Pakistan Reader# 142, 24 November 2020
Rizvi's untimely demise may pose as a challenge for the TLP, given that there have been differences over the question of leadership.Abigail Miriam Fernandez
The name Khadim Hussain Rizvi came into the limelight on 4 January 2011, after his firm support for Mumtaz Qadri, a police officer who assassinated the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer, on the accusation of committing blasphemy by calling country's blasphemy law as a "black law." At the time, Rizvi was serving as an auqaf official in the Punjab government. However, he was served warning notices to stop spreading his extreme beliefs, and when he continued, he was removed from public service. Then relieved from his duties, Rizvi found greater time and liberty to preach his views. This is when he becomes an ardent advocate of the Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which deals with blasphemy committed against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He was involved in organizing public support for and travelled through the country for the cause. Simultaneously he continued to raise his voice for the release of Mumtaz Qadri. (Mehmood Hussain, "Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Rise of Religious Extremism 2.0 in Pakistan," South Asia Journal, 1 May 2020)
However, it did not stop there. The subsequent three events are what made Rizvi, the firebrand that he was.
1. The Mumtaz Qadri ordeal
Rizvi launchpad was his decision to take up the cause of Taseer's assassin Mumtaz Qadri, who he praised as a ghazi/ warrior for killing Taseer who had come out in support of Asia Bibi, the jailed Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Rizvi wanted him to be pardoned and proclaimed a hero for the faith, however, Qadri was executed in February 2016, Rizvi and his supporters gathered in Islamabad and sat on a dharna while teargassing and rioting broke out. The protestors demanded the recognition of Mumtaz Qadri as a martyr, the conversion of his Adiala Jail cell into a national heritage site, the execution of Aasia Bibi, the removal of Ahmadis and other non-Muslims in key posts, and the assurance that the blasphemy laws would not be diluted. The protests were held under the banner of Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasoolullah (TLYRA). Although he did not achieve much, his popularity among a rapidly rising population of young, infuriated, illiterate, unemployed men, especially in Punjab and parts of Sindh to its south began to grow. He was given the title of an 'Allama' (a great scholar of the faith) a title he upheld until his death.
2. Exploiting the 2017 election law reform
Rizvi returned with more power to Islamabad on November 2017. He and his followers initiated a three weeks long sit-in at Faizabad interchange Islamabad, paralyzing life in both cities for nearly a month. This time the trigger was an attempt by the then Nawaz Sharif's administration attempt to reform the 'Elections Act, 2017′ containing a controversial amendment in the nomination paper about the finality of Prophethood (Khatm-e-Nabuwat). Rizvi alleged that this was aimed at diluting the anti-Ahmadi provisions. Although the amendment garnered criticism in religious circles against the ruling party, Rizvi emerged as the most vocal person, and he organized various protests in Lahore and finally staged a three weeks long sit-in at Faizabad interchange Islamabad. This time Rizvi brought the government to its knees. The Pakistani Army, which had refused to use force to evict the protestors after which the government reached a deal with Rizvi, where not only was the amendment rolled back, the Law Minister also resigned after issuing an apology. (Kalbe Ali, "Who is Khadim Hussain Rizvi?," Dawn, 20 November 2020)
3. The 2018 general elections
The last factor that pushes Rizvi to prominence is his party's participation in the 2018 general elections. Although his party under the TLYRA banner first contested in the election for the NA-4 Peshawar, in 2017, it was the 2018 general elections that cemented Rizvi as a political leader. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in 2018 gathered 2.2 million votes, accounting for 4.2 per cent of the total votes cast, emerging as the fifth largest party nationwide. They also won two provincial assembly seats in Sindh. In Punjab, Rizvi's party fielded more candidates than Pakistan's Peoples Party (PPP) and emerged as one of the most organized political parties in the province. To mark this progress in the words of Rizvi, he described the TLP as a "wave," adding, "The seed was planted by Mumtaz [Qadri] seven years ago when he defended the sanctity of the finality of Prophethood (PBUH). Then it became a small plant and we are on our way to becoming a tree." This political rise of TLP not only changed the dynamics of religious politics in the country with Barelvi politics finding its grip, but it also pushed Rizvi to a higher status. (Ahmed Yusuf, "What is behind the sudden rise of TLP?," Dawn, 5 August 2018) (Hussain H Zaidi, "The rise of the TLP," The News International, 5 December 2020
But what made Rizvi different?
The sheer road power that Rizvi directed made him different from the other fanatics who have ascended in Pakistan over the last thirty years. Apart from this, Rizvi was a Barelvi. He was not a Deobandi like the Taliban, nor an Ahle Hadees like Lashkar-e-Toiba's Hafiz Saeed. Most Barelvis are seen as widely appealing, moderate Sunni Muslims, with a major part of Pakistan identifying as Barelvi, whose training of Islam is infused with more Sufi customs predominant across South Asia, than with the Saudi Wahabism that rules over jihadi tanzeems. He was seen as an egalitarian who understood moderate Sunni Pakistani.
However, Barelvis, like the other sect of Islam that have strong views about blasphemy. Rizvi channelized the common belief throughout Pakistan advocating that there is no forgiveness for blasphemers and weaponized it for his political ends, and turned it into raw street power. Although he did not indulge in terrorist violence, he was more effective than some other. Further, he was capable of compelling successive government to heed to his demands and thereby able to target and undermine civilian governments. (Zeeshan Shaikh "Rise of a cleric: how did Khadim Rizvi become so influential in Pakistan?, The Indian Express, 23 November 2020)
The legacy of a self-made radical
Rizvi who hailed from the Pindi Gheb territory of Attock District, Punjab passed away on 19 November 2020 after he led a large protest at Islamabad's Faizabad Interchange a few days ago, once again bring the government in power to agree to his demands. The reasons for Rizi's death are unknown. He was said to have been suffering from a fever for several days. The demise of Rizi will have a lasting impact on Pakistan's political landscape. (Fraz Ahmed Khan, "Firebrand cleric Khadim Rizvi dies," Dawn, 20 November 2020)
Although restricted to a wheelchair since 2006, the TLP has been a force one could not ignore. For his supporters, Rizvi was a charismatic leader who set the trend of electoral importance among religious parties that had not been known for its street politics in Pakistan. Further, his humble origins placed him in a position to garner the support of the underprivileged sections of society. It was this combination of religion and economics that the TLP represents that got them to support not just from the rural but urban areas as well. (Hussain H Zaidi, "The rise of the TLP," The News International, 5 December 2020)
On the other hand, no other conservative gathering in Pakistan tested the state the Rizvi did, from right before his death, he was seen in Islamabad demanding the expulsion of France's ambassador to Pakistan over the issue of controversial cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammad to shutting down cities being the government to its knees and forcing them to rethink its various policies.
His most important legacy will be the TLP, the force that not only defined Rizvi but also a factor that changed the dynamics of religious politics in Pakistan. Although his death may be seen an impediment for the party, the rise of a "radical Barelvi" movement which he initiated has given a new and dangerous twist to the issue of religion and politics in the country. (Zahid Hussain, "The politics of religion," Dawn, 8 August 2018) (Zahid Hussain, "Khadim Rizvi leaves a violent legacy in Pakistan," Arab News, 21 November 2020)
Rizvi's death may pose as a challenge for the TLP, given that there have been differences over the question of leadership. Further, with the high council of the TLP appointing Khadim Hussain Rizvi's son, Saad Rizvi as the new chief of the party, who was served as the deputy secretary-general of the TLP, it is yet to be seen how the group transitions from this with more strength or more divisions. ("Who is TLP's new chief?" The News International, 21 November 2020) ("Controversy over Khadim Rizvi's successor, Dawn, 26 November 2020) (Umair Jamal, "Radical Leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi is Dead – But His Ideology Will Live on in Pakistan," The Diplomat, 20 November 2020)
About the author
Abigail Miriam Fernandez is a research assistant at School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. As a part of her research focus at "Pakistan Reader", she looks at issues relating to gender, minorities and ethnic movements. She is also a Teaching Assistant to the NIAS Certificate Course on Contemporary Pakistan.