Islamabad, Pakistan Pakistani hardline religious leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who became famous in the South Asian nation by campaigning against blasphemy against Islam, has died in the eastern city of Lahore, his party says.
The far right, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party founded by Rizvi was behind recent protests against France over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Rizvi, 54, appears to have died of natural causes after suffering an illness over the past week, but the exact cause of his death Thursday night was still unclear, said Pir Ijaz Ashrafi, a senior TLP party leader.
When he came to the sit-in protest, he was not feeling well even then, Ashrafi told Al Jazeera over the phone referring to the anti-government protest, where hundreds of TLP supporters clashed with police and blocked a main highway in the capital Islamabad this week. He stayed bad for a few days after that. We were not able to ascertain what it was.
With the death of Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi my condolences go to his family. Inna lillahi ue inna ilayhi raji’un.
Imran Khan (mImranKhanPTI) November 19, 2020
The protest was against the French government and the remarks of French President Emmanuel Macron who defended the right to blaspheme under the right of free speech, after a French teacher was beheaded by a teenager for displaying cartoons of Islam Prophet Muhammad in a freedom class of the word last month.
The protesters demanded that Pakistan expel the French ambassador and sever diplomatic ties with the European country. The demonstration dispersed after government ministers signed an agreement with TLP leaders to boycott French goods and consider ousting the ambassador.
Rizvi addressed protesters at the demonstration in Islamabad several times, but did not stay in place for as long as the protests lasted.
He was in Lahore when his condition worsened Thursday night, Ashrafi said. The TLP founder has been locked in a wheelchair since 2006 after a traffic accident near the city of Gujranwala left him unable to walk.
He was feeling a little better, he was eating too. But in the evening, he once again got worse and we brought him to the hospital [where he was pronounced dead], he said.
Rizvis’s funeral will be held at a national monument in Lahore on Saturday and is expected to attract thousands of people.
Analysts believe the TLP will fight to remain a single party after Rizvis’s death.
I do not 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] will not really survive, said Nusrat Javed, political analyst and senior journalist.
Javed said he believed it was likely the party would split into factions led by different leaders.
However, Rizvi led supporters from the country’s Muslim Barelvi Sunni subsectors with a brand of fiery politics that used large numbers of demonstrators across the country to harness their power on the streets over the blasphemy issue, and the death of its to result entirely in the power of that disappearing group.
Exciting religious issues
Known for his powerful, aggressive oratory, Rizvis preached focused on the honor of the Prophet and his teachings of the Barelvi school that it was the duty of Muslims to defend that honor.
Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where insulting the prophet carries a mandatory death sentence. Increasingly, allegations of blasphemy have led to targeted attacks or mob violence, resulting in more than 77 homicides since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera list.
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 strict blasphemy laws.
Taseer was later killed by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, in January 2011, in the most high-profile blasphemy-related killings. Two months later, Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated by the Taliban armed to defend the same reforms.
After leaving work, Rizvi traveled through Punjab province, Pakistan’s most populous country, preaching in defense of blasphemy laws and urging followers to eradicate blasphemy wherever they saw it.
One of the most common calls of his rally in TLP called for blasphemers to be sentenced to death. There is only one punishment for those who insult the Prophet, to cut off the head from their bodies, keep the slogan.
Gradually increasing his power base, Rizvi achieved national fame when he led thousands of TLP protesters in a demonstration against the then-ruling Nawaz Sharifs Pakistan-League-Nawaz (PML-N) party government over a slight change in the words of a electoral oath.
Rizvi claimed that the amendment, which removed a clause excluding those of the Ahmadi sect, reached blasphemy and thousands of his supporters blocked a highway in the capital Islamabad for three weeks on the issue.
The demonstrators eventually 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, running for the first time in the election, the TLP won three provincial assembly seats. Despite the modest return, the TLP was established as a political force to be reckoned with, securing the fourth highest number of votes from across the country for a single party, surpassing several established political parties.
He once again blocked the Pakistani capital along with thousands of supporters in November 2018 in protest against the release of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was charged with blasphemy and spent eight years in prison with death before the Supreme Court acquitted her.
The protest ended after the government signed an agreement with TLP leaders to stop Bibi from leaving the country. She was finally allowed to leave in May 2019 and sought political asylum in France in February this year.
Rizvi was subsequently charged with insurgency by the government of Prime Minister Imran Khans and was arrested by authorities in December 2018. Khan had previously backed Rizvis 2017 anti-government demonstrations against political rival Sharif.
He spent six months in jail before a Lahore court granted him parole and he returned to lead the TLP.
Party leaders say consultations will be held after Rizvis’s funeral on Saturday to determine his successor.
Pakistani Prime Minister Khan and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa both expressed public condolences over the passage of Rizvis.
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweeted @AsadHashim
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