Khadim Hussain Rizvi presents his demands before TLYRA supporters| Photos by Tanveer Shehzad /White Star
Khadim Hussain Rizvi presents his demands before TLYRA supporters| Photos by Tanveer Shehzad /White Star

This article was originally published in Dawn, EOS, in December, 2017.

Before November, only a few people had paid attention to the wheelchair-bound cleric with a flowing white beard. His newly registered political party, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA), had certainly drawn the interest of political analysts and journalists after its unexpectedly strong showing in recent by-elections, but by and large, Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi remained a marginal figure in the public consciousness.

However, by the time his dharna — which had paralysed Islamabad over almost three weeks — had brought about an unconditional capitulation of the state to his demands, almost everyone in Pakistan had become familiar at least with his visage and his firebrand style of oratory.

But few still know exactly who Khadim Hussain Rizvi is, where he came from and what he represents.

The narrative of these times is that Rizvi has emerged out of nowhere, that he is the poster boy of the mainstreaming of jihadis that is marking national politics these days. These assumptions are simplistic and short-sighted.

Leading the mob that held the capital hostage was a relatively unknown cleric. This is the story of the man who has become the new face of Barelvi politics

Rewind to January 4, 2011, when a police officer named Mumtaz Qadri opened fire at the man he was supposed to protect, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer. Although large swathes of the citizenry condemned the murder, men such as Rizvi justified the act on the pretext that Taseer had termed the blasphemy law as a “black law.”

At the time, Rizvi was serving as an auqaf official in the Punjab government. He was served warning notices to cease and desist from spreading his venom, and when he didn’t, he was removed from public service. Those close to him claim that Rizvi not only accepted his termination orders but also refused attempts by the Punjab government to pay his outstanding dues as well as a job offer for his elder son.

Relieved from his duties, Rizvi found greater time and liberty to preach his views. He became deeply involved in organising public support for Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which deals with blasphemy committed against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and travelled the length and breadth of the country for the cause. Simultaneously he continued to raise his voice for the release of Mumtaz Qadri.

In January, 2016, Rizvi organised a rally in Lahore at the mausoleum of Allama Mohammad Iqbal, without obtaining official permission. As a result, the Lahore police dispersed the crowd with the use of water-cannons and baton charges. Later in the year, in March, after the government hanged the convicted Mumtaz Qadri, Rizvi along with some other Barelvi groups (including Sunni Tehreek Pakistan) led a march to D-Chowk opposite the parliament in Islamabad. Although this too was marked by violence, the four-day-long sit-in came to an end after Owais Noorani, son of the founder of Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP), late Shah Ahmed Noorani, brokered a truce. The government allowed the protestors safe passage while accepting some of their demands, but before that, it had also made life difficult for protestors by stopping any supply of food and water.

In his last speech before dispersing from D-Chowk, Rizvi announced he would counter the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) at every forum. It was only later on that he established his party, TLYRA, and applied for registration from the Election Commission of Pakistan.

His persistent championing of the matter earned him the nickname of “blasphemy activist” in religious circles. And it is the same issue that propelled him to prominence over the past two months.

Developments after the launching of the Faizabad operation also show that there is more to the sit-in than just pressuring the government or to gain political mileage for TLYRA. The scope of this ‘dharna’ seems to be much broader and hints at the revival of Barelvi politics which had seemed to have fizzled out for more than a decade.


TLYRA support comes face-to-face with law enforcement at the Faizabad Interchange
TLYRA support comes face-to-face with law enforcement at the Faizabad Interchange

Born in 1966 in the Pindi Gheb area of Attock District, Punjab, Rizvi is a said to be an introvert who shies away from talking about his personal life even among his close circles, let alone with media personnel. A Hafiz-e-Quran and Sheikh-ul-Hadith, Rizvi used to deliver Friday sermons at Lahore’s Pir Makki Masjid, located near Daata Darbar, during his time in the Punjab Auqaf Department.

Rizvi has been confined to a wheelchair since 2006 ever since an accident near Gujranwala. Contrary to the many myths floating around, Rizvi was injured because the driver of his vehicle fell asleep while driving from Rawalpindi to Lahore.

Many mistake him as a Shia because of his last name, but in truth, he is a staunch follower of Imam Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi, the 19th century founder of the Barelvi sect.

In fact, one of the slogans making the rounds among Rizvi’s supporters is: “Hum sab kuch bardasht kar saktay haen magar apnay aaqa SAW ki shaan main adni si baat bhi bardasht nahin kar saktay [We can tolerate anything but we won’t tolerate anything said against the Prophet, PBUH].” This feeds into a hard-line stance on the minority Ahmadis that is adopted by Rizvi and his supporters.

Rizvi’s first entry into mainstream politics was in the by-elections of NA120, which fell vacant after the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif. Since his party wasn’t registered at the time, he pushed his weight behind an independent candidate named Sheikh Azhar Hussain Rizvi. The TLYRA-backed Shiekh Rizvi bagged 7,130 votes in the elections held on September 17, 2017.

“People did not vote for me but the cause that we are here for,” Rizvi tells Eos. “Our votes were higher than the 519 votes of the Jamaat-i-Islami [JI] and the 1,414 votes bagged by the Pakistan Peoples Party [PPP].”


A supporter prays at the feet of Rizvi| Caren Firouz/Reuters
A supporter prays at the feet of Rizvi| Caren Firouz/Reuters

The first election contested by Rizvi’s party under the TLYRA banner was in NA-4 Peshawar, held on October 26, 2017. TLYRA candidate Dr Muhammad Ahafique Ameeni bagged 9,935 votes.

“This was higher than the 7,668 votes obtained by the JI candidate, despite the fact that this party has been in power in the province earlier too,” argues Dr Ameeni. He alludes to the perception that the rival Deobandi school of thought has a larger following in the province KP by saying “These results have also dispelled the impression that the people of Peshawar do not follow the path of saints.”

Starting from November 6, 2017 a protest rally comprising a small number of ideological activists started from Lahore and reached Islamabad two days later to settle at Faizabad Interchange, the key junction between Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Back then, this protest rally went almost unnoticed as the chehlum of Imam Hussain was being commemorated in the federal capital.

But in the days to follow, the leaders of the sit-in not only became known to the political circles of the capital but also to the general public who were shocked to hear the crude, abusive language being used by the ostensibly religious leaders. While the TLYRA demanded the sacking of Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid over the “softening” of anti-blasphemy laws in the country, the focus was squarely on the main leader, Rizvi.

The general perception by government functionaries, including the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) Administration, was that the protestors would soon move towards D-Chowk overlooking the Parliament building. All arrangements were made by authorities in view of this perception and a wall of containers was erected on all roads leading towards the Red Zone of Islamabad, which houses all important government buildings.

However, contrary to the intelligence reports and the opinion of the bureaucracy, Rizvi decided to establish the camps at the highest bridge of the Faizabad Interchange, and his followers blocked the Islamabad Expressway. After repeated futile efforts by the government to negotiate a way out, the Islamabad High Court ordered the government to act against the sit-in.

On the eighteenth day of sit-in, on November 25, the government launched an operation resulting in violent clashes between the supporters of Rizvi and the security forces. While the interior minister had claimed several times earlier that the government could dislodge the sit-in within three hours, the ICT administration made similar boastful claims at around 10.30am — some three hours after the launch of the operation.

By noon, however, the tide had turned against the government as a large number of backers of the protestors had mysteriously joined in at Faizabad, surrounding the Punjab Police, Islamabad Police and Frontier Constabulary from several sides. One officer of Punjab Police also died in the clashes that ensued. Several police vehicles were torched, the house of former interior minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan at Faizabad was attacked, and the violence spread to other cities of Punjab as well as to Karachi.

The government responded with a forced shutdown of all news channels, followed by blocking social media networks, to contain the flow of information. This created mayhem and confusion in Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Lahore and some other cities in Punjab.

Finally, by late evening the army chief intervened and asked “both sides” to show restraint.

In less than 10 hours after it was launched, the government was forced to call off the operation. The interior ministry subsequently issued a notification full of typo-errors requesting the army to help maintain law and order in the twin cities. By Saturday evening, personnel of Punjab Rangers started deployments at major intersections of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, which allowed stranded commuters to reach their destinations. All this while, Rizvi and his followers remained rooted to their positions at the Faizabad intersection, which remained closed for traffic.

The following day, on Sunday, the civil and military leaderships decided not to use force against the protesters staging the sit-in at the Faizabad Interchange. It was also decided that Rangers, not the army, would be deployed to deal with the sit-in issue. A settlement was eventually brokered by the army which also promised to set free all those arrested; one of the guarantors was a director general of the ISI. The sit-in was called off and Faizabad was finally cleared by the protestors on Monday night.

Meanwhile, Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s status as a formidable political leader had been cemented.

If it is handled without care, it could be another extremist narrative — like creating another problem to defeat an existing problem,” says Amir Rana, director at the Pakistan Institute of Policy Studies. He supports peaceful means to promote a counter-narrative among the Sunni population but also argues that Shia leaders have successfully been able to check the growth of militancy among their ranks.


The protest and sit-in in Islamabad witnessed two new aspects in the political arena of the country.

First, Barelvi groups not only turned violent to have their demands accepted but also showed that they were willing to sacrifice themselves upon the call of their leader.

And second, at least in popular perception, there seemed to be support for the protestors from the military, despite court orders to have them removed from Faizabad. This perception of overt and covert support was fanned mainly after the settlement accord — which specifically thanked the army chief for preventing more bloodshed — was inked. It gained more currency as footage began doing the rounds of the Punjab Rangers’ director general himself distributing money among protestors ‘to go home’ after they were released from police custody.

Prior to their departure, speakers at Faizabad had repeatedly highlighted that they were in a majority in the country, and authorities should not consider “peace-loving citizens” as docile ‘halwa eaters’ who stayed confined to shrines. Many who took the dais boasted that they have been able to bring the government to its knees.

What makes matters interesting is that Barelvi support has been crucial to the PML-N’s votebank. And this sit-in now threatens to eat into Nawaz Sharif’s constituency.

Talking to Eos, Rizvi claims that his group has been successful in “restoring the honour” of the Prophet and in restricting all elements who wanted to lower the stature of the Prophet in law and the constitution.

“Now even the leaders of Deobandi groups are following our path and speaking out against those responsible for softening the blasphemy laws,” argues Rizvi. “The result of the operation has also shown that [Deobandi groups] have been left behind on the street too.”

Outside his tent at the Faizabad Interchange, speakers continued to malign Deobandi groups. They claimed that the Barelvi majority of Pakistan was the only religious inclination that had put its weight behind army operations against militancy.

Notwithstanding the mechanics of religious politics, developments after the launching of the Faizabad operation also show that there is more to the sit-in than just pressuring the government or to gain political mileage for TLYRA. The scope of this ‘dharna’ seems to be much broader and hints at the revival of Barelvi politics which had seemed to have fizzled out for more than a decade.

“Barelvis have been subjected to suppression for over a century and a reversal to this phenomenon has started,” contends Rizvi. “Though it will take time but eventually the voice of the majority will prevail.”

Referring to Deobandi political parties, he notes: “We have learned a lot in the recent past and we are ready to counter conspiracies by these so-called Sunnis.”

On the last day of the sit-in at Faizabad, when enthusiasm and fervour too was very visible among the participants, the protest venue had also witnessed the arrival of scores of small and unknown groups and parties who announced their support to the TLYRA. Even prominent and established political groups now believe that the outcome of sit-in favours the revival of Barelvi-based groups in politics.

“There is no doubt that the devotees of the Prophet, PBUH, have overcome a great hurdle by reciting naat after naat during this sit-in,” says Sahibzada Abul Khair Zubair, leader of JUP. “This is in stark contrast to the general impression about us Barelvi Sunnis, that we are only confined to shrines. We can be strong and successful in politics too.”

Zubair too is critical about the growing influence of Deobandi groups in the political arena, mainly because his group has been sidelined from the efforts to restore the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), the mostly defunct umbrella grouping of religio-political parties.

Since the process of reviving the MMA has been initiated by Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the Deobandi JUI, Zubair was not invited to a recent meeting to deliberate the issue despite being one of the founding members of the MMA and the Milli Yekjehti Council (MYC). The only Barelvi party invited for participation in MMA was JUP-N, a group led by Owais Noorani, whereas one of the key components of the MMA, Maulana Samiul Haq of JUI-S has been negotiating a political alliance with the PTI at the same time as well.

Possibly disgruntled at how religious alliances are panning out, Zubair has established an alliance of Barelvi parties named Nizam-i-Mustafa Muttahida Mahaz. The components of this alliance are his own JUP, Nizam Mustafa Party led by Hamid Saeed Kazmi, Sunni Ittehad Council led by Sahibzada Hamid Raza, Jamaat Ahle Sunnat led by Riaz Hussain Shah, Markazi Jamiat Ahle Sunnat and JUP-Niazi among others.

“We have extended the invitation to Khadim Rizvi as well as Dr Ashraf Jalali, who heads his breakaway faction,” says Zubair, expressing confidence that they will contest upcoming elections from the united platform.

Without naming anybody, he argues that there is a need to take the flag back from the “so-called flag-bearers of Ahle Sunnat”. The reference is to Deobandi Ahle Sunnat Wal Jammat (ASWJ) — formerly Sipah Sahaba Pakistan, which was proscribed — and the new alliance of Barelvi parties is likely to provide stiff competition to the existing religio-political groups.

Meanwhile, the ASWJ discounts the possibility of political or social competition from any such alliance, even from the group led by Rizvi.

“There is no competition between us and them as we are a mature and well-established group that has been in politics since 1989,” says Hafiz Oneeb Farooqui, one of the ASWJ’s spokesmen. “We have gained our way into politics through peaceful means and creating awareness for our cause across the country, but if anybody uses dharna and sit-in for political causes, it is not right.”

The ASWJ spokesman argues that the best forum for legal changes is the Parliament and not the streets.

Indeed Barelvi politics has been marked by phases and a lack of consistency whereas Deobandi politics hasn’t. So for example if the Sunni Tehreek were to show more power on the street, they might become the flavour of the month. Whether Barelvi groups as a whole can consolidate their current gains is a different matter.

At the same time, other religious groups too seem to be watching the developments closely and the two main Shia-based political parties have their own interpretation of the sit-in and its outcome. A senior member of Shia Ulema Council (SUC) says: “The main issue is that too many former Sipahe Sahaba workers have joined the ranks of JUI-F and JUI-S, and now these parties reflect a sectarian outlook. This has led to a rise in extremism among the Barelvi groups too.” The SUC led by Allama Sajid Naqvi was formerly Tehreek-i-Jafria Pakistan (TJP) that was banned in 2002, but remains a member of the MYC and part of the group working for the revival of the MMA.

A different perspective is provided by Allama Raja Nasir Abbas, secretary-general of the Shia Majlis Wahdat-i-Muslimeen, who supports the rise of Barelvi political groups. “The most unfortunate part of our history was the Zia era, when the majority of this country — the followers of Sufism and progressive Islam — were forced out of politics,” contends Abbas. “They were replaced with a minority that followed extremist views.”

Abbas makes the link between Barelvi politics and deradicalisation, arguing that if the country did not want to produce outfits such as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), then there is a need to promote the “rational version” of Sunni Islam that is Barelvism and not “those who kill peaceful people at Sehwan Sharif and other shrines.”

Incidentally, a senior security officer also claims that the matter relates to more serious issues that is beyond politics and elections. “This will eventually lead to de-radicalisation of the society away from the clerics who preach violent extremism and are secretly affiliated with banned groups such as the TTP,” he says.

The strong reaction on social media to video clips of DG Punjab Rangers distributing envelopes containing Rs1,000 to the participants of sit-in who were released from police custody generally been based on criticism against the military’s involvement in local politics and on it being seen as rewarding those who had defied the state. The senior security officer, however, asserts the need to consider the other side of the coin too.

“The involvement of the establishment in local affairs is nothing new in this country, but it has never been in such a way,” he says. “This distribution could be indirect too but it was open and so obvious that the religious majority will develop a liking and attachment towards the armed forces, and not believe in what is being said by some clerics.”

The officer says that the main problem in eradication of terrorism was that very small number of sleeper cells were present in the society, operated by experts who have had hardened training in Afghanistan.

“Only clerics can counter the extremist narratives, and if Barelvis become organised and active, they will eventually prevent the youth from falling into the hands of extremists,” he adds.

It may sound unusual but many hardline clerics continue to speak openly against the military establishment, if not encouraging violent attacks on them, and a similar speech was made recently at the controversial Lal Masjid in Islamabad. Amir Siddique, the designated cleric of Lal Masjid, who is also the nephew of Maulana Abdul Aziz, delivered a fiery sermon at Friday prayers on November 24, a day prior to the operation, criticising the intelligence agencies.

“When there was a standoff in the Lal Masjid operation, these people — without uniform — used to come to us and assured us that we should stand steadfast,” Amir Siddique said in his sermon. “They told my martyred uncle Abdul Rasheed Ghazi that eventually Sharia law will prevail in the country. But you all saw what happened. I appeal to the leaders of the sit-in not to believe these people, they will let you down too.”

The reassertion of Barelvi politics through militancy can be a minefield according to some analysts.

“If it is handled without care, it could be another extremist narrative — like creating another problem to defeat an existing problem,” says Amir Rana, director at the Pakistan Institute of Policy Studies (PIPS). He supports peaceful means to promote a counter-narrative among the Sunni population but also argues that leaders of the Shia community — religious and social — have successfully been able to check the growth of militancy among their ranks.

“Even NGOs and civil society members, who usually distance themselves from religious issues, take active part in all the protests held against the killing of Shia — mainly because there is negligible or nominal tit for tat terrorism by them,” he argues.

Indeed, the rise of Barelvi politics could be a double-edged sword for society if mishandled by the power brokers. Any induction of extremist doctrines and violent groups among them could lead to an additional layer of sectarian-based discord in society.

The writer is a member of staff.

He tweets @AliKalbe

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 3rd, 2017


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