Pakistani hardline cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi gained mass support and rose to become one of the country’s most feared figures. (AFP Photo)

LAHORE: Tens of thousands of maskless mourners gathered in Lahore on Saturday for the funeral of hardline Pakistani cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who for years terrorised the country’s religious minorities, incited riots and advocated the destruction of European nations.

Vast crowds of men were seen thronging the centre of the eastern city ahead of Rizvi’s funeral, chanting in unison and for the most part flouting mask-wearing rules even with the country on the cusp of a second wave of the coronavirus outbreak.

No cause of death has been announced for the 54-year-old Rizvi, who died Thursday after suffering a high fever and difficulties breathing, and no Covid-19 test or autopsy were conducted on the long-time wheelchair user.

While Pakistan has dodged the worst of the coronavirus pandemic so far, case numbers have been rising sharply in recent weeks.

In life, Rizvi acted as a lightning rod for Pakistan’s religious right, and was adept at stirring sectarian resentments and mobilising thousands of fanatical supporters at a moment’s notice.

His death came just days after he led a paralysing anti-France rally in Islamabad, threatening to repeat a 2017 blockade that crippled the capital, and he has called for the nuclear destruction of some European countries.

Despite this, Pakistan’s military hailed him as a “great scholar” and Prime Minister Imran Khan rushed to offer his heartfelt condolences — both likely wary of the power of his movement.

Rizvi had weaponised the ultra-sensitive issue of blasphemy in the Muslim-majority nation and radicalised large swathes of Punjab, opening a new chapter in Pakistan’s violent confrontation with extremism.

In just a few years, the cleric, known for his profanity-laced speeches and theatrical gestures, gained mass support and rose to become one of the country’s most feared figures.

“In some ways, he was even more dangerous than the Taliban, with his supporters not limited to remote tribal areas, but present in large numbers in the country’s heartlands,” said Omar Waraich from Amnesty International.

“(Rizvi) figured out that in Pakistan, true power can be commanded in the streets, where you don’t need the highest number of votes — just the highest number of armed supporters.”

His Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan party (TLP) held a three-day anti-France rally that ended after he claimed to have forced the government to agree to kick out the French ambassador.

The protests came weeks after France’s President Emmanuel Macron defended the country’s freedom of speech laws, in the wake of the killing of a teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed to his class.

The Pakistani government and French embassy have refused to comment on the matter.

Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where anyone deemed to have insulted Islam can face the death penalty and the whiff of even unproven allegations can lead to mob lynchings and vigilante murders.

Since 2017, Rizvi and the TLP have succeeded in dictating terms to successive governments who fear sparking any backlash from religious groups.

The cleric forced the resignation of a federal minister and the firing of a leading economic adviser even as Pakistan’s economy cratered.

And in 2018, the TLP brought the country to a standstill with riots following the acquittal of Christian woman Asia Bibi, who had been falsely accused of disrespecting the Prophet Mohammed.

The party has also called for the assassination of Pakistan’s Supreme Court judges, pleaded for a mutiny in the armed forces and vowed to wipe out European nations such as France and the Netherlands with Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

The group has also been linked with killings and an assassination attempt on Pakistan’s interior minister in 2018, while rallying millions of supporters at the ballot box that gave them seats in a provincial government.

Whether the TLP can hold its momentum without the charismatic Rizvi is unclear.

“The TLP already has an extensive support base. His lifeline was his narrative and his narrative was still intact,” security analyst Amir Rana told AFP.

“The TLP will remain on Pakistan’s security and political landscape for a longer time and leadership may not be a big factor.”

However, columnist Zahid Hussain chalked up the TLP’s victories over the years to government weakness rather than its actual strength as a political force.

“I don’t think anybody could provide the type of a leadership he had,” he said. “It was more of a personal following than an ideological movement.”

The TLP first coalesced as a movement demanding the release of Mumtaz Qadri — a bodyguard who gunned down Punjab governor Salman Taseer in Islamabad in 2011.

Qadri later cited Taseer’s demands to reform blasphemy laws as his motive and was hanged in 2016 — sparking massive protests and an outpouring of emotion during his public funeral in Lahore that set the stage for future TLP demonstrations.

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