Khadim Rizvi leaves a violent legacy in Pakistan

Khadim Rizvi leaves a violent legacy in Pakistan

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A firebrand cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who was known for his vitriolic sermons, has died days after his organization had once again paralyzed the capital with anti-France demonstrations. 

His death may have come as a great setback for his group, but he has left a legacy that will continue to haunt Pakistani society. The spectacular rise of what is described as a "radical Barelvi" movement that he led has given a new and dangerous twist to the issue of religion and politics in the country.

Rizvi who was physically paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair rallied his supporters under the banner of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) that changed the dynamics of religious politics in the country. It was a movement rather than a well-knit and organized political party born out of the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. 

This has also been an assertion of Barelvi radicalism against Salafi groups. Its politics is based on animus against other religious groups and that justifies violence in the name of faith.

The group came into the political limelight in 2017 when its supporters brought Islamabad under siege for two weeks. While the clerics blasted the civil and military leadership with highly inflammable harangue and incited their supporters to violence, the administration was in a state of inertia with security agencies unable to act against the group which was paralyzing the seat of government.

The cleric went back home triumphant after the government accepted his demand that included the resignation of the then law minister. The virtual surrender of the state emboldened the group and a widening civil-military divide encouraged the zealots. This policy of appeasement raised questions of tacit backing from security agencies.

Footage widely telecast on private television channels of the Punjab Rangers’ chief distributing cash to protesters and allowing them to take selfies with him drew criticism. It seemed the group was being rewarded for acts of violence when they attacked civilian law enforcers and destroyed public property. 

There has hardly been an instance where the state has capitulated so humiliatingly to a group of extremists holding the nation’s capital hostage.

Hundreds of thousands of people attended the funeral paying homage to the hardline cleric. This shows growing support for an extremist and sectarian ideology, which Rizvi’s death will not diminish.  His son, who has now been chosen as his successor, will take his father’s religious politics forward.

Zahid Hussain

Rizvi used the blasphemy issue to whip up religious sentiment both in urban and rural areas. The TLP showed its electoral prowess in the 2018 general election by getting a significant number of votes-- the group’s performance across Punjab and Karachi was beyond expectation. It had put up candidates in almost all constituencies of national and provincial (Punjab) assemblies, eating into the vote bank of other Islamic parties.

This raised many questions. How was a group with extremist views allowed to participate in electoral politics in violation of the country’s laws? Their vitriolic campaign stoked the fires of violent sectarian extremism, threatening the democratic political process in the country. Not surprisingly, the Islamabad siege and the arrival of the TLP on the electoral scene triggered a host of conspiracy theories about its backers.

The rise of ‘Barelvi radicalism’ led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi dealt a blow to Pakistan’s struggle against sectarianism and extremism.  The TLP may not have a concrete programme for it to be a formidable electoral force in the long term but the state’s soft stance towards the religious right gave parties like TLP greater space. 

Although they remain on the fringes of power politics, religious groups in the country continue to wield more influence than their electoral support base indicates.

Just days before his death, Rizvi had lain siege to Islamabad yet again and demanded the expulsion of the French ambassador, as well as the boycotting of French imports in protest against what he described, were President Macron’s ‘anti Islam’ remarks. The siege was lifted after the group claimed the administration had accepted its demands. It was described as yet another surrender by the state.

All this is a tragic commentary on state policy, which gives such leeway to a group that glorified a murderer in the name of faith. 

The latest siege of Islamabad gives some insight into the growing power of the radical religious group. Indeed, the deal ended the protests but it has also exposed various fault lines that are worsening the existential crisis the state faces.

Hundreds of thousands of people attended the funeral paying homage to the hardline cleric. This shows the growing support for an extremist and sectarian ideology, which Rizvi’s death will not diminish.  His son, who has now been chosen as his successor, will take his father’s religious politics forward.

– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.

Twitter: @hidhussain 

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