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Can Pakistan Ignore the Rise of the TLP & Its Rabid Islamism?

TLP thrives due to inflated role of the Pak military & the use of political Islam as a crucial tool in elections.

Published
Opinion
7 min read
Image of Pakistani party the Tehreek-e-Labbaik’s flag (symbol) used for representational purposes.
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On 13 June 2021, a Pakistani police constable, Shafqat Ali - who was subjected to severe torture by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) protesters on 13 April - succumbed to his injuries in his native Pindi Bhattian in Hafizabad district.

The 42-year-old constable was posted at Gujjarpura police station and was seriously injured by protestors at Karol Ghati. He had been receiving treatment for the past month. His death powerfully points towards the deep imprint of TLP on the ideological foundations of Pakistani society.

Instead of attempting to understand why a large number of people gravitated toward the political outlook of TLP and enacted violence under its banner, the Pakistani establishment has been content to push a Brummagem discourse of heroism.

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Pakistan’s Sick System Gave Birth to TLP

Lahore Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) Ghulam Mahmood Dogar cackled about the jawans of Lahore police, crudely lionising them as the real face and torchbearers of the great traditions of the police department.

In his words, “Each and every jawan of Lahore police is ready to offer any sacrifice for the safety of life and property of the people.”

Dogar’s eulogical ramblings are empty—they carefully gloss over the ugly fact that common people like Shafqat are being used as cannon fodder in the counter-insurgency campaign against TLP.

The Pakistan state has turned a blind eye to the social and political roots of TLP, thus creating a situation where repressive powers against the religious group will be used in an ineffective manner, with police forces being caught in an endless and dangerous cycle of violence. One needs to clearly acknowledge that TLP emerged from the wreckage of Pakistan’s sick system, built on the hideous scaffolding of military rule.

The TLP was formed in the wake of the 2016 execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a police guard, who killed the then Punjab Governor Salman Taseer for sympathising with Aasiya Bibi, a Christian accused of blasphemy in January 2011. The founder was Khadim Hussain Rizvi (1966-2019), a former employee of the Punjab Auqaf Department.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi
Khadim Hussain Rizvi
Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

Rizvi used a mixture of Punjabi abuses, humour, fiery rhetoric and poetry of Muhammad Iqbal and Sultan Bahu to attract people. His catchy slogan was: Gustakh-e-rasul ki aik saza, sar tan sey juda (there is only one punishment for the blasphemer, beheading). His son, Saad Rizvi, succeeded him in November 2020.

Barelvis and the Rise of the TLP

In November 2018, TLP launched street protests that forced schools and government institutions to shut down, against the decision by the Supreme Court to acquit Bibi. TLP’s leadership openly declared that the murder of Asia Bibi and the Supreme Court judges would be “wajib-ul-qatal” (legitimate killing). It also called on military personnel to mutiny against the judiciary’s irreligious leadership. The cry for military intervention underscores the very significant way in which TLP is enmeshed in a wider network of elite support. For multiple reasons, the Pakistani establishment has found it useful to prop up a religious grouping like TLP.

TLP reflects the Barelvi school of thought—a Sunni reform movement that arose in the Indian city of Bareilly in the late 19th century. In spite of constituting a majority in Pakistan, the Barelvis, thus far, have played a limited political role. The realm of Islamic politics has been dominated by their sectarian rivals - the Deobandis and other literalists.

Since the 1980s, the military had lent support to the Deobandis and Wahhabists in order to station jihadist pawns in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Now, however, given the international attention on terrorism, the Barelvis have been brought to the foreground as a balancing force.

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Barelvis Positioned as ‘Natural Enemies of Taliban

In 2006, Pervez Musharraf launched the “Enlightened Moderation” national programme with the aim of de-intensifying religious militancy at home and softening the international image of Pakistan, so as to enter the “War against Terrorism”.

The programme performed a two-pronged function: promoting Sufism as the official version of Islam, and redirecting state patronage towards the Barelvis. Thus, a Barelvi religious scholar was appointed as the federal minister for religious affairs, and six Barelvis were appointed to the Council of Islamic Ideology, a constitutional body that advises the legislature whether or not a certain law is violative of Islamic principles.

Major Barelvi organisations and leaders were quick to position themselves as natural allies in the battle against the Taliban. The popular Canada-based scholar, Tahir-ul-Qadri, portrayed himself as a link between the Barelvis and the establishment. Apart from criticising Taliban, he waged a charm offensive within the military.

Qadri regularly described elected officials as systematically corrupt and extolled the military as the only organisation capable of securing Pakistan’s future. He also formed his own political outfit - Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT).

In 2012 and 2014, he returned to Pakistan with much hoopla and hype, soon launching mass movements against two different elected governments. Qadri’s religious influence notwithstanding, PAT was unable to gain support from a sizeable section of the citizenry.

It was TLP that succeeded in making a meaningful impact on the Pakistani people.

TLP’s Rise as a Major Religious Party

In 2017, TLP organised a three-week protest in opposition to government plans to remove fidelity to Prophethood from the oath of allegiance undertaken by legislators. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) announced its support for the protests.

TLP asserted that it infringed upon the honour of Prophet Muhammad and indicated a desire to legitimise the Ahmadiyya community, who are deemed to be part of a blasphemous movement. The protest ended not with a security crackdown but with a signed agreement, brokered by the military between the government and the TLP.

Viral videos emerged of senior military officials handing Rs 1000 (approx. $7) cheques to each protestor, revealing the covert support for the movement within sections of the security state.

The growing popularity of TLP manifested itself in the 2018 elections. While it failed to win any seats in the National Assembly and only won two seats in the Sind Provincial Assembly, the TLP emerged as the fourth largest single party in Pakistan in terms of its vote share.

With 2,234,316 votes, it received more electoral support than any of the established religious parties. The military also found the Barelvis useful in eroding the support base of Nawaz Sharif in the elections, especially in Punjab, at a time of heightened civil-military tension.

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According to a poll by “Gallup Pakistan”, 46% of voters in Punjab who voted for the TLP had previously voted for Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The survey further demonstrated that the PML-N’s defeat was due to it losing 9% of its vote share; 4% of these votes swung towards the TLP.

Buoyed by its various successes, TLP felt it was capable of initiating nationwide movements on different issues.

In April 2021, Pakistan witnessed some of the most violent clashes between protestors and security forces in the country’s recent history, which left 6 police officers and 12 protestors dead. The protests were led by TLP which claimed to be defending the “honor” of Prophet Muhammad after the publication of blasphemous cartoons in France in 2020.

TLP’s Response to Beheading in France

The beheading of the French schoolteacher, Samuel Patty, following accusations of blasphemy and the consequent rise in Islamophobia in France, became the focal point for demands by TLP to expel the French ambassador.

In November 2020, as TLP protestors once again blocked major highways, Prime Minister Khan signed an agreement with TLP, accepting their central demand and promising to discuss the matter in parliament. Faced with delays on the part of the ruling dispensation, Saad Hussain Rizvi announced a “Long March” in April 2021 to enforce the terms of their agreement.

Saad Hussain Rizvi
Saad Hussain Rizvi
Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

Realising that TLP’s rabid Islamism was now threatening the interest of the country’s ruling elite—which is dependent on foreign loans and Western military equipment—Khan gave a televised address explaining that, despite his earlier promises, he would not be expelling the French ambassador.

Does Pakistan Realise TLP is a Problem?

The security forces subsequently arrested Rizvi, prompting street battles between protestors and the police. In the wake of this chaos, the government decided to ban TLP, designating it a “terrorist” organisation. However, TLP’s strength remains.

Khan himself responded that, while he denounced TLP’s methods, he held the same goals, notably to end Islamophobia globally. To do so, he pledged to create a coalition of Muslim nations that would jointly work together to stop the blasphemy of the Prophet Muhammad by using threats of trade boycotts. Ideally, for them, such blasphemy laws would carry the same consequence as denying the Holocaust in some European countries, which for Germany and France is punishable with imprisonment.

As is evident, TLP thrives mainly due to two factors: the over-inflated role of the military in civilian affairs and the entrenchment of political Islam as a crucial tool in electoral battles. An end to these structural enablers of extremist groups like TLP does not seem to be in store for Pakistanis


(Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at
yanisiqbal@gmail.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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