Why Pakistan should not alienate France
Pakistan is looking another major home-made calamity in the face, namely, the souring of Franco-Pakistan relations due to the rise of extremism in both countries.
Known for its provocative anti-religious stance, the French satirical magazine "Charlie Hebdo" suffered a deadly jihadist attack in Paris in 2015 for publishing cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The magazine republished the cartoons in September 2020. Comments by French President Macron in October in support of the magazine's right to publish the cartoons triggered anger across the Muslim world, with tens of thousands in Pakistan, Iran and other Muslim countries, flooding the streets and organising anti-French boycotts.
State secularism (laïcité) is central to France’s national identity. In France. Freedom of expression in schools and other public spaces is part of that. Curbing it to protect the feelings of a particular religion is seen as undermining national unity. French secularism includes rejection of all religions, including, Islam.
Following the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri the murderer of former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2016, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) rose to fame. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) being the centre piece of their belief, the Tehrik demands that Sharia law be established as the fundamental law in Pakistan. All Muslims without exception believe in the Prophethood of Muhammad (PBUH) and its finality. Most TLP members belong to the Barelvi school of Islam comprising of up to two-thirds of Pakistani Muslims. With strong relations to Sufism, the Barelvi brand used to be regarded as peaceful. But during the last decade it has turned to violence, attempting to counter the spread of Islamophobia in the West and growing globalization that brings such Western sentiments into focus in traditional Muslim societies.
Street protests organized by the TLP over the publication of the Prophet’s (PBUH) caricatures took place in April. But it is still not clear as to why this happened six months after the actual re-print? After about three weeks, new protests were organized, this time in the big cities of Pakistan. Violent clashes took place between the protesters and the police.
To prevent the protests from continuing, a resolution was presented in Parliament on 20 th of April demanding the expulsion of the French Ambassador. That would certainly lead to 27 other EU Ambassadors going with him, seriously damaging Pakistan’s relations with Europe.
It is unthinkable that Pakistan’s foreign policy should be decided by mobs in the streets of Islamabad or Karachi. A break-up of relations with France would not only severely damage Pakistan’s international standing (which has recently been on the upswing given our successful policy to help bring about peace in Afghanistan) but would certainly impact its economic relations with the EU and the West.
When Pakistan was faced with sanctions after 1965 and then again in 1990, when it struggled to make a credible military deterrent against India, other than China, only France withstood pressure from the US and other Western countries, thus ensuring critical supplies of aircraft, missiles, submarines, electronic equipment, etc.
Imran Khan pointed out that more than half of Pakistani exports go to the EU. He warned about the adverse economic and political consequences of alienating the EU, particularly in the middle of the ongoing pandemic. Pakistan’s detractors have taken this opportunity to smear its image. The EU Parliament has overwhelmingly adopted (with 681 in favour out of 705, 3 against and 9 abstaining) a Resolution that calls for the review of the GSP+ status for Pakistan.
Because of an "alarming" increase in the use of blasphemy accusations in the country as well as the rising number of online and offline attacks on journalists and civil society organisations, the EU resolution also calls on the Government of Pakistan to "unequivocally condemn" the incitement to violence and discrimination against religious minorities in the country, and expresses "deep concern" at the prevailing anti-French sentiment in Pakistan. Citing various incidents of members of religious minorities being killed or imprisoned in Pakistan over accusations of blasphemy, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Charlie Weimers of Sweden, who co-authored the Resolution, said: “Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, rather than defending his citizens' human rights against false accusers, [...] equated denial of the Holocaust and genocide to criticism of Islam's Prophet (PBUH)".
Blasphemy law was unknown in South Asia before 1860 when the British instituted it.
Consider criminalizing “Denial of Holocaust” in EU. Certainly the EU countries have a right to frame their own laws. Similarly, Muslims have the right to criminalise blasphemy against the Prophet (PBUH). While the two cannot be equated, it is the principle of each country having the right to frame laws according to its own particular requirements.
There are serious reservations about the implementation of the Blasphemy Law and the manner of its implementation, the way it is grossly misused in Pakistan. These certainly need rectification. To quote from my article of November 1, 20218 entitled Misusing Religion: “To end manipulating the laws by false accusation, which seems to happen more often than not, the accusers should face the same penalty that would be imposed on those they accuse if their accusation is proven to be false.”
It is very good that the government is to engage with the EU to address both the GSP Plus status and the blasphemy laws. Pakistan should neither yield to pressure from the TLP nor to that of the West, but must do the right thing.
Despite a tremendously successful campaign against the TTP by the Pakistan Army and the PAF, and the de-radicalisation measures for former militants, home-grown militancy has largely gone unopposed. Banning the TLP cannot be the end. The State and the law enforcing institutions need to regain control over militant organizations and militants.
One can disagree on political issues but violence is not the way to solve problems. Malcontents, presently in the cold, will join the fray to regain their nuisance value. It is no surprise that Maulana Fazlur Rahman quickly lined up behind TLP.
It is noteworthy that most French nationals, though cautioned by their Embassy to leave the country, stayed, clearly showing trust in Pakistanis and the Pakistani State to do the right thing. We should honour their trust.
On April 9, 1948, Leon Marchal, the first French Ambassador to Pakistan, presented his credentials to the Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Here are extracts from the Quaid's speech on the occasion: “The magnificent history of your great country and its achievements are well-known to the world. In common with other nations, we in Pakistan have admired the high principles of democracy that form the five basic principles of your great State. The cry of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, which was raised during your Great Revolution and officially adopted by your great Republic, had its repercussions throughout the world, as is known to buoy up the hopes of many downtrodden nations."
He further said: “With knowledge of our brother Muslim countries, you (France) inaugurate a new era which, I hope, will lead to inaugurate a new era between France and Pakistan.”
The Founder of the Nation told the Ambassador: “The people of France and Pakistan are not strangers to one another. Pakistan will give you our support and co-operation which you may require in promoting relationships of goodwill and friendship between our two countries.”
Addressing the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry on April 28, 1948, the Quaid pointed out that given our urgent need to be connected with the world, France was one of the first few countries that helped Pakistan to immediately establish Civil Aviation.
Seventy three years later, both countries have become hostage to those on the extremist fringes. Do we want to expel the French Ambassador when President Macron’s off-the-cuff comment really does not reflect the feelings of the vast majority of the French population, a growing part of which is Muslim?
(The author is a defence and security analyst, Chairman of the Karachi Council on Foreign Relations (KCFR) and Vice Chairman Board of Management Quaid-e-Azam House Museum (Institute of Nation Building).