Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a radical Islamist organization in the country, launched violent mob attacks in nearly every major city there that continued into Tuesday and have reportedly resulted in the deaths of 12 of its members.
TLP has consistently organized violent mob protests since October calling for the removal of the French ambassador to Islamabad and the killing of French President Emmanuel Macron in response to the beheading of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty in the suburbs of Paris by a teen jihadist that month. Macron, speaking at a memorial service for Paty, defended French people’s rights to create and share illustrations of Muhammad, which Paty had allegedly done with students, prompting a campaign among Muslim parents to kill him for “blasphemy.” Blasphemy against Islam is not a crime in France, and Macron insisted in his remarks, “we will not give up cartoons.” TLP is demanding a full Pakistani government rupture with Paris and retribution against Macron for his comment.
The government of Islamist Prime Minister Imran Khan successfully brokered a deal with TLP in November to end the riots and formally condemned France for defending Paty but did not condemn his beheading. That deal apparently expired this weekend, when the head of TLP, Allama Saad Hussain Rizvi, published a video online urging supporters to organize more mob protests if the Pakistani government did not agree to cut ties with France by April 20.
Pakistani police promptly arrested Rizvi on Monday, triggering an outpouring of violence in at least five major cities. Authorities told reporters his arrest was necessary to “maintain law and order,” though he does not appear to have been charged with any crimes at press time or accused of any illegal behavior. The video he created on its own does not, on its face, appear to violate any Pakistani laws.
Syed Zaheerul Hassan Shah, who has stepped in for Rizvi while he remains in police custody, claimed Monday that the radical Islamist group had “paralyzed the entire country” and caused significant traffic disruption in Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Karachi, Hyderabad, and Peshawar. Police used water cannons and tear gas to attempt to disperse the crowds that had organized to block traffic, a move TLP leaders called “thuggery.” Media in the country reported that the crowds began to pelt police with rocks prior to the use of tear gas, requiring the use of some force to contain them.
A spokesperson for the group told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn on Tuesday that at least 12 people had died in the ongoing chaos and that the show of force was meant to intimidate the government into agreeing to the TLP’s demands regarding cutting diplomatic ties with France. It was also meant to show that imprisoning Rizvi would have no positive effect on quelling unrest.
The riots, the spokesman said, “will continue till the French ambassador is deported.”
On Monday, the TLP’s second-in-command had said that only an order from Rizvi could end the violent protests, meaning Islamabad cannot count on simply conceding on the French ambassador without releasing him from police custody.
“Jam the entire country,” TLP leaders urged supporters.
As of Tuesday, police identified over 50 points in the National Highway blocked by angry mobs. Pakistani government officials began warning that the TLP had begun to affect the nation’s response to the Chinese coronavirus pandemic by making it impossible for shipments of oxygen to reach critically ill patients in hospitals.
“Please do not block roads for ambulances and for visitors to the hospitals. Some ambulances are carrying oxygen cylinders, which are extremely essential for Covid [Chinese coronavirus] patients,” Punjab health official Yasmin Rashid urged Tuesday.
Police have not yet published estimates on the number of people participating in the riots, but each major city appears to have experienced a surge of hundreds of people gathering to block roads and freeze daily life.
Saad Rizvi became the head of the TLP in November after the death of his father and former TLP leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi. The elder Rizvi’s final act was to convene nationwide riots and road blockades in response to France condemning the beheading of Samuel Paty and continuing to allow the publications of cartoons depicting Muhammad, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan. Rizvi, 54, attended multiple mass protests before reportedly suffering from a fever and respiratory malfunction that led to his death. No doctors ever publicly diagnosed him with Chinese coronavirus, though the disease is widespread in Pakistan and his symptoms corresponded to many associated with the virus.
Rizvi’s funeral was one of the largest mass gatherings in the history of Pakistan, attracting an estimated hundreds of thousands of people. Pakistan experienced a significant surge in diagnoses of Chinese coronavirus shortly after the funeral.
Pakistan, under Prime Minister Khan, leads the world in calling for globally enforced laws banning blasphemous statements against Islam. As a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Islamabad has vowed to use its platform to fight “Islamophobia” and promoted a General Assembly resolution “countering the defamation of sacred religious personalities and symbols.”