Blasphemy: The Rallying Cry of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan

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Blasphemy: The Rallying Cry of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan
A dire threat takes root in America.
By J.M. Phelps

Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is a religio-political organization making significant gains in momentum in the South Asian country — and some of its allies have begun to take root in America.

TLP was founded in Pakistan in 2015 by Islamic cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi. The hanging of Mumtaz Qadri in 2016 for the killing of “blasphemer” Salman Taseer quickly sparked the group’s rage against blasphemy and contributed to the radicalization of Barelvis in Pakistan, who were once considered the peaceful and progressive alternative to Deobandis.

TLP gained international attention as the result of a three-week sit-in protest in 2017 that nearly paralyzed the country’s capital, Islamabad. Calls for the resignation of law minister Zahid Hamid catapulted TLP into the political scene. The group alleged Hamid played a leading role in changing the wording of a parliamentary oath declaring the Muslim prophet Muhammad as God’s final prophet (Khatm-e-Nubuwat) — and TLP considered this move to be sympathetic to Ahmadi Muslims and blasphemous against Islam.

In 2018, Rizvi also led protests against the acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death over false allegations of blasphemy. Upon her release after eight years of detention, TLP blocked several major highways and staged protests in major cities, including Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, and Multan. Rizvi was taken into custody following the Bibi protests, but was later granted bail after Bibi arrived in Canada for asylum. Rizvi was barred from public service, however.

News reports surrounding TLP have been riddled with numerous examples of violence in recent years. In early 2018, a Pakistani student murdered Sareer Ahmed, principal of the private Islamia College in the northern town of Charsadda. A dispute over the student attending the 2017 TLP rallies in support of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws rather than attending class resulted in the death of the concerned teacher.

A 2018 assassination attempt on Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal over the issue of Khatm-e-Nubuwat — the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad — failed at the hands of Abid Hussain, who was determined to be affiliated with TLP. Rizvi condemned the attack, but the threat of death to those who blaspheme Muhammad or Islam did not end here. Reuters points out “there have been at least 67 murders [in Pakistan] over unproven allegations of blasphemy since 1990.”

Later in the same year, Rizvi issued a striking statement in response to Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ announcement that Wilders was planning to hold a contest to draw caricatures of Muhammad. The TLP leader said that if he were to become the leader of Pakistan, he would use “the atom bomb [to] remove Holland from the face of the earth before they can hold a competition of caricatures.” The contest was cancelled.

In 2019, TLP candidate for a National Assembly seat, Zafar Gillani, was arrested for his role in the death of Khalid Hameed of Government Sadiq Egerton College. Khatib Hussain, the student who murdered Hameed, was in contact with Gillani the night before the professor’s death. Reports suggest Gillani had imposed a fatwa on Hameed, which resulted in his death.

Following the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020 for showing cartoons of Islam’s prophet Muhammad to his class, TLP published an article to commend the horrific incident on their official website. The page has since been removed. Incited by TLP, over 1,000 protesters blocked Islamabad’s main Faizabad interchange to demand the expulsion of the French ambassador and end of diplomatic ties with the European country over perceived “Islamophobia.”

To this day, TLP’s narrative remains largely exclusivist and sectarian in nature with blasphemy as their rallying cry. Pakistan’s Barelvis continue to be supportive of the group’s political activism and ideology. Other Barelvi parties, like Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan and Sunni Tehreek, have not shared the same political success as TLP. The party’s Barelvi supporters have previously indicated “they have found a party worth voting for — one that also comes from their own school of thought.”

Despite being considered practitioners of a soft version of Islam by many, it is quite apparent Barelvis have not hesitated to align themselves with TLP’s harsh condemnation of blasphemy against Muhammad, thereby supporting punishment by death according to Pakistan’s controversial penal code (section 295-C) and even inciting mob brutality against the accused with injurious or deadly consequences.

Ultimately, TLP appears to have gained the most political clout for leading demonstrations against the release of Bibi. By taking an unwavering stance to uphold Pakistan’s blasphemy law, the party gave a voice to conservative Islamic ideology in a profoundly religious society — subsequently winning seats in general elections.

TLP garnered more than two million votes in the 2018 general elections, acquiring three provincial seats and becoming the fifth largest political party by number of votes. Interestingly, members of Dawat-e-Islami (DeI) appeared to be a major factor in the political success of TLP in the province of Sindh.

Former Punjab governor Salman Taseer once visited the imprisoned Bibi, and reportedly said, “he would do as much as he could in his capacity to make sure that she does not get punished for a crime she said she had not committed.” In 2011, Taseer was assassinated by a member of DeI, the same Barelvi organization which clearly supports TLP and has also established roots within the United States.

On October 21, approximately 300,000 people gathered to mourn the death of Khadim Hussain Rizvi. The late leader’s son, Saad Hussain Rizvi, has been appointed as the group’s new leader. The appointment of Rizvi’s son has been challenged by Pir Afzal Qadri, one of TLP’s founding members. Prior to the extreme influence of Khadim Hussain and the establishment of TLP, Barelvi Islamist organizations were not prone to violence. Thus, the organization finds itself at a pivotal juncture in the direction TLP’s future leader takes the religious movement and political party.

Will TLP opt to provide a counter-narrative to hardline, violence-prone sects of Islam, as they’ve suggested and considered in the distant past? Or will they continue on the path of a firebrand cleric to agitate and eliminate those who oppose orthodox, theocratic interpretations of Islam? Either way, the world watches as a major center of gravity for the Global Islamic Movement has shifted further to the east, with its core developing across the Indian subcontinent and extending beyond national boundaries.

J.M. Phelps specializes in a variety of topics related to the strategic influence of terrorism and subversion, counterterrorism and national security.

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