Last week, Pakistan banned the radical Islamist political party, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) after it staged a series of violent riots. The violent unrest only intensified across the country after that, including threats to international interests, demonstrating both that the Pakistani government was correct about TLP and that the state continues to struggle in dealing with Islamic militancy.
TLP was created in 2015 by a Pakistani Islamic scholar, Khadim Hussain Rizvi. It is important to note that while militant Islam is usually associated with Salafism, or in South Asia with Deobanism, TLP is an offshoot of the Barelvi movement. The Barelvis have always had a particular sensitivity about blasphemy and thus it is no accident that the context in which TLP was born was defending Mumtaz Qadri, a member of the police commandos who had murdered the Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer.
It is important to stress that Qadri murdered Taseer not because Taseer was believed to be personally guilty of blasphemy, but because Taseer had advocated repealing Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Specifically, in an interview shortly before Taseer was assassinated in January 2011, he had given as a reason for his opposition to the law its unequal application, discriminating against non-Muslims, and instanced what was happening to Asia Bibi.
Asia Bibi is a Pakistani Christian woman who was being targeted under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. Bibi’s case would become an international cause celebre, and her initial conviction was overturned in 2018—which did not prevent first her lawyers and then Bibi herself having to flee the country because of death threats, many of them from TLP and its allies.
TLP made the Bibi case and agitation against reform or repeal of the blasphemy law into its central political issues.
TLP has been linked to a number of acts of violence. In January 2018, a student who had participated in several TLP protests shot dead his university lecturer in Charsadda; at a minimum, TLP created the climate where this was deemed acceptable. A more direct case a year later, in March 2019, in Bahawalpur, saw a 21-year-old university student stab his professor to death, accusing him of blasphemy, after gaining permission from a TLP leader for the murder.
TLP has always operated within a framework somewhat broader than Pakistan. It’s funding streams, opaque as they are, clearly come in significant part from outside Pakistan, and TLP has made a gleeful habit of causing international incidents. In 2018, the Netherlands had to withdraw its ambassador from Pakistan after his safety was threatened because of TLP incitements in response to a cartoon contest staged by Dutch gadfly politician Geert Wilders. At the end of 2020, TLP staged violent riots in support of Abdoullakh Anzorov, the Chechen refugee who murdered French schoolteacher Samuel Paty for showing cartoons in a religious studies class, once again forcing the withdrawal of a Western Embassy in fear for its safety.
A Partial Crackdown
With this charge sheet, one might wonder why it took so long for Pakistan to ban TLP. The simple answer is that the party has a large grassroots support base, and this made it powerful enough that important parts of the Pakistani elite—both around the civilian government of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the military establishment that really controls the state—wanted to court it.
This is why the ban imposed on TLP on 15 April is a lot more ambiguous than it might first appear. First, it came about because the party staged riots against France, again, and caused injury to more than 300 police officers. It was a hasty, reactive step designed to rein in the group, in short, rather than a serious effort to eliminate it. And then, because of the prior policy of allowing TLP space and legitimacy, it has made it difficult for this new policy of restriction to stick.
Massive protests erupted across Pakistan as soon as the ban was handed down, culminating in mass violence in Lahore on 18 April that injured numerous people. France advised its citizens to leave Pakistan, and with good reason.
Even now, the appeasement of TLP continues. There were reports on 20 April of a deal between the government and TLP to rescind the ban; while that has not been confirmed, it does seem quite likely that the ban will be overturned, either on appeal in the courts or by a motion of the federal government.
In the meantime, the deal the government reached involved releasing the TLP leader Rizvi, who had been arrested for his role in the violence that killed dozens of Pakistanis, and the Interior Minister has made it clear that the government will move a resolution through the Pakistani parliament to expel the French ambassador—a key demand of TLP. This indulgence of TLP after an attempt to ban it, and the probable failure of that attempt, will only strengthen the party.
This internal unrest in Pakistan takes place as the United States and NATO prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan. One of the few certainties about what will happen next is a surge for jihadist groups, notably the Taliban, which the Pakistani military and intelligence services have long supported, and the Islamic State’s “Khorasan Province” (ISKP). The rising tide of extremism will lift the Islamists in Pakistan, too. If the state is unable to clamp down now, it is going to be much less capable of controlling a menace it has fostered and from which it now suffers in the future.