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The TLP conundrum

In an essay titled "Religious Parties, Religious Political Identity, And the Cold Shoulder of Liberal Democratic...
Updated 01 May, 2021 06:11am

Since its creation back in 2015 Tahreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) has caused a ruckus in Pakistan. The most recent exhibit of their signature violent behaviour coupled with raw street power in the name of religion or more precisely Namoos-e-Rasalat started on April 12th after the arrest of the self-anointed leader and son of late Khadim Hussain Rizvi, Saad Hussain Rizvi. And caused at least a dozen people to lose their lives, and hundreds injured.

Saad Rizvi was arrested in a per-emptive but miscalculated move to mitigate or stop the potential countrywide strikes as TLP supporters and sympathizers started gathering in Rawalpindi to protest against the government. The call for protests came as the deadline of a deal the government struck with the TLP back in November 2020 -- when Khadim Hussain was still alive and Ijaz Shah was the interior minister -- was fast approaching and both parties failed to re-negotiate. As per the deal, the government was to present a bill in the parliament to expel the French ambassador from the country by April 20.

What followed Rizvi’s arrest was not the dispersal of the protesters, but violent clashes and sit-ins that paralyzed the entire country or at least Punjab. A minimum of four police officers were martyred and hundreds were injured in clashes between the law and enforcement agencies and protestors who had gathered from all over the country.

This violent situation attracted more hasty, disjointed, and futile efforts by the government to diffuse the charged environment and create pressure on the TLP leadership including branding the party -- which enjoys 2.2 million votes countrywide -- as a terror outfit under Section 11-B of the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997. I am calling the move futile because it did not achieve the desired goals; it devalued the word terrorism or a terror outfit by creating a false equivalence between TLP, which is a violent extremist organization, and a terrorist organization such as TTP. It also dehumanized and alienated TLP supporters some of whom are as young as 14 and belong to the marginalized socio-economic groups, therefore, leaving them at the mercy of extremists to be further radicalized and potentially recruited by militant outfits. And it resulted in more violence from both sides, not to mention that the government had to finally accept the group’s original demand i.e. a resolution in the parliament.

Now that the situation has calmed down a bit, the questions remain. What could the government had done better to avoid the bloodshed? What is the future of TLP and what is its politics? To answer this, we have to first understand the origin of the party and where and how it gets its support from.

TLP's origin is shrouded in unnecessary controversy with some claiming the party was birthed under the enabling gaze of the military establishment. Recent demand to investigate the origin of the now-banned religiopolitical party that came from PML-N's lawmaker Riaz Pirzada supports this theory. But in my opinion, that is a reductionist approach, where civil and political actors conveniently turn a blind eye from the persisting radicalization in the society -- the source of which is both pragmatic and emotional -- and discharge themselves of all the responsibility while overstating the role of the military establishment.

The party was created by Khadim Hussain Rizvi as a reaction to the perceived threat to Islam, the sanctity of the Prophet, and under the guise of religious identity with a conviction to protect Namoos-e-Rasalat. But before it became an organized political group, it was a movement by the name of Tahreek-e-Rihai Qadri. Rizvi capitalized on the religious sentiments particularly those of Bralvi’s -- the largest Muslim sect in Pakistan -- and demanded that Mumtaz Qadri be released.

This identity group cashed in on grass root and organic support for Qadri -- that comes from the strongest of religious emotions and the internalized idea of collective victimhood amongst Muslims -- and soon became the group identity for Bralvis in the absence of religious literacy and any other moderate options for them to associate with. Using his ability to agitate masses on sensitive issues such as Blasphemy laws, Rizvi soon started distributing ‘moral warrants’ to induce violence in the name of religion to the marginalized youth who took it as an opportunity to claim power and political involvement they have systematically been deprived of. He used political economy to attract more followers and achieve his goals. Coming from a humble background, Rizvi correctly identified what resonates most with the enraged masses and used it to his advantage to successfully challenge the state's writ over and over again; that’s his political legacy that continues.

Because TLP has become a religious identity group, banning it entirely is a futile exercise. It will likely amplify the alleged victim narrative of the Bralvi faction causing its supporters to feel unease and at conflict with the state. The religiopolitical party is an extremist and violent organization, however, that is all it is. Labeling it as a terror outfit will only cause it and other religious parties to go into a self-protection mode where end result will be not very pleasant. You also have to take the TTP's recruitment drive into the account, abandoned workers of TLP will be the whose first priority.

Tahreek-e-Labaik Pakistan poses a perfect trolly problem. There is no right way to deal with it, there are however many wrong ways. With Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s death, the state had the opportunity to disintegrate the party and dismantle its divided leadership. However, it failed to take advantage of the situation and through myopic policies has now not only united all six factions of TLP but also other religious groups have announced their support for the group.

The only way forward is to unban the group, for now, strip it off of its claim to a religious identity group by creating a discourse around what pre-requisites should a party fulfill for it to claim religiosity -- an outline on how to do it can be borrowed from Nancy Rosenblum's essay on 'religious political identity' where she wrote that a mere vestigial reference to religion does not make a party religious. We also need moderate religious leaders to actively play the role of allies of the government to keep the masses calm and in control. Religious literacy needs to be increased since many studies suggest that religious literacy and religious radicalization have an inversely proportional relationship. And last but not the least, we need to introduce extensive anti-radicalization and counter-violence and extremism (CVE) programs through our curriculum, traditional, and digital media. The key to the success or failure of these measures would be to offer masses, radical and otherwise, a sense of belonging.

The key to a feasible solution to this TLP conundrum is to identify the problem accurately and offer solutions accordingly instead of proposing false solutions that can push us further down the rabbit hole.

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