The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has exposed the Pakistani state’s vulnerability to ultra-conservative Islamist groups that have been mainstreamed for narrow political and strategic purposes by the country’s security establishment and self-serving politicians. Only a week after declaring the TLP a terrorist group and banning it, the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government gave in to the group’s demands in the face of violent protests by its supporters. The PTI government’s utter mishandling of the TLP is a clear manifestation of a deep-rooted problem in Pakistani society and politics for which there are no easy answers.
Violent protests broke out following the arrest of the TLP’s leader, Saad Hussain Rizvi, on April 12, with radicalized supporters of the party blocking national highways, vandalizing public and private property, abducting members of law enforcement agencies, and holding many towns hostage. After initially turning a blind eye to the rioting for three days, the PTI government felt compelled to ban the group. Nonetheless, the TLP has stood firm, demonstrating the threat it poses to Pakistan’s internal stability — a threat that is even more urgent at a moment when the Biden administration has decided to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
Against the backdrop of ongoing violent protests, the government and leaders of the banned Islamist party have been holding talks. The confused government narrative that action will be taken against those breaking the law and then agreeing to discuss their demands in parliament has only made the Pakistani state appear helpless before Islamist fundamentalists. On April 20, Saad was reportedly released from prison, and after two rounds of talks, the TLP has also released all abducted members of law enforcement. According to Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid, the TLP has agreed to halt its protests following the government’s decision to allow a vote in parliament over whether to expel the French ambassador. The TLP made the ambassador’s expulsion and the severing of all diplomatic ties with France a key demand after cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad were published in the country.
Founded in 2015, the TLP is the latest in a series of ultra-right Islamist groups to rise to prominence in Pakistan. It draws inspiration from Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard who was responsible for the assassination of Punjab’s governor, Salman Taseer, in 2011 over his defense of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian women convicted of blasphemy. Taseer was the last prominent politician to have questioned the arbitrary application of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Disturbingly Qadri was feted as hero by many in Pakistan.
Blasphemy remains a contentious issue in Pakistan and the country’s blasphemy laws have been used to legitimize violence in the name of Islam and against non-Muslim minority communities. Anyone convicted of disrespecting the name of the Prophet receives a mandatory death penalty, and these laws are often used to settle personal scores. In recent years, the mere allegation of blasphemy in any of its forms can lead to death by lynch mob.
The TLP survived the death of its founder, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, last year. His son Saad took over as leader of the group and is following in his father’s footsteps. Saad’s extremist oratory is just as venomous as his father’s was when it comes to blasphemy, which is linked to the issue of the Prophet Muhammad’s honor and his status as the last prophet in Islam. The TLP has consistently championed the causes of Khatm-e-Nabuwat (the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood) and Namoos-e-Risalat (the honor of the Prophet Muhammad).
Starting its journey as a religio-political protest movement, the TLP is now a political party as well, contesting the 2018 elections across the country. Although it did not win any seats in the National Assembly, it emerged as the third-largest party in terms of votes in Punjab, and even has representatives in the Sindh Assembly.
The TLP is a Barelvi political movement. In Pakistan the Barelvi sect is often regarded as a softer and more progressive version of Islam, and most Pakistanis identify themselves as Barelvi. Their practice of Islam is rooted more in Sufi traditions, which is why the TLP’s overtly radical tone has confounded many observers. But the infrastructure of jihad established over the last three decades in Pakistan has created fertile ground that can easily be exploited by groups such as the TLP. Without serious efforts to break the links with Islamist extremism and shut down this jihadi infrastructure, it will be impossible to counter the Islamist sentiment prevailing in Pakistani society. The TLP’s radical narrative has even spread abroad, affecting the Pakistani diaspora: The September 2020 Paris stabbing attacks were carried out by a follower of Khadim, Ali Hassan.
Appeasement has only emboldened the TLP
The Pakistani state has often made deals with religious extremists like the TLP for political or strategic reasons. However, these deals frequently turn out badly. In the case of the TLP, the PTI government has generally tried to appease the group, accepting its unreasonable demands from time to time. This has only emboldened the TLP to demand more concessions. In November 2020 the PTI government went the extra mile to appease the group by conceding to its demands over remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron that were considered Islamophobic, after Macron defended the right to caricature the Prophet Muhammad as integral to freedom of expression and French secularism.
Khadim was still alive at the time and the deal he struck with the government — a promise that it would consider expelling the French ambassador — might have temporarily ended protests, but it also emboldened the group and weakened the government’s authority. This February when the TLP asked the government to fulfill its promise, Prime Minister Khan reminded the hardline group that no other leader had done more than him to highlight the issue of blasphemy on the international level, because it was an article of his faith too.
Khan is now making the case that severing diplomatic ties with France is not feasible because it would hurt Pakistan more than France, but the TLP is not listening. And why would it when everyone seem to be singing its tune? As Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the U.S., has noted, “If Pakistan expelled ambassadors of all countries where someone commits what Islamist hardliners see as blasphemy, Pakistan will have diplomatic relations with very few countries. But there is no one in Pakistan’s public discourse who can argue against the irrational demands of Islamists.”
In late 2017, protests and demonstrations by the Khadim-led TLP forced then-Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) to make peace with the group. The TLP brought life in Rawalpindi and Faizabad to a halt for three weeks over the role of the federal law minister in proposing changes to the wording of the oath of office MPs were supposed to take. The TLP regarded the new oath as blasphemous and ultimately the law minister had to apologize and resign.
There was also controversy when footage was leaked showing a Pakistani military official handling out money to the protesters after the deal between the government and the TLP, which was brokered by the Pakistan Army. Imran Khan, then an opposition leader, was the net beneficiary of the TLP’s siege of Islamabad and the manner in which the PML-N was humiliated and sidelined.
Pakistan’s security establishment has long weaponized the Islamic faith for political and strategic reasons. The military leadership is often complicit in advancing toxic narratives under the guise of protecting Islam, and continues to give patronage to ultra-right religious groups that undermine democratic forces and the domestic constituency demanding peace with neighboring states. During the recent debate in parliament, one member of the PML-N rightly asked the government to disclose who had helped to form banned groups, saying, “First a genie is created that later becomes a headache for its creators.”
With the Afghan Taliban’s return to Kabul now a near certainly, the socio-cultural impact of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will be far-reaching in Pakistan. The violent behavior of TLP supporters is just one sign that extremist groups in Pakistan already feel emboldened by the Taliban’s perceived victory over the Americans. The TLP’s biggest success is that no government will entertain the idea of reforming the country’s draconian blasphemy laws — at least for the foreseeable future. In fact, it will be very difficult for any mainstream political party to oppose the resolution in parliament. Whatever the outcome of its debate on the TLP’s demands, what remains beyond a doubt is that Pakistan has moved precariously closer to a point where hardline Islamist groups and parties dominate the agenda, with state agencies losing a crucial battle in the face of Islamist radicalism. Pakistan’s ruling establishment is wholly responsible for this sorry state of affairs as it has allowed the TLP to propagate its radical agenda unchecked, without learning from past mistakes.
Vinay Kaura, PhD, is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Afghanistan & Pakistan Program, an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies at the Sardar Patel University of Police, Security, and Criminal Justice in Rajasthan, and the Coordinator at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies in Jaipur. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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