Peace Research & Advocacy Institute – Jun 27, 2019
In a winter afternoon in January 2011, as Salman Taseer came out of a café and walked to his car in an upscale market in Islamabad, a man standing alert nearby aimed his AK47 assault rifle at him and fired a burst of bullets. Taseer collapsed and died instantly as his body got riddled with 28 bullets. His assassin was none but his own bodyguard from the elite police squad deployed to protect him. The next day on 5 Jan 2011, the country was abuzz with the news of the assassination of the governor of Punjab.
In the days leading to his assassination, Taseer had publicly criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and called for the acquittal of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman convicted of blasphemy and put on death row by a local court. Mumtaz Qadri, the police officer who assassinated Taseer, told investigators that he believed Taseer had committed blasphemy by demanding Asia Bibi’s acquittal and criticizing the blasphemy laws, which is why he decided to kill him.
The post-assassination scenario unmasked the horrifying scale of religious extremism that has crept into the body of Pakistani society. Over 500 clerics voiced support for the murder and called for a boycott of Taseer’s funeral. The prayer leader of Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque excused himself from leading the slain governor’s funeral rite. And the pro-blasphemy Islamist lawyers showered the assassin with rose petals during his first appearance at an anti-terrorism court. Qadri was sentenced to death on 1st Oct 2011, and hanged on 29 Feb 2016 in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail after the president rejected his mercy appeal.
TLP is Born
Seven months before Qadri’s execution, his supporters led by a Barelvi cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi established a movement in Karachi on 1 Aug 2015 to deter the government, through agitation and threats of violence, from hanging him. Their declared objectives were imposition of Shariah in Pakistan and protection of Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) honor. The movement could not save Qadri from the gallows, but it did transform into a formidable politico-religious force in a span of few years. After Qadri’s hanging, the movement’s leaders and activists took to the streets across major cities and disrupted key highways including those connecting the federal capital with Punjab. Demonstrators flooded the capital in a massive show of street power, and staged a protest sit-in against what they called “judicial martyrdom” of their hero. The protest continued into March before coming to an end.
In the next few years, the movement morphed into Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). Allama Khadim Rizvi, the founding leader of TLP, declared in 2018 that, “It [TLP] is a wave; the seed was planted by Mumtaz [Qadri] seven years ago when he defended the sanctity of the finality of Prophethood (PBUH). Then it became a small plant and we are on our way to becoming a tree.”
Although using religion and invoking extremism have been the part and parcel of Pakistani politics for decades, still the birth of TLP was a unique addition to the political landscape. Khadim Rizvi’s popularity as well as notoriety shot overnight, and he became the talk of the town for his loose lips. The obscenities he would utter at public rallies amid his cheering supporters have been unprecedented in the country’s history. He would frequently use highly abusive language and hurl personal insults at elected government officials. At one point, he called Imran Khan, the country’s prime minister, a “Jewish child”. In fact, lewd language became a trademark of the TLP founder Khadim Hussain Rizvi.
The TLP took an extremist stance on the question of blasphemy, and called for the execution of Asia Bibi who had been in jail for years on charges of committing blasphemy. The TLP leaders fired religious decrees at anyone they deemed blasphemer. In 2016, the TLP was registered as a political party by the Election Commission of Pakistan. A year later, its candidates went on to participate in by-polls in Lahore’ and Peshawar constituencies. Though its candidates lost, yet the result was appalling. More people voted for TLP than PPP in Lahore or Jamaat Islamic in Peshawar. Its candidates secured over 7000 and 8000 votes in Lahore and Peshawar respectively. It was a good start for a newborn party.
The Shutdown of the Capital
But, TLP’s strength lied not in polls, but on the streets which its activists disrupted and blocked at will, causing chaos to traffic and everyday life. Ultimately, the TLP’s moment came in 2017 when the draft of the Electoral Reforms Bill 2017 excluded the anti-Ahmadiya clauses from the working of a candidate’s nomination paper. Though the government restored those clauses, by then the TLP was already on rampage, demanding punishment for those who had allegedly attempted to modify the clauses. The government claimed innocence and blamed a clerical error for the alleged modification. But, no explanation by the government officials including the federal law minister, Zaid Hamid, could pacify the enraged TLP.
In Nov 2017, the TLP activists laid siege to the capital, Islamabad, by blocking the key Faizabad interchange and disrupting all traffics. An eight-month old child died on the road after the ambulance got stuck in a roadblock by TLP on Nov 9. The TLP’s violent protest sit-in at Faizabad lasted for two weeks during which it clashed with the police. The police crackdown failed to disperse the protestors, while the military decided not to engage with the protestors directly. The army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, declared that “we cannot use force against our own people”. The federal law minister not only resigned in the face of TLP pressure, but also sent out a video statement reaffirming his faith in the oneness of Allah and the finality of the prophethood of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). The home of Pakistan’s interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, was attacked by TLP activists in Rawalpindi. Many other leaders of the ruling PMLN had to take extra security deployment in fear of TLP attacks. Finally, a peace deal brokered between the government and TLP by the military brought the violent protests to an end.
The Faizabad protest and the subsequent peace deal projected the TLP as the cheerleader of anti-blasphemy activism in Pakistan. The TLP leader, Khadim Rizvi, became a shining star for a radicalized public that has been fed religious bigotry for years through the education system, politics, and media. On the other hand, many Pakistanis were simply shocked by the indecent and low language the TLP leaders used at their public rallies. Profanity was normalized by TLP clerics who claimed to protect the “honor” of the Prophet (PBUH). The TLP targeted everyone it deemed a blasphemer. TLP’s information secretary, Ejaz Ashrafi, told Al-Jazeera that “when it involves the honor of the Prophet Muhammad, the finality of his Prophethood or the dishonoring of his person, then every Muslim will become an extremist.”
The General Elections
In the July 2018 general elections in Pakistan, TLP ranked 6th in the national count of votes, and 4th in the key Punjab province. A Gallup exit poll survey found that most of the TLP voters originally belonged to the PMLN. This defection of voters to TLP was believed to be a reason of PMLN’s defeat in the general elections of 2018. Surprisingly, the TLP fared better than other mainstream religious parties in the polls. In Lahore, TLP outran an alliance of religious parties called Muttahid Majlis Amal (MMA). Besides, the TLP candidates also spoiled the vote bank of PMLN in other regions of Punjab.
The TLP’s first electoral performance in general elections was substantial by any definition given the fact that in many constituencies it outran other religious parties that have been in politics for decades. And the TLP was only 3-year old.
The Cartoon and the Cleric
In Jun 2018, Geert Wilders, an anti-Islam politician in Netherlands called for a cartoon competition depicting the Prophet of Islam (PBUH). By Aug, Wilders claimed he had received 200 entries from around the world. The winner was to get a cash prize. Wilders’ political party had earlier called for the banning of Quran in Holland. The proposed caricature competition gave yet another moment of fame to the TLP leaders who called on the Pakistani government to expel the Dutch ambassador and cut off diplomatic ties with the Netherlands. Around 10,000 TLP activists began to march on Islamabad in order to force the government to comply with its demands. The TLP founder, Rizvi, declared, “If I had the atom bomb, I would have wiped out Holland before they could hold a caricature competition”.
Peer Afzal Qadri, a TLP leader who led the anti-cartoon protest toward Islamabad, told the daily Express Tribune that the protestors could be martyred or arrested, but that they would not return until the cartoon contest was stopped or the Dutch envoy expelled. Similarly, Khadim Rizvi demanded of the government to call back Pakistan’s ambassador to Netherlands and expel the Dutch ambassador. The Dutch government had already distanced itself from Wilders’ caricature competition, but that had little effect on TLP leaders and their followers.
The TLP’s violent protest and extreme threats against the Netherlands finally forced Geert Wilders to call off his cartoon competition in Aug 2018. “To avoid the risk of victims of Islamic violence, I have decided not to let the cartoon contest go ahead,” Wilders said in a written statement. In Pakistan, a government delegation led by foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, met the TLP leaders and confirmed the cancellation of the cartoon contest. Following the meeting, Rizvi thanked god that TLP’s mission had been accomplished. Forcing the cancellation of the contest was, indeed, a remarkable victory for the TLP since its influence had gone global.
The Nosedive of TLP
Pakistan had barely stopped discussing the cartoon competition when yet another occasion for protest came. In Oct 2018, Pakistan’s Supreme Court exonerated Asia Bibi – the Christian woman convicted of blasphemy – and ordered her immediate release. Bibi had been accused by her Muslim neighbors of insulting the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) in 2009. In the Nov of next year, she was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death by the trial court. Following her acquittal by the Supreme Court, the TLP as usual exploded into protest, demanding her execution regardless of the court’s ruling. Intimidated by the TLP demonstrations, the government decided to take Bibi into protective custody and bar her from leaving the country. Meanwhile, the TLP asked for the acquittal decision to be reviewed.
Bibi’s acquittal verdict sent the TLP clerics on fire, with Peer Afzal Qadri publicly calling for the murder of the three Supreme Court justices who acquitted Asia Bibi. He also urged military officers to revolt against the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and called Prime Minister, Imran Khan, a “Jewish child”. These statements by the TLP clerics served as a fatal blow to the TLP as a party. A redline involving the judiciary, military, and the government combined was, obviously, not to be crossed, which the TLP did.
The government launched a crackdown against the party in Nov 2018, rounding up its leaders including Rizvi and Qadri and detaining around 3000 of its activists from across the country. Media reported the government was considering charging the TLP leaders under anti-terrorism laws for inciting violence against the judges and the army chief.  On 29 Jan 2019, the Supreme Court upheld Asia Bibi’s acquittal verdict, with the chief justice saying that “based on merit, this petition is dismissed”. With the TLP in disarray due to security crackdown, the final court verdict was met with silence. There was no longer a protest against Bibi’s final acquittal.
However, despite being finally acquitted by the Supreme Court, Asia Bibi was still kept at a secret location in the country, most probably due to a fear that her leaving the country could incite protests by the religious extremists. Ultimately, in May 2019, she was allowed to leave the country. She reportedly left for Canada to meet her family. And since the closure of the Bibi’s chapter, the TLP has gone into a dead silence, as if it exists no more. After his release from detention, the foul-mouthed TLP founder Khadim Hussain Rizvi is nowhere to be seen.
The fall of the TLP, however, is hardly the end of mindless religious extremism in Pakistan. Unless laws such as those relating to blasphemy are amended to prevent their misuse, the ground is always ripe for the birth of another Rizvi sooner or later. Religious minorities especially the Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, and Shiites have borne the brunt of violent extremism. An Islamization project, launched decades ago, has not helped Pakistan become a more integrated nation. On the contrary, it has created unimaginable challenges including religious extremism that is weakening Pakistan as a state and nation. Perhaps, it’s finally the time for the state to become blind to people’s faith and treat every person as an equal citizen of Pakistan.