By Hana Wali
Pakistan has long had a history of domestic politics and policies being influenced and informed by Islamist fanaticism. However, in the recent past, this influence extended itself to its foreign policy and diplomacy.
This was last year evident in the government’s handling of the aftermath of French President Emmanuel Macron support for free speech in his own country, following the brutal murder of a schoolteacher.
The radical Islam that Macron has set out to fight reared its ugly head when the Tehreek-e-Labaiq locked Pakistan’s capital down, asking for the expulsion of the French Ambassador Dr. Marc Barety.
Mobile and internet networks were disrupted in a bid to control the political rally. Life came to a halt as swarms of men descended upon the capital. The mob threatened to attack the Diplomatic Enclave to attack the French embassy.
The standoff lasted several days last year and ended with the TLP claiming that the government had agreed to avoid appointing an ambassador to France, expel Dr. Barety, and boycott all French products. The TLP leader Maulana Saad Rizvi reiterated the group’s ambition to remove the ambassador.
“We’re bound to honour the agreement. A war for (protecting) the honour of the Prophet (SAW) has been waged. If someone has some misunderstanding, it must be removed as we pledge that there shall be no delay in taking a decision,” he said.
The entire episode is a chilling reminder of the country’s continually slipping control over its extremist factions. In the past, TLP has only protested events happening domestically. That it is now graduating into stifling the capital for a few days over international policy is a dangerous precedence.
In 2020, the group claimed it was promised action, but Dr Marc Barety’s position as ambassador was extended just a few weeks later.
But the space for the chaos has been slowly created over the time the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has been in control.
The current government seems to make more room for Islamist fanaticism. In 2020, Prime Minister Imran Khan ruffled many feathers when he called Osama Bin Laden a martyr while denouncing the US for embarrassing the country by killing the terrorist without permission.
Khan has famously refused to call Bin Laden a terrorist as well, and the speech itself coincided with a US state department report accusing the country of continuing to provide safe haven to terror groups.
But the behaviour isn’t restricted to the prime minister.
In a bizarre move, the country’s Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari went as far as incorrectly saying that “Macron is doing to Muslims what the Nazis did to the Jews – Muslim children will get ID numbers (other children won’t) just as Jews were forced to wear the yellow star on their clothing for identification.”
This caught the attention of France’s foreign minister, who in turn demanded that she immediately withdraw her comments. Mazari was forced to acknowledge the disinformation she had helped spread. But for many Pakistanis, her original version of events stuck.
The PTI’s government and its representatives are not the first to have ministers, and even leaders, which have a soft corner for religiously motivated elements. If anything, hardliners are sitting in the country’s Senate and National assemblies.
Pakistan is also no stranger to violent protests against issues such as blasphemy.
However, since its first disruption in 2017, the TLP has been given special leeway, to the extent that the military stepped in to ‘mediate’ between the sitting government and the group.
While the TLP is engaging in dialogue and being allowed space to protest, genuine human rights movements in Pakistan continue to be curtailed.
This mainstreaming of Islamist hardliners is nothing new for Pakistan, but the fact that they can now threaten to take down embassies is not one that the developing country can take lightly.
Simply put, Pakistan needs France more than France needs Pakistan. From defence deals to over €500mln in financial assistance, the European nation gives much to Pakistan. The French government is even involved in energy projects in the country. Even in the middle of the spat, Pakistan was looking for $183 million temporary relief, in terms of its debt repayment, under the G-20 debt relief initiative.
Pakistan cannot afford to tussle with France in the manner it has chosen to. But the path for this diplomatic fallout is one that the government has helped create itself.
It remains to be seen how the TLP will continue to evolve. Its founder’s recent death has some suggested it could evolve into a bigger problem, one with several factions. Foreign policy when dictated by mobs can only lead to disaster. Pakistan cannot afford to make a medusa out of this one.