Pakistan protests of April 2021: the rise of Tehreek-e-Labbaik

Afghanistan, over its turbulent history, has earned the moniker the “graveyard of empires” and rightly so. Since the great game of the 1800’s no modern empire has been able to dominate this great country. So, when Joseph R. Biden, the 46th President of the United States, finally decided to continue with the withdrawal planned by his predecessor and end America’s longest war, the United States of America joined the long list of imperial powers to having withdrawn in defeat from Kabul. This has been a rallying cry for Islamic extremists worldwide and has been touted much as the victory of the Taliban against the world’s last superpower. Biden’s withdrawal has all but handed Afghanistan over to radical forces and has pushed South Asia into a new uncertain spiral of extremism and violence, giving rise to violent and bloody month of Ramadan from Afghanistan to Lebanon and Pakistan to Palestine.

Biden’s victory has changed the political demography in Pakistan as well. Imran Khan, who had given up any hope of US assistance under Trump, with an imminent withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan, has become an important ally of the United States. Indeed, one of Biden’s first foreign policy actions, was to try and salvage relations with any democracies that Trump may have alienated, and Pakistan was on top of that list. The Pakistani army and Interservice Intelligence (ISI) have enjoyed US support for decades and with even a hint of US rapprochement have been willing to reset their pro-China stance for a more balanced relationship with the US, as that automatically brings with it aid, weapons and international acceptance. With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the ISI is back in the driving seat with its chief client, the Taliban and a mix of terrorist organizations, with whom it has a very long history. However, the past years of US occupation of Afghanistan as well as various geopolitical changes may mean that Pakistani intelligence and army may have to find another proxy to achieve multiple objectives such as keep the Taliban in check in Afghanistan, continue supporting jihad and other terroristic activities in India and other countries while keeping a clear record internationally such that it keeps qualifying as a democracy and receives aid and assistance from multilateral and bilateral donors in the west, which effectively keep its economy alive.

One such candidate is the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). While the TLP has challenged the Pakistan state writ in the past few weeks by indulging in rampant violence and arson, it has all the potential of becoming the next big terrorist threat to the world. There is no current evidence of the TLP running terrorist training camps or arming themselves like the Lashkar e Toiba (LeT), Harkat ul Mujahideen (HuM) and Jaish e Mohammed (JeM), all proxies of the Pakistani establishment. Examples of TLP radicalization haven’t been limited to Pakistan and various incidents show that Pakistan’s army strongly supports this “new” radical offshoot of Islam, given its challenges controlling the Taliban and other radical groups of the Deobandi sect, is encouraging the development of the TLP as a proxy.

What is the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan?

Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah or Tehreek e Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is a relatively new far right Islamic extremist politico-religious entity formed in 2015 and banned by the Pakistani government on the 15th of April 2021. Its founder was Pakistani Islamic scholar and author Khadim Hussain Rizvi and it was founded on the 1st of August 2015 and eventually banned by the Pakistani government on the 15th of April 2021 due to its grassroot civil disobedience and violence. Most party members follow the Barelvi school of Islamic thought once considered to be relatively peaceful and more liberal than the Deobandi school. Majority of non-Pashtun Pakistani Muslims are followers of the Balevi ideology. The Barelvi school of thought, a Sunni revivalist movement which follows the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence with strong sufi influences, has over 200 million followers in South Asia and parts of Europe and America. The TLP was founded with the principal objective of upholding the honour and teachings of Prophet Muhammad by all means. This translates into violence against all minorities, Islamic or otherwise and those who are seen to challenge Islamic principles including other Sunni sects such as the Deobandi and Ahmadiyya’s.

In Pakistan, the radicalization of Barelvis has been gradual since the 1990s, since their participation in the `jihad` in Kashmir and Afghanistan. On their return to Pakistan after 2001, many of them joined the ranks of Sunni Tehreek, a violent Barelvi group with considerable influence in Karachi and Hyderabad, Sindh as well as Pakistani Punjab. The Barelvi groups can quickly fill the vacuum that is created by the waning influence of Lashkar e Toiba (LeT), which has now become a liability to the Pakistani state and the TLP with its strong support on the Pakistani street can be quickly instrumentalized into a terrorist organization by the Pakistani army.

The rising importance of the TLP

In 2011, when Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was killed by his guard, Mumtaz Qadri, over his statements and actions against anti-blasphemy law and support of Asia bibi, the Christian convert sentenced to death for blasphemy. The Sunni Tehreek and other extremist groups hailed Qadri, a Barelvi, as a savior and threatened all who opposed the blasphemy law. Rizvi and others criticized the guilty verdict of Qadri and his eventual hanging and Qadri’s death become the rallying point for a majority of Barelvi’s and sufi’s. Over 100,000 people attended Qadri’s funeral and it can be said that this set the stage for the formal establishment of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah.

The army saw an opportunity in the TLP and its dynamic leader Khadim Husain Rizvi. In Rizvi and his group, the Generals found a useful tool to check the power of Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League in Punjab, sharif’s home turf. Rizvi’s influence in Punjab increased exponentially with imminent elections and as the army expected, Sharif lost a sizable part of his support base to the Rizvi led extremists.

Ever since, the TLP has played a useful role in political engineering with the army actively supporting Rizvi and his party to make headlines by creating civil disturbance in Punjab and other provinces first against the Supreme Court order to release Asia Bibi, as well as strongly opposing changes in the blasphemy laws, resulting in the resignation of the then Minister for law and Justice Zahid Hamid in 2017. It has also protested against the appointment of Ahmadiyya advisor Atif Mian, by the Imran Khan government. Given the TLP’s power to mobilize crowds, the Imran Khan government has had to capitulate to their demands firing Atif, a Princeton economist in 2018. The TLP’s objective is the establishment of the sharia as the fundamental law in Pakistan through a gradual legal and political process.

The April 2021 Protests

In October 2020, a teacher Samuel Paty, was beheaded in Paris by a student of Chechen origin, for having allegedly displayed cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed. This was followed by an emotional speech by French President Emanuel Macron, defending freedom of speech in France and condemning all forms of terror. Macron’s stance sparked off a call for violence and boycott of France from several Islamic countries and extremist organizations worldwide, including an accusation from Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, on promoting Islamophobia. In Pakistan the lead against Marcon was taken by Rizvi, demanding expulsion of the French Ambassador to Islamabad and the boycott of French goods in Pakistan. Direct action by the TLP’s cadre was only quelled by the government asking for more time to discuss the matter in the parliament.

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan, a banned Islamist party, chant slogans during a protest on the arrest of their party leader Saad Rizvi, who was demanding the government to expel French ambassador, in Lahore, Pakistan, Monday, April 19, 2021. The outlawed Pakistani Islamist political group freed 11 policemen almost a day after taking them hostage in the eastern city of Lahore amid violent clashes with security forces, the country’s interior minister said Monday. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Since Rizvi’s death in November 2020, his son Saad Hussain Rizvi has been appointed the “Ameer” of the party and the group remained in the forefront of agitation over issues of blasphemy and insult to the Prophet Mohamed. Early April 2020, the TLP took to the streets in Punjab and the capital Islamabad giving rise to rioting and arson demanding the Imran Khan government maintain its promise and expel the French ambassador. While the government arrested Saad Rizvi, this intensified the violence leading to the banning of the TLP on the 15th of April 2021. The government is unable to dissolve the party without a specific mandate from the Supreme court. The army’s deafening silence over this issue raises the specter of TLP being primed to lead a new wave of terrorism in the region, especially given the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan.

Barelvi extremism internationally

There are also signs of Barelvi militancy having spread beyond Pakistan. In 2016, a radicalized Barelvi killed another Muslim shopkeeper in Scotland for disrespecting Islam. In 2019, the Barelvi Dawat-e Islami movement held a public meeting in the German city of Offenbach where speakers celebrated Salman Taseer’s assassin and openly threatened all blasphemers with death. In 2019, a college lecturer in Bahawalpur, Punjab, was stabbed to death by a student for alleged blasphemy. The killer said he was inspired by TLP founder Khadim Rizvi.

In 2020, a follower of Rizvi and a member of Dawat-e-Islami movement, Zaheer Hassan Mahmood, stabbed and seriously injured two people in Paris. He wanted to avenge insults to the Prophet.

There are enough straws in the wind to see that various Barelvi groups, including TLP, have increasingly been using violence as a means to exert its influence over the masses and the Pakistani government. In Pakistan, it has become common to witness attacks by Barelvi groups against anyone who seems to speak out against blasphemy laws. TLP openly accuses intellectuals, bloggers and human rights of blasphemy and threatens to punish them.

For the Pakistan Army, the TLP is a potential new instrument to subvert the political process, to counter other ethnic, religious and sectarian movements against the state, and to replace terrorist groups like LeT and JeM which have too much of a liability for the army. In the coming months the rise of more brutal and vicious armed groups inspired by the TLP will only increase the blood spilled by terrorism in South Asia.