Pakistan: March Of The Zealots – Analysis


By Sanchita Bhattacharya

As reported on September 24, 2023, under pressure from Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the Police desecrated 74 graves of Ahmadis, destroying their tombstones, at Daska city in the Sialkot District of Punjab.

Jamaat-e-Ahmadiyya Pakistan official Amir Mahmood stated, “The authorities giving in to the pressure of TLP made sure that no Ahmadi was near to the graveyard and destroyed the tombstones of 74 graves.”

On September 20, 2023, a Christian family at Kasur in Punjab alleged that they were attacked by members of TLP after they objected to their writing Quranic verses on the boundary walls of their house. The family said the incident happened in the presence of the Police.

On August 16, 2023, a violent mob incited by TLP attacked churches and homes of Christian residents in the Jaranwala tehsil (revenue unit) of Faisalabad District in Punjab, after two Christian brothers were accused of blasphemy. Multiple churches were set on fire and homes and businesses of Christians were ransacked for hours, while the Police stood by as silent spectators.

On August 7, 2023, minarets of the Ahmadi mosque in Chak 168 Murad of Bahawalnagar District in Punjab, were demolished. TLP activists were suspected to be involved in the incident, the Police stated.

In the intervening night of July 14 and 15, 2023, at Kala Gujaran in the Jhelum District of Punjab, Police razed the minarets of an Ahmadi mosque. Local TLP leader Asim Ashfaq Rizvi had threatened the District Police Officer (DPO) of Jhelum that if the administration did not demolish the minarets by the 10th of Muharram, then they would gather people and do it themselves.

Headquartered at Rehmatul Lil Alameen Mosque, in Lahore, Punjab, TLPs political agenda includes, stopping interference of “the enemy” within and outside Pakistan; meeting all basic needs of people through various ‘taxes’: zakatusher kharajjizyah; abolishing the ‘mixed education system’ (separating religious and secular education); founding a ministry to promote Islam; among others.

TLP has been involved in a succession of violent and politically charged mass mobilizations across the country. 

On May 22, 2023, it started the Pakistan Bachao March (Save Pakistan March), starting from Karachi in the Sindh Province, with the capital, Islamabad, as its final destination. TLP gained political capital as the federal government agreed, on June 17, to issue a letter declaring that the TLP was not a terrorist organisation. As a result, as reported on June 18, TLP called off its protest after reaching an agreement with the government on issues, including speedy trials of blasphemy accused, along with swift decisions on appeals filed by those awarded punishments by the courts. The 12-point agreement was signed by federal ministers Rana Sanaullah and Ayaz Sadiq from the government’s side and Dr. Mohammad Shafiq Amini and Allama Ghulam Abbas Faizi from TLP. The two sides also agreed to implement filters to block blasphemous content on social media. The capacity of institutions responsible for dealing with blasphemy cases would also be strengthened, and a Counter Blasphe­­my Wing was to be established under the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). More dangerously, the government also agreed to lift the ban on the coverage of TLP on electronic and social media, while all political cases filed against TLP workers and leaders would be withdrawn.

Earlier, on April 12, 2021, Police arrested Hafiz Saad Hussain Rizvi, son and successor of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP founder, ahead of planned protests by TLP. The next day, Police registered a first information report (FIR) against Saad Rizvi under the Anti-Terrorism Act,1997 (ATA). On April 16, his name was placed on the Fourth Schedule (a list of proscribed individuals who are suspected of terrorism or sectarianism), and TLP was banned under the ATA. Within few months, however, Saad Rizvi was released from the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore and his name was removed from the Fourth Schedule after the Punjab Home Department issued a notification on November 10, 2021. Expectedly, TLP had also been removed from the list of proscribed organisations on November 7. 

Massive protests orchestrated by TLP followers were behind these political decisions. Thousands of TLP supporters had launched their “long march” from Lahore towards Islamabad, on October 22, demanding release of Saad. Government deployed Police and paramilitary personnel to prevent the demonstrators. Till the government reached an ‘agreement’ with the TLP on October 31, the protest march saw supporters clash with the Police at several points along the way. At least seven Police officers and four demonstrators were killed and many injured on both sides.

The assassination of Salman Taseer  (Governor of Punjab) in 2011 and subsequent arrest of his assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, an ardent follower of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, founder of TLP, propelled the political participation of this organisation in Pakistan’s mainstream. Taseer’s alleged ‘crime’ was defending Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of committing blasphemy, as well his public demands to dilute Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and remove the mandatory death penalty for blasphemy. 

The group, whose rallying cry is Man Sabba Nabiyan Faqtuluhu (“kill the blasphemers of the Prophet”), belongs to the Barelvi Sunni sect of Islam, which is followed by a majority of Pakistan’s 241 million people. Rizvi was in favour of implementation of Sharia Law through the political and legal process. Following Taseer’s death, Rizvi was instrumental in starting the Tehreek Rihai Mumtaz Qadri, a movement to free the assassin, Qadri. This movement was later re-named Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasoolullah, which subsequently morphed into the current formation, TLP.

TLP, was born in the year 2015 out of a protest campaign to seek the release of Qadri who killed Taseer over his calls to reform the blasphemy legislation. Khadim Rizvi systematically launched a huge campaign demanding Qadri’s release and provided legal assistance to him. Eventually, the capital punishment of Qadri provided sufficient excuse to both Khadim and TLP to plunge into the political arena of Pakistan, with the aim of establishing the supreme political authority of Sunni Islam in the country. Qadri was sentenced to death and executed in 2016. The TLP announced its entry into electoral politics at his funeral, attended by tens of thousands of people.

Thereafter, in 2017, TLP shot to fame when it held a massive protest for three weeks in the busy Faizabad interchange near Islamabad. The party lifted the lockdown of the city after the then Federal Law Minister, Zahid Hamid resigned from the office. Rizvi had demanded his resignation over charges over the Khatm-i-Nabuwat oath in the Election Act of 2017. Zahid Hamid had been accused by clerics of committing blasphemy due to a change in the wording of an oath taken by parliamentarians in Pakistan, by replaced the words “I solemnly swear” (that the Prophet has that status) with “I believe” (that he does). The protesters, led by Rizvi and other scholars, perceived the change in wording as representing a softening of the state’s position against members of the Ahmadi sect, who are not permitted to identify themselves as Muslims in Pakistan. In May, 2018, the assassination attempt on the life of the then Interior Minister, Ahsan Iqbal Chaudhary, in Narowal, Punjab, was also linked to the TLP, as the attacker was affiliated to the organisation. “Our initial investigation shows that [Hussain] is associated with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan,” Police official Aitzaz Bashir then stated.

TLP subsequently secured more than two million votes in the 2018 election, bagging two seats in the Sindh province. Later, in a televised interview dated August 23, 2018, Khadim Rizvi stated that as people of Karachi were more religiously inclined, therefore, they could understand the ideological differences of TLP and Muttahida Quami Party (MQM), which helped TLP to secure two seats.

Interestingly, TLP members belong to the Barelvi sect of Sunni Islam, which is considered more syncretic in nature, as compared to the Deobandis or various Salafi sects. The Barelvis are known to revere local Peers and Fakirs (learned and holy men) of the rural areas, and they constitute about 50 per cent of Pakistan’s population. The Barelvis have a strong hold in the rural areas of Punjab province. In an unfortunate turn of events, the entire politics surrounding Salman Taseer’s assassination by a Barelvi gave a personal sense of victimhood to the sect, and resulted in the formation of TLP as a radical movement resisting religious and legislative reform. Interestingly, according to proponents of Deobandi and Salafi Islam, Barelvis are guilty of sacrilege owing to their devoutness to the Sufi saints, which hardliners interpret as shirk (idolatry). Today, however, the followers of the Barelvi sub-sect accused of blasphemy by radical members of other Sunni sub-sects, are witnessing the radicalization of their own beliefs, and have themselves now weaponized blasphemy.

TLP has repeatedly taken to the streets, destroyed public property, and engaged in violence during clashes with security forces. During the infamous Faizabad sit-in of 2017 (protesting the change in the oath by parliamentarians), TLP supporters resorted to violence and destroyed property worth PKR 163.95 million. In October, 2018, TLP held violent protests after the Supreme Court of Pakistan overturned the death penalty for Asia Bibi in a blasphemy case. Demonstrators blocked major roads of the country in protest, burning cars and buses, as they called for her execution to be carried out. TLP called for a mutiny against the military chief, the murder of the judges who acquitted Asia, and branded then-Prime Minister Imran Khan as a “son of Jews.” Further, as reported on April 13, 2021, TLP members clashed with the Police, to force the government to expel the French Ambassador over a ‘blasphemous’ caricature published in Charlie Hebdo. More than 60 law enforcement personnel were injured. Videos showed wounded Policemen, some surrounded by protesters, and official and public vehicles damaged or set on fire. Later, on April, 18, 2021, TLP supporters abducted 11 Police officers who were taken hostage during violent clashes in Lahore. The Rangers and Police launched an operation in Lahore to remove thousands of TLP activists camped there, blocking the main Multan Road. The officers were released after two days, when negotiations started with the government.

TLP has been extremely vocal not on domestic political and religious issues, but over incidents occurring outside Pakistan as well, especially in Europe. On July 7, 2023, millions rallied in the streets across Pakistan, condemning the incident of desecration of the Quran in Sweden, as the nation observed ‘Youm-e-Taqaddus-e-Quran’ (Quran Sanctity Day). About 3,000 supporters of TLP marched across kilometres, with some beating effigies draped in Swedish flags. Another more than 5,000 TLP members rallied in one of a dozen protests held in Lahore. TLP chief Saad Rizvi also threatened, “It’ll take only one minute to stop blasphemy. Pakistan should tell the ambassador of Sweden that if they don’t stop burning Quran, we’ll declare war against them.” Earlier, in 2021, the group led violent protests in Karachi, Hyderabad, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Multan, over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and demanded the expulsion of the French Ambassador, a boycott of French products and cutting trade ties with Europe.

The rise of TLP and its frequent flexing of political muscle in the form of street agitation and various violent activities, are evidence of further cracks in Pakistan’s social fabric. The religious fanatism and quest to be the truest believer, has not even spared the eclectic Barelvis. The hate towards the religious ‘other’ is driving this political organisation towards gaining notoriety by the day.

  • Sanchita Bhattacharya
    Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management

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