Any hope Pakistan could have in November 2020 the death of Khadim Hussain Rizvi would lead to the disintegration of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the extremist outfit he led, evaporated. Pakistan’s decision to discuss in Parliament a resolution calling for the expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan is the latest in a long line of surrenders to the group and its radical agenda.
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Old demand, new leader
Pakistan’s violence and chaos last week around TLP’s call for Pakistan to send back the ambassador has its roots in a November 2020 protest in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s keynote address on Islam and the French way.
Khadim Rizvi was alive then. He convened a huge rally to march on Islamabad in Rawalpindi to stress that Pakistani Muslims were hurt by Macron’s defense of the right to caricature the prophet as an integral part of French freedom of expression and secularism.
While police tried to stop the march with tear gas and lathis, there were riots. Rallies stood on a dharna on an arterial road, blocking access to the capital Islamabad, while Khadim gave heated speeches in Karachi.
The government gave in. Interior Minister Ejaz Shah has reportedly signed a written agreement that parliament will decide to expel the French diplomat within three months and at Pakistan’s request not to have an ambassador in Paris. It would release all TLP workers arrested in the clashes and would not register any cases. Although the government did not confirm the written agreement, it did not deny it either. Khadim died a few hours after declaring victory, probably because of Covid-19. Saad Hussain, his son, was anointed the new leader.
In January, Saad reminded the government of its agreement, warning that three months would end on February 17. Five days ahead of schedule, the government has reached another agreement that it will put the matter before Parliament by April 20. In the first few days of April, the government negotiated with the TLP to gain time, but as large crowds began to gather in Rawalpindi, the government arrested Saad. This led to a week of clashes and riots in Rawalpindi and Lahore. Four policemen were killed; over 800 were injured. France has asked all citizens to leave Pakistan. On April 15, the government banned the group, including it in the list of terrorist organizations banned under its Anti-Terrorism Act.
By the end of the week, TLP had taken 11 police officers hostage in Lahore. By Sunday, the government had returned to negotiations with the TLP for the release of the captured police officers. They were released on Monday and Tuesday, a member of the ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, moved a private member’s bill to expel the French envoy to Islamabad. The government said parliament would discuss it and reach a consensus decision.
Saad was released, as were other TLP cadres. It is unclear whether the TLP ban has been lifted, but it is possible that this will happen as well.
TLP came out stronger from the confrontation, and Saad strengthened its leadership.
Barelvi and radical
The rise and rise of the TLP has been unique even in Pakistan, whose military-dominated history has been shaped by radical Islamist groups over the past four decades under the enabling gaze of the security institution.
Born just five years ago, he managed to win every time he took to the streets. TLP was founded after the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri. Khadim was a supporter of Qadri, the police corps guard who killed Salman Taseer, then governor of Punjab, in January 2011.
A government-appointed cleric at a mosque in Lahore, Khadim started Tehreek Rihai Mumtaz Qadri (the Movement for the Liberation of Mumtaz Qadri) after Qadri was jailed for assassination. Following his execution in February 2016, Rizvi renamed the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasoolullah movement in 2016. He became a political party, the TLP, which contested the 2018 general election and won two seats in the Sindh Assembly.
TLP is a Barelvi movement. Most Barelvis are seen as moderate, Sunni Muslims in the middle of the road. Half of Pakistan identifies as Barelvi, whose practice of Islam is full of Sufi traditions prevalent in South Asia, rather than Saudi Wahhabism that rules jihadist tanzeems.
Khadim channeled the belief that there can be no forgiveness for blasphemy against the Prophet and turned it into a dirty street. His greatest success was forcing governments to abandon the idea of reforming draconian laws on blasphemy.
Relations with the Pak Army
Khadim made it clear that he had more confidence in the Pakistani army than in politicians. Only after an agreement brokered and signed by the army did the TLP cancel the 2017 siege of the capital, accusing the PML (N) government of trying to dilute the anti-Ahmadi clauses in the Constitution. For the government, the agreement was a surrender. A minister had to apologize and resign. As the rallies dispersed, an army general handed them cash envelopes.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had criticized Marcon’s speech in November, said Monday that severing ties with France, as demanded by the TLP, was suicidal for the Pakistani economy. It would hurt Pakistan more than France. The EU is the largest market for textile exports in Pakistan. It would lead to factory closures and unemployment in Pakistan, he said.
The message did not go down well. It only added to the popularity of TLP. And the government had to eat crow, once again.
(With entries from Zeeshan Shaikh)