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Rise of a cleric: how did Khadim Rizvi become so influential in Pakistan?

Islamist cleric Khadim Rizvi died on Friday. His ability to arm-twist govts stands out even in Pakistan. A look at his meteoric rise, and what next for his movement.

Pakistan’s hard-talking, expletive-spouting Islamist cleric Khadim Rizvi died on Friday. His meteoric rise in Pakistan’s military-dominated political landscape and his power to bring governments to their knees, all in the span of less than a decade until his sudden death, are unique even by the standards of how much the country’s history has been shaped by radical Islam under the benign and enabling gaze of its army.

Rizvi’s abrupt death has created confusion and speculation about its cause, although indications are that it was likely a case of Covid-19. Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), his movement and later a political party, has grown so much and proved itself useful so many times that Pakistan’s permanent power wielders are unlikely to let it wither away.

What made him different

The sheer street power that Rizvi commanded made him different from the other extremists who have risen to prominence in Pakistan over the last three decades. He was not a Deobandi like the Taliban, nor an Ahle Hadees like Lashkar-e-Toiba’s Hafiz Saeed. Rizvi was a Barelvi. Most Barelvis are viewed as middle-of-the-road, moderate Sunni Muslims. Half of Pakistan identify as Barelvi, whose practice of Islam is suffused more with Sufi traditions prevalent across South Asia, than with the Saudi Wahabism that reigns over jihadi tanzeems.

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But Barelvis, like every other sect of Muslims, also have strong views about perceived blasphemy. Rizvi channelised the common belief among a majority of Pakistanis that there is no forgiveness for blasphemy, weaponised it for his political ends, and turned it into raw street power. He did not have to indulge in terrorist violence, yet was more successful than any other extremist group in getting his way with those in power too.

At the very least, he forced successive governments to perish the thought of reforming the draconian blasphemy laws. And he was repeatedly able to target and undermine civilian governments.

In this way, he was a counterpoint to Saeed and other jihadists who had been tagged as global terrorists by the international community. Their work was secretive and across borders. Rizvi, on the other hand, was out there, harnessing religion across the country without setting off large-scale violence. Plus he had no links with militant Islamists in Afghanistan or with IS or al-Qaeda. More importantly, he was a populist who knew the pulse of the average conservative Sunni Pakistani.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi gestures to his supporters during a campaign rally ahead of general election in Karachi, Pakistan July 1, 2018. (Reuters Photo: Akhtar Soomro, File)

But like the others, he was also a natural ally of the Pakistan military which uses religious extremism for its own agenda. For a week immediately preceding his death, Khadim had summoned his followers to march on Islamabad in protest against French President Emmanuel Macron’s stand in favour of free speech and the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed. In his speeches at the protests, Rizvi also launched scathing attacks against former PM Nawaz Sharif who had accused Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa of conspiring with the judiciary to oust him. Rizvi accused Sharif of working to the agenda of outsiders.


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Rise from nowhere

Rizvi literally came out of the blue. His launchpad was the 2011 assassination of Salman Taseer, the Pakistani politician who was then Governor of Punjab province, by his bodyguard. Rizvi was then an unknown government-employed cleric in Lahore. He took up the cause of Taseer’s assassin Mumtaz Qadri, lauding him for killing a man who had come out in support of Asia Bibi, the jailed Christian woman accused of blasphemy. The government served Rizvi several warnings over his utterances before finally sacking him. After this, he threw himself into a campaign in support of blasphemy laws and for the release of Qadri. The PPP government was then considering a repeal or reform of the draconian laws, but had to shelve this.

After Qadri was hanged in February 2016, Rizvi and his supporters swarmed Islamabad and sat on a dharna on the day of his chelum, the 40th day after death. There was teargassing and rioting. Three people died. 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).


A widely circulated video of Rizvi weeping at the funeral, and putting his turban at the feet of Qadri for not being able to save him, cemented his leadership of the movement, whose declared aim was to safeguard the blasphemy laws. He left Islamabad with a warning to Sharif that he would return, which he did in November 2017, when he and thousands of his followers sat-in on an arterial road between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, paralysing life in both cities for nearly a month.

The trigger for the protest was an attempt to reform the election laws, which Rizvi alleged was aimed at diluting the anti-Ahmadi provisions. Finally the Pakistani Army, which had refused to use force to evict the protestors, brokered a deal that was effectively a total surrender by the government. Not only was the amendment rolled back, the Law Minister also resigned after issuing an apology. A senior military officer was seen distributing money to the protesters, which was explained away as ticket money for going home. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

Khadim Hussein Rizvi leads an anti France rally in Karachi, Pakistan. (AP Photo: Fareed Khan, File)

When the TLP contested the 2018 general elections, it positioned itself as the guardian of Hurmat-e-Rasool (Prophet Muhammad’s honour) and the custodian of blasphemy laws. It polled 4.21% of the votes countrywide and emerged the fifth largest party, better than the performance of LeT chief Hafiz Saeed’s party. It also won three seats in the Sindh Provincial Assembly.

After that, the TLP carried out periodic protests, paralysing the government in November 2018 with a huge sit-in in Islamabad demanding the execution of Aasia Bibi after she was acquitted by the Supreme Court. The government signed an agreement with the TLP that she would not be allowed to leave the country as it was believed she would do after the acquittal.

What now


After Rizvi’s death, his son Saad Rizvi has been appointed as the head of the TLP. The leaders of other parties, such as the Sunni Tehreek Pakistan, or the Jamiat Ulema e Pakistan, are also likely to see an opportunity – either to revive their own outfits to ride the current wave of Barelvi religious extremism and political activism, or to try and take over the leadership of the movement that Rizvi has left behind. Either way, they will need powerful benefactors.

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First published on: 23-11-2020 at 03:02:07 am
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