By Sulman Ali
Historically, religious-political parties have never gained much popularity or vote bank in Pakistan to form their own government. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) was one of the few successful campaigns by religious-politico parties during the Musharraf regime. Other than that, religion has been playing a dominant role in Pakistani society, but not in politics. However, observers note that this seems to have changed with the rapid rise of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). The party rose to fame, when the previous government of PML-N hanged Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer over blasphemy accusations. The party successfully disrupted life in twin cities in 2016, then again in 2017, protesting against a change in Election Act, 2017.
The party led by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi successfully gained popularity over the issue of blasphemy among the masses. “They have presented themselves as the sole flag bearers of the blasphemy issue,” said columnist Khurshid Nadeem. “Violence is a currency which sells in today’s times. They have proven that they can also kill and be killed for their cause,” he added.
The religious outfit quickly registered itself as a political party and took part in the 2018 general elections. The party fielded 571 candidates, including 178 for the National Assembly. Although it won only two provincial seats – both in Karachi – however, surprisingly for many observers, it emerged as the fifth largest party in the country. It gained 2.2 million votes, which meant 4.2 per cent of the total votes cast. It was narrowly behind the MMA, which got 2.56 million votes.
This shows the popularity of the party. In recently held NA elections in Karachi, TLP candidate Allama Nazir Ahmed secured 11,125 votes, coming third, even defeating the federal ruling party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI).
In the recent past, the TLP has faced two major setbacks. In November 2020, its head Khadim Hussain Rizvi passed away suddenly, and secondly, the PTI government blacklisted the party over disrupting the peace and stability in the society last month. Banning the party, Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed revealed that the government decided to impose a ban on the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan “under the anti-terrorism law.”
Despite these setbacks, the party holds very strong ground in society. Observers maintain that the TLP has done something, which no party has done before, weaponizing the Barelvi sect. Before TLP, Barelvism was largely considered moderate with Sufi beliefs and followers. The sect was presented as an example to the world as the face of Islam, a sect that believes in love, tolerance, and peace.
However, Khadim Rizvi has singlehandedly changed its whole outlook, analysts say. The sect has emerged as radical, as it has blocked roads, halted daily life, broken citizens’ cars, destroyed property and causing the loss of millions of rupees.
During their protests, they have even abducted the policemen showing their power and despite all these crimes, the government has once again released its workers. 669 workers of the recently outlawed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) arrested under the Maintenance of Public Order have been set free.
During its last protest, TLP was demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador over French President Macron’s anti-Islam remarks. Due to the protests, the French government even asked its citizens to leave Pakistan. Experts noted that the party has grown powerful enough to a point that the government once again engaged in talks and signed a deal with it, then later held a session in parliament over the expulsion of the French envoy.
“People are asking if the organisation is going to be a big player politically and electorally, considering that it has already flexed — rather successfully — its street muscle in the country,” notes analyst Arifa Noor.“In recent years, it has not just brought the country to a halt, it has also shown its ability to stare down the state.”
Experts note recent events are not a good sign for a country like Pakistan, which is already on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey-list over terror financing. Although the government has fulfilled 24 conditions, out of 27, still the international body has kept Pakistan on the grey list, and with the incidents and violent protests by TLP, experts say it will be again hard for Islamabad to fight its case.
“There is still an absence of authenticity in Pakistan wanting to make a clean break with religious extremism. The action, somehow, feels insufficient to shut down the massive jihadi infrastructure and to limit the radical Islamist sentiment that backs it,” noted Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani.
“After all, jihadi groups have been banned in the past, only to resurface under new names.”
(The writer is a Lahore-based journalist.)