The sudden mob power of extremist parties after the Asia Bibi verdict and the sheer impunity with which they lay out outrageous commands had many questioning where and how these parties gained the moral authority on the subject of religion. While a violent confrontation against violent elements was not feasible at that time, the State has slowly started chipping away at the soft power of these parties by reclaiming the religious narrative.

Perhaps we saw the seeds of such efforts yesterday, when Prime Minister Imran Khan attended the Rehmatul-il-Alameen Conference aimed at promoting religious harmony, tolerance, brotherhood and equality, respect for humanity, non-violence, unity, reconciliation and culture of dialogue. The Prime Minister utilised the international platform by calling on people to research and study the life of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), and also said that it was the responsibility of the State to ensure that the teachings of the Prophet (PBUH) were passed down to the coming generations. The Premier reflected on the many blessed teachings of the Prophet (PBUH), emphasizing how Prophet Muhammad treated non-Muslims and even his foes, saying he had pardoned even his worst enemies. With this message, he announced that Pakistan would lead the international struggle to stop defamation of religion, pointing to his government’s success in getting the cartoon competition in Netherlands cancelled, and condemned rogue elements which claimed to be upholders of religion.

The speech that the PM made at the conference cannot be read without inferring to the recent three-day protest at the verdict of Asia Bibi case, and the lawless activities that ensued later on in the name of religion. The Premier’s speech at the conference was a clear attempt to reclaim power from rogue and miscreant religious parties and try to restore faith of the people into the state. By projecting the image that the State itself will lead the efforts to protect Islam and the finality of the Prophet (PBUH) from defamation, the government is casting its first stones at the authority that Tehreek-i-Labbaik (TLP) has built up since Faizabad.

It’s appreciable that the government is looking to co-opt the narrative from other groups and trying to give it respectability and moderation but it must be very careful. We have soon how easily this issue snowballs into unmanageable territories. It might end up reinforcing the violent narrative instead and binding itself further into the straitjacket enforced by violent groups on this issue.