Pakistan’s government has been put under a severe challenge and test by an Islamist party, which has wrecked havoc in the country this week with its anti-France protests, demanding the government to expel the French Ambassador and cut all relations with the European nation over blasphemous cariacatures against the Prophet Mohammad.
Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a religious group from the conservative Barelvi school of thought, has established itself as a major changemaker in the country’s polity, forming an identity for itself for launching widespread campaigns, demanding death penalty for anyone, who is held guilty of “blasphemy”.
The very formation of the TLP came after a political movement was initiated for the release of Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard who assassinated Salman Taseer, then Governor of Punjab province in 2011.
While the then government imposed a ban on any coverage of the funeral prayer of Qadri, who was sentenced to death by the courts, hundreds of thousands of his supporters packed Islamabad’s twin city Rawalpindi, in a show of massive strength, the party had been able to achieve on the sensitive issue of blasphemy in the Islamic Republic.
In 2015, TLP became a political party and was led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, father of the current leader Saad Rizvi, who took control of the party after his death.
In September 2020, France came on TLP’s radar after the Charlie Hebdo trial started. Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly magazine is known for its deliberate targeting of religion through caricatures, which has prompted at least three attacks on the magazine office in 2011, 2015 and 2020.
The attacks were presumably in response to a number of cartoons that it published depicting Prophet Muhammad, an attempt that triggered angry and aggressive responses from the Muslim world. In the second of these three attacks, at least 12 people were killed, including publishing director Charb and several other prominent cartoonists.
During October 2020, the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty, who was killed by a Chechen Islamist militant outraged by his decision share Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a class discussing freedom of expression.
Paty’s murder prompted response from French President Emmanuel Macron, who stated that his country would never give up its liberal enlightened values, including the right to mock religion.
Like angry protests in various Muslim countries saw streets filled with people and burnings of French flags and pictures of the French President, the TLP led major protests in Pakistan with demands that the Pakistani government should cut all ties with France and send its ambassador in Islamabad back home.
The protests were so intense that the whole country was brought to a standstill with violent protests being reported from all corners.
Pakistan government subsequently signed an agreement with the party, agreeing to boycott French products and moving a parliamentary vote by April 20 to expel the French Ambassador.
However, as the deadline approached, and there was no forward movement seen by the government, Saad Rizvi announced a “long march” towards Islamabad. This prompted the government to arrest Rizvi and put him behind bars, which became the prime reason for the current unrest in the country.
The Pakistan government has now taken a big decision to declare the TLP a proscribed organisation, imposing a complete ban on any coverage by the media to their ongoing protests.
However, the protests by the TLP have continued and have become more violent in the past 48 hours as deadly confrontations have been reported from Lahore, where the TLP claims several of its people have been shot dead by security forces. On the other hand, TLP protestors have taken at least 11 police officials as hostages, who were later released after negotiations with the authorities.
The TLP may not have a strong political presence, but its strength and influence in mobilising its supporters on one call, who can stay on the roads for days, definitely makes it a formidable force to reckon with.
With its identity coming as a campaigner on issues of blasphemy, that too in Muslim majority Pakistan, the TLP has been able to mobilise prime firepower against any government, who have made haste to accede to its demands in the past.