What Changes with a Man’s Demise?

Qasim Khan weighs in on the posthumous debate around Khadim Rizvi’s legacy

What Changes with a Man’s Demise?
On November 19, when news of the sudden death of Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi broke, different people reacted to it differently. On the one hand, his supporters were mourning the sudden demise of their beloved leader. Some of them even believed, for a while in a miracle of his reawakening. On the other hand, some of his ideological opponents celebrated it with joy— as if this was the end of extremism. Meanwhile, some were seen advising not to “speak ill of the dead.”

So, who will decide as to who is right and who is wrong in this deeply polarized society? It is essential to dissect the various perspectives. Nevertheless, before jumping into the main discussion, it is essential to know first as to who Rizvi was, what his thought was and how he became so influential.

Born in a middle-class family in 1966, Khadim Hussain Rizvi lived in relative obscurity until he came to the limelight in 2015 because of his stance on blasphemy legislation in Pakistan. In 2011, when Mumtaz Qadri assassinated Salman Taseer, Governor of the Punjab province, Rizvi justified the assassination and openly supported the convicted murderer. At that time, Rizvi was serving as a government employee in the Auqaf and Religious Affairs Department as a cleric.

He was served notices for his views, which finally resulted in his dismissal from the job. So, he consistently struggled for the release of Qadri. Although he could not save Qadri from conviction, he got much popularity for his activism around upholding the blasphemy law as it exists. In 2015, he founded a political party called the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). Soon the TLP became a far-right hardline politico-religious organization known to protest against any challenge to the mainstream position on blasphemy legislation.

Practically, Maulana Rizvi’s religio-political struggle began after he, along with thousands of his supporters, marched from Lahore to Islamabad in November 2017. He demanded the resignation of the then law minister Zahid Hamid for a controversial bill. It may be mentioned here that this protest not only challenged the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz’s government at the federal level, but also led to a clash of the state’s institutions. The Supreme Court’s verdict in the Faizabad Dharna case in February 2019 and the subsequent filing of a presidential reference against Justice Qazi Faez Isa in May 2019 were the prominent consequences of this sit-in.

A view of Khadim Rizvi's massive funeral, Lahore

Within a short period, Maulana Rizvi became a celebrated figure in the country’s religious sphere. The TLP was registered as a political party with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), and it contested the 2018 general elections as well. Surprisingly, the party got 2.19 million votes and emerged as the fifth largest political party in the country –  despite being a new entrant in electoral politics.

However, Rizvi did not stop here; he once again came out on the streets. On October 31, 2018, Asia Bibi, accused of blasphemy, was found innocent in a landmark Supreme Court verdict. As a reaction to this verdict, Rizvi called upon his supporters to initiate demonstrations in the country’s major cities. The TLP leadership gave highly inflamatory statements about the higher judiciary. They insisted that Bibi should be subjected to the punishment and attacked the court’s decision.

After three days of demonstrations, the TLP signed an agreement with the government where the latter agreed to accept all the demands of the former. In late November, Maulana Rizvi was taken into “protective custody” while several leaders and hundreds of supporters of the TLP were arrested for challenging the writ of the state and provoking violence.

Conscious of his growing strength, Rizvi got interested in every issue pertaining to religion in the public sphere. In January 2020, he called for protests against the release of a Pakistani film, Zindagi Tamasha. He alleged that the film unfairly criticizes the Ulema through character assassination and accused the filmmaker, Sarmat Khoosat, of hurting religious sentiments.

Recently, Rizvi once again marched to Islamabad and demanded that the government  expel the French ambassador and boycott French products over President Macron’s recent decisions. As usual, the government agreed to the TLP’s demands and signed an agreement with them. This was the last protest of Maulana Rizvi; he passed away just after the sit-in ended.

Previously, all of Maulana Rizvi’s protests, marches and sit-ins were being censored on the mainstream media. After his demise, the press began giving coverage to his funeral ceremony, which several thousands of his supporters attended at Minar-e-Pakistan, Lahore.

The only way to explain why some people were upbeat over his demise is that they saw it as the end of religious radicalization. It is mostly the Pakistani liberal perspective that is often seen disturbed by the religious teachings of mainstream Ulema. Such commentators would do well to reconsider the core of liberal politics. One disagrees with ideas rather than a personality. In such a situation, jubiliation appears unseemly no matter where one stands on the political spectrum.

It is essential to note that personalities die, but ideologies live. It has been the ideologies and teachings that have led to desirable or undesirable consequences in the world.

The death of Khadim Rizvi is not an end to violence and extremism. His ideas have found space (going by voting data alone) in the minds of more than 2.19 million people as of 2018. This figure has probably increased exponentially over the course of the past two years—as was seen in the funeral ceremony.

It is equally important for his supporters to realize that since Maulana Rizvi was a public figure: his life, deeds, actions, and ideologies should be discussed and criticized if needed. He came to be known as a symbol of extremism, violence and religious radicalism. These aspects cannot be suppressed in public discussion.

His teachings have inspired many to act in unprecedented and horrific new ways. For instance, in January, 2018, a second-year student at New Islamia Public College Shabqadar opened fire at his principal Sareer Ahmed. The student accused the professor of engaging in “blasphemy” for reprimanding him for skipping class to attend the Faizabad sit-in in the federal capital held by the TLP. Similarly, a third-year student at Bahawalpur’s Government Sadiq Egerton College, Khateeb Hussain, stabbed Associate Professor Khalid Hameed in March, 2019. No evidence was provided for the allegations of hurting religious sentiments. Both students stated that the views of Maulana Rizvi inspired them. To avoid more extrajudicial killings, it is essential to openly discuss such ideas and have an informed debate over the controversial teachings of the TLP’s departed leader.

The future of the TLP is going to be based on Maulana Rizvi’s legacy. Irrespective of whoever leads the party, its manifesto will always be founded on the teachings of the firebrand cleric. Interestingly, the TLP has also shown symptoms of dynastic politics—ironically, becoming more mainstream. Maulana Rizvi’s 26-year-old son, Saad Hussain Rizvi, was chosen to lead the party by its 18-member shura.

It remains to be seen how it fares under his leadership, but it is evident that the TLP is unlikely to break into fractions. The legacy of Khadim Rizvi is too strong for now.

The writer is a journalist and tweets at @khanzqasim