawyer, Saif-ul-Mulook, left for a European country Saturday morning, saying his life was under threat. Unconfirmed reports claim Mulook was heading to the UK. 

"The government has promised to implement the agreement within 100 days. If it doesn't do it, our activists will take to the streets again," Pir Ejaz Shah, a TLP spokesman, told DW.

He denied claims that Pir Afzal Qadri, a senior TLP official, had apologized for criticizing the military. Instead, according to Shah, the government officials apologized to them for hurting the sentiments of the Muslims through the Supreme Court acquittal verdict.

Read more: Asia Bibi's husband tells DW he fears for wife's safety

'Historic ruling'

Bibi was arrested in June 2009, after her neighbors complained that she had made derogatory remarks about Islam's Prophet Muhammad. A year later, Bibi was sentenced to death under the country's strict blasphemy laws, despite strong opposition from national and international human rights groups.

Pakistan's rights activists and civil society groups had lauded the top court's judges for their bold decision to overturn Bibi's death sentence.

"It is a historic ruling and will be helpful in promoting religious harmony," Ayub Malik, an Islamabad-based political analyst, told DW after the October 31 ruling. "Bibi's acquittal proves that most blasphemy cases in Pakistan are fabricated."

"This is a landmark verdict. The judges and lawyers have demonstrated great courage," Farzana Bari, an Islamabad-based rights activist, told DW.

"But the government's real test starts now, as it faces a backlash from extremists," Bari added.

State weakened

But the way Khan's government "surrendered" to Islamists — and in such a short span of time — has left Pakistan's liberals baffled and scared.

"The government's writ has been weakened tremendously after it signed an agreement with the TLP. The move will further destabilize Pakistan and more groups like the TLP will now blackmail the state," Ali K. Chishti, a Karachi-based security analyst, told DW.

Waqas Ahmed Goraya, a blogger and activist based in the Netherlands, who was detained by Pakistani security agencies in January 2017 and subsequently released, told DW that the state has completely "lost its writ" after the agreement.

"If TLP leader Khadim Rizvi declares himself a caliph tomorrow and brings his supporters to the street, how would the Pakistani state deal with him?" said Goraya.

"All state institutions tried to avoid confrontation with Islamist protesters. The surrender will make Islamists more powerful and more resilient," he added.

 A poster bearing an image of Asia Bibi with the words 'Free Asia Bibi'
Bibi was sentenced to death in 2010 under Pakistan's strict blasphemy lawsImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Ali

Bibi's future and Pakistan's international isolation

Khalid Hameed Farooqi, a Pakistani journalist based in Brussels, says that while Bibi's acquittal decision was hailed in European diplomatic circles, the government's agreement with Islamists has damaged the country's image.

"The Pakistani rulers must understand that such moves will increase their country's international isolation. The deal has caused much harm," Farooqi told DW.

The question remains whether Khan's government will put Bibi on the Exit Control List (ECL) and bar her departure from the country.

Presidential pardon for Pakistan's Asia Bibi 'unlikely'

Zahid Gishkori, an Islamabad-based journalist associated with Geo TV, believes the government is only buying time and will not ban Bibi from traveling abroad. "Only the top court or the government can put her name on the ECL. I think PM Khan won't do that. Also, I don't see the acquittal review standing up in the court of law as it was a unanimous verdict by Supreme Court's judges," Gishkori told DW.

Analyst Chishti says Bibi's future remains uncertain as "she is stuck in a friendly country's embassy awaiting documentation."

"The government-TLP agreement would not affect her departure. But it would make the lives of other blasphemy victims more difficult," Chishti said. "The government has failed; it has once again surrendered to fanatics."

Experts say Pakistan is heading toward more chaos, which is evidenced by the fact that a prominent religious leader, Maulana Sami Ul Haq, also known as "father of the Taliban," was assassinated by unknown attackers on Friday.

Pakistan under pressure to repeal blasphemy laws