National Sections of the L5I:

Pakistan: No support for religious reactionaries or state repression!

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On November 25, the Pakistan government called for the suppression of the growing wave of so-called anti-blasphemy protests organised by the Sunni Islamist party “Tehreek e Labaik Ya Rasool Allah”. After a failed attempt to clear the capital, Islamabad, using the police, the government has now called on the armed forces to intervene in the city. Currently, the Rangers, a special militarised branch of the security forces, are to lead the operation.

In response, the Islamists' demagogic leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, has called for country-wide action to bring the country to a standstill. On November 25, disturbances broke out in Karachi, Lahore, Hyderabad and Faisalabad. Karachi in particular is reported to be in lock-down. Six people are reported dead.

The movement started on November 8 as a sit-down protest at Faizabad interchange, blocking traffic in an attempt to disrupt life in the capital. Shortly before this, parliament had passed the so-called Election 2017 Bill for elections that are expected to be held in 2018. The Islamists whipped up feelings over the replacement of the word “oath” by “declaration” in the text to be used in the swearing in of members of the new parliament and also the omission of any reference to the status of Mohammed as the final Prophet.

In fact, the government rapidly withdrew the formulation, claiming it was the result of a clerical error, but the Tehreek e Labaik went ahead with their protest, demanding the sacking of the Law Minister, Zahid Hamid. The Islamists have continued to insist that the omission was a deliberate concession to the “heretical” Ahmadi sect, who are declared non-Muslims under the Pakistani constitution.

After weeks of rising tensions, the High Court in Islamabad ruled on November 24 that the protest constituted an act of terrorism and ordered the government to break it up. The following morning, some 8,000 elite police and paramilitary forces attacked the protest, trying to disperse it with baton charges and tear gas. At the same time, social media and several TV channels were closed down by the government. These measures could not prevent the movement from spreading to several major cities, leading to street battles between Islamists and security forces across the country.

In response, the Interior minister decided to call in the army in Islamabad and in cities like Karachi a state of emergency was declared. By the evening of November 25, the protesters had escalated their own demands, provoking a showdown by calling for the resignation of the whole cabinet.

The crisis comes after a year of growing governmental scandals. Just recently, the Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, had to step down because of his and his family’s connections to matters revealed in the Panama papers. Both the liberal bourgeois opposition under Imran Khan’s Justice Party, PTI, and Islamist organisations have been building the momentum against the governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz, PML-N, whilst the military has been strengthening its own position in the background.

Whilst a military spokesman assured the government of support, the Army also tried to pass responsibility for suppressing the protest, and any casualties, back to the civilian authorities by asking the government to settle the growing conflict “peacefully” - a hopeless task given the Islamists' escalating demands. The government has now knocked the ball back into the Army’s court and called on it intervene in Islamabad. As we write, it is not yet clear what measures the military will take.

Whilst it is plain that the generals do not want this responsibility, let alone to take over power at the moment, the situation is highly dangerous. Socialists cannot give the slightest political support to the reactionary movement unfolding on the streets of Pakistan cities. At the same time, to call on the state to brutally crush the protests, as the leaders of the Awami Workers' Party have done, is a political scandal. These leaders have already been acting as former PM Nawaz Sharif’s Fifth Column, claiming this was part of a supposed struggle for democracy against dictatorship. In reality, a government crackdown could open a veritable Pandora’s box of reaction that would not be limited to Islamist forces.

The Islamists pose as a rebellious opposition to a corrupt PML-N government when in fact the Tehreek e Labaik’s protest is a cynical distraction from the real problems facing Pakistan’s millions of urban and rural poor. Such a movement inevitably foments outrages against the country’s religious and national minorities. The scapegoating of the Ahmadi minority will inflame hatred and could even encourage pogroms. The PML-N government meanwhile will pose as the only defender of democracy, whilst moving more and more towards authoritarian Bonapartist rule. The military also keep open the option of taking power "to preserve law and order” the moment they deem they have the social support for this.

Revolutionary Socialists and the whole working class movement should oppose any military intervention or imposition of a state of emergency, they should demand the lifting of the ban on social media and news channels and a halt to the present crack down. These measures will undoubtedly be used against the working class and all progressive forces in the country. In working class districts and minority areas, organisations like the trade unions should organise protection against attacks or pogroms by the Islamists or interventions by the state forces. Now, more than ever, only a struggle against poverty and for democratic rights can provide the masses with an alternative to the carnival of reaction that is underway.

Far from blocking communications and censoring information, what the country needs is an opening up of the whole apparatus of government; the treaties, the accounts, the financial transactions and contracts of the government, the military and the big enterprises. The corruption and plundering of the country is a phenomenon not limited to the Nawaz family. The working masses have a right to see this in all its clarity.

In fact, it is the Left's failure to launch such a movement and, instead, its focus on an abstract defence of “democracy”, that has handed the initiative on the street to arch reactionary forces. Of course, there is always a real danger of the military taking over again, but the best way to counter this is not lukewarm support for the corrupt government, but a clear proletarian opposition. The Left should have been in the forefront of such a struggle for months. Now this error should be corrected as soon as possible by building a united front of trade unions, workers, youth and women’s organisations against both the government and its reactionary challengers, be they generals or Islamists.