Three weeks of protests ended in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, on Nov. 26, with the resignation of the country’s federal law minister — a demand of the hard-line Islamist protesters. The country’s major English-language newspaper termed the deal a “capitulation” and “a devastating blow to the legitimacy and moral standing of the government and all state institutions.”
The protests, which had effectively paralyzed the city after blocking a major highway, resulted in the loss of at least six lives and 200 injured. They were sparked by a minor change to the oath taken by election candidates, which slightly altered the language declaring the prophet Muhammad as the final prophet — a central belief of the Islamic faith. The change was dismissed by the government as a “clerical error” and quickly reversed. However, the protests continued, calling, among other things, for the law minister to resign for his alleged blasphemy in overseeing this change. At the root of the issue was whether this tweak was intended to benefit the widely ostracized Ahmadi sect.
Further underlying the protests, and the state’s response to them, are a number of key, recurrent issues in Pakistani politics: the troubling use of the blasphemy law, the street power of Islamists, the gray zone between political parties and militant actors — and of course, when it comes to Pakistan, civil-military relations aren’t too far beneath the surface.
Here are the main things to understand about the protests — and the trends to watch for.
Who were the protesters?
The protests were spearheaded by a newly formed political party, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLP). The party adheres to a sub-sect of Sunni Islam which emphasizes personal devotion to the prophet Muhammad, engages in such practices as the veneration of saints, and has typically been considered moderate and tolerant. As a result of some of these practices, the sub-sect has been a victim of extremist outfits in Pakistan, such as the Pakistan Taliban.
But the TLP itself has violent origins. It was formed in large part to express support of Mumtaz Qadri, who killed the governor of Punjab for defending the rights of a woman accused of blasphemy in 2011.
As the TLP seeks to establish itself as a relevant political force, the already fuzzy boundary between traditional Islamist electoral parties and explicitly militant — but not political — groups such as the Taliban is becoming increasingly blurred. While the country’s largest Islamist parties are no stranger to the art of street protests and vigilante action, the TLP’s open incitement to violence and its avowedly sectarian nature are more emblematic of anti-Shiite movements in the country.
These movements have been responsible for the killings of thousands of Shiites, at the same time as political wings affiliated with them contest elections. Individual clerics associated with such sectarian groups are also increasingly becoming important local actors, controlling vital vote banks, and proving to be valuable electoral allies for mainstream political parties.
What led to the protests?
The protests last month were related to the status of Ahmadis, a minority group that identifies as Muslim but diverges from other Islamic sects over the belief that the founder of their faith is the last messiah. For their beliefs, Ahmadis have long suffered mob violence and targeted attacks by Islamist groups.
Street protests have played a central role in the Ahmadi issue, with protesters demanding, and state authorities largely acceding to, a steady erosion of Ahmadi rights. The Pakistani state resisted anti-Ahmadi street agitation in 1953, but since then, it has frequently capitulated to Islamist demands, including adding a 1974 constitutional provision that Ahmadis were non-Muslim. The alleged change in the election act in 2017, which precipitated the most recent crisis, was perceived as softening this constitutional amendment.
The protests’ success threatens to embolden those who seek to use blasphemy accusations — a capital offense — as a tool in personal or political disputes. The law minister who resigned as a result of the protests was forced to apologize and, to counter these accusations of blasphemy, assure the nation that he believed in the finality of the prophet.
Civil-military relations: a perpetual challenge
The manner in which the protests ultimately disbanded demonstrates the outsized role of the military in Pakistani politics. The protest’s leader made clear that he would negotiate with the army and not the civilian government, and the list of demands to which the government ultimately agreed includes a note of gratitude to the chief of army staff for “saving the nation from a big catastrophe.” The army’s role was such that an Islamabad high justice released a scathing order criticizing it for extra-constitutional meddling.
A video showing a member of an army-controlled paramilitary force distributing money to the protesters further raises questions about the army’s motivations. Coupled with the army calling for nonviolence on both sides, which was seen as equating the civilian government with the hard-line protesters, journalists and political analysts have asked whether the army is seeking to — once again — influence upcoming national elections.
In particular, the entry of the TLP and other newly formed religious parties into Punjabi electoral politics can make a dent in the vote bank of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), whose support base stems largely from a right-leaning religious electorate. The power of Islamists — who have historically failed at the polls — emanates primarily from their ability to get people out on the streets. However, their ability to weaken the vote share of mainstream parties is proving increasingly important. The recent release of a militant leader thought to be responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks is being interpreted in a similar vein.
The army’s role aside, parties such as the PML-N know that they must ally with such religious actors — or, at the very least, avoid antagonizing them — or risk losing voters. Opposition political parties were quick to capitalize on the PML-N’s failure to manage the situation, publicly siding with the protesters. These electoral considerations encourage appeasement of militant actors by strengthening and entrenching them in politics. The state’s most recent capitulation to the protesters remains a continuation of a dangerous trend of ceding space to militant actors.
Niloufer A. Siddiqui is a postdoctoral fellow at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs at the University at Albany-State University of New York.