Islamabad, Pakistan – Hardline Pakistani religious leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who rose to prominence in the South Asian nation by campaigning on the issue of “blasphemy” against Islam, has died in the eastern city of Lahore, his party says.
Far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party founded by Rizvi was behind the recent protests against France over the Prophet Muhammad’s cartoons.
Rizvi, 54, appeared to have died of natural causes after suffering an illness over the last week, but the exact cause of his death on Thursday night was not yet clear, said Pir Ijaz Ashrafi, a senior leader of TLP party.
“When he came to the protest sit-in, he was not feeling well at that time as well,” Ashrafi told Al Jazeera by telephone referring to anti-government protest, where hundreds of TLP supporters clashed with police and blocked a major highway into the capital Islamabad this week. “He stayed unwell for a few days after that. We were not able to ascertain what it was.”
On the passing of Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi my condolences go to his family. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un.
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) November 19, 2020
The protest was against the French government, and remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron that defended the “right to blaspheme” under free speech rights, after a French teacher was beheaded by a teenager for displaying caricatures of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in a class on freedom of speech last month.
Protesters demanded Pakistan expel the French ambassador and cut diplomatic ties with the European country. The demonstration dispersed after government ministers signed an agreement with TLP leaders to boycott French goods and consider expelling the ambassador.
Rizvi addressed the protesters at the demonstration in Islamabad several times but did not remain on-site for the duration of the protest.
He was in Lahore when his condition deteriorated on Thursday evening, Ashrafi said. The TLP founder had been confined to a wheelchair since 2006 after a traffic accident near the town of Gujranwala left him unable to walk.
“He was feeling a bit better, he was eating as well. But in the evening, he once again deteriorated and we brought him to the hospital [where he was pronounced dead],” he said.
Rizvi’s funeral will be held at a national monument in Lahore on Saturday and is expected to draw crowds of thousands.
Analysts believe the TLP will struggle to remain a single party in the wake of Rizvi’s death.
“I don’t think that this political party will remain united as a party, and the reason for this is that the basic glue for the party was Khadim Hussain Rizvi. […] I think without [him] it will not really survive,” said Nusrat Javed, political analyst and senior journalist.
Javed said that he believed it was likely the party would fracture into factions led by different leaders.
Others, like counter-extremism expert Arsla Jawaid, believe the TLP is likely to survive Rizvi’s death, and could become “far more radical” as other leaders vie to lead the group.
“Rizvi represented a very controversial, radical strand of Barelvi extremism and there are plenty more takers for promoting that narrative,” Jawaid, who is the lead Pakistan analyst at Control Risks, told Al Jazeera.
“While there is no doubt that the TLP may have relied on Rizvi’s tremendous charisma to amass street power in advancement of its ideology, the sudden removal of the leadership will not translate into significant internal disarray.”
Jawaid believes Rizvi’s legacy will be to have normalised violence in the name of the blasphemy laws in mainstream political and religious discourse.
“This radical strand of Barelvi Islam is not new or unique to Rizvi. It is not likely to die with him either,” she says.
“Rizvi may have temporarily been the face of Barelvi extremism but he leaves a dangerous legacy in the form of radicalised young individuals who believe in the normalisation of violence and are ready to challenge the state on the streets without necessarily [having] any need for political representation.”
Emotive religious issue
Known for his powerful, aggressive oratory, Rizvi’s preaching focused on the honour of the prophet, and his Barelvi school of thought’s teachings that it was the duty of Muslims to protect that honour.
Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where insulting the prophet carries a mandatory death penalty. Increasingly, blasphemy allegations have led to targeted attacks or mob violence, resulting in more than 77 killings since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.
Rizvi first came to prominence in 2010, when he quit his government job as a preacher in protest against remarks by then Punjab governor Salman Taseer calling for reforms to the strict blasphemy laws.
Taseer was later murdered by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, in January 2011, in the country’s most high-profile blasphemy-related murder. Two months later, federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered by Taliban gunmen for advocating the same reforms.
After quitting his job, Rizvi travelled across Punjab province, Pakistan’s most populous, preaching in defence of the blasphemy laws and calling on followers to root out “blasphemy” wherever they saw it.
One of his TLP’s most common rallying cries called for blasphemers to be put to death. “There is only one punishment for those who insult the Prophet, to cut their heads from their bodies,” runs the slogan.
Gradually growing his base of power, Rizvi reached national prominence when he led thousands of TLP protesters in a demonstration against the then-government of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party over a minor change in words to an electoral oath.
Rizvi contended that the change, which omitted a clause that excluded those of the Ahmadi sect, amounted to blasphemy, and thousands of his supporters blocked a highway into the capital Islamabad for three weeks over the issue.
Demonstrators ultimately dispersed after securing the resignation of then-Law Minister Zahid Hamid over the issue. A TLP supporter later shot and wounded then-Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal in 2018.
In 2018, competing in elections for the first time, the TLP won three provincial assembly seats. Despite the modest return, the TLP established itself as a political force to be reckoned with, securing the fourth-highest number of votes from across the country for a single party, outperforming several established political parties.
He once again blockaded the Pakistani capital alongside thousands of supporters in November 2018 in protest against the acquittal of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy and spent eight years on death row before the Supreme Court exonerated her.
That protest ended after the government signed a deal with TLP leaders to bar Bibi from leaving the country. She was ultimately allowed to leave in May 2019 and sought political asylum in France in February this year.
Rizvi was subsequently charged with sedition by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government and arrested by authorities in December 2018. Khan had earlier supported Rizvi’s 2017 anti-government demonstrations against political rival Sharif.
He spent six months in jail before a Lahore court granted him bail and he returned to lead the TLP.
Party leaders say consultations will be held following Rizvi’s funeral on Saturday to determine his successor.
Pakistani PM Khan and army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa both expressed public condolences on Rizvi’s passing.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim