Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to media after appearing before a Joint Investigation Team in Islamabad on June 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Mahmood
Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was blamed for all the nation's problems, including those that occurred under his successor Imran Khan. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Mahmood

Samuel Johnson, the famous English poet and moralist, once remarked that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. The saying couldn’t have been truer in the case of Pakistan.

Intolerance toward anyone with dissenting views is very characteristic of this society. Anyone with a different opinion on religion or politics is called an apostate or a traitor respectively. This tendency is just one manifestation of deeper problems: continued failure of pluralist democracy in Pakistan and dangerous polarization in its society.

Pakistan experienced its first ever democratic transition after the national election in 2013 when Mian Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) party, won the poll and formed the federal government. However, tales of strained relationships between the ruling PML-N and the “establishment,” a term generally used to refer to the powerful military, have been abundant throughout the tenure of his government.

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In 2016, a consortium of international journalists made startling revelations in what came to be known as the Panama Papers naming many leading politicians, businessmen, public servants and prominent people around the world for allegedly laundering money through secret offshore companies.

Although Nawaz Sharif, the country’s only leader to be elected for a third term as prime minister, was not directly named in the Panama Papers, a voluntary investigation led to his disqualification on the charge that he was not “truthful” or “trustworthy” any more on account of not disclosing a work visa he held from state in the Persian Gulf region. The wisdom of the verdict is debated within the legal fraternity of the country. He is yet to be implicated on graft charges.

Interestingly, all the hue and cry about corruption and the Panama Papers subsided once Sharif was disqualified as prime minister. The 400 or so Pakistanis who were directly named in Panama Papers are not even mentioned any more, which strengthens Sharif’s claim of a “witch-hunt” and “victimization.”

The former prime minister has led a steady campaign against the judicial verdict and its alleged supporters in the “anti-democratic” quarters of the establishment as well as opposing political parties since his ouster. The campaign has rallied his supporters, and according to newly available evidence, has increased his party’s popularity, which many expected to collapse rapidly.

It appears that the PML-N is set for another comfortable victory in the national election scheduled for July 25. But in the course of his increasingly vociferous campaign, Sharif has earned the label of “traitor” for his apparent gibes at the military and the judiciary.

The former prime minister’s allegiance to his country was already questioned by his detractors because of his alleged friendship with the prime minister of India, Pakistan’s arch-nemesis. Now calls have been made to hang him on treason charges after his recent controversial remarks in an interview with the Dawn newspaper were construed by Indian media as condoning the prevailing Indian view on the Mumbai attacks of 2008.

Pakistan’s public discourse is increasingly segmented, and people on and off social media are hurling foul abuses and slanderous allegations at anyone with dissenting views. That always happens to a degree in every national election in Pakistan.

A dangerous precedent, however, began early this month when Pakistan’s interior minister – and a senior PML-N member – Ahsan Iqbal (pictured below, center) was shot and injured because a member of an emergent religious party deemed him apostate. Days later, a senior member of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), PML-N’s main political rival, slapped a member of the ruling party on live television.

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More dangerous yet, a phrase has gained traction on social media as well as public discussions offline: “Are you with Pakistan or Nawaz Sharif?” People are joining this emotionally charged debate that implies that Sharif and his followers are disloyal to Pakistan and are traitors. Some say that this scandalous phrase has been pushed into public discourse by people bent on engineering the upcoming general election.

Whatever the case may be, few people realize while sharing it on social media or forwarding it on WhatsApp that the phrase is an open invitation to political violence and civil conflict. The phrase is reminiscent of the threat the George W Bush administration made to Pakistan, “Are you with us or against us?”

Such dangerous rhetoric creates two mutually exclusive extremes. It not only necessitates but also perpetuates conflict. The gift of the Bush doctrine to the world is the “forever war,” an unending sequence of sanguinary conflicts along political, religious, ethnic and sectarian lines.

People who exist on political or religious extremes are statistical outliers. Most people live around the mean of political and religious distribution. People like George W Bush force them to choose between two extremes, there are no middle grounds left. Violence, even war, is the only path forward.

According to recent surveys, 38% of Pakistani voters support PML-N. an increase from 33% in 2013. This means patriotism of more than a third of Pakistan’s population is being called into question. It is uncertain whether someone is trying to engineer Pakistan’s political atmosphere is true or not. But whoever is promoting these mutually exclusive extremes in domestic politics is no friend of Pakistan or its people. He is a madman and a dangerous psychopath.

It is important for the sake of peace and the stability of the country that he is brought to light and to justice for provoking civil discord in this nation of 200 million people. It is of equal importance that publicly calling someone an apostate or a traitor is criminalized.

Bilal Khan is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of North Texas. His research interests include IR Theory, Foreign Policy Analysis, Conflicts, South and Central Asia.