Dutch cartoon contest and protests in Pakistan: All for show?

An announcement by Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch opposition leader, to hold a competition for cartoons depicting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad has led to protests in Pakistan, where the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) threatened to blockade Islamabad unless the country severs diplomatic relations with the Netherlands.

Physical depictions of God or the Prophet Muhammad are forbidden in Islam, and the TLP says the competition amounts to “blasphemy”.

According to Sehar Tariq, a counter violent extremism researcher based in Islamabad, and Stijn van Kessel, a political scientist based in London, the reason behind the announcement by Wilders’ Freedom Party and the TLP’s demands is the same: attention.

Both parties have not been as successful recently as they had hoped, so generating controversy is a perfect opportunity to rile up their far-right base.

Al Jazeera spoke to both experts and asked them to explain the situation both Wilders and the TLP are in.

Sehar Tariq, counter violent extremism analyst, based in Islamabad. She is also the country representative for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

Al Jazeera: How does holding this protest benefit TLP?

Sehar TariqThe Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan didn’t do as well at the polls as they had hoped, I think, and so this helps to bring them back to political relevance in Pakistan, and it keeps their voter base engaged. They are a single-issue party, so this is great for them, that such an event has emerged in the Netherlands.

They can use this to keep the base engaged. Without [events like Wilders’ cartoon competition], they risk becoming irrelevant. This is a reminder that “Hey! We are here, and we are watching and are ready to fight on the issue of blasphemy”.

So I think this protest mobilises and re-energises their voter base, which might have been feeling slightly despondent on their electoral performance. They did well by an objective standard, for a brand new party, but not based on their own standards for success, perhaps.

[The TLP won only two provincial assembly seats in Pakistan’s general election on July 25, but bagged 2.2 million votes nationwide, making it the fifth-most-popular political party in the country.]

Al Jazeera: Does holding this protest, therefore, allow them to burnish their credentials as so-called defenders of the faith?

Tariq: Absolutely. That [being defenders of the faith] is how they have set themselves up. [TLP chief] Khadim Hussain Rizvi is a preacher, and for them to generate international news with this, it not only establishes his credentials as a defender of the faith but also as someone who can stand up to the West.

That really resonates with his voter base… He is seen as a knight in shining armour, so to speak, of a Muslim world that faces the onslaught of Islamophobia by the West.

Al Jazeera: Is there an element here of both sides of the far-right getting exactly what they want?

Tariq: Absolutely. Khadim Hussain Rizvi needs someone to be Islamophobic or blasphemous for him to continue to say blasphemy is a relevant topic. If there is no blasphemy, what is he going to do? On the other hand, someone like Wilders needs someone who is out on the streets, baying for blood, so he can point to them, too.

It is kind of a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship. They both feed off the worst stereotypes of each other.

The worst thing is that in the media eye, this catches attention and gets amplified by both sides. It also then skews international discourse into this paradigm of a ‘clash of civilisations’.

Al Jazeera: TLP won the fifth-most number of votes in the general election – how significant is that, and what next for them?

Tariq: They are genuinely tapping into a local sentiment, and there is also a global shift happening. They have won two provincial seats. To me, the scary part is that they are the fifth-most popular political party in this country – that speaks to a societal shift that is happening in Pakistan.

What they are doing today [with the protest], is likely to help them in the upcoming local government elections, even more so than perhaps their performance in the general elections.

Right now they are a single-issue party, but I do see them, in terms of what next, expanding their list of issues – soon they will find that there may not be enough events around blasphemy to create a ruckus. Where does it go next? Non-Muslims? Minorities? Women? If they want to stay relevant, they will have to evolve into other areas.

Al Jazeera: How much of this is about religion and freedom of expression, and how much about gaining political prominence and power?

Tariq: It’s entirely about political prominence and power. Wilders is a long-time politician, he has a history. These guys are new to politics, but they have had a long-standing commitment to religious propagation. It is not fair to say that none of this has to do with religion – being very cynical, the people at the top may not, but their constituents definitely do care about these issues.

It’s like an “our way of life” vs “their way of life”, that’s the clash, and what is the ideal way of life? It’s not just that they are doing it to get to political power – it’s that they know if political power is defined by these issues, then they will be in power.

Stijn van Kessel, lecturer at the Queen Mary University of London, is specialised in populism, Euroscepticism and ideology, voters, members and electoral performance of (far-right) populist parties.

Al Jazeera: How does the cartoon competition benefit Wilders and his Freedom Party?

Stijn van Kessel: As far as Wilders is concerned, he seeks to generate attention by means of this contest. He is not truly interested in a cartoon contest but this is a way for him to generate media attention; he hopes that will eventually translate to votes.

And what a number of recent studies have shown is that when the media focuses on a certain number of themes, people will consider this theme to be more important.

So, in turn, that benefits parties that mobilise on the basis of this theme.

In an indirect way, media attention does create support. However, Wilders is not the only person focusing on these themes any more.

Al Jazeera: Is Wilders actually getting what he wants out of this then?

Van Kessel: That remains to be seen. Obviously, he is getting media attention, and that was probably his immediate goal.

However, you see that his star is waning somewhat, or he at least finds it hard to attain the attention he once did, partially because he has a competitor on the far-right, the Forum for Democracy (FvD).

Both parties, Wilders’ Freedom Party and the FvD both attract culturally conservative voters, they both stress the issue of Islam, they’re both eurosceptic.

However, FvD interestingly attracts also younger voters, it tries to appeal more to people who are higher educated.

So in that sense, you see that younger people vote for FvD, not for Wilders.

Al Jazeera: Do the competition and the protests play into each other’s hands?

Van Kessel: I can’t comment on the Pakistani part of the story because I know too little, but what is clear is that Wilders is doing this for domestic use.

What you see happening now, the protests in Pakistan, only helps him gain media attention in the Netherlands, thus becoming the centre of attention for his potential voters.

But Wilders seems a little bit over the hill, although I wouldn’t count him out, but because there’s so much political competition [on the right] I don’t know if this will boost his support again.

Al Jazeera: How much of this is about religion and freedom of expression, and how much about gaining political prominence and power?

Van Kessel: Obviously I can’t look into the head of Wilders, but this is simply a tactic to increase media attention.

If you’re in the news, it gives emphasis to the issues and the parties, and he hopes that will increase public support for his political project.

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