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What the amazing rise & sudden death of a ‘Holy Warrior’ tell us about Islam & politics in Pakistan

Khadim Hussain Rizvi was the face of Pakistan’s radical Islamist politics. His sudden death, however, will not end the mass appeal of religious fundamentalism.

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Pakistani cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi died suddenly in Lahore this Thursday. It found only a passing mention in the Indian media.

He was just 54, apparently in terrific health, which glowed on his broad, imposingly bearded face. Nothing you’d see and hear of him in the videos of his fiery speeches at his dharna or siege of Islamabad just a couple of days earlier, would’ve suggested he’d drop dead.

Covid was widely stated as the cause of his death, although the certificate from the hospital didn’t mention any cause. They just declared him “dead on arrival”. Autopsy? Viscera? You do not subject holy warriors to such indignities. Definitely not if they are also seen to be the favourite children of the powers-that-be. Which Rizvi was.

Sure enough, his sudden death has revived the social media conspiracy theory industry. He was apparently not under treatment for any illness, although there are informed rumours now that he was suffering from fever and breathlessness for the past few days. But watch those speeches, especially his last one where he taunts the government saying “What makes you think I need your permission for my dharna? Does Pakistan belong to your daddy? (Tere pyo da haiga Pakistan?)” He doesn’t miss a breath.

I am sorry it loses much flavour and texture in translation from Punjabi. Especially from the distinctive version he spoke, from the region in Pakistani Punjab called Potohar. Located generally between the Jhelum and the Indus, this low plateau has always been the richest catchment area for the Pakistani army. It is one of the reasons a lot of the soldiery was under his influence. And he, in turn, was supposedly under the influence of the generals and their establishment.

Until, as it happens with all such characters, Osama bin Laden included, he grew too big for his jootis. His latest siege on Islamabad caused deep distress to the Imran Khan government and the establishment. He wanted closure of the French embassy, a parliamentary resolution breaking diplomatic relations, and repeatedly exhorted his followers and Muslims anywhere in the world to behead French President Emmanuel Macron.

He was blessed with the kind of clear diction and delivery rabble-rousing demagogues usually are. So you don’t even need much Punjabi to understand that he pronounces the Chechen teenager who beheaded Samuel Paty a ghazi (holy warrior), hailed all Muslims who carry out revenge attacks as such, and in one speech, asked all of Pakistan’s nuclear bombs to be dumped on France so that the “unholy land” ceases to exist.

It wasn’t, by the way, the first time he had given out such a threat to a European nation. In 2018, when Dutch politician Geert Wilders said he’d organise a competition to draw the prophet’s caricatures, Rizvi had promised to nuke the Netherlands as well.

He agreed to unshackle Islamabad and go home, on his own terms as usual — flaunting a press release claiming the government had accepted all demands and that the National Assembly will pass a resolution breaking diplomatic relations with France. He’d gone too far for the establishment’s comfort now. It looks like coronavirus did not like this one bit!

Also read: Muslim world faces divide after Erdogan takes on France for its crackdown on radical Islam

Physically, Rizvi was born on 22 June 1966 in village Pindi Gheb near Attock. But politically, and in a way also spiritually — or if we are allowed to confect an expression ‘politico-spiritually’ — the Rizvi phenomenon was born on 4 January 2011.

This was the day politician Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistani Punjab (and father of author Aatish), was assassinated by Mumtaz Qadri, a constable in his security detail. Salman had written this death warrant the day he met Aasia Bibi, the poor Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, expressed sympathy with her and also asked for the blasphemy law to be repealed. Qadri, apparently, was a follower of the Sunni Sufi Barelvi school of Islam, and Rizvi is its prominent cleric. He was then preaching at Lahore’s famed Data Darbar.

Qadri’s was the first cause Rizvi picked up and grew in prominence. He hailed him as a ghazi too, wanted him pardoned and proclaimed a hero for the faith, and dared the state to hold him guilty. The government stood firm.

Qadri was hanged at Rawalpindi’s Adiala jail on 29 February 2016. Rizvi led angry protests by his organisation, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA). Labbaik is a reference from Muslim prayer and the name means, loosely translated, movement in the service of the holy prophet of Allah. Rizvi’s comrade and co-founder of TLYRA, Muhammad Afzal Qadri, also issued a call to kill all three Supreme Court judges who upheld that sentence. They could be killed, he suggested, by their security guards, drivers, or even cooks. Fortunately, nobody took his advice.

Rizvi’s star was now rising. As he grew in popularity among a rapidly rising population of angry, young, illiterate, unemployed men, especially in Punjab and parts of Sindh to its south, he was soon proclaimed an ‘Allama’ (a great scholar of the faith), a title he carried to his death. He hit the pinnacle of his power the very next year.

Mian Nawaz Sharif was in power. The Army, which treated Rizvi as their own as much as Imran Khan, would’ve been quite happy now to see the cleric lay siege on Islamabad, the first of many. The provocation was an apparently malevolent ‘amendment’ in the nomination form that a Muslim candidate has to sign while contesting elections in Pakistan.

It has a clause stating an unqualified and total commitment to the concept of Khatm-e-Naboowat, meaning that you accept that Muhammad was the last prophet, there can be no successor, and you do not follow anybody else’s teachings. The nuance is that this would keep Ahmadiyyas out.

In the new nomination form, the clause was mentioned as a ‘declaration’ instead of ‘oath’, as in the past. This, Rizvi said, was a conspiracy against Islam and its Holy Prophet. The government said it was a clerical error. He wanted the language restored and the law minister, retired Justice Zahid Hamid, fired. He got both, proclaimed victory. The legend of Allama Khadim Rizvi was born.

Also read: Shia-Sunni rift on rise in Pakistan, but Imran Khan govt’s silence may be strategic


He was back in 2018. Now, it was over the Supreme Court pronouncing Aasia Bibi not guilty and acquitting her. He called it a sacrilegious outrage and again laid siege.

By this time, the establishment was in a bind. It wasn’t easy to keep holding on to a poor Christian woman after she’d been acquitted, and when her case had acquired much prominence in the Western world. At one point, she was stealthily taken to Pakistan Air Force Base in Rawalpindi named after Air Marshal Nur Khan (PAF chief during the 1965 war), then flown out on a chartered plane to the Netherlands for asylum.

Rizvi hit more headlines. Like getting a film called Zindagi Tamasha banned on grounds of blasphemy. Apparently, it contained some criticism of the Ulema and also insinuated that ‘bachcha baazi’ (child sexual abuse) was rampant in those circles. A few college and university teachers were also assassinated or injured by young students on charges of blasphemy in Rizvi’s organisation’s name. But he denied any connection.

Rizvi had by now transformed his organisation into a formal political party: Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). His vote counts were rising, although not enough to win many seats. This is the other remarkable thing about Pakistan. That religious parties have great street power, but are never able to impress voters.

In his case though, the challenge was more complex. Because Imran Khan too was running his party and politics mostly in the name of conservative Islam. Play his 2019 speech at the UN General Assembly. How passionately he reminds the (Western) world that it must desist from anything that Muslims see as “maligning our Holy Prophet…it hurts us”. He was reading the blasphemy law to the world in English. Rizvi was saying the same thing in Punjabi. For the voter, there was insufficient product differentiation.

Rizvi is now gone. But the mass-appeal of fundamentalism among a burgeoning, young, illiterate, unemployed and angry population isn’t. Nor is the establishment’s need for such convenient instruments about to disappear. They will find another Rizvi, or maybe more, going ahead. Meanwhile, like most conspiracy theories in Pakistan, one about his sudden death might also endure.

Also read: How to become an instant hero in Pakistani social media — shoot someone to save Islam


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  1. Not sure if this is even news or deserves to be written about. Anybody observing Pakistan since the last 40 odd years and even before that, knows that this is how it has always been. The use of religious identity in political mobilisation resulted in Pakistan coming into being, with Jinnah as the first rabble rouser. Since then there have been several rabble rousers, Rizvi being the newest one maybe. Please tell us something new.

  2. I do not see any national interest of India here. I thought Berelvis were more tolerant lot amongst the Muslims. This one turns out to be major exception.

  3. Shekharji a lot of youth from kerala are fighting religious war in Syria Afghanistan and other places.

    Similarly thousands of jihadist from pakistan are also fighting religious war in Syria Afghanistan and other places.

    Shekharji there is coordination between Indian and pakistani groups through the pakistani deep state and will pose an imminent danger to peace and development in INDIA.

    SHEKHARJI now is the time to talk about it.

  4. He didn’t had any mass following unlike bjp and rss. Please write about atrocities being committed against minorities by bjp rss which have millions of followers even in educated class.

    • Pakistan state was complicit in murdering and expelling non-Muslims from Pakistan. Non-Muslims were 30% of present day Pakistan in 1947, they were reduced to less than 3%. So jihadi talk about it.

  5. Thank you for your impartial journalism. I like and appreciate your articles very much, but instead of focusing too much on religious intolerance from other countries. Please write about the rise of the religious political movement in India and its impact on the future and the economy of our country, especially the majority religion-based politics and its impact on the future of India.

    • Expected reply from an islamist. Want the world’s attention regarding nonexistent islamophobia in india but have problem when some indian journalist write something critical against your favourite islamic republic and its islamist politico religious leader

      • Well said, the islamists in india throw secular constitution at us, but celebrate isis and islamic right, when in majority they want their rule in minority secular laws, like to settle in europe but follow shariah, what a hypocricy!

  6. In dedicating this space, Shekhar man’s time and other resources to mourn the death of a moron no one in the world wants to know about, not too sure what Shekhar man is trying to achieve here. The mulla-military co-operative of Pakistan has countless number of such animals in their stocks to unleash on the public. It’s no brainer that amongst various Corps such as artillery MULLAH CORPS remain pivotal to their Army attaining political ambitions, whether within or without the country.

  7. I can draw some parallel between Hindu Fundamentalist and Islamic Fundamentalist . They both prey on people who are poor, illiterate, who are left behind in the Capitalist world( exception may exists). You can clearly see that the Fundamentalist ideas resonate more with people in States likes Bihar, UP as compared to other states say Telangana or Andhra.

  8. We, Indians should glad that the Partition took place and Pakistan is no longer a part of our country. India has lot to learn from the developments in our neighborhood. Religious fundamentalism is the surest path to self-destruction. Let us never ever emulate Pakistan.

  9. It is the ultimate subcontinental schadenfreude that sitting here in India we are able to recognise how far hopeless the problem of religious fundamentalism is in Pakistan. And same goes for the Pakistanis – liberals amongst them are able to recognise that we here in India seem to have embarked on the same journey that they did many decades back. The entire subcontinent seems have proven Churchill right. What a mess we seem to have made – a Khadim Rizvi or a Babu Bajrangi is only a symptom of this mess.

  10. Surprised to see this as today’s national interest. A ctc would have been better. Nevertheless a good article. Despite adhering to the civilizational notion of india and the loss of land and people to the idea of pakistan, i am time and again reassured by pak politics and its leaders that partition indeed was a good idea. Imagine all this nonsense of extremism happening in india.

    • ” I am am time and again reassured by pak politics and its leaders that partition indeed was a good idea. ”

      But it is India’s first PM Nehru responsible for all these mess in whole South Asia. Let me explain

      In 1947 when India was partitioned both India and Pakistan showed their intention to become secular nation, with Jinnah’s famous saying : ” I want a person to be Pakistani first and Muslim, Hindu or Sikh later”

      But Pakistan was not able to do that because there was no political pressure, Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan were after all politicians. The right policies for Nehru would have been to link safety of minorities, both religious & ethnic, in Pakistan with Indian Muslim league supporters. . after all millions of Muslim league supporter choose to stay in India. Nehru instead choose to open door for these people for joining Congress.

      Non-Muslim secularists in Pakistan like families of ram Puniyani, Harsh Mander, Burkha Dutta, Justice Sachar, Tarun Tejpal, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Dr. Manmohan Singh etc. instead of staying in Pakistan and strengthening Jinnah’s hand ran away to India. So there was no pressure or activists to help Jinnah keep his promise.

      This Nehru’s betrayal had tragic consequence for minorities and supporters of united India in Pakistan, while supporters of Muslim league in India never had it better. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan told late to Indian journalists : ” You, Indians, have thrown us to wolves”

      in nutshell Nehru’s refusal Impress upon Pakistan that fate of League supporters in India was directly linked to fate of minorities in Pakistan. He should have encouraged secularist minded Hindus and Sikhs to stay in Pakistan to ensure secularism there survive. Minority sects in Pakistan would have appreciated that and it would have empowered minorities in whole south Asia, resulting in South Asia from Afghanistan to Mynmmar a better place to live.

      In real politics, it is assured mutual destruction philosophy that would have save South Asia from disaster that it is facing with being one of the poorest area in world.

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