Police use tear gas to disperse supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, or TLP, during a protest in Lahore on April 12, 2021, after the arrest of their leader, who has called for the expulsion of the French ambassador. Photo: AFP/Arif Ali

Almost all major cities in Pakistan saw protests by the religious extremist outfit Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) on Monday, April 12. The chief of the TLP, Saad Hussain Rizvi, the son of the late Khadim Hussain Rizvi, was detained in Lahore earlier as a precautionary measure by the government to maintain law and order.

The protests stem from when the government of Pakistan, the ruling Tehreek-e-Insaf ( PTI) party, made an agreement with the TLP in November 2020 to expel the French ambassador from the country. The TLP at that time staged protests against the French president for allowing the publication of a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad.

Since it is not possible for the government to expel the French ambassador from the country, the government had no other option than to arrest the chief of the TLP.

The question, however, arises as to why there was no plan to stop the TLP mob from choking traffic in the cities and blocking highways all over the country? At the time of writing – about 4am – a massive crackdown against the protesters had been launched by the government. But even at this early hour, the TLP protesters were resisting law enforcement agencies.

Many think the TLP was launched by invisible quarters to dent the vote bank of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN). A judgment by the Supreme court of Pakistan also holds the powers that be responsible for staging and sponsoring a 2018 sit-in by the TLP.

It is pertinent to note that, in the province of Punjab, the TLP has garnered a huge wave of sympathy among the less educated and small traders. This group, in terms of votes, has left the Pakistan People Party (PPP) behind in Punjab and it also has a strong following in almost all provinces.

A religious group that was created to counter the right-wing vote bank of the PMLN is now gradually becoming a liability for the state as it has only brought more hatred and extremism in the name of religion and the prophet to the country. This is a classic example of shooting oneself in the foot by the deep state as reliance on the mullahs and faith merchants has only pushed the country into ignorance and violence.

Time and again we have seen the TLP choking the cities and bringing life to a halt by blocking the main roads and using violence. On Monday it was no different. In Rawalpindi, the TLP blocked the roads and threw stones at buildings and vehicles.

In the capital, life was normal in most sectors, however, for a few hours the city was under siege as protesters blocked the main entry points to the city. It was the same story in all the major cities, including Lahore and Karachi.

The protesters were demanding the release of their chief and were also asking the government to expel the French ambassador, according to the agreement. Why the federal government made an agreement with an extremist religious organization like the TLP remains a question that has to be answered.

Bowing down to an extremist religious organization means that either the government has no spine and resources to stop extremists, or it is handicapped as a group like the TLP probably has good connections in powerful quarters.

Whatever the reason, one thing is sure – the growing popularity of the TLP among the traders and middle class of the country. This is not a good sign for the country as the TLP claims to be the protector of religious personalities, and like the Tehreek-e-Taliban, it has sympathizers in every segment of society.

The ordinary people exploited by the faith merchants in the name of religion are not able to understand a simple point – that closing down cities forcefully and throwing stones at public property will only damage Pakistan’s reputation and bring a bad name to the country.

The more frustrating thing about the rise of the TLP is that despite the presence of digital media where information is available first hand and people can benefit from critical thinking, there is hardly any progress or effort by the majority of the population to gain any knowledge of the modern world.

It is still easy to brainwash them and exploit them in the name of religion, patriotism and the rhetoric of political slogans. Perhaps those who define the narratives of the country need to decide once and for all whether Pakistan is going in the right direction through modern age education and ways of life, or they still want to keep this country hostage to the rotten narratives of the exploitation of religion and patriotism.

The political elite also needs to come forward and condemn the violence brought to society by the likes of the TLP. The opposition parties’ silence on the TLP’s violent protests will do them no favors in the future. Especially since Sharif’s PMLN was the victim of religious exploitation in the past when the TLP was used against his party and even his interior minister Ahsan Iqbal was shot by TLP sympathizers.

It is time for the political class to take ownership and denounce religious extremism of any form. However, looking at the social and political culture of the country, realistically speaking political parties find it tough to challenge religious extremist groups. The Pakistan Peoples Party, which claims to be a liberal and progressive mainstream political party, was not able to own Salman Taseer after he was killed in the name of blasphemy.

Likewise, Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, who as a Chief Minister requested the Taliban not to attack his province. Imran Khan and his PTI supported the TLP when it staged the infamous Faizabad sit-in of 2017.

Unless a popular mainstream political party takes a risk and challenges the extremist mindset, it will be next to impossible to change the thinking patterns of the masses. We have seen how almost every political party uses the religious or patriotism cards to its advantage. In fact, popular political leaders historically have taken the easy route of going with the already established religious narratives.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto bowed down to the mullahs and banned alcohol and declared Ahmadis non-Muslims, which paved the way for General Zia-Ul-Haq to further take the country into the abyss of ignorance in the name of Islamisation.

Nawaz Sharif in the ’90s was a conservative leader, whereas recently Prime Minister Imran Khan opined that rape happens due to the vulgar dress of women. This kind of populist approach only makes things worse for the country and shrinks the space for any meaningful dialogue to create a pluralistic society.

Intellectual dishonesty is another main factor of growing intolerance and religious hatred as mostly intellectuals and journalists either refrain from writing on sensitive issues or take the same populist approach as the political elite. 

For journalists and intellectuals, it is necessary to raise their voices against the growing intolerance and mobocracy of religious outfits like the TLP, and if they can’t, then they are also part of the problem.

No one, including the TLP, can claim ownership of any religion or become a self-proclaimed defender of religion and religious personality. No organization or individual has the right to disrupt the everyday lives of people and damage public property in the name of protecting religion. There is no provision for any individual or religious group to check the faith of fellow citizens or to demand the government expel diplomats.

If the TLP is again used by powerful quarters – this time to force a change in the center or in the province of Punjab – the major opposition parties must refuse to become part of this and they should back Khan on this issue.

This insanity that breeds extremism and creates chaos needs to be ended, or else the fire of hatred and the mindset of religious extremism will only keep the country in the dark ages.

Someone needs to stand up for the betterment of future generations. This country’s people are not guinea pigs to be exploited in the name of religion and patriotism for the benefit of a few in the ranks of the political elite, the invisible forces or the mullahs.