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Asia Bibi Image Credit: AP

Riots across Pakistan last week, following the Supreme Court’s decision to set free a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was earlier sentenced to death on a blasphemy charge, have revived a long-held fear.

As the Pakistani state has weakened in previous decades, partly due to the spillover of the conflict in Afghanistan and partly from domestic policy failures, previously subdued groups across Pakistan have jumped in the limelight to seize what should clearly be the authority of the state.

In effect, the outcome of this tragic transition has led to the creation of states within the state of Pakistan, eager to set the course for the future. In this case, the rioters and their leaders instantly defied the Supreme Court, by clamouring for public hanging of Asia Bibi.

Led by firebrand Islamic cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, and his Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the protesters were charged up on the matter of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which was used to prosecute Asia Bibi. Some of TLP’s leaders even called for the murder of the judges and a mutiny in the armed forces.

Armed with batons, many of those protesters came out to campaign violently in and around major cities such as Lahore and Karachi. Some even chose to burn motorcycles and cars while others tried to block the country’s motorways.

The sorry episode has badly exposed the vulnerability surrounding the Pakistani state and the failure of the authorities to enforce the law of the land. Subsequent to the protests, Pakistani officials have claimed that they have ordered the arrests of hundreds of protesters whose presence in the violent backlash has been confirmed. And yet, this enforcement of the law, if confirmed, still leaves behind a wide gap in the turnaround that Pakistan needs to undertake for securing its own future.

To begin with, the authority of the Pakistani state needs to be renewed to the point where such violent protests in future must be blocked even before they begin. And to ensure that, institutions responsible for internal security and enforcement of law and order must not only be reformed, but more importantly made independent of any external influence.

In Pakistan’s case, the weakening authority of the state followed in part from a systematic dismantling of an old and well-tested administrative order, which was swiftly replaced by a new one when former president Pervez Musharraf pushed ahead with his cherished experiment of devolving more authority to elected representatives at the grass roots. Today, the outcome of that initiative is widely visible as neither the older system of administrative management across Pakistan’s districts exists, nor the new order brought in its place has worked any better. Ultimately, the idea of a normally functioning state with an acceptable quality of governance remains in tatters.

Meanwhile, to a very large extent, successive governments have exposed key institutions to influence from the outside. This has led to the emergence of entities such as the TLP, that was recently at the forefront of challenging the Supreme Court’s decision and effectively confronting the Pakistani state. The TLP’s case has indeed triggered a flashback to events in 2007 when the Pakistan Army had to take charge of the Red Mosque in central Islamabad, after gunmen loyal to its chief cleric of the mosque were locked in armed clashes with the police. The 2007 case also had potentially serious ramifications for Pakistan’s foreign policy after the armed operatives from the Red Mosque kidnapped six Chinese women, only to trigger serious concern from the Chinese authorities.

Going forward, Pakistan’s ruling structure must squarely confront a very compelling and powerful question. It must immediately ask itself whether the state of Pakistan, its institutions and elected representatives will run the country or whether authority will shift further in favour of non-state groups with armed members, determined to set their own rules for Pakistan’s future. Pakistan’s salvation lies only in re-establishing the writ of the state.

For Prime Minister Imran Khan, that may be a politically risky step in the short term as confronting armed groups such as the TLP will likely trigger an angry and possibly bloody retaliation. But Pakistan’s destiny and future lies in the ability of the state to begin taking charge of its key duties that have been abdicated over the past years.

In the meantime, reforms that will help to either revive the bureaucratic order or create a new structure that can help enforce the authority of the Pakistani state must be central to the official strategy.

The arrests of hundreds of suspects involved in the recent incidents of violence may help to enforce the law, but only in part. A more profound structural change is still waiting to happen as Pakistan decides exactly who will run the country.

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.