A hardline religious political party that was banned earlier this year as an extremist group has been restored to legitimacy, as the Pakistani government gave in to pressure from the group’s protesters demanding the release of their jailed leader, displaying the extent of the group’s clout in the Muslim-majority country.
After weeklong protests that led to violent clashes that killed 11 people and left over 250 others injured in the capital Islamabad, the extremist political group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) found itself back in good standing with the government.
The country’s Ministry of Interior lifted the ban after the group landed an agreement with the state. Under the deal, the government will reportedly release more than 2,000 jailed TLP activists, and it has allowed the group, a registered political party in the country, to contest in upcoming elections. About 1,000 TLP activists have been released so far.
The recent protests were held against the detainment of the party’s leader Saad Rizvi. His name was recently removed from the country’s terror watch list, paving the path for his impending release. The names of 54 TLP activists have also been removed from the list.
The latest agreement is the seventh in a long line of settlements between the state and the Islamist hardline group TLP, which has emerged as a powerful political force over the years.
“Since the TLP’s inception, the Pakistani state has dithered in front of the group and has appeased it, never countering it ideologically,” Madiha Afzal, a Foreign Policy Fellow at the Brookings Institute, told VICE World News.
The hardline religious party, which subscribes to Sunni Barelvi Islamic doctrine, strongly advocates Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws and the “finality of Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood” – which impacts the religious freedom of some minority groups.
“Given that blasphemy is such a hot-button issue and is instituted in Pakistan’s laws, the state seems to be fearful of taking on the TLP. And the TLP understands this and the fact that it has street power, and uses it ruthlessly to its advantage to gain ground each time it protests,” said Afzal.
Although it was a newcomer to elections in 2018, the group secured over 2 million votes and positioned itself as the fifth largest political party in Pakistan.
In the recent protests, the group revived its long-standing demand to expel the French envoy. In Oct. 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron's defense of the republication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo triggered widespread anger among the party’s supporters, who viewed the depictions as blasphemous. According to Pakistan’s interior minister, Sheikh Rasheed, Saad Rizvi has allegedly agreed to withdraw TLP’s demands for the ambassador’s expulsion.
On Oct. 22, TLP protestors began their “long march” from the northeastern city of Lahore to Islamabad. Paramilitary rangers were instructed to stop their advance. Brutal collisions with police forces resulted in the deaths of at least seven policemen and four demonstrators, while over 250 people were injured. On Oct. 31, the body of a policeman was found in a field in the city of Wazirabad. According to police, the deceased had been abducted and tortured by TLP activists.
At the peak of the violence, the country’s information minister announced that the state viewed the party as a militant outfit. “The cabinet has decided to treat TLP as a militant organisation, and it will be crushed as other such groups have been eliminated. The Pakistani state has defeated major terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda,” Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said at a press conference.
The TLP had been formally outlawed in April under the country’s anti-terrorism laws after it initiated a round of anti-France protests. Rizvi was arrested for allegedly inciting his followers to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador. However, the Lahore high court ruled Rizvi’s detainment as illegal.
TLP was formed in 2015 by the cleric Khadim Rizvi. The group boasts major street support, with thousands of adherents among the country’s large Barelvi population of over 50 percent. In 2018, under Khadim Rizvi’s leadership, the TLP staged demonstrations against the Supreme Court’s decision to drop charges against a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who was earlier convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death.
The protests were called off after the TLP secured an agreement with the government to have Bibi placed on an exit control list. In the same year, the government caved to pressure from the TLP and removed economist Atif Mian from its economic advisory council because of his Ahmadiyya Islamic faith. The TLP views the largely persecuted Ahmadi minority of Pakistan as non-Muslims.
Khadim Rizvi’s charismatic personality coupled with the organization’s hardline ideology has attracted cult-like devotion among its supporters.
“It was the charisma which he had, although a lot of people might not appreciate me using the term. He had great oratory skills and showed full command over the religious texts he quoted. He could really hold an audience," Lawyer and politician Jibran Nasir told VICE World News.
After Khadim Rizvi’s death in November last year, his son Saad Rizvi took over the party’s leadership. Although some experts expected his father’s death to diminish support for the party, the younger Rizvi’s arbitrary detainment had the opposite effect.
“A very easy way to create a larger-than-life figure or to make a personality enigmatic when it need not be is to put them in a detention, to take them away from the public eye,” said Nasir.
The decision by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ruling party to lift the ban on the TLP and the party’s handling of the recent protests have been widely criticized by journalists, political opponents and civil society groups.
“I have rarely seen anything handled as badly as this. I think that ‘handle’ is perhaps too grand a term for it, because that implies some degree of thought, some degree of competence and some degree of coordination. And it was clearly apparent that none of those three were ever in operation in this particular fiasco,” journalist and current affairs analyst Zarrar Khuhro told VICE World News.
“If this was some kind of gamble, then did they have to use the lives of innocents as poker chips? I think that this was disgraceful and, even more frighteningly, it points towards the sheer lack of any kind of stable thinking in this government. It's a joke.”
For the police officers who have experienced the brunt of the hardline group’s attacks, the government’s agreement with the TLP has been viewed with demoralized anger.
“Many among the police have the sentiment that we are the ones who end up getting killed, then agreements like this are signed, and we aren't even taken on as stakeholders. This is the second recent agreement with the TLP this year and on both times, our young men were martyred,” a police officer who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons told VICE World News. “This government will not do anything for you. At this rate, if you are on duty, you should just run and save your life.”
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