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Why are condolences from the highest echelons of power pouring in for a far right, radical cleric?

Why are condolences from the highest echelons of power pouring in for a far right, radical cleric?

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Khadim Rizvi, the head of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), passed away yesterday and condolences from the highest echelons of power have swiftly come pouring in. From the Prime Minister to the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), it seems everyone is struck by grief, which seems odd when just a few days prior Khadim Rizvi and the TLP were holding Islamabad hostage and were being tear gassed by the police. Other than holding the federal capital hostage— thrice, now—the man was no icon of peace. He was a frequent instigator of hate and violence. For Instance, the TLP first paralysed the capital when they were calling for the hanging of Aasia Bibi, despite the court acquitting of her blasphemy charges. So, why then are all elements of the State making such a show of grief and respect for a dangerous and hateful man. The answer lies in his complex but expedient relationship with the government and the establishment.

Khadim Rizvi first rose to prominence when one of his followers, Mumtaz Qadri, murdered the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, for his support of Aasia Bibi and his critiscism of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Rizvi spearheaded a movement for the release of Qadri till his hanging in 2016, whereafter Rizvi renamed his movement the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYP). The TLYP was framed as a movement to safeguard the blasphemy laws from any reform, as per Rizvi, they are Pakistan’s main tool to ensure the honour of the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) isn’t besmirched. By 2016, Khadim Rizvi, a Barelvi cleric, wielded a certain level of political and religious clout that previously only Deobandi clerics possessed in Pakistan. His defence of Mumtaz Qadri allowed him to garner support across sects— for there are many in Pakistan who support death as an appropriate punishment for blasphemy, alleged or otherwise.

Khadim Rizvi’s influence was such that he could and did mobilise large numbers of hardline supporters in the years leading up to the 2018 elections. His message not only appealed to hardline religious fundamentalists but also to the centre right leaning segment of society. This appeal and influence is the reason behind the State’s public grief over his death. 

Khadim Rizvi converted the TLYP into the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), now a political party and not just a religious pressure group, right before the 2018 elections. In, what many political commentators pointed out, was a calculated move by the establishment to break the vote bank of the incumbent government at the time (PML-N). Khadim Rizvi, had already proved he had the street power required to butt heads with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government. His demonstration at Faizabad, in 2017, cut off the federal capital from the rest of the country for days until the resignation of the Law Minister Zahid Hamid was secured.

The death of a useful asset is being mourned, whilst his supporters are being courted as a potential new vote bank.

This demonstration wasn’t just to protest any possible change in the blasphemy laws or the wording of the oath that elected representatives have to take, rather it was a litmus test of his power. He succeeded in backing the government into a corner, which showed his potential to break their vote bank in the 2018 elections. And, he was publicly congratulated for that by uniformed officers of the armed forces. After the protest ended, army representatives were at Faizabad handing out envelopes full of cash to TLP workers who had just been holding the national capital hostage. Ostensibly, this was just a gesture of good will to demonstrate that no ill will towards the protestors was going to be held by the State.

Khadim Rizvi’s party was able to secure two seats in the Sindh Assembly, and more importantly get 2.2 million votes in the 2018 elections. Making the TLP the fifth largest party in the polls. Rizvi was able to break the vote bank of the current opposition, and help propel Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI to victory. There was and still is rampant speculation, with good reason, that the establishment helped the PTI win the 2018 elections. Speculation that PTI ally and current Federal Railway Minister Sheikh Rasheed all but confirmed in an interview. He stated that those sympathising with Mumtaz Qadri would vote for Imran Khan. 

Khadim Rizvi proved to be very useful for both the establishment and the government. And, this explains the lamentation of his demise by the State. Although he did have a somewhat fraught relationship with the State at times, for example, he was jailed for six months after he criticised the judiciary and army generals in a rally in November 2018. He called for  judges to be killed and for soldiers to mutiny after the Supreme Court acquitted Aasia Bibi in the blasphemy case she had been in jail for. 

Khadim Rizvi was useful to the State because he held sway over a very reactionary segment of society and could direct their anger where he so chose. And, that power was used to elevate many who now occupy Pakistan’s corridors of power. So it lines up that the death of a useful asset is being mourned, whilst his supporters are being courted as a potential new vote bank. We should be grateful for the fact that the government and the establishment stopped short of valorising him and, at least, didn’t call him a ‘Shaheed’ (martyr).

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