The Tehrik Labbaik Pakistan protests are convulsing the country, and to better understand them, one must recall two events, to illustrate some of the forces at work. That the events go back to the end of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th shows the forces are part of a continuity, not a harking back to an ancient past.
The first incident was how Sultan Abdul Hamid II of Turkey, got the French government to stop the putting on of a play about the Holy Prophet (PBUH), back in 1889. It is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because France was involved.
One reason was because it dealt, as the present case does, with something that was out of the purview of the French government. It also took place when the Ottomans were weak, and being forced out of Europe. It also took place at a time when France had joined them in the Crimean War three decades before. That parallels the Pakistan government’s concerns about offending France, and thus the rest of the EU.
The Sultan at no time threatened to expel the French Ambassador from Istanbul. The Ambassador was too useful in conveying his messages to Paris. The Sultan had threatened to go to war, and for his final interview with the Ambassador, had dressed in military uniform, showing that he intended to lead the military in person.
He did not specify how the military would be used, but while France had no land borders with Turkey, the Ottomans still had North African possessions to act as a point from which to fight French forces in Algeria and Tunisia. There was also the Mediterranean, where the Turkish navy could attack the French. It probably would have been slaughtered, but it was still a possibility.
An interesting aspect is that the French government did not say it had no control over the playwright or the theatrical company staging the play, but stopped it. It made no pleas that it was an issue of freedom of speech or artistic freedom. It is possible that the French involvement in the Suez Canal caused it not to wish any disruption.
While militarily, it did not really run the risk of losing, it seems that it did not feel that the losses it would have faced even in winning were worth it. The French government was to go to war in the First World War, against those same Ottomans.
By his intervention, Sultan Abdul Hamid prevented blasphemy taking place, providing an example of nahy anil munkar (preventing the forbidden), which, along with amr bil maruf (ensuring the right), is supposed to be the purpose of an Islamic government. This was an object lesson in stopping blasphemy, not punishing it, or protesting against it.
Expelling the French ambassador would seem an odd punishment, for it has no sanction in the Sharia which prescribes the death sentence. If indeed the French President is guilty of blasphemy, then he must be treated accordingly.
It must be noted that what Sultan Abdul Hamid did was not so much as express his displeasure or register his protest, as avert a law and order problem. The Sultan was not on very firm ground himself. He ended up deposed by the Young Turks two decades later. He probably did not want protests raging throughout his country, and his final message to the French Ambassador was that he was the ruler of the ‘Balkans, Iraq, Syria, Mount Lebanon, Hejaz, the Caucasus, Anatolia and the capital’ was probably not listing out where he would draw his Army, burnt the places he did not want to erupt.
To truly understand the TLP protest, the story of Ilam Din Shaheed helps, who also provided a potent reason for the creation of Pakistan. His story starts with the overturning of the conviction of Mahesh Rajpal by the Lahore High Court; Rajpal had published a book in 1923, Rangeela Rasool, which contained blasphemous matter against the Prophet (PBUH). There had been outrage all over India, and Rajpal had been charged under Section 153 PPC, for acting so as to provoke a riot. Convicted by the Lahore sessions court, the Lahore High Court decided on appeal that blasphemy against prophets could not be prevented, as that would be a restriction on freedom of speech.
All legal remedies had been exhausted, though perhaps, one could argue, there was an appeal to the Privy Council, and if that was rejected, a petition to the Secretary of State. Anyhow, Ilam Din, who was only 21, stabbed Rajpal dead in April 1929.
The trial and appeal took place quickly, and Ilam Din, the carpenter’s son, was hanged on 31 October 1929. One of the features of the case was Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s appearance on appeal. It was the only case he lost. Ilam Din’s body was brought for burial on Allama Iqbal’s personal assurance there would be no riot. 200,000 are said to have attended the funeral.
The absence of a blasphemy law had led Ilam Din to take the law into his own hands. There were to be many reasons for the creation of Pakistan, but one of them was the desire to have a law which punished blasphemy against the Prophet (PBUH). It was not until 1986 that Section 295C was added to the Pakistan Penal Code.
So strong has been the feeling on this that when Punjab Governor Salman Taseer spoke of changing it, he was assassinated by a police guard, ASI Mumtaz Qadri. This is where the TLP took off. Qadri was duly hanged, but the principle of legality does not seem to have been established.
The state seems to be forcing Muslims into anti-state actions. Ilam Din murdered a publisher, while Qadri murdered a Governor. TLP protesters kidnapped a DSP. While a Governor outranks a DSP, it is the latter who is at the business end of maintaining the writ of the state. Already, the clashes have led to the killing of several protesters and policemen. France must note the government’s readiness to sacrifice lives so as to keep its ambassador in the country.
It is also worth noting that the TLP is basically Brelvi. The misconception had somehow arisen that Brelvis are less inclined to violence than Deobandis or Ahle Hadith. This is patently incorrect.
The reason is that Brelvis and Deobandis are both Hanafis, and Ahle Hadith are also Sunnis. The same texts are prescribed in the seminaries of all three, and all have a core belief in the Prophethood. The orthodox punishment of that blasphemy is indeed death, not as a particularly cruel fiat, but as a law and order issue. The assumption is that believers will punish blasphemy with death, so the state might as well maintain its monopoly over violence by making it a crime and punishing it with death.
Expelling the French ambassador would seem an odd punishment, for it has no sanction in the Sharia which prescribes the death sentence. If indeed the French President is guilty of blasphemy, then he must be treated accordingly. Merely expelling his representative won’t cut it.
Then there is the representative nature of the TLP. It did not get votes in the 2018 election, being able to get only two MPAs elected in Sindh. That such a party could hold the whole country hostage is a comment on the administration, not on either the people of the country or the party.
By stating that he shared the objectives of the TLP, and objected only to its methods, Prime Minister Imran Khan was actually telling its negotiators not to weaken. Actually, this is what the blasphemer dislikes intensely: the readiness of Muslims to die for the Prophet (PBUH) and his religion. Proposing that blasphemy be equated with Holocaust denial, even if it succeeds, will not wing it with the orthodox, who held blasphemy a capital offence long before the Holocaust took place, let alone its denial.
It should not be ignored that, those who helped develop the TLP in the hope it would draw off Brelvi votes from the PML(N), did not know they were dealing with such a touch-button issue. The belief that an appeal to national interest will outweigh one to the honour of the Prophet (PBUH) is as touching as it is forlorn.