The EU, Pakistan and the GSP+

What is the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan extremist political party?


Bitter Winter (10.12 – 21.12.2021) – On November 7, 2021, the government of Pakistan capitulated to the protests of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, a radical Islamic fundamentalist political party that had been banned on April 14. The ban was lifted, and the government promised to release from prison the party’s leader, Saad Hussain Rizvi.

Ironically, the decision came on the third anniversary of the release from jail of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who had been sentenced to death by hanging for blasphemy but had been acquitted by the Supreme Court, overturning the lower courts’ verdicts. Upon her release on November 7, 2018, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan gained international notoriety by organizing anti-Bibi riots throughout the country, insisting she should be executed.

Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. 1. The Roots of an Extremist Movement

The rise of a violent political party, now a key actor in Pakistani politics, among the supposedly peaceful Sufi Barelvi movement caught experts by surprise.

by Massimo Introvigne

Article 1 of 7.

After Bitter Winter published an article last month on the problems the Pakistani government encountered when it tried to ban Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a party which was at the center of some of the most violent riots im the country’s recent history, several readers wrote asking where this group, which did not seem typical of “Islamic fundamentalism,” come from, yet is a force the authorities have been unable to stop. TLP is such an important player in contemporary Pakistani politics, and in the violent persecution of religious minorities, that we decided to devote a series to its history.

It is not an easy task, because the growth and prominence of TLP, which originated within the Sufi Barelvi movement, runs counter a received wisdom that dates back to the British colonial scholars of Indian Islam. TLP proves that two common assumptions about political Islam in general, and its activities in Pakistan in particular, are wrong. The first is that Sufi movements are invariably peaceful, and do not generate violent politicized groups. It is certainly true that many Sufis focus on mysticism and personal devotion, are less interested in politics than other Muslims, and reject violence. But this is not a rule without exceptions. Obviously, Sufis feels strongly about the cause of Islam and the Prophet and when they feel Islam is threatened or the Prophet is offended, they may react violently.

Second, British colonial administrators and scholars traditionally believed that it was unlikely that the Barelvi movement in what is today Pakistan might generate viable political movements, one reason being its focus on Sufi mysticism and another its factionalism and conflicts over leadership.



Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. 2. Rejecting Terrorism, Supporting Jihadism

After 9/11, Barelvi condemned terrorist organizations they regarded as Wahhabi-inspired and suicide attacks, but supported jihad against the U.S. and India.

by Massimo Introvigne

Article 2 of 7. Read article 1.

As discussed in the previous article, in the late 20th century the Barelvi, a movement gathering members of several Sufi orders, became increasingly radicalized in Pakistan, contrary to the expectations of those who believed that Sufism was unlikely to produce radical political groups. There were both contingent and ideological reasons for this development.

One reason was that Barelvi had been physically attacked by rival movements opposed to popular Sufism, such as the Deobandi and the Ahl-i-Hadith, who occupied their mosques and killed dozens of their leaders. A second reason was the marginalization of the less politically active Barelvi by Pakistani’s political elite, which exasperated a community that, despite representing the majority of Pakistani Muslims, was excluded from the main political appointments.

An ideological reason of the radicalization, however, was that the Barelvi movement, precisely because it conferred a quasi-divine status to Prophet Muhammad (which was the reason why the rival movements Deobandi and the Ahl-i-Hadith, influenced by the Saudi Wahhabi, accused them of heresy and of compromising the uniqueness of God), believed that civil and political rights should be denied in a Muslim state to those they regarded as being disrespectful to the Prophet.



Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. 3. Asia Bibi and Salman Taseer’ Assassination

The movement supporting the Barelvi assassin of the Punjab governor who had defended the Christian woman accused of blasphemy generated the Tehreek party.

by Massimo Introvigne

Article 3 of 7. Read article 1 and article 2.

In the previous articles, we discussed how the supposedly peaceful Barelvi movement, whose members came from Pakistani Sufi orders, became politically militant in the late 20th century, and its ambiguous reaction to the post-9/11 developments.

Two additional factors should be considered. The first is the role of the Pir, or Sufi masters. While nobody dispute their spiritual authority in the Barelvi movement, it is less clear whether they should also guide the community in political matters. The assassinated leader of Sunni Tehreek, Saleem Qadri, was not a theologian but a rickshaw driver, although he had been a devout missionary for the Barelvi organization Daawat-e-Islami. Some Pir believed that they had ultimate authority also on political matters, but other Barelvi disagreed. This became the root of internecine struggles within the Barelvi movement.

The second factor influencing the evolution of Barelvi politics was the role of the Pakistani state. While traditionally privileging the anti-Sufi Deobandi, all Pakistani governments were aware that Sufis represented the majority of local Muslims. They tried to sanitize Sufism by promoting an official version of it, which bracketed or eliminated the popular devotional aspects that were most objectionable to Deobandi, who denounced them as superstition or idolatry.



Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. 4. Taking to the Streets

In 2016 and 2017, TLYRA and the political party it created proved their ability to paralyze the country through mass protests with an anti-minorities agenda.

by Massimo Introvigne

Article 4 of 7. Read article 1article 2, and article 3.

In the previous article, we identified the movement to prevent the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, the Barelvi who assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer because of the latter’s support for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for  blasphemy, as the origin of the party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which was formed as the political arm of the Barelvi pro-Qadri organization Tehreek-e-Labbaik-ya-Rasool-Allah (TLYRA), founded in 2013.

After Qadri was executed on February 29, 2016, his supporters observed the traditional forty days of mourning. They also claimed that February 29 had been chosen by the government as the execution date to prevent a yearly celebration of the anniversary.

The forty days of mourning end with the chelum, the fortieth day, in which a ceremony commemorates the deceased. The chelum of Mumtaz Qadri was celebrated by a rally organized by TLYRA in Rawalpindi. It was attended by some 25,000 Barelvi, 10,000 of whom marched to Islamabad, entered the red zone where protests are forbidden, torched a station and destroyed cars in the process, and started a sit-in before the Parliament.



Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. 5. A Sufi Extremist Ideology

The ideas of Rizvi’s party are not traditional Islamic fundamentalism. Yet they are extremist and violent.

by Massimo Introvigne

Article 5 of 7. Read article 1article 2article 3, and article 4.

Before continuing our history of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, we should pause and ask the question what ideology this party born within the Barelvi Sufi movement propagates.

Foreign observers often classify its ideas as part of “Islamic fundamentalism,” but this may be more or less accurate depending on how the notion is defined. If “fundamentalism” is an idealtype including all ideologies where political action is derived from theology without mediations, then we can call Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan a “fundamentalist” Islamic party, indeed the largest such party in Pakistan based on the results of the 2018 elections.

However, scholars of Islam normally use “Islamic fundamentalism” in a narrow sense, to identify a movement that proceeds from Wahhabi roots in the Arabian peninsula, adds modern political theory to conservative theology, and organizes itself through mass movements and political parties in the 20th century. The ideology of fundamentalism mythologizes early Islam, and rejects what it sees as the innovations of subsequent centuries. Although there have been fundamentalist leaders with a Sufi background, their Wahhabi roots lead many fundamentalists to look with suspicion at the practices of popular Sufism.


Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. 6. Crimes and Punishments

After new riots against Asia Bibi, the Pakistani judiciary tried to put an end to the party’s violence. It did not succeed.

by Massimo Introvigne

Article 6 of 7. Read article 1article 2article 3article 4, and article 5.

The three years between 2018 and 2020 were crucial for Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. It looked like events were unfolding so rapidly that nobody really knew how to deal with them.

As mentioned in earlier articles, the party was founded to try, unsuccessfully, to avoid that the assassin of the Punjab governor Salman Taseer, Mumtaz Qadri, would be executed. Qadri had killed Taseer for his support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman that a first-degree court had sentenced to death for blasphemy.

On October 31, 2018, Asia Bibi was acquitted by the Supreme Court. All religious parties participated in the protests that followed, but the lead was quickly taken by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which had successfully experimented with urban guerrilla and highway blocks in 2016 and 2017, in both cases compelling the government to negotiate, and in 2017 achieving his main aim, the resignation of the then Justice Minister Zahid Ahmid, regarded as “soft” on the Ahmadis.



Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. 7. “I Am Not Charlie”

Anti-French riots after the Charlie Hebdo incidents led to new attempts to ban the party. They failed, once again, and TLP is now stronger than ever.

by Massimo Introvigne

Article 7 of 7. Read article 1article 2article 3article 4article 5, and article 6.

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine. It has repeatedly published caricatures of Prophet Muhammad that many (including the author of this article) found beyond the limits of good taste. Obviously, this can never justify violence and murder, which happened in 2015 when on January 7 armed terrorists killed 12 people and injured 11 in an attack against the magazine’s office in Paris. Thousands in the world protested against the attacks with the hashtag “Je suis Charlie,” “I am Charlie.”

Although mentioned in its literature, the Charlie Hebdo 2015 issue did not become a major theme for Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which was busy with domestic Pakistani matters. However, the situation changed in 2020, when on September 1, Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons on the day the trial of the assassins of 2015 started.

On September 25, two men were injured in a stabbing outside what were by then the former headquarters of Charlie Hebdo. Five Pakistanis were arrested for the attack. Some tried to connect them with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan although evidence was inconclusive.


Photo : A flag of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, with its electoral symbol, the crane. From Twitter.

Further reading about FORB in Pakistan on HRWF website