Pakistan has been under the wave of country-wide violent protests by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) over the issue of blasphemous caricatures published in a French magazine and the subsequent developments. TLP has been involved in demonstrations, marches, and disruptions for a few years now. This recent episode started in November when the late TLP leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi called for the expulsion of the French Ambassador from the country over the provocative speech of the French President Emmanuel Macron regarding freedom of expression and French values. The speech was considered Islamophobic and insensitive toward the sentiments of Muslims around the world.
This resulted in an agreement between the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government and the TLP in which the government agreed to a timeline for the expulsion of the French envoy. In mid-February, the new TLP chief Saad Rizvi voiced a reminder and threatened to take to the streets in case of violation of the agreement. At this point, a new agreement took place, which promised to take the issue to the parliament. The government agreed to move for the envoy’s eviction in the National Assembly for debate until 20 April 2021. However, TLP started mobilizing over a week before the date. As preemption, the outfit’s chief Saad Rizvi was detained, but the move badly backfired. This sparked violent demonstrations throughout the country that included riots and various episodes of direct combat between the protestors and the police forces. These clashes resulted in the death of four police personnel while some 800 were injured. The protestors clearly outnumbered the law enforcement and confidently controlled the streets, and practised violence. The government decided to place a ban on the organisation under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997 of Pakistan.
As of now, the dialogues between the government and the dissenting faction are claimed to have been successful by official sources. The matter is in the parliament now for debate. However, the opposition has criticised the government for taking parliament into confidence this late and raised their concerns over the bill’s draft. Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) has decided to redraft the bill in cooperation with the government. For a brief account of TLP’ emergence, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the late and founding chief of the party, came to the surface with the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a security guard that assassinated the then Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer. The Governor gave a statement about the country’s blasphemy law, suggesting amendments, which did not sit well with the majority of the people. Rizvi initiated Tehreek-e-Rihai Mumtaz Qadri (Movement to Free Mumtaz Qadri), which later culminated into TLP. In 2018, the outfit got registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan.
TLP’s politics might revolve around the sensitivities that do not quite make sense in a West Minister-style parliamentary process, but they represent a vital pulse in the society. Therefore, thinking of dealing with the TLP like any other insurgency problem is conjectural.
TLP hails from the Barelvi sect of Islam, which was usually considered a non-violent and moderate version of Islam compared to violent Takfeeri versions of Al-Qaeda, Islamic State (IS), Boko Haram, Taliban, et cetera. Barelvis associate themselves with the enriched Sufi tradition of saints. Since “Islamic Extremism” became a catchphrase in global policymaking, Sufi Islam has been portrayed as a version of Islam that is closer to inclusive values of globalisation. Therefore, it has taken many by storm with regards to how the followers of this sect have taken to such violent means to fulfil their purposes. This question requires a keen look into the historical role of the Barelvi sect. Arslan Ahmed and Bilal Zafar Ranjha argue that in the 1960s when the state brought the shrines, mosques and madrassas under the ambit of the newly created Aukaf Department. Barelvis perceived it as an appropriation of their religious and spiritual places by the state. While creating an ideological superstructure for a strong discourse of nationhood, the state of Pakistan supported and cooperated with the Deobandi sect. Many of the new officially appointed Imams and Khateebs were from the Deobandi sect. This resulted in a decades-long alienation of Barelvis, who, despite being an overwhelming majority in the country, i.e. over 60%, were forced back to apolitical spaces. This disenfranchisement of the sect eventually resulted in the militarisation of an otherwise peaceful sect. With the inception of Sunni Tehreek (ST) in the late 1990s, Barelvis became incrementally political and radical until the emergence of the TLP. The cited authors also note that during this era, a core concept mostly employed in Deobandi interpretations of the religion, “Al-Warra Wal-Barra”, got adopted by the Barelvi scholars. This concept refers to a Muslim’s love and hatred for the sake of Allah. According to the authors, this radicalising concept has played a vital role in the militarisation of the sect, a process they named as “Salafisation of Barelviyat (sic)”. The article at hand argues that these relations and influences must be read and understood carefully to truly understand the problem of TLP.
Moreover, the issue of blasphemy and religious extremism also has roots in the ideological superstructure that sustains the idea of Pakistan. Although having started as a modernist Muslim state in 1947, the power struggles and social engineering in the country have made religion the primary pulse in the society. It shapes and informs the worldviews of most Pakistanis. However sensitive it is, the question of blasphemy also partly comes from the state practices in Pakistan and the Anglo Saxon constitutionalism from the colonial experience. Ali Usman Qasmi argues that when colonial modernity came to India, it attempted to categorise and formalise the fluid practices of communal identities in India. It started listing the citizens in the census according to their religious and ethnic backgrounds. In the same vein, cosying up to the sensitivities of the factions they categorised for political interests, they introduced certain laws. The Hate Speech Law section 295 (1927) is one such law. In the 1980s, the Pakistani government extended this law to 295 (B) and (C). Therefore, the problem appears to be much more complex than just a deviant faction trying to disrupt the routine life within a country.
A long-term strategy is needed which engages the youth of the country and the scholarly community on a theological level.
Given the history and the sheer volume of the population influenced by the Barelvi sect, the government’s response to the recent protests has rather been impulsive. The TLP is amongst major political parties with mass public support. It secured over two million votes in the general elections of 2018. The party wields an overwhelming appeal in society and has the tendency to outnumber law and enforcement at any point in time so far. Therefore, detaining the chief, banning the outfit, and the crackdown risked too much provocation. A manifestation of this was seen on the roads of the country last week. Furthermore, as a registered political party, all its workers have the right to practice protest and organise demonstrations. TLP’s politics might revolve around the sensitivities that do not quite make sense in a West Minister-style parliamentary process, but they represent a vital pulse in the society. Therefore, thinking of dealing with the TLP like any other insurgency problem is conjectural.
But the question remains, what to do then? It is right that no faction can be allowed to hold the whole country hostage and sabotage the order of daily national life. How successful can the measures be as drastic as the ban and declaring the TLP a terrorist organisation? In the past, some tendency were banned, which came back to the mainstream with a different name. For instance, there have been many a cases when candidates either belonging to or backed by banned outfits made their way to the parliament. The banned outfit Ahl-e-Sunnat-wal-Jamaat also claimed to have backed Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf in 70 constituencies’ in 2018. Moreover, instead of doing away with the menace of extremism, careless measures might radicalise more youth toward religious extremism.
Henceforth, there is no shorter way to deal with this problem. Although an instant response is needed when the country is in the midst of riots, the government needed to pursue a more dynamic strategy to engage the protesting faction. Pakistan cannot afford to evict the French envoy, especially with the FATF problem and a bad economy. A strategy including long engaging dialogues could have been pursued. This could have won the government room for procrastination and contemplate the situation with a more stable head.
While pursuing this, a long-term strategy is needed which engages the youth of the country and the scholarly community on a theological level. Pakistan worked tirelessly to build counter-narratives to deal with the problem of terrorism in the country. During and after the years of the War on Terror (WoT), Pakistan laid a counter ideological grid, which is expected to produce alternative discourses for the youth, which otherwise has every reason to drift toward extremism in a country stricken with illiteracy and unemployment. A similar strategy needs to be pursued in the case of TLP. This time, the counter-narratives should be focused on the radical ideas coming from the Barelvi sect. As mentioned in this article before, the “Salafisation of Barelviyat (sic)” and the incorporation of “Al-Warra Wal-Barra” in Barelvi discourses provide a focal point to start the construction of a counter-narrative. This would entail the engagement of all major Barelvi scholars and leading seats from the major Sufi orders and establishments in the country. It also requires a deep understanding of South Asian Sufism, which is not inherently a tendency opposed to extremist and radical religious doctrines, but an avenue where spirituality can be politicised for the better. By incorporating such discourses, more inclusive and forward-looking tendencies can be extracted out of the prevalent social tendencies. There is no shorter way.