The government’s decision to table a resolution before Parliament about the expulsion of the French ambassador reflects a strange sort of surrender to the Tehrik Labbaik Pakistan, which had demanded this as a sign of protest against the French defence of the blasphemous cartoons published in Charlie Hebdo. The finding of parliamentary time to discuss a foreign-policy issue contrasts with the government’s reluctance to bring the IMF Agreement before Parliament. It is a separate issue of how France reacts, but the whole story of the TLP sit-in and the agreements that ended it indicate either that the government has a sneaking sympathy for its hard line, or that it has some degree of support among powerful background forces.
While there can be no doubt that blasphemy against the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is anathema to the overwhelming Muslim majority of Pakistan, the question arises who exactly has appointed the TLP responsible for such blasphemy, and how its members, who have no representation in Parliament despite a major effort in the 2018 election, have licence to indulge in generalized violence, as they have threatened to do, or to block vital arteries, as they have actually done. The government must consider the impact not just on France, but on all international observers, of appearing to conduct foreign relations under the supervision of such groups. To take one example, what does the government intend to do if some group was to take exception to the treatment of co-religionists in Xinjiang by the Chinese government?
This latitude is all the more worrisome as there are signs that the TLP enjoys support of the powers that be. The hounding of Mr Justice Faez Isa of the Supreme Court began after his judgment in the case of the TLP’s Faizabad sit-in, party workers were given money openly at its end. The government must act to prevent the impression that it is taking action against blasphemy not because it is wrong, but because it wants to pacify the TLP. It must dispel the impression that it is not concerned with a cause’s rightness, as with its supporters’ nuisance value.