The TLP was able to mobilise Punjabi youth in great numbers because the ground was fertile for the propagation of right-wing extremist ideas
After the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP)’s show of strength through pitched battles with police across Pakistan, the Imran Khan-led government had little option but to take action.
Though proscribed under anti-terror law, the TLP, in recent years, has emerged as a major sectarian force in Pakistan representing the Barelvi militancy.
The TLP-led violence had erupted following the arrest of TLP chief Saad Hussain Rizvi from Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s Punjab province. Since many groups such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa (a front of Lashkar-e-Taiba), Sipah-i-Sahaba, and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan have managed to function in Pakistan despite being proscribed, the biggest question being asked is how the ban on the TLP will make any difference in Pakistan’s fight with radical Islamist forces. This question becomes even more important with the Joe Biden administration deciding to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan on 11 September, leaving the Afghan Taliban’s morale soaring.
Saad is just following in the footsteps of his late father Khadim Hussain Rizvi who was equally notorious for fanning the flames of religious bigotry. Saad’s extremist oratory and fiery speeches are as poisonous as his father’s were on the controversial issue of blasphemy.
The TLP has been consistently championing the cause of Khatm-e-Nabuwat (finality of Muhammad’s prophethood) and Namoos-e-Risalat (honour of the Prophet Muhammad).
One should remember that in late 2017, protests and demonstrations by the Khadim-led TLP had forced the then-ruling party to make a deal with the outfit. A controversy had also merged after leaked footage showed a Pakistani military official handing out money to the protesters after the deal.
It was shameful for Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies to be a mute spectator when TLP cadres indulged in wanton violence last week. The lack of resistance from the police is a very worrying phenomenon.
The government did not do anything except wait till the TLP blocked highways and vandalised public and private property. Many towns were held hostage for three days, and it seemed that the administrative machinery had collapsed in the face of mob violence. When the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government finally acted, it banned the party.
But we should not forget that religion and its nexus with politics always fuel bigotry.
Having started its journey as a religio-political protest movement, the TLP today is a political party in Pakistan. It had contested the 2018 elections across the country. And though it did not win any National Assembly seat, the TLP emerged as the third-largest party in terms of votes in Punjab and even has representatives – Mohammad Qasim, Mohammad Younus Soomro, and Sarwat Fatima – in the Sindh Assembly. The question then arises is: how will the PTI government enforce the ban?
Despite being a political party, the TLP has retained its character as a movement. However, the point here is to argue that the TLP’s emergence as a force to reckon with happened largely due to inexcusable state policies.
Since the Barelvi sect in Pakistan is often regarded as a softer and progressive version of Islam that is against religious intolerance, the TLP’s blatantly radical tone has confounded many. Surprisingly, Pakistan’s Punjab province has emerged as the new centre of religious violence. The TLP was able to mobilise Punjabi youth in great numbers because the ground was fertile for the propagation of right-wing extremist ideas.
Pakistan is suffering from many socio-economic problems that have been made worse by the failed policies of the Imran Khan government. Moreover, the infrastructure of jihad created meticulously over the last three decades, along with fast-spreading radical public discourse, has led to a situation in Pakistan that can easily be exploited by groups like the TLP.
Since Saad offers redemption for his followers in the protection of Prophet Muhammad’s honour, youth in large numbers are willing to defy the might of the state.
Not long ago, the PTI government had gone the extra mile in November 2020 to appease the TLP by conceding to its irrational demands over remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron that had been considered Islamophobic. The deal that promised to consider expelling the French ambassador might have ended the protest, but it also emboldened the group and weakened the government’s authority.
The Khan government’s recent mishandling of the TLP’s terror is a symptom of a deep-rooted malaise that cannot be addressed by a mere ban. Pakistan has often proscribed many radical groups when the myth of controlling them could no longer be sustained under international scrutiny. Though many extremist groups continue to be loyal to Pakistan’s military establishment, many don’t support the government wholeheartedly any longer.
Religious extremism is Pakistan’s ugly reality, which can only be explained by its rulers’ pursuit of weaponising religion for political and strategic reasons.
As Pakistan is a religiously heterogeneous and politically polarised nation, the security establishment has found it necessary to allow religion-oriented parties and groups to play a large role in public and private spheres, which, in turn, has allowed Islamist rhetoric to play an oversize role in Pakistan.
Even the recent U-turn by the Pakistani government on re-establishing trade relations with India seems to be under pressure from the Islamist lobby which wants to be seen standing up for the cause of Kashmiri Muslims vis-à-vis arch-enemy India.
More often than not, Pakistan’s security establishment is found complicit in advancing a toxic narrative under the guise of being the protector of Islam and continues to give patronage to ultra-right religious groups for sabotaging the democratic forces and undermining the constituency demanding peace with Pakistan’s neighbours.
For a long time, Rawalpindi was able to maintain deniability. However, the facade of deniability is now crumbling as Pakistan faces immense trouble from FATF on counterterrorism commitment, and Opposition parties have become vocal against the powerful military. The TLP was similarly patronised by the state not long ago, and if the group has slipped out of control, the state is totally responsible for the messy situation.
With the Afghan Taliban’s return to Kabul a near certainty, the socio-cultural impact of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will be far-reaching in Pakistan.
The TLP is trying to outbid Deobandi-oriented parties by presenting itself better at promoting and protecting the Islamic values in Pakistan. The recent violent behaviour by its cadres is just one sign of extremist groups in Pakistan already feeling emboldened by the Taliban’s perceived victory over Americans.
The ban on the TLP is an exercise in futility that is meant to fool the outside world.