Tehreek-e-Labbaik: how blasphemy case in Pakistan brought down hardline religious party

Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian and farm labourer, was beaten by a mob and arrested for blasphemy in June 2009 after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad during an argument. She maintained her innocence throughout the trial the following year, but was sentenced to death. Almost a decade later, in October 2018, Pakistan’s supreme court overturned her conviction and acquitted her.

Supporters of a fledgling far-right party called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) violently opposed the decision that saw her released. But its actions in taking on the state over the Bibi case have brought TLP to an end as quickly as it gained popularity.

Asia Bibi. Zipi/EPA

An offshoot of right-wing religious group Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah Pakistan, TLP was founded in 2016 following the execution of Mumtaz Qadri. The bodyguard policeman murdered his ward, the Punjab governor Salman Taseer, in 2011, after he publicly voiced his support for Bibi.

The new party stepped up to give a voice to right-wing, conservative Islamist views. Until its participation in the by-election for Lahore’s National Assembly constituency in September 2017, the party was relatively unknown. But the results surprised many of Pakistan’s political elite when the TLP secured nearly 8% of total votes cast. This new political party quickly dominated headlines with a manifesto that included promises to make Pakistan a welfare state, to end terrorism and corruption, and to uphold the sanctity of Islam’s Holy Prophet.

Political clout

The party again attracted attention when it spearheaded a protest in November 2017 calling for the law minister Zahid Hamid to resign for his alleged role in changing the wording of the oath taken by parliamentarians – which the group deemed blasphemous.

Though Hamid resigned, apologised and assured the nation that he believed in the finality of the prophet – these events pushed TLP into the nation’s political consciousness. In the general elections of July 2018, TLP fielded 744 candidates. This time the party bagged a significant number of votes and won two seats in Sindh province, gaining recognition as a new religious and political force in a very short space of time.

The Pakistani supreme court’s acquittal of Bibi in October 2018 came as a severe blow to the ideology on which TLP had been founded. Thousands of angry supporters blocked roads and motorways, while one of its leaders, Pir Afzal Qadri stated that the killing of those who overturned the verdict was justifiable.

TLP’s swift rise suggested it had the potential to become a popular political force which would give voice to prominent conservative views in this profoundly religious society. The party employed a smart strategy by harnessing the febrile emotions surrounding the subject of blasphemy, and positioned itself as the champion of Islamic values, bringing it huge popular support.

The party was also astute in appealing to serious political candidates who had found themselves at odds with their own parties, giving the TLP political credibility and access to new sources of voters. In November 2017, the number of supporters taking to the streets in protest against Zahid Hamid’s perceived blasphemy pointed to the party becoming a force to be reckoned with in Pakistan.

But the high-profile protests that followed the Bibi acquittal in late 2018 – in which public property was vandalised and innocent citizens injured – were instrumental in its downfall.

Violent protests

In an attempt to end the protests, the newly elected prime minster Imran Khan warned protestors not to incite violence and force the state into taking action. The demonstrators finally called off their protest after three days and signed a deal with the government.

The agreement included a clause that the government would put Asia Bibi’s name on the Exit Control List (ECL) to prevent her from fleeing abroad, and see arrested TLP members released. But within days of the protests subsiding, the government launched a crackdown against all those who had damaged state property and incited violence during the protest.

After Asia Bibi’s acquittal, angry protesters took to the streets of Islamabad. Shazaib Akber/EPA

More than 5,000 supporters of TLP were arrested. The government also went after TLP leaders Afzal Qadri and Khadim Hussain Rizvi, charging them with sedition and terrorism. Announcing the charges, the government made it clear that it would not remain silent over any protest that violated the rights of the people. At the latest hearing in July 2019, both men were extended post-arrest bail until the next hearing, Afzal Qadri on health grounds.

This swift action helped the state to establish its authority, but questions remain as to how such groups emerge in Pakistan and how they should be dealt with.

Shutting it down

The judiciary, the military and most of the parliament’s political parties seem to be in agreement that TLP’s biggest mistake was its overt criticism of the military in its call to overthrow the head of the Pakistani army, Qamar Bajwa.

Though Imran Khan’s government presides over parliament, the military holds enormous political power in Pakistan, and on the rare occasions it is publicly criticised, responds with a heavy hand. In May 2019, just before Asia Bibi found asylum in Canada, Afzal Qadri was ordered to apologise for his threat to the military and stood down citing health reasons.

Now, with its two firebrand leaders living under post-arrest bail conditions, Asia Bibi forging a new life in Canada and the protracted trial ongoing, TLP appears to have been politically neutralised.

Pir Afzal Qadri, leader of TLP has stepped down and is under arrest.

In Pakistan, any religious group or political party can survive as long as it doesn’t threaten the interests of the country’s strong military establishment. Critics argue that the TLP might have survived if it had not issued a fatwa against the military leadership. But Pakistan’s new government also took a bold stance in bringing the fanatics under the rule of law.

Both civilian and military leadership must understand that Pakistani society cannot afford to tolerate such extremist groups. It is time for everyone to be made accountable under the law. This would make the dream of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a reality by creating a country that is safe for minorities. Today, rule of law and equal rights are the only way forward if Pakistan is to become a prosperous and progressive country.