The real surprising thing about Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s arrival on the national stage is that it took so long. Depressingly, the ground has been ripe for an exclusively ‘pro-blasphemy’ leader for a very long time. Blasphemy politics has a long and inglorious history starting from Ghazi Ilm-ud-din in the 1920s to the Ahrar movement in the 1930s and finally to Mumtaz Qadri in recent times. Almost every mainstream party has been, and in varying degree still is, part of the rot, which essentially means that all of them endorse Rizvi’s position in principle at least to some extent.
This is also the primary challenge to his electoral prospects; who would notice another bigot amongst legions of others? When all politics is ‘pro-blasphemy law’, how do you come up with a unique selling point for your party? Something similar happened to Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) in recent years. When almost all parties became right-wing and religious, JI had to move even more to the right, reaching the lowest point under Munawar Hasan, where its rheotoric became indistinguishable from that of religious militant organisations.
Rizvi seeks to distinguish himself through an extension of what can be termed the ‘Sheikh Rasheed strategy’ on steroids — that is, to say outrageous things in downright abusive language to get attention. No one was ready for the language and idiom of Rizvi. It is amusing until the bruising realisation that this is not just flowery Punjabi but direct and deliberate incitement to violence.
In one of his speeches, he talks about how a group of jinns under the disguise of cats came to see him after a long day and he educated them on the etiquette of social calls. In another, he makes the dramatic revelation that Mumtaz Qadri has been alive all along (which is paradoxical since one of his primary allegations against the previous government is the execution of Mumtaz Qadri). This is all largely unchartered territory for mainstream political discourse. There have been, however, past examples (Tahirul Qadri’s visions, etc.) as well as the present co-option of ‘jinns’ as interlocutors by at least one other major political party.
Rizvi and his associates will not win a seat in any provincial assembly or in the National Assembly in the July 2018 election. The damage they have caused to political discourse and vulnerable groups, however, cannot be measured by their electoral success alone. He has accelerated a race to the bottom by playing on and exposing deeply entrenched violent zealotry in society, political opportunism and abject cravenness.
Blasphemy will be an election issue for the first time, and Rizvi and his supporters can take the primary discredit for it. Beyond the abuse and hyperbole, there lies a more fundamental issue: he offers no reasons for his abuse, his hate speech and his direct incitement to violence. He is the public face of the post-Mumtaz Qadri Pakistan, where to be offended on the grounds of religious sensibilities is itself the (non) argument. His party or group is without a manifesto apart from a threadbare agenda of hate and possible homicide.
‘Liberal’ and ‘mainstream’ political parties no longer know how to speak in direct language and there are euphemisms for euphemisms and the best among them only help to change the subject on the question of the blasphemy law and resulting violence. The challenger, on the other hand, speaks the language of direct and undiluted hate.
Ever since the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, the religious heirs of Mumtaz Qadri have pulled up a seat for themselves at our collective national table and have been dealt with acquiescence and cowardice. Rizvi is the prime-time heir to Mumtaz Qadri and the response of the majority of the political class is to co-opt his message rather than distinguish and distance themselves from him. This will result in an electoral loss for his candidates but a victory for his narrative.
The author is a lawyer and columnist. He works with Human Rights Watch and is a partner at a law firm.
This was originally published in the July 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.