Activists and supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a religious party, shout slogans during an anti-France demonstration in Islamabad on November 16, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Aamir Qureshi

It is very uncommon to find a country where a few hundred or even a few thousand religious extremists can besiege the capital for two days and paralyze life there. However, it is a common thing in Pakistan, at least for the extremist religious cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who heads Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP), an Islamist political party.

Rizvi, who hails from the Barelvi sect of Islam, announced a protest against the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad that were published in France. On Sunday, his followers from across the country gathered at a well-known park called Liaquat Bagh Rawalpindi and then reached the boundary between the federal capital Islamabad and the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

For almost two days Rizvi and his followers virtually besieged the twin cities, and the closure of Internet and cellular services created a panic among the public. It was a repeat of the 2017 TLP sit-in, where Rizvi not only besieged the twin cities but politically damaged the ruling party at the time, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

The only difference was that in 2017 mainstream media and the now-ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), supported the sit-in, whereas this time mainstream media almost blacked out the event and no major opposition party endorsed Rizvi’s act.

However, the question is how is it possible that Rizvi, who does not enjoy massive street power like the religious party of Fazal-ur-Rehman, always manages to reach the strategic Faizabad Interchange without difficulty.

The famous verdict of the Supreme Court regarding the sit-in in 2017 pointed to a link between Rizvi and the military establishment at that point. However, no independent investigation was conducted into the alleged nexus of Rizvi and military officers.

Rizvi’s TLP in fact got 2.2 million votes in the general election of 2018, and with every day his popularity is growing among the right-wing religious segment of the Pakistani public. His speeches on protecting the religion and the Prophet have attracted reasonable support in both urban and rural areas of Punjab province.

Perhaps he was launched by the powers that be to divide the right-wing vote that usually favored the PML-N. However, Rizvi’s rise to popularity is a sign that neither the state nor the masses have learned their lessons from the unsuccessful experiment of backing non-state actors.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi (C), head of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious political party, gestures as he leads an anti-Indian protest rally in Lahore on August 9, 2019. Photo: AFP/Arif Ali

Rizvi’s arrival in the capital and forcing the PTI government to sign a deal is also not a good sign for the political parties and democracy. The government late on Monday finalized a deal with TLP according to which it will send the French ambassador packing through legislation in the National Assembly. Also, the government will ensure the boycott of French products and will not appoint an ambassador to France.

Now if you look at the agreement between the PTI government and TLP, it appears that Pakistan has no other issue on its agenda but to teach France a lesson. The Covid-19 resurgence, India’s unprovoked shelling of civilian areas of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan, inflation, unemployment, poverty and the growing pressure from the opposition – none of that is considered relevant, but a cleric with few thousand members of his cult is viewed as a major problem.

And this has occurred in a country where even the mainstream political parties with massive street power are not allowed to stage protests in sensitive places like Faizabad. In any case, Rizvi again has successfully distracted the attention of the masses from the real issues and after getting a face-saving exit he has made a mockery of the entire state.

Rizvi’s handlers have achieved the desired results. First, a message has been conveyed to the world that democratic governments are weak and fundamentalists can easily capture even the national capital, so the world should take Rizvi’s backers seriously. Also, the religious card is being kept alive to counter the political forces.

This recent show by Rizvi clearly depicts that nothing will change in the country as the religious narratives suiting mullahs and the invisible forces are here to stay and no mainstream political party can change them. Rizvi is just a puppet, and more pawns like him will be introduced in future to keep the masses in the chains of mental slavery in the name of religion.

The faith merchants will be used to brainwash the weak segment of society and in the end, a few shrewd men from the power elite sitting in their dark rooms enjoying French wine or whisky will reap the benefits.

It has been the same tale since the 1970s, and nothing has changed except the faces. Religion is used to benefit the power elite, especially the military establishment, while the faith merchants in the process have become stronger at the cost of weakening the state. Since religious sentiments are considered above anything else, it is hard, in fact very difficult, to raise rational questions on religious narratives.

Rizvi is criticized by many but no one raises the question on the fundamental problem, and that is the need to separate religion from the state. In modern times religion has not contributed to the development of the societies of other countries, but science and technology have.

There is almost zero contribution of any Muslim scientist or scholar as far as modern technology and the science-oriented world is concerned, yet the self-destructive journey of using religion for short-term gains continues.

Religious faith may provide a sense of satisfaction on a personal level, but countries and societies progress through the economy, science, technology and knowledge.

The sanctity of the Prophet and religion can only be preserved by contributing to the betterment and development of the world, not by chanting slogans or locking down the cities of their own country.

Activists and supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a religious party, shout slogans beside empty tear gas shells fired by police during an anti-France demonstration in Islamabad on November 16, 2020. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi

The unleashing of Rizvi in 2017 saw an increase in hate toward the minorities in the country, and now his relaunch will further polarize society on a religious basis. We don’t know whether the impact of the protests of the likes of Rizvi will ever reach France or not, but it is certain that his rhetoric and hatred toward other human beings on the basis of religion will bring more violence to an already intolerant and extremist society.

However, if Pakistan can produce people of the caliber of Dr Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and others, not only will it become an advanced country but its protests will matter a lot. Until this happens there is no point in blocking roads, beating policemen and bringing everyday life to a halt.

There is a difference between protesting against hate speech or deliberate efforts of someone to hurt the sentiments of a certain religion and exploiting religion and hate speech for one’s own short-term benefit.

Images of the TLP extremists capturing the capital of Pakistan have made world headlines, and this has only done more damage to the country. There have been protests against France over the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in other countries, but the world has not seen capitals like Riyadh, Kuala Lumpur or Ankara besieged by mobs of religious fanatics.

It is time that both the policymakers and the masses learn the art of paying heed to protests and dissent with some grace that can actually win the hearts of those who differ from their views. Those using religion to shape state narratives should realize that if these narratives have given us nothing for the last 72 years, they will not deliver in the next 73 years either.

A judicial investigation should be ordered by the government, or the Supreme Court can take a suo motu action on how Rizvi reached the capital and who was financing him and giving him backing.

A free and impartial judicial inquiry into this latest sit-in by Rizvi could expose his backers and could prove beneficial in getting rid of people like him who have become liabilities to the state.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.