TLP beyond religious passion

October 31, 2021

How do we make sense of the TLP’s exceptional display of love and respect, the ensuing mobilisations and the ongoing contention around the French embassy, and the performance of TLP in 2018 election?

Photo by Rahat Dar
Photo by Rahat Dar

The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is once again on the streets. It says it wants the government to honour the agreement reached with the party previously and shut down the French diplomatic mission. The party says it wants the French mission out of the country because it believes that the French government committed blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Many in the PTI government, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, have made it look like they share this perception about Western states making light of Muslim sentiments and called upon the West to understand the relationship between the Muslims and the prophet. However, the dismissal of the French mission is not an agreeable course of action for the government faced with a chronic crisis of civil-military imbalance and fiscal and current accounts deficits. In fact, the mainstream opposition, including traditional religious outfits like the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam and the Jamaat-i-Islami, and influential segments — civil society actors like traders and their associations, established clerics and their networks of shrines, mosques and seminaries share the sentiment on blasphemy. And yet, neither the opposition nor these key civil society actors have taken to the streets on blasphemy like Labbaik has since Mumtaz Qadri’s execution in 2016.

How do we make sense of this exceptional display of love and respect, the ensuing mobilisations including the 2017 Faizabad sit in, the 2018-19 agitation on Aasia Bibi’s acquittal and the ongoing episode of contention around the French embassy, and the electoral performance of TLP in 2018 election?

A dominant narrative in the media has sought to link the rise of the TLP to the military establishment’s electoral engineering practices. The argument goes that the TLP came into existence on account of the puppeteers urge to cut the PML-N to size. Seeking an opportunity in the public outcry over Qadri’s execution, they allowed the far-right segment of the Barelvi clergy to organise themselves under the TLP banner. The civil-military tussle around the Faizabad sit-in and the subsequent electoral performance of the TLP, the PML-N and the PTI in the Punjab lend credence to this narrative. I don’t mean to dismiss this narrative entirely.

A different, yet related, narrative identifies the rise of the TLP with the state’s strategic shift away from Deobandi organisations and their networks in the post-9/11 and post-TTP context. The argument goes that the state turned to the ‘peaceful’ sufis to cement its eroded political authority vis-à-vis militant opposition from segments of Deobandi clergy and their organisations. In the process, it has ended up radicalising segments of Barelvi clergy gathered under the TLP banner.

Both these narratives have elements of truth in them: the military has and continues to engineer the political process, cementing ‘king’s parties’ against any remotely democratic public aspiration. There is empirical evidence to suggest that the post-9/11 turn towards the ‘peaceful sufi Islam’ by the state and its imperialist support infrastructure in Washington DC and the Gulf sheikhdoms in particular.

However, the military’s oversized role in the political process or the imperialist state infrastructure’s patronage are only two variables in this plot. In and of themselves, they don’t explain why a segment of the Barelvi clerics would turn into hardliners and why sizeable segments of the population in the Punjab would lend their support to these clerics.

I don’t have a clear-cut answer to the mystery, but I want to offer a hypotheses about the Pakistani state, space and economy that may prove useful in demystifying the plot, beyond political engineering and imperial support theses.

Rights groups have documented an unprecedented increase in blasphemy-related mob violence and extrajudicial killings since the 1986 reforms to the anti-blasphemy laws, which targetted the Ahmadiyya community in particular, and expanded the scope of the law to a range of holy personalities, making blasphemy punishable by death.

Most of these instances have been reported from central and northern Punjab, targetting Christian and Ahmadiyya minorities as well as Shia Muslims. Whereas most of these cases are rooted in personal disputes, often over material resources like land, they get channelised through prevailing religious and moral sensibilities, on the one hand, and along social hierarchies of caste and class, on the other. The history of caste-based segregation and subjugation of Christian communities is central to any explanation of localised mob violence. However, it will be prudent to not see caste-related power differentials as fixed in time or space. That hierarchies of caste have mapped onto those of class should be obvious in the case of Punjabi Christians who face state-sanctioned discrimination.

However, it should also be noted that caste- and class- intersections may play out differently in different instances. For instance, consider two prominent instances of mob violence and persecution of Christian communities: the mob attack in Shantinagar, a Christian village near Khanewal, in February of 1997 and the threat of mob violence in the February 2018 instance reported from Illahi Abad neighbourhood on the outskirts of Faisalabad. Many Christian residents of Shantinagar were tenant-cultivators on land owned by The Salvation Army. These tenants had secured land ownership during the Bhutto-era land reforms. Subsequently they attained some class mobility reflected in enhanced literacy and consumption patterns. Regardless of the immediate antecedents, the 1997 attack on the village transpired in context of class mobility sitting in contradiction with the group’s inscription as lower-caste. The class-caste nexus becomes clearer in the case of Illahi Abad, a neighbourhood developed around manual- and semi-skilled livelihood options enabled by the nearby textile industry. Migrants from central Punjab villages, the Christian residents of the area are employed in low-income and low-status jobs that are done by many among their Muslim neighbours as well. Particular class trajectories bringing the two communities together in that space matter. I don’t have information to establish a trend in the trajectory of either of the two communities, but it seems too much of a coincidence that the two communities came together in that space, without the involvement of any class-based process. Ethnographic research validates caution. The blasphemy allegation was made in the wake of a fight between a group of Christian and Muslim men and another group who ultimately sought and secured TLP patronage. That Christian and Muslim men were running a bootlegging business together and were on the same side of the fight against the other group – Muslims with TLP support – suggests, there was a trans-communal sensibility in the neighbourhood rooted in shared habitation in a space, a well-established social phenomenon termed ‘everyday cosmopolitanism’ of ordinary people that signifies cohabitation in the face of economic compulsion and regardless of ascriptive communal identities.

The point to note is that localised instances of mob violence over blasphemy are often designated in press and official documents only as outcomes of stirred passions or outraged sensibilities. These are passionate displays of emotions, but these displays come about under specific social and economic conditions. I suggest that the intersection of caste-class hierarchies is a key factor determining these conditions and creating spaces where communities and individuals with sharply contrasting sensibilities around physical objects and symbols come close together. What is certain is that these sensibilities and their related communal identities are not primordial.

The next question is: how have these localised disputes scaled up to a national-level single-issue mass movement? I suggest that we pay attention to the TLP leadership, those mobilising and organising on its behalf and, finally, the people on the ground.

On its leadership, Khadim Rizvi’s career as an Auqaf-employee-turned-blasphemy-activist is a good indicator, suggesting that prayer leaders, muftis, shaikhs and mutawalisat the helm of the party belong to the post-1980s generation with no direct experience of participation in the country’s defining political contestations over religion (notably, the Nizam-i-Mustafa Movement of 1970s and the 1980s activism leading to legislation). Additionally, they appear to lack claims to hereditary or institutional legacies of the 20th Century contestations. They’re not affiliated with big-brand Barelvi seminaries like Jamia Naeemia or parties like the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan. In fact, these old Barelvi elites and their new counterparts among clerics like Tahirul Qadri have frequently been at the receiving end of rebuke by the TLP supremo. I suggest that part of the explanation for such hostility shown by the TLP towards the Barelvi elites relates to this group’s subordinate position within the intra-institutional hierarchy. Other neo-Barelvi groups like the Sunni Ittehad Council and the Sunni Tehreek draw their leadership from the same pool, but the charisma cultivated by Rizvi through his rhetoric distinguishes the TLP brand from these groups. This charisma signifies Rizvi’s success in subverting the institutional hierarchies and establishing his religious authority over and above many Barelvi leaders, old as well as new.

A distinguishing aspect of Rizvi’s authority is that it brings together segments of an educated middle classes, the party’s face and voice on social media, and precarious social groups like the protagonists of the Illahi Abad case under the banner of a distinctly religious leadership. This confluence of social groups marks a departure from the 20th Century pattern in Pakistan, where Ulema parties lacked support of educated middle classes as this group had its own organic intellectuals among non-seminary trained figures like Syed Abul A’la Maududi and later Dr Israr Ahmed. It’s obvious that the social experience of these educated middle classes is marked by the wider culture of piety cultivated by state patronage of religion and proliferation of religious content on privatised mass media.

However, I suspect that part of the reason why these classes provide mobilisers, organisers, and communicators for the TLP’s contestations relates to their contradictory movement across urban space.

These are products of the post-1980s privatisation and state divestment from the education sector which led to proliferation of colleges and universities providing mediocre and affordable education to a burgeoning urban or urbanising middle class population seeking education for upward mobility and labour market entry. The market logic under which these institutions have since expanded across the urban geography has dictated the choice of subjects taught as well: commerce, business and accounting, computer science, information technology, graphic designing, law etc. These and related degree programs train people to join lower rungs of administration in conservative law offices that sustain the Khatm-i-Nabuwat Lawyers’ Forum or in the newly emergent formal private sector entities in media, telecommunications, banking, real estate, hypermarkets and malls etc. Religion is a key aspect of the prevailing cultural and moral environment at these new workplaces, but these are also often spaces where cultural conservatives rub shoulders with cultural liberals, generating moral anxieties about the threatening presence of internal others that get channelised into the TLP mobilisations. The point is not to suggest that anybody with such an education and employment profile will be a Labbaik supporter. As with any middle-class group, individuals in a group are bound to have different forms of politics. The point rather is that with TLP’s rise is rooted in the fragmented Barelvi religious authority structure. Some segments from among this group have found a form of politics that resonates with their social experiences and cultural ethos.

Additionally, these educated middle classes represent just a part of the TLP’s mobilisational power. Part of it is explained by the organisational network of the Barelvi prayer leaders, muftis, shaikhs and mutawallis and the interface of these networks with bazaar and mohalla in informally-run neighbourhoods like Illahi Abad which have proliferated across the urban and urbanising geography in the face of state retrenchment and a speculative formal housing market, dominated by DHAs and Bahrias, that caters primarily to upper- and upper-middle classes.

The TLP leadership’s dilemma with legitimacy and authority is part of a well-noted trend across contexts by scholars of religion that concerns fragmentation of religious authority in the face of socio-economic change and modern state’s attempts at regulation and control of the religion. In Pakistan’s case, particularly in the post 9/11 environment, there is a parallel fragmentation of the state’s political authority which explains its frequent contestations with Islamist groups – first the Taliban and now the Labbaik. To understand these fragmented religious and political authority structures, we must revisit the 1980s’ political moment where anti-blasphemy legislation took place following a long political process. The moment signified the coming together of the two authority structures, under the direct patronage of the military establishment, to cement the state’s legitimacy against democratic and progressive challenges from socialists, communists, women, students, and ethno-nationalist movements. This compact started breaking when the TTP was established in 2007, requiring repression in the form of legally-sanctioned exceptional measures like military operations and extrajudicial executions – endorsed among others by all parties represented in the parliament (including the JUI, the JI and the JUP). The government’s latest decision to call paramilitary Rangers for 60 days appears to be the beginning of a showdown.

The author, formerly a journalist, is currently pursuing doctoral research

TLP beyond religious passion