Paris [France], April 18 (ANI): Religious party Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) played a major role in fomenting this week's anti-French protests in Pakistan, considering the situation, France's embassy on Saturday told French nationals to leave the country over safety fears.
The Pakistani government blocked social media and instant messaging apps for several hours on Friday to try to prevent further violence, a day after Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed announced the dissolution of TLP under the country's anti-terrorism law, reported France24.
The party's leader, Saad Hussain Rizvi, was arrested on Monday, hours after he called for a new march demanding the expulsion of the French ambassador. His detention triggered days of unrest.
TLP has established itself as a major player in Pakistani politics by campaigning for the death penalty for anyone found guilty of blasphemy, which remains a criminal offence in the country.
It emerged from the socially conservative Barelvi school of Islam - which is the dominant strain in Pakistan, officially an "Islamic Republic".
"TLP was originally created as a political movement to demand the release of a bodyguard accused of having assassinated the governor of the Punjab region in 2011," explained Jean-Luc Racine, a specialist in the Indian subcontinent and an emeritus research director at the CNRS think-tank in Paris.
France became one of the TLP's targets when the Charlie Hebdo trial started in September 2020. The gruesome massacre of 12 people at the satirical weekly's office in January 2015 was the first major incident in a wave of Islamist violence in which more than 250 people have since been killed in France, reported France24.
France was also shaken by the October 16 beheading of teacher Samuel Paty by a Chechen Islamist terrorist outraged by his decision to share Charlie Hebdo's controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in a class discussing freedom of expression, a month after the start of the Charlie Hebdo trial.
In response to Paty's murder, President Emmanuel Macron vowed that France would never give up its liberal Enlightenment values, including the right to mock religion.
He hailed the slain teacher as a "hero" for representing the secular, free-thinking values of the French Republic. France has a long tradition of caricatures taking on political and religious authorities - including Charlie Hebdo's mockery of Catholicism, reported France24.
Following Macron's comment, mass protests were held in Muslim countries - with people taking to the streets and burning French flags and images of the French president. In Pakistan, the TLP played a central role in fomenting the demonstrations. The party demanded that Pakistan sever diplomatic relations with France and send the French ambassador, Marc Barety, packing.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani government signed an agreement with TLP to boycott French products and promising a parliamentary vote by April 20 on expelling the French ambassador.
But as that deadline approached, Islamabad distanced itself from the TLP - a position underscored by Rizvi's arrest on April 12. More than 200 TLP activists were arrested during the subsequent clashes with police. At least two police officers were killed and at least 340 people were wounded.
TLP has gained international notoriety in 2018, when the Asia Bibi affair hit the world's headlines. A member of Pakistan's persecuted Christian minority, she was arrested in 2010 for alleged blasphemy and spent eight years on death row until she was acquitted.
In response to her acquittal, the TLP organised mass demonstrations calling for her to be sentenced to death.
"The TLP is relatively popular among young people, especially in the Pakistani working class," Racine said. "That is because the party's policy platform is not just about changing how Islam is practiced in the country - but also about tackling Pakistan's socioeconomic inequality. This obviously speaks to young people in precarious positions, who are losing out under the current system."
"This week's events show that Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's government is unable to negotiate with radical movements," Racine continued. "They're popular among large sections of the population - so the government finds it difficult to take a firm stance against them."
The TLP's electoral strength has so far between limited. In the 2018 parliamentary elections it won just 2 million votes in a country with a population exceeding 210 million. But the party wields influence through its formidable capacity to mobilise its activists. "That's its strength," Racine said. "The TLP can get a huge quantity of protesters onto the streets and block roads for days." (ANI)