The religious party, which was once backed by the establishment, is turning up the heat on Prime Minister Imran Khan over anti-France protests
The banning of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) by the Imran Khan government last week has added one more chapter to Pakistan’s complicated relations with Islamist politics. The organisation started by the late Khadim Hussain Rizvi often drew attention because of the controversial remarks made by its founder on social media and TV. In recent years, Pakistan saw a surge in the TLP’s activities, thanks to global developments and local opportunities.
In an era of globalisation of information and diseases, a French school teacher’s lessons on freedom of expression provided a lifeline to the TLP, which has built a vast support network inside Pakistan based on its campaign against “blasphemy”. Samuel Paty, the middle-school teacher, showed his students the controversial cartoons on Prophet Muhammed that had appeared in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. His assertion of freedom attracted the wrath of a young Chechen who beheaded him on October 16, 2020. Subsequently, French President Emmanuel Macron hardened his position on Islamist extremism. As Mr. Macron attacked radical Islamists, Rizvi called on Pakistan to end its relationship with France, and summoned his Barelvi followers to flood the streets of Islamabad. But within days of calling for the protest, Rizvi succumbed to COVID-19. After his death, the organisation took a more militant turn under his son Saad Hussain Rizvi.
To the outside world, the outrage against France expressed by a cleric may appear difficult to fathom but the Samuel Paty incident had touched upon the incendiary topic of blasphemy, which has the potential to stir up Pakistan’s politics. For several hardline Islamist groups in the country, the issue of blasphemy is above and beyond the state of Pakistan. For them, anyone who attempts to question what they believe the core tenet of Islam — respect for Prophet Muhammed and the unshakable recognition that the Prophet is the final messenger of the faith — should be punished with death. The TLP has been in the forefront of such groups.
The protest against blasphemy gave a foundational opportunity to the TLP when in 2010, Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the then Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, shot him dead in the picturesque Kohsar Market of Islamabad. Taseer had finished his lunch in an Italian restaurant in the market and had emerged to sit in his vehicle when Qadri shot him in the back in point blank range. Taseer had championed the cause of Asiya Bibi, the Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy by the clerics. As the police arrested Qadri and produced him in court, the followers of Khadim Rizvi arrived with flowers that they showered on the killer. When the anti-blasphemy politics was growing in popularity in Pakistan, several religious leaders joined Rizvi to form a religious party which was named Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA). They organised public events, calling for the release of Qadri.
In 2017, when Rizvi approached the Election Commission to register the new party, the Commission raised objections over its name. Then Rizvi announced the formation of the TLP as a political arm of the TLYRA. Within a few years, the TLP has grown to become one of the most powerful religious parties that have made blasphemy a key political issue.
The protests demanding action against France, therefore, is not just a challenge from a fringe extremist organisation. The TLP has elected representatives in the Sindh Assembly and has the street power to bring life in the country’s main cities to a halt. The TLP has demanded Mr. Khan’s government expel the Ambassador of France, cut ties with Paris and stop using French products. The TLP also urged the National Assembly to discuss its demands and take legislative measures.
Arrest of leaders
When protests continued, the government arrested Saad Hussain Rizvi, the current leader. The arrest, in turn, sparked countrywide protests and gridlock, which stretched from rural Punjab to Karachi and Lahore. The arrest of the leadership and finally the banning of the organisation show the extent of the threat posed by the TLP. These factors, however, do not complete the picture of the organisation and its real intentions. That is partially met by conspiracy theories that are typical of Pakistan’s politics.
The real strength of the TLP lies probably in the fact that it was initially sponsored by the all powerful ‘establishment’ of Pakistan — the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI). In recent years, several political or non-governmental moves to mobilise large public gatherings had the invisible hand of the establishment. These public movements like the one led by Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Pakistani-Canadian cleric, have served mysterious purposes. Typically boosted by media platforms, these new age religious figures command enormous public support and viewership that are used by them to launch public protests.
Qadri had launched a similar anti-corruption movement against the Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari governments during 2012 to 2015. There was no clarity about the forces behind the protests but the movements did achieve the goal of ultimately bringing political change. Now, an Army-friendly government is in power in Islamabad.
New ISI chief Faiz Hameed is close to the current Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa. According to Pakistani columnist and author Ayesha Siddiqa, Mr. Hameed played a role in fomenting the 2017 protests against Mr. Sharif by the Barelvis that included the TLP. The protest was part of the anti-Sharif wave that had destabilised his government. Those protests helped the TLP acquire a dynamism of its own and grow in popularity, at least among the hardline sections of society.
The organisation served a purpose in the establishment’s fight to create a friendlier government in Islamabad but it did not stop there. The TLP went ahead, taking up more causes such as the anti-France protests and eventually putting the Khan government under pressure.
The TLP appears to have become a burden for the establishment that once had courted it. The issue before the Pakistan government now is how to bottle the genie, which is going to be a difficult affair at a time when the country is under a lot of pressure from the Financial Action Task Force to crack down on terror outfits. For now, the government may have found it easier to ban the TLP rather than dealing with the issue of blasphemy. But it doesn’t mean that the authorities are free of the threat the TLP poses.
Tens of thousands of the organisation’s followers took to the streets, protesting the government decision. The visuals of mayhem and arson in the past few days will serve as a warning of sorts for the state of Pakistan and its establishment.
In a way, the TLP’s story is not different from many extremist organisations that the establishment once bet on — a creation of convenience that has outlived its utility.