Anti-French riots after the Charlie Hebdo incidents led to new attempts to ban the party. They failed, once again, and TLP is now stronger than ever.
by Massimo Introvigne
Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine. It has repeatedly published caricatures of Prophet Muhammad that many (including the author of this article) found beyond the limits of good taste. Obviously, this can never justify violence and murder, which happened in 2015 when on January 7 armed terrorists killed 12 people and injured 11 in an attack against the magazine’s office in Paris. Thousands in the world protested against the attacks with the hashtag “Je suis Charlie,” “I am Charlie.”
Although mentioned in its literature, the Charlie Hebdo 2015 issue did not become a major theme for Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which was busy with domestic Pakistani matters. However, the situation changed in 2020, when on September 1, Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons on the day the trial of the assassins of 2015 started.
On September 25, two men were injured in a stabbing outside what were by then the former headquarters of Charlie Hebdo. Five Pakistanis were arrested for the attack. Some tried to connect them with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan although evidence was inconclusive.
On October 16, a French schoolteacher called Samuel Paty (1973–2020), who had shown the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Muhammad to his students to elicit a discussion on the limits of freedom of expression, was beheaded by a Muslim Chechen refugee, Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov (2002–2020), who was subsequently shot by the police he had engaged in a gunfight.
With Asia Bibi acquitted with a final sentence and safely out of Pakistan, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, whose leaders had just been released from jail, saw in the Charlie Hebdo incidents a golden opportunity to mobilize again its followers. Although the issue was not exactly new, it fitted perfectly Barelvi ideology that Sufis could and should resort to violence when the Prophet was offended.
After the re-publication of the cartoons on September 1, and before the violent incidents in France, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan organized one of its usual marches towards Islamabad, and as usual blocked the highways. The protest was stopped by the police but proved that, notwithstanding the arrest and detention of its leaders, the party was still capable of organizing massive rallies. It confirmed that this was the case on November 8, when it gathered a massive crowd in Karachi.
Party leader Khadim Husain Rizvi called Muslim politicians who had not reacted against France “criminals,” announced a new march, and called for the expulsion of the French ambassador from Pakistan. The party also asked the government to officially honor Anzorov, the murderer of Professor Paty, as a martyr. Some days before, on October 24, Rizvi had suggested that Pakistan, a nuclear power, drops an atomic bomb on France.
It was a fact that on Charlie Hebdo most Pakistanis agreed with Rizvi, perhaps minus the atomic bomb. The government signed one of its usual agreements with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, where he undertook to bring before the Parliament the issue of the expulsion of the French ambassador within three months, and to release the party members who in the meantime had been jailed for the 2018 anti-Asia-Bibi riots.
On November 19, a different kind of nuclear bomb was dropped on Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, as something nobody had expected happened. Rizvi, who was on a wheelchair since 2009 after a car accident, started having breathing problems and was taken to the Farooq Hospital in Lahore, where he died. No autopsy was performed, and it is unclear whether his death was due to COVID-19, as some suspected.
Rizvi’s death was both an opportunity and a problem for Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. The deceased leader’s funeral attracted an enormous crowd, was attended by senior army and government figures, and, while statistics are controversial, was pronounced by several media the largest gathering of human beings in the history of Pakistan.
On the other hand, internecine dissent, an old problem in Barelvi politics, reappeared on the succession issue. As everybody expected, on November 21 Khadim Husain Rizvi’s son, Saad Husain Rizvi, was appointed as the new leader of the party.
Readers of our precedent articles may remember that a key figure in Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan was Pir Muhammad Afzal Qadri, the most senior Sufi master to be directly involved in the party’s activities. Qadri had been arrested with Khadim Husain Rizvi in 2018 and, to be released in 2019, had promised to retire from politics. Now, he interpreted the promise as valid until the elder Rizvi remained alive.
Insisting he was still the spiritual guide of the party, he raised doubts about the younger Rizvi’s competence and even mental health, and spread rumors that he might have used drugs. However, it soon became clear that the vast majority of party militants were happy with Saad Rizvi’s appointment, and told Pir Qadri that he was welcome back in the fold but should leave Saad alone.
Khadim Husain Rizvi was duly mourned for 40 days, at the end of which his son Saad told the government that Khadim’s death did not change the agreement signed in November, and the clock was ticking towards the expiration of the 3-month term to submit to the Parliament a proposal to expel the French ambassador.
When the deadline approached, Saad threatened to start another campaign of protest. The government multiplied the anti-French statements, and negotiated with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan an extension of the term for another three months, until April 20, 2021. When the extended term was about the expire, on April 12, Saad Rizvi was arrested and the party was banned.
Unlike his father in 2018, Saad had seen the storm coming. He had left precise instructions on how protests should be organized in case he would be arrested. Riots erupted as violent as even throughout Pakistan, with casualties both among party members and the police, and the usual highway blocks. This brought again the government to the negotiation table, to which Saad was invited although he was in jail. The government agreed to introduce a bill to be examined by the Parliament on the possible expulsion of the French ambassador, and to halt the prosecution of party members.
The summer passed, however, and the bill was still in the Parliament with no decision taken, while additional Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan leaders were arrested. In October, the party decided to resume the protests, with a march to Islamabad and massive demonstrations in Lahore. In the latter city, on October 22, Barelvi protesters clashed with the police. The government stated that two police officers and two party members had been killed, although Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan claimed its casualties had been higher.
While protests were again about to paralyze the country, on November 7 the authorities lifted the ban against the party. They admitted in a press release that a “secret agreement,” whose terms were not disclosed, and which might have involved Saad’s acceptance of the fact that expelling the French ambassador was politically impossible, had been signed with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan on October 31. On November 18, Saad Rizvi was released from jail.
A surprise presence among those greeting Saad upon his return back home was Senator Ejaz Chaudhry, an important figure in Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the current ruling party founded by Prime Minister Imran Khan. Senator Chaudhry said his party was considering possible electoral alliances with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, both at the provincial Punjab and the national level.
The issue may prove divisive within Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which was founded on the basis of the idea that Barelvi parties should not forge political alliances outside of their community. So far, the answer is that Saad’s party is busy preparing the Punjab local elections of 2022 and the national elections of 2023. But it is possible that Senator Chaudhry is up to something, and that the PTI will try a different strategy with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, “constitutionalizing” it and coopting it into mainline Pakistani politics.
The party will never abandon its ideology, its uncompromising defense of the blasphemy law, and the idea that the Ahmadis are enemies of Pakistan and Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs are second-class citizens. The risk is that, rather than moderating itself, a more pragmatic Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan may make these ideas, or some version of them, acceptable to a larger political coalition.