Supporters of the Pakistani political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik  block a road in Lahore in a protest demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan, April 16, 2021.
Supporters of the Pakistani political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik block a road in Lahore in a protest demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan, April 16, 2021

Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik played a major role in fomenting this week’s anti-French protests in Pakistan, prompting Islamabad to announce the group’s dissolution on Thursday as France’s embassy told French nationals to leave the country over safety fears.

The Pakistani government blocked social media and instant messaging apps for several hours on Friday to try to prevent further violence, a day after Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed announced the dissolution of Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) under the country’s anti-terrorism law.

The party’s leader, Saad Rivzi, was arrested on Monday, hours after he called for a new march demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador. His detention triggered days of unrest

After emerging from the socially conservative Barelvi school of Islam – which is the dominant strain in Pakistan, officially an “Islamic Republic” – the TLP has established itself as a major player in Pakistani politics by campaigning for the death penalty for anyone found guilty of blasphemy, which remains a criminal offence in the country.

“TLP was originally created as a political movement to demand the release of a bodyguard accused of having assassinated the governor of the Punjab region in 2011,” explained Jean-Luc Racine, a specialist in the Indian subcontinent and an emeritus research director at the CNRS think-tank in Paris. In 2015 it became a political party headed by Khadim Hussein Rizvi, the father of the current leader.

France became one of the TLP’s targets when the Charlie Hebdo trial started in September 2020. The gruesome massacre of 12 people at the satirical weekly’s office in January 2015 was the first major incident in a wave of Islamist violence in which more than 250 people have since been killed in France.

A month after the start of the trial, France was shaken by the October 16 beheading of teacher Samuel Paty by a Chechen Islamist militant outraged by his decision to share Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in a class discussing freedom of expression. Paty showed the images to his civics class while emphasising that students could choose not to look at them if they were offended.

In response to Paty’s murder, President Emmanuel Macron vowed that France would never give up its liberal Enlightenment values, including the right to mock religion. He hailed the slain teacher as a “hero” for representing the secular, free-thinking values of the French Republic. France has a long tradition of caricatures taking on political and religious authorities – including Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Catholicism.

The weeks that followed saw mass protests in Muslim countries – with people taking to the streets and burning French flags and images of the French president. In Pakistan, the TLP played a central role in fomenting the demonstrations. The party demanded that Pakistan sever diplomatic relations with France and send the French ambassador, Marc Baréty, packing.

The Pakistani government signed an agreement with the party to convince it to dial down the protests – agreeing to the boycott of French products and promising a parliamentary vote by April 20 on expelling the French ambassador.

But as that deadline approached, Islamabad distanced itself from the TLP – a position underscored by Rizvi’s arrest on April 12. More than 200 TLP activists were arrested during the subsequent clashes with police. At least two police officers were killed and at least 340 people were wounded.

The TLP’s electoral strength has so far between limited. In the 2018 parliamentary elections it won just 2 million votes in a country with a population exceeding 210 million. But the party wields influence through its formidable capacity to mobilise its activists. “That’s its strength,” Racine said. “The TLP can get a huge quantity of protesters onto the streets and block roads for days.”

Demand for Asia Bibi’s execution

In 2017, the TLP spearheaded protests in the Pakistani capital Islamabad over a minor change to the oath taken by electoral candidates referring to the Prophet Muhammad. The government said it was a “clerical error” and soon U-turned. But the demonstrations continued – with at least six people killed and some 200 people injured – until Pakistan’s federal law minister resigned, acceding to the protesters’ demand.

The Islamist party then gained international notoriety in 2018, when the Asia Bibi affair hit the world’s headlines. A member of Pakistan’s persecuted Christian minority, she was arrested in 2010 for alleged blasphemy and spent eight years on death row until she was acquitted. In response to her acquittal, the TLP organised mass demonstrations calling for her to be sentenced to death.

“The TLP is relatively popular among young people, especially in the Pakistani working class,” Racine said. “That is because the party’s policy platform is not just about changing how Islam is practiced in the country – but also about tackling Pakistan’s socioeconomic inequality. This obviously speaks to young people in precarious positions, who are losing out under the current system.”  

“This week’s events show that Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government is unable to negotiate with radical movements,” Racine continued. “They’re popular among large sections of the population – so the government finds it difficult to take a firm stance against them.”

Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain expressed a similar view in the country’s English-language daily Dawn: “The government only managed to postpone the crisis. What has been happening now was inevitable. The way the administration has collapsed in the face of mob violence is alarming to say the least, and underscores how we are failing to deal with rising religious extremism.”

So why did the Pakistani government change tack and decide to shut down the TLP entirely?

“They could be thinking that dissolving the TLP might help improve Pakistan’s image abroad, seeing as the country has long been criticised for financing terrorism,” Racine said, although he noted that there is no evidence the TLP has “anything to do with other terrorist groups present in Pakistan, including the Taliban”.

An anonymous Pakistani diplomatic source told French newspaper Le Figaro on Thursday that “Pakistan wants to normalise relations with France” and that “Pakistan’s interior minister publicly expressed his concern on Wednesday that his country’s reputation is suffering because of the TLP’s actions”.

But Racine warned that getting rid of the party would by no means get rid of the movement: “There’s been a repeated phenomenon in Pakistani history in which the government bans radical groups and then they re-emerge in other forms and with other names.”

Although protests have died down since Friday, Racine said “it remains to be seen how TLP activists will act without a leader and without an institutional framework” after Rizvi’s arrest and the group’s official dissolution.

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