Hate it, curse it or wish it bad luck – what you can’t do is ignore the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and its leadership, which has in the past one year locked down a nuclear-armed country’s capital twice and whose workers are growing in numbers and audacity.
Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Afzal Qadri command the fifth largest party of Pakistan, which has already surpassed established religious parties in political weight and nuisance value.
If the recent storm that TLP leaders have created over the acquittal of Aasia Bibi, blasphemy accused, by the Chief Justice Saqib Nisar-led bench, is a yardstick to go by, they have arrived on the stage of national politics, all guns blazing, with sizzling rhetoric and a derring-do approach that defies the lords of Pakistan’s power.
What drives their influence? An easy explanation is this: they market a simplified version of religious causes (Finality of Prophethood and anti-blasphemy stance being the topmost) to their sectarian followers in native idiom which is then amplified by their colleagues through a formidable network of Barelvi madressahs, religious shrines and political and business elites. Their uncomplicated narratives resonate at a mass scale and are preferred over the dense analysis of aging expert theologians.
Their appeals, their threats, their slogans in the name of the most sacred name of Islam, the Last Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), are protected against any counter because doing so could mean receiving an edict from the pulpit. Because they have been able to ratchet up enormous public support in heartland Punjab and now have ingress into other parts of the country, there isn’t a safe place around to avert the danger their opponents and critics can face. Moreover, social media has expanded the reach of their messages far and beyond geographic borders. And when these messages are loaded with references to central elements of faith – unbending love for the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), for instance – even those not associated with their brand of politics and religion cannot but find themselves in sync with their stand.
But this is not the full story of the TLP’s rise to dizzying heights. In fact what it is, what its leaders say or do is not even the real story. Extremist politics and blind followers also do not fully explain this challenge to the Pakistani state and this constant worry for governments that the party can send the country into convulsions of strife and civil war at a short notice.
The real story is that the Khadim Hussain Rizvi phenomenon is the outcome of years of deliberate erosion of the political and constitutional writ of civilian governments, a whittling down of the institutional base of governance, and introduction of anarchy as an instrument to achieve political ends. He, his colleagues and their party, represent the ultimate side-effect of the mad theory that controlled chaos in politics can fast-track change for the better and that groups that threaten democracy can be appeased and mainstreamed at will.
We have to face the fact that the TLP’s tactics – mayhem and mass protests – have been perfectly practised by none other than the ruling party and its head, PM Imran Khan, as a favourite means to attain political ends. Deployment of abuse and displacement of reason has been the most popularly hailed stratagem of the past five years. Deepening social and political divisions (recall how PML-N workers were designated by PM Khan as brain-dead donkeys) has been and still is Imran Khan’s way to communicate with constituents. Attacking homes (recall engineered protests outside Sharif’s residence in London) trolling, disparagement of reputations and openly inciting civil servants (policemen included) to defy government authority has been popularised among the young and the uninitiated. To achieve power, Imran Khan and all those who stood with him have had no qualms in playing the Kings of Chaos, the Annabels of Anarchy – with exceptional mastery over the art of slander and ridicule of opponents.
We have to admit that more than any other political phase in national history, the last five years have witnessed institutionalised brutality of the tongue and a rebellious disrespect for the law of the land. It is no coincidence that just when PM Imran was turning national life upside down – sometimes in the name of rigging, sometimes in the name of protesting drone attacks, sometimes in the name of fighting corruption – the likes of Khadim Hussain Rizivi were watching from the sidelines.
They were learning from the strides Imran Khan was making riding his chariot of fire – containers – trampling everything and everyone who dared to tell him that violence begets violence, bigotry breeds bigotry, and that anarchy is a fertile mother and chaos a virile father. That would not have been so bad if constitutional checks had come into effect and a sane middle-of-the-ground political culture was allowed to take root. But that was not to be.
When the TLP choked Islamabad and brought the government to its knees last year, they were encouraged and hailed as great men pushing great causes. The then law minister was forced to resign and the entire ruling cabinet was made to run for its life (some of them practically) against the constant barrage of accusations of having breached the public trust of legally protecting the Finality of Prophethood. No explanations were accepted. No apologies were considered enough.
On the contrary, in the ensuing months throughout the election campaign, voters were egged on to believe that the PTI and its allies were on the right path while N-candidates were weak of faith and therefore suspect Muslims. PM Khan then wanted to even join hands with the TLP and in many constituencies had seat adjustments with Labbaik candidates. The Election Commission endorsed the TLP and granted it the right to contest elections. Various lobbies came to the valiant defence of their ‘right to be mainstreamed’. All those pointing to the inherent dangers of this strategy of defeating the Sharifs by using the religious card were dubbed as Sharif apologists, threatened, blacked out, censored and censured.
The pulpit was used to force candidates to change their loyalties; many of them personally told me that the local mullah had warned them clearly that they and their family would not be allowed inside the mosque if they contested elections from the N platform. All of this sent the TLP a clear signal that their brand of protest could have great rewards conceded to them without any strings attached. As long as they cut into the N-League vote bank, they could do anything and get away with it.
The Faizabad dharna, and what happened subsequently, was the tipping point that explains the making of present-day TLP and its growth into a force that has succeeded in again getting the state and the government to sign a surrender document on its own terms. Having played havoc with national image and public life and property, it has again dictated its terms on everything – from the government not becoming an opposing party to the review petition to putting Aasia’s name on the ECL to getting those involved in riots freed from jails and its own cases registered for having suffered losses (irony) in the past few days.
Even though its ranks are divided, the TLP has arrived as an idea that power drifts towards the mob, that the state is a hollow apparatus that collapses before street power, that if you act as a bully the law becomes a nauch girl and rules and procedure act as pole performers.
In the coming days when most of the TLP’s godfathers and creators will not be on the scene, the party and its backers will be encouraged by the precedents set in 2017 and 2018. They will quote and cite these developments to insist that only they are on the right path and only they and their version of Islam has the right to prevail in Pakistan. They have been given the space. They have been encouraged, nurtured, groomed and trained. They are only using their resources for their purposes, regardless of the cost to the system – exactly what others, the PTI included, have done themselves. The TLP is not a movement. It is a product which is now marketing itself very successfully.