The Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik played a key role in promoting this week’s anti-French protests in Pakistan, prompting Islamabad to announce the group’s dissolution on Thursday as the French embassy urged French citizens to leave the country due to security fears.
The Pakistani government blocked social media and instant messaging programs 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 coming out of the socially conservative Barelvi school in 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 fighting for the death penalty for all those convicted. to blasphemy, which is still a crime in the country.
“TLP was originally created as a political movement to demand the release of a bodyguard accused of murdering the governor of the Punjab region in 2011,” explained Jean-Luc Racine, an Indian subcontinent specialist and emeritus research director at CNRS. think tank in Paris. In 2015, it became a political party led by Khadim Hussein Rizvi, the father of the current leader.
France became one of the TLP’s targets when the Charlie Hebdo trial began in September 2020. The brutal massacre of 12 people at the satirical weekly office in January 2015 was the first major incident in a wave of Islamist violence in which more than 250 people have since killed in France.
One month after the trial began, France was shaken by the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty on October 16 by a Chechen Islamist militant who was outraged by his decision to divide Charlie Hebdo’s controversial caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad into a class discussing freedom of speech. Paty showed the pictures for his community class while emphasizing that students could choose not to look at them if they were offended.
In response to Paty’s assassination, President Emmanuel Macron promised 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 that take on political and religious authorities – including Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Catholicism.
In the weeks that followed, mass protests were seen in Muslim countries – with people taking to the streets and burning French flags and pictures of the French president. In Pakistan, the TLP played a key role in promoting the demonstrations. The party demanded that Pakistan sever diplomatic ties with France and send the French ambassador, Marc Baréty, packaging.
The Pakistani government signed an agreement with the party to persuade it to quell the protests – agreed to a boycott of French products and promised a parliamentary vote by April 20 on the expulsion of the French ambassador.
But as the deadline approached, Islamabad distanced itself from the TLP – a position emphasized by Rizvi’s arrest on April 12. More than 200 TLP activists were arrested during the ensuing clashes with police. At least two police officers were killed and at least 340 people were injured.
TLP’s electoral power has so far been limited. In the 2018 parliamentary elections, only 2 million votes were won in a country with a population exceeding 210 million. But the party exerts influence through its enormous ability to mobilize its activists. “That’s its strength,” Racine said. “TLP can get a huge amount of protesters on the streets and block roads for days.”
Demand for Asia Bibi’s execution
In 2017, the TLP led protests in the Pakistani capital Islamabad over a minor change in the oath of election candidates with reference to the Prophet Muhammad. The government said it was an “office error” and soon turned around. But the demonstrations continued – with at least six people killed and about 200 people injured – until Pakistan’s federal law minister resigned and approved the protesters’ demands.
The Islamist party then became internationally known in 2018, when the Asia Bibi deal made headlines around the world. A member of Pakistan’s persecuted Christian minority. She was arrested in 2010 for alleged blasphemy and spent eight years on the death row until she was acquitted. In response to her acquittal, the TLP organized mass demonstrations demanding that she be sentenced to death.
“TLP is relatively popular with young people, especially among the Pakistani working class,” Racine said. “This is because the party’s political platform is not just about changing the way Islam is practiced in the country – but also about tackling Pakistan’s socio – economic 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 cannot negotiate with radical movements,” Racine continued. “They are popular with large sections of the population – so the government is having a hard time taking a strong stance against them.”
Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain expressed a similar view in the country’s English-language daily newspaper Dawn: “The government only managed to postpone the crisis. What has happened now was inevitable. The way in which the administration has collapsed in the face of bullying is alarming to say the least and underscores how we fail to deal with rising religious extremism. ”
So why did the Pakistani government change its mind and decide to close the TLP completely?
“They may think that the dissolution of the TLP could help improve Pakistan’s image abroad, as the country has long been criticized for funding terrorism,” Racine said, noting that there was no evidence that the TLP had “anything to do with other terrorists, groups present in Pakistan, including the Taliban ”.
An anonymous Pakistani diplomatic source told the French newspaper Le Figaro on Thursday that “Pakistan wants to normalize relations with France” and that “Pakistan’s interior minister publicly expressed concern on Wednesday that his country’s reputation was suffering from TLP actions”.
But Racine warned that the movement would not get rid of the party: “It has been a recurring phenomenon in Pakistani history where the government bans radical groups and then returns in other forms and with other names.”
Although protests have been dead 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.
This article was translated from the original in French.