TLP: Pakistan's top Islamist party calls the blows

ISLAMABAD: They called for the murder of the Supreme Court judges in Pakistan, called for a mutiny in the armed forces and promised to wipe out the Netherlands with nuclear weapons.

In a few years, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party – or the Prophet's Service Movement – has become one of the most powerful groups in Pakistan, dictating terms to successive governments and paralyzing the country at will with violent protests.

Led by the Khadim Hussain Rizvi clan, the far-right religious party has armed the problem of ultra-sensitive blasphemy in the predominantly Muslim nation, triggering the fear that the TLP is radicalizing the heart of the country and opening a dangerous new chapter in the brutal confrontation of the Pakistan with extremism.

Here is an overview of why the group is so powerful and how they were able to exploit the extraordinarily inflammatory blasphemy charge to increase their follow-up across Pakistan.

The TLP began as a faction calling for the release of Mumtaz Qadri – a bodyguard who killed Punjab governor Salman Taseer in Islamabad in 2011.

Later, Qadri cited Taseer's requests to reform the country's blasphemy laws as a motif and hanged in 2016.

The TLP has formed an official political party – earning over two million votes and two provincial seats in the general election this year, in what analysts have termed a "surprisingly" rapid increase.

By making blasphemy the central point, and perhaps only the point of discussion, of the party, the TLPs have positioned themselves as the protectors of Islam, effectively depicting their enemies as enemies of religion.

"They presented themselves as the only standard bearers of the blasphemy issue," said columnist Khurshid Nadeem. "Violence is a currency that sells in today's times … they have shown that they can also kill and be killed for their cause."

The TLP entered national consciousness in 2017 when supporters blocked Islamabad's capital with violent protests for several weeks, compared to changes made to parliamentary oaths, which the group considered blasphemous. At least seven died in violence.

The protests succeeded in forcing the resignation of the minister of the federal law of the country in a military mediation agreement that saw the TLP practically acquitted of any wrongdoing.

Since then, they have recently coined Prime Minister Imran Khan's administration to fire an economic advisor to belong to the persecuted Ahmadi religious minority.

The group has also been linked to an assassination attempt by the former interior minister Ahsan Iqbal in May, although he has distanced himself from the incident.

His leader Rizvi would have told journalists that if he took power in the country with nuclear weapons he would have "erased Holland from the face of the earth" above the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published there.

The TLP flexed its muscles again last week, when hours after the country's Supreme Court overturned the blasphemy sentence of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, her followers invaded the streets of the country, causing traffic jams.

He called for the murder of court judges and a "mutiny" in the armed forces.

Khan initially emitted a fierce rebuke from the group, but his administration appeared to reverse a few days later with an agreement.

"For Pakistani politicians, it is easier to challenge the courts than a violent crowd that claims to be the true representatives of Islam," said Omar Waraich of Amnesty International, adding that the government "did not want to be considered irreligious".

Following the release of Bibi on Wednesday, the TLP accused the government of disavowing the agreement and promised to return to the streets if they were allowed to leave the country.

The fears of the TLP stem from the growing popularity of the group in the heart of Punjab and their ability to impose their will on governments with minimal or no official reaction.

While previous extremist movements such as the Pakistani Taliban belonged to the Deobandi sect minority, the roots of the TLP in the traditional religious branch of Barelvi Islam – traditionally thought of as moderate Sufi – alarmed the observers.

"They are radicalizing people … in particular they are focusing on the provinces of Punjab and Sindh and have already radicalized a large part of society," Amir Rana security analyst told AFP.

The Pakistani security forces remain hesitant to suppress religious groups, fearing that any heavy move may trigger a violent reaction similar to the insurgency triggered by a military crackdown on the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007.

The growing power of the TLP is also of particular concern to the Pakistani community of the Ahmadis, who consider themselves Muslims but are considered blasphemous in most of the main Islamic currents of thought, and have long been targeted by extremists.

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