The now-banned hardline TLP wants Islamabad to expel the French Ambassador over the issue of blasphemous cartoons.
On January 4, 2011, a police commando killed Salman Taseer, the influential governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province. Mumtaz Qadri was part of the security escort deployed to protect Taseer. The governor had just had lunch at an Islamabad restaurant and was about to get into his car when Qadri shouted Allah-o-Akbar and fired dozens of shots from his AK-47 assault rifle. He then calmly put down the weapon and surrendered. Taseer was shot 27 times and died instantly.
A lot changed for Pakistan that day, and in some ways it set the stage for the violent protests that have rocked the South Asian Muslim country of more than 200 million people in the past week.
Taseer, a businessman and newspaper publisher, was a high-ranking member of the secular Pakistan Peoples Party. At the time he was killed, he was vigorously defending the case of Asia Bibi, an uneducated and poor Christian woman, who was facing blasphemy allegations for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
Asia’s case was dubious like so many others where religious desecration is often used as a weapon to settle personal scores. Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted Asia a few years later and Qadri was hanged in 2016. Asia was rushed out of the country and currently lives in exile in Canada.
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue for Muslims around the world. But in Pakistan it can trigger the sort of anger that spills violence onto the streets.
It was after Qadri’s arrest that a little-known cleric named Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) came to prominence as he toured various cities, drawing huge crowds and calling for Qadri’s release from prison.
A crisis foretold
Violence has erupted in different cities in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, killing at least seven people including two policemen and injuring hundreds as the government slapped a ban on TLP last week.
The hardline religious political party demanded expulsion of the French envoy over the publication of cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad in France last year.
While violence in the name of religion is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan, it is largely associated with the hardline organisations belonging to followers of Deobandi and Wahhabi sects.
TLP subscribes to Sunni Barelvi strain, which the majority of Pakistan’s Sunni Muslims adhere to. It follows mystical Islamic practices and enjoys a reputation for being moderate and less rigid. Often portrayed as proponents of “Sufi Islam”, the Barelvis were believed to be providing a “counter-narrative” to the ideology of hardline sects, which have carried out suicide bombings and armed attacks
TLP railed against blasphemy on its rise to prominence on the political landscape and within a few years established itself as the ‘protector of the honour and sanctity of the Prophet of Islam’ — a mission statement often cited by its leaders.
Formed in 2017 by Rizvi, the group made blasphemy, especially against Prophet Muhammad, its only talking point and advocated that insulting the prophet be killed.
“He successfully presented himself as the sole proprietor of the blasphemy issue and proved that his followers can kill or be killed for the cause,” said scholar and author Khurshid Nadeem. “He weaponised the Barelvi sect in the name of blasphemy in a way that’s unparalleled in Pakistan.”
Weaponising a belief
Barelvi groups played a pivotal role in Pakistan’s independence in 1947. But during the 1980s, when jihad raged in Afghanistan, the hardline Sunni Deobandi and Wahabi organisations gained prominence and clout.
Unlike the followers of the minority Deobandi sect, Barelvis do not have a distinct political representation in Pakistani parliament.
The Barelvis, known for eulogising the Prophet in poetry, have themselves been targeted by militant groups in the past two decades as scores of their shrines, mosques and religious seminaries were attacked and hundreds of worshipers killed.
“There was a strong feeling of victimhood among them. Khadim Rizvi exploited those feelings and used blasphemy as a tool to express them,” says Islamabad-based security analyst Amir Rana.
Rizvi’s fiery sermons inspired many to use violence to battle blasphemy. In January 2018, a college student in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province killed the college principal after he was marked absent while attending a TLP protest in another city.
Similarly, in March 2019, another college student in Bahawalpur city in Punjab killed his teacher, accusing him of hurting his religious sentiments. Both students told investigators that they were adherents of Rizvi’s teachings.
The young followers of Rizvi’s group hurled shoes at former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in March 2018.
The killing of governor Taseer, and subsequent public mobilisation in support of his murderer Mumtaz Qadri in the name of the blasphemy law, provided an opportunity to the Barelvi sect after many decades to regain lost political ground in Pakistan. But nobody from the sect, even its most prominent and established figures, would grasp the opportunity the way Khadim Rizvi did.
“After assassination of Salman Taseer, Khadim Rizvi took the hardline while many of us (Barlevi leaders) were still considering different options. There were ‘ifs and butts’ in our position as many of us had reservations about taking the law in our hands and to promote use of violence. But he didn’t care about any of it and took a clear stance and stuck to it till his death in November 2020,” said Raghib Naeemi, head of Lahore based Jamia Naeemi, one of the most influential Barelvi religious seminaries in Pakistan.
“He positioned himself as the protector of ‘honour and sanctity of prophet of Islam, effectively painting his opponents as enemies of the religion. He got support from the state as well.”
The blasphemy issue is very close to the hearts of Muslims all over the world but for Barelvis, it's a matter of life or death, said Naeemi.
In February 2006, his father Sarfraz Naeemi, who was killed in 2009 in a Taliban suicide attack on his seminary in Lahore, led a rally against the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. But two people were killed as tempers flared and some protestors clashed with the police.
“My father and the majority of others did not promote violence and after that particular protest, we started making sure that nobody from our side turns to violence. We made strategies on how not to give control of any protest in future to young protestors,” said Naeemi.
But Khadim Rizvi, on the other hand, empowered and encouraged Barelvi youth to use violence in the name of blasphemy — often using religious rhetoric and street slurs to put his message across
“His message was loud and clear. He talked in black and white on the issue of blasphemy and in the language which his supporters understood. He never tried to portray his ‘soft image’ and always conveyed the same message to his followers whether it was at a press conference, a protest or a sermon from a mosque,” says journalist Sabook Syed.
“Though he had a religious background with deep knowledge of Arabic and Persian languages, he never tried to establish himself as a scholar in the eyes of his followers but a true lover and protector of the honour of the Prophet. His son Saad Rizvi, the current chief of the party, focused on using social media to connect with Barelvi youth from religious seminaries and he did it successfully.”
The recent TLP protest was in part fueled by Saad’s arrest.
In 2017, TLP showcased its street power for the first time on a national level when Rizvi’s supporters blocked roads in and around the capital Islamabad for several weeks. The confrontation with authorities was triggered by a seemingly small change to the language of the oath that parliamentarians take after election.
Seven people were killed in those protests and TLP succeeded in forcing the resignation of the country’s federal law minister in an agreement brokered by the military.
TLP activists used violence with impunity against police, journalists and common people during the blockade but a subsequent agreement with the government allowed TLP activists to walk free. The deal was in part brokered by the military.
TLP’s performance in the 2018 general elections also surprised many. It bagged 2.1 million votes for National Assembly seats in Parliament. Punjab, where most of the recent protests are centered, turned out to be the group's stronghold in terms of number of votes.
“In the last three decades, no religious party has been able to impact elections in Punjab as the TLP did in 2018,” said Lahore based senior journalist Suhail Warraich.
“Khadim Rizvi cashed in the love for Prophet of Islam as a mainstream political theme in politics. There was a gap of leadership among Barelvis since the demise of giants like Shah Ahmed Noorani and Mulana Abdul Sattar Niazi in the early 2000s.”
Both Noorani and Niazi preferred compromise over street agitation.
“He filled that gap and became a true expression of Barelvi sentiments in elections,” Warriach said.
“Rizvi’s message attracted the politically suppressed and socially marginalised Barelvi population in Punjab and Karachi.”
At times, Rizvi’s rhetorical threats went beyond Pakistan’s borders. He vowed to attack the Netherlands with nuclear weapons on the issue of blasphemy if he ever came to power.
In November 2018, the group again triggered a gridlock in the country when the supreme court quashed the blasphemy conviction of Asia Bibi. Khadim Rizvi called for the assassination of the judges, and a “mutiny” in the armed forces. He was booked on sedition and terrorism charges for incendiary speeches against the state and for inciting violence. But he was eventually released on bail a few months later
In November 2020, TLP blocked a major highway into the capital Islamabad over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron that were widely seen as Islamophobic.
It demanded that the government expel the French ambassador and endorse a boycott of French products. It called off the sit-in after reaching an agreement with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, which promised to consider its demands.
A few days after the agreement with the government on November 19, 2020, the 54-year-old Khadim Rizvi suddenly died of health complications. His son Saad Rizvi then took TLP’s reins. In February, 2020, the group under Saad Rizvi threatened further demonstrations if the government did not comply with the agreement.
Government negotiators were able to secure an extension in the deadline for action till April 2020.
“The government was taking Saad Rizvi and TLP lightly after the death of Khadim Rizvi sahib. They have forgotten that he had died but not his philosophy or followers. We have been trained not to fear death when it comes to the honour of the Prophet and will not let this government play with us. They will either have to expel French envoy from Pakistan or be ready to face the consequences. There is no backtracking on blasphemy,” said Amir Malik, a 26-year-old TLP supporter from Islamabad.
“Saad Rizvi has proved that he will further the agenda of his father. The future of TLP is in secure hands.”